Since the pandemic began, communities of color have been witnessing many white people seemingly discovering the concept of mutual aid for the first time. From democratic socialist groups launching mutual-aid initiatives in the communities they colonize to groups working within the nonprofit industrial complex, white people have been actively columbusing mutual-aid ideas and rhetoric under the guise of advancing progressive values. Since Christianity’s conception, some white folks have been devout followers of the Catholic charity model, which suggests that it’s an individual’s responsibility to combat racism, poverty, and other systemic issues. However, there’s an inherent performativity that exists at the core of this philosophy—a belief that any singular person can make a significant dent in the unending battle to end oppressive systems. This idea reflects a deep ignorance regarding the depth of these issues. Being invested in a model that upholds this rampant individualism, similar to the American bootstrap mentality, means caring more about maintaining the appearance of offering public support rather than authentically investing in building the communities necessary to dismantle harmful systems.
Many folks believe that charities and nonprofits are not truly committed to addressing and eradicating harm because if these harmful systems were eradicated there would be no need for them to exist. My father worked for the local ABC News affiliate, so I watched the evening news religiously growing up and witnessed story after story of “well-meaning” white Americans engaging in performative acts of goodwill. News anchors would crawl into tunnels and seek to find homeless people to appear on camera receiving charity. Every food drive organized or hot meal purchased had to be captured for the entire Southeastern Wisconsin area’s 6 p.m. news hour. Most, if not all, of these acts were directed toward the Black community, and they were the complete antithesis of mutual aid. As a concept, mutual aid requires us to consider the collective needs of the communities we live in. This can look like talking to neighbors to organize a rent strike, offering to pick up groceries for elderly people in your building, or shoveling your disabled neighbor’s driveway after a snowstorm. In order to center the needs of the most marginalized in the collective, one has to belong to that collective.
Charity, on the other hand, allows privileged individuals to make monetary donations toward “needy” causes in exchange for a tax writeoff. Charity isn’t a form of justice; it’s completely devoid of community investment because it doesn’t require the donor to be immersed in the community they’re donating to. In direct contrast, mutual aid can appear in many forms, whether through the distribution of funds for communities, donating to help fulfill the needs of an individual in a marginalized community, or organizing and sharing resources for members of said communities. The various forms in which mutual aid exists is why it’s so accessible. Accessibility and dignity are key components of mutual aid when disabled folks have the opportunity to be both the organizers and recipients of mutual aid. There’s nothing about us without us! Organizing mutual aid in the face of a global pandemic has meant that the majority of this work occurs virtually, which ensures that disabled community members such as myself have a seat at the table. Digital organizing and virtual events work to eliminate many of the accessibility barriers that disabled community members face in traditional movement spaces.
In my own work as the creator of Black Disability Collective, we try to do mutual aid Fridays where we boost fundraisers from community members to our 28,000 followers on Twitter in hopes of helping them meet their individual goals, which range from supporting single mothers, to top surgery fundraisers. When I was a child, I learned about what we now call “solidarity not charity” from my Black church community. Within the walls of my house of worship, I watched folks receive aid organized by their own community with the dignity they deserved. Preserving that dignity is a vital distinction between mutual aid and charity. Providing someone with their unmet needs should never come at the cost of their self-respect. The performativity of charity does not prioritize upholding the dignity and autonomy of our community member’s needs. For Easter, baskets of goodies were made for kids so their parents wouldn’t have to worry. Every summer we fundraised trips to the aquarium and the state fair so the younger children could have something to look forward to. During the winter we collected wish lists from parents so we could help provide their kids with a proper Christmas. The concept of “solidarity not charity” includes the understanding that mutual aid can’t exist without accessibility, dignity, and community care.
