The Americans Who Knitted Their Own Safety Net

Mutual-aid groups are helping Americans envision communities that meet everyone’s needs.

An illustration of hands with string
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Annie Lowrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers economic policy.

A year ago, Siren Saricca, a cocktail server at one of Detroit’s casinos, heard that some of her low-income, elderly neighbors were too afraid to go out to get groceries because of the pandemic. Although she was temporarily out of work because of the lockdown, Saricca took her food stamps, bought all the bulk groceries she could afford, and started dropping off bags.

At the same time, Kristin Guerin, an actor, was in Miami, suffering from a case of COVID-19 so severe that she was worried she might die alone in her apartment. When she recovered, she and a friend wanted to help alleviate the crisis, so they created a network of community fridges for the city, among other initiatives.

Thousands of miles away in Guam, a longtime organizer who goes by the mononym Machalek watched as a severe COVID-19 outbreak tore through the island territory. He and a group of friends got to work, distributing diapers and sanitary items.

These are the genesis stories of the Michigan Mutual Aid Coalition, Buddy System, and Para Todus Hit, just three of the hundreds of mutual-aid groups that have sprung up around the country in the past year. The pandemic pushed America’s economic disparities deeper and wider, and even the government’s unprecedented assistance proved too anemic, too inaccessible, and too late for many. In response, Americans knitted their own safety net.

This is, perhaps, one of the few truly good stories to emerge from this horrible year: an entire architecture of social support, blueprinted on Facebook, managed via text messages and Slack, accessible to everyone, and built seemingly overnight. And mutual-aid groups offer lessons not just for how social-service agencies and nonprofits might serve communities better, but also for how to imagine communities that meet everyone’s needs.

Mutual aid has a long history in the United States, particularly among Black Americans and other communities subject to racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. Black mutual-aid groups are as old as the country itself; in the late 19th century, more than half of Black women living in New York City were part of one. Today’s groups take inspiration from the actions of the Black Panthers, which ran a school breakfast program in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican civil-rights group that set up free health clinics, meal programs, and day cares.

The current mutual-aid explosion has more recent roots in the rise of civil-rights and protest groups, especially Black Lives Matter, and the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America and other leftist political organizations. For years, local BLM chapters have organized food drives, raised money to pay rent and utility bills, and set up bail funds. Similarly, for years, the DSA has supported organizers in creating community funds.

Mutual-aid groups function a bit like traditional nonprofits or charities in many ways. They identify community members who have needs, whether for food, household goods, transportation, gas, a safe place to stay, help with a utility or student-loan bill, or rental assistance. Then they fill that need.

The Michigan Mutual Aid Coalition does grocery delivery. Buddy System organizes and stocks community fridges, which anyone can use for free; it also matches up people in the community—seniors who need help getting to the store, for example, with college students who have a car and some free time. Para Todus Hit helps its community members with rent and utility relief, as well as food and household basics.

But mutual-aid groups differ from standard charities. For one, many strive to be as fast and simple as possible: see need, meet need. For that reason, many focus on moving cash from families with a little extra to families falling behind on their bills, via services such as Venmo and Cash App. When the deep freeze hit Texas this winter, mutual-aid groups immediately routed donations to afflicted families and communities. If someone needs cash to get the electricity on, or put gas in the car, or buy diapers, or get on a bus to be with a dying family member, mutual-aid groups can help in a matter of hours, even in the middle of the night.

Mutual-aid groups also tend to be flexible, meeting what recipients require in the moment, rather than offering what donors have, what administrators think recipients want, what the group is set up to provide, or what government officials believe recipients  should get. Given the recent rash of anti-Asian violence, for example, some mutual-aid groups have started organizing escorts for Asian Americans who might be afraid to do errands alone.

These networks also tend to provide aid to anyone who asks for it, with no paperwork, vetting, or reciprocal requirements. That reduces the stress, stigma, and shame that might be associated with asking for help, and the burden of proving your need to the state or a nonprofit administrator. “You have to really bend over backwards to qualify for things,” Machalek told me, talking about the experience of applying for government assistance in Guam. “There’s a lot of hoops you have to jump through, and everything’s piecemeal. You have to go here and there and everywhere, and it’s just very stressful and difficult for people that are already struggling.”

Many, though certainly not all, mutual-aid groups see their work as feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, abolitionist, and even anarchist—a rejection of this country’s pale, male supremacy and the social architecture that enables it. Machalek talked about trying to restore the concept of chenchule', or “social reciprocity,” that thrived before American imperialism and capitalism. Donna Shade, a member of the  Northeast Arkansas Mutual Aid Society, described her work as explicitly communitarian and anti-capitalist. “It’s not a matter of giving people power,” she told me. “It’s a matter of people taking it, so they are running a community for the benefit of the community.”

That gets to a more philosophical difference between mutual aid and charity: The former rejects the idea of a hierarchy between giver and receiver. The idea is that everyone in a community has needs and resources, and that a little organization can help the two ends meet.

In that way, mutual-aid organizations point to a better way to deliver social services and charity. Make things fast. Make them accessible. Eliminate stigma. Give people what they say they need, not what someone else believes they need. But these groups also point to a better way of envisioning community, and perhaps even a way of enacting that vision. America should have enough for everyone, but we have built social institutions that continue to create deprivation. Other, better ways of existing are out there, as thousands of communities have found this past year.