Building a Culture of Community Care

What does mutual aid mean, really? Why is it important?


Edie Fine

The Gowanus Mutual Aid’s “Sharing Corner” is open for all to give and receive based on their need or capacity.

The first use of the term “mutual aid” can be found on the cover of Russian anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, a book replete with dense theory. But it is not in leftist theory alone that you will see evidence of such a powerful tool of survival and advocacy. Mutual aid is inherent in community — most usually communities that are otherwise ostracized or marginalized from mainstream systems. It is not just a hypothetical organizing principle. Rather, it is a way of life. 

Essentially, the concept references the practice of freely sharing resources and energy among community members. It is about horizontal power structures in which everyone has a say, and everyone takes and gives based on their capacities, wealth, and need. It relies on community solidarity to advance individual sovereignty. According to Alejandro Vasquez, a D.C. based organizer with Heal Da Homies (a “youth, BIPOC, disabled, queer led mutual aid group that focuses on youth and the connection between mutual aid in theory and in practice,” as described by Vasquez) and Extinction Rebellion Youth US (an environmental justice collective), mutual aid is, simply put, “community solidarity.”

Mutual aid is a practice that many humans revert to in a natural state and in small communities. “It is the baseline for humans,” said Vasquez. “Before systems of oppression overtook us, mutual aid was the norm. Sharing was the norm — people who made bread would share with the people who farmed chickens, and the people who farmed chickens would share with the people who made pots.” 

But with urbanization, industrialization, and the development of structural and systemic hierarchies (such as wealth inequity due to capitalism and racial oppression due to white supremacy), horizontal power structures are intentionally subverted. Instead, people are taught to rely on the state, which often fails them. An increased obsession with earning capital and striving for productivity has disconnected humans from that original state. Practicing mutual aid despite and in spite of this fact reclaims power. 

Mutual aid is not charity. While the differences between the two may seem ambiguous or ill-defined, it is essential that we distinguish between them. Charity implies and bolsters hierarchies; it relies on power dynamics and awards the giver with power over the receiver. Those with the resources get to choose when, how, and why to give, which effectively strips autonomy from those in need.

Mutual aid is about solidarity. It is about seeing your fight in others’ fight, and your struggle in your neighbors’ struggle. Mutual aid is rooted in freely sharing resources so as to distribute power. Ultimately, it seeks to create community where everyone is sovereign and cares for one another, where reciprocity is second nature. It is founded on the mindset that “we are all cohabitating in the same spaces and in the same struggle together,” as Vasquez put it. 

Mutual aid can take a lot of forms. There are the immediate emergency actions, which we have seen proliferate during (and as a result of) the Coronavirus pandemic, and stem from the surge in the Black Lives Matter movement. This might include free fridges or neighborhood-based resource distribution. It also includes Instagram pages such as @openyrpurse and @funds4caregivers (make sure to follow them if you do not already, and contribute if you can), which amplify individuals’ needs and requests to be fulfilled by others with more wealth in their communities. 

“Mutual aid is getting rid of the structural ‘cracks’ that have been put in place,” said Vasquez. “Like when Heal Da Homies is distributing food or doing self-liberation reading groups, we’re not solving the problem. But we’re taking small steps — you have to help the person before you break down the system.” Essentially, while working to dismantle the systems that intentionally disconnect humans from an innate desire to reciprocate care for one another and that leave so many people behind, you need to tend to the tangible needs of those who are left behind. 

But mutual aid does not just consist of these temporary or emergency efforts, which seek to rectify institutional and systemic damage that leaves some people more vulnerable and without resources. It also signifies a future in which reciprocity is a given and wealth and racial inequality do not exist. 

This summer, a youth mutual aid network was born to support protestors engaged in Black Lives Matter and abolitionist activities. It manifested many creative instances of reciprocal support and resource sharing. Of the network, one of the creators (who wished to remain anonymous so as to maintain privacy and decentralization of the group), said, “The New York City Youth Mutual Aid Network was formed this summer by youth organizers in response to our community protesting. We wanted to create a shared network to connect and protest together, as well as share and request resources like housing, food, clothing, and transportation.” 

Members of the network hosted clothing swaps, free markets, and resource drives to share within and outside of the network. There was also a collective effort to create an artist’s database in which artists could sell their work in exchange for donations to mutual aid and bail funds. 

Another example of a better world founded on reciprocity and mutual aid was the community built at City Hall this past summer of 2020. It began as an occupied protest, in which activists stayed overnight in order to demand that the upcoming City Hall budget meeting defund and reallocate the $9 billion police budget. But the community grew and evolved, and suddenly it felt like a small neighborhood. City Hall Park was taken over and replaced with a medical station, a fully stocked food area, a radical library filled with zines and books, a solar-powered charging station, dialogue circles, an art station, and more. The community was sustained on reciprocity and shared volunteer shifts. The participants erected a micro-version of the world that they wished to see. 

A world based on mutual care instead of a single executive power is an unshakeable one. And while mutual aid is often at the center of grassroots organizing, it is also a matter of survival. Kropotkin, and many organizers, miss this point. “No, Kropotkin never described black women’s mutual aid societies or the chorus in Mutual Aid, although he imagined animal society in its rich varieties & the forms of cooperation & mutuality found among ants, monkeys & ruminants. Impossible, recalcitrant domestics weren’t yet in his view or anyone else’s,” writes Saidiya Hartman in Wayward Lives and Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. In a way, pathologizing and theorizing about mutual aid can minimize the fact that it belongs, intimately, to marginalized communities rebelling against a capitalist status quo. 

Mutual aid necessarily is for and by everyone — even and especially you. After November: A Mutual Aid Organizing Guide, a guidebook by organizers from Extinction Rebellion Youth US states, “Radical power will never come from one executive leader, but from the collective, and from you stepping in to strengthen the collective. The mindset of community care, in tandem with the action of mutual aid, is simply revolutionary.”

Mutual aid necessarily is for and by everyone — even and especially you.

*Follow @Heal_Da_Homies and @nycymutualaid for more information and to support or join mutual aid initiatives and networks.*