Mutual aid isn’t a new concept. Our communities have been organizing calls for mutual aid for generations because it serves as a necessary component of a community care model of engagement. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, mutual aid has been used in Minneapolis to serve the needs of multiple communities. Resources such as the Twin Cities Mutual Aid Map serve as an accessible guide for those seeking to donate. Another organization I work for, Women for Political Change (WFPC), launched a mutual-aid program in March 2020 where women, transgender, and nonbinary folks can receive a $200 stipend, prioritizing Black and Indigenous applicants. WFPC also created a guide for assisting folks in creating their own mutual-aid pods. Rebel Sidney Black defines a pod as “a microcosm of “community.” Since it’s more concrete, it’s easier to get organized—to connect, make a plan, and follow through if and when it’s needed.” Pod mapping was originally developed by Mia Mingus as an accountability tool, but can be adapted in order to help people assess who they can rely on for support. There can be different pods for different circumstances.
Mutual-aid pods are rooted in disability justice, and the innate idea that we will not leave a single one of us behind. Through an adaptation of pod mapping, folks are able to identify who in their community has the resources they need to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond. There’s a specific Trans Disabled Care Fund in the Twin Cities that uses Patreon, a membership platform for content creators, to work to address the financial needs of disabled trans folks by offering $100 payments over the course of six months or one lump sum of $600. Facebook groups have even been created with the sole purpose of organizing mutual aid. In the wake of George Floyd and Daunte Wright’s murders at the hands of police, folks in Minneapolis have worked tirelessly to organize mutual aid for the Black community. More than one-third of individuals killed by the police are disabled, and a number of high-profile cases in recent years have featured Black disabled victims, such as Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray.
Mutual aid is not a performance; it’s a lifelong community practice.
As a direct result of this, mutual-aid groups are popping up to support people in their communities. For example, as a result of Brooklyn Center residents being tear-gassed by police in their own homes, the Brooklyn Center Protestor + Resident Safety and Mutual Aid Group was created. This group, made up of people associated with Brooklyn Center, organized volunteers and collected supplies for displaced residents. They put out calls for laundry baskets of items so that the residents who live near where the protests occurred would have access to any items they may need. Other groups such as Documenting MN, a community-led journalism project that revolved around the Derek Chauvin trial, assisted with organizing in Brooklyn Center. Organizing mutual-aid efforts requires community members to unite around common goals and address outstanding needs. In order to have healthy mutual-aid infrastructure within our communities, we must work intentionally to dismantle our egos. In order to position mutual aid as the antithesis of the charity model, we must consistently resist the urge to center ourselves at the detriment of the collective. By dismantling our egos we are doing due diligence to ensure that the needs of those most marginalized remain centered. When we fall into an ego trap, we become unable to fight for the solutions necessary for our overall survival. We are capable of facing our human desires of self importance by recognizing moments where our egos can cause conflict and get in the way of our work.
This recognition will allow us to navigate through conflict, and return our focus back toward fighting to dismantle oppressive systems, and toward advocating for the power of community care through mutual aid. This work isn’t rooted in any singular organizer or individual but rather in fighting for the survival of the most marginalized members of the collective. Mutual aid is not a performance; it’s a lifelong community practice. Through mutual aid, I can see the ways my community is fighting toward a path of collective liberation, one where chronically ill Black people, myself included, are centered and cared for. Throughout the course of this pandemic, directly in the face of Black death, mutual aid has helped save my life. I received mutual-aid funds that allowed me to pay my rent while I was out of work during the beginning of the pandemic. The trans and disabled mutual aid fund helped me afford my expensive medications. The mutual aid I received via the Black Disability Collective Twitter helped me purchase new tires that enabled me to safely drive home. Receiving mutual aid has never made me feel as if I had to sacrifice my dignity in exchange for keeping a roof over my head. Mutual aid has never made me feel ashamed and beg people with more class privilege than myself to pay for my groceries. Mutual aid is a complete disruption of the charity model, because it centers the most marginalized while upholding their self-respect. I’m profoundly grateful to live in Minneapolis, a city that’s allocating mutual aid to actively fight to free us all.