Mutual Aid work in this Chicago neighborhood is forging new communities amid the pandemic and the antiracist rebellion. Rampant interviewed the organizers for a window into their ongoing project.
In the unfolding economic and social crises, communities have formed mutual aid networks across the country. In this interview Rampant’s Dana Blanchard talks with members of McKinley Park Mutual Aid (MPMA) in Chicago, formed earlier this year. Mutual aid, as organized by groups like MPMA, differs from charity work in that it centers an understanding that it is the system that creates poverty, crisis, and vulnerability and not individuals or individual choices. Collective responses are required to address systemic failures, especially in times of acute crisis like we are experiencing in 2020. In this crisis the support from existing state institutions has been completely inadequate and unable to meet the many needs of our communities over the last six months. In the absence of institutional support, communities have come together to provide collectively organized aid for themselves, people helping people in whatever way they can.
We hope that this interview sheds light on the work of local mutual aid groups and can serve as a tool for those doing this work in their own parts of Chicago and beyond. At the end we have included MPMA’s core values as a reference for readers.
Dana Blanchard: Can you talk about your work and how you all came together?
Tovia: We got started because somebody, I don’t know who, made a Google Form in Chicago for anybody in the city who was interested in some kind of support during COVID or participating in some kind of support. Then whoever made that sorted people into groups geographically and made email lists. I saw that on Facebook or somewhere and filled it out. Then I got an email with thirty other people in McKinley Park who were interested. From there we just met on Zoom. Of those original people maybe only three or four of them are still actively in the group, but it was like this seed that allowed it all to get started.
From there we started meeting regularly on Wednesdays. The group has had people come and go but there has been a pretty consistent number of about ten core folks and around ten to fifteen very involved members. What we’ve done has also evolved over the course of our existence, based on the needs that we’ve learned about from the neighborhood.
The first thing we did was just set up a Google voice number and an email address and start handing out fliers. And at first we were just doing grocery deliveries like for folks who either couldn’t pay for groceries or weren’t safe to leave their homes. We’ve continued to do that but have identified that that’s not actually the greatest need because there are a lot of other organizations that have filled the need for food, and that has been incredible to see.
For example, there are many free fridges around the neighborhood and groups like Neighbors for Environmental Justice doing food distributions. What has been a lot more pressing has been financial assistance. We started getting rent requests and requests for people to get help paying bills and we realized we didn’t really have money to do that kind of support. We asked ourselves: can we do this? We decided to try and raise money, and it worked. People donated a lot of money, and it has pretty much all been folks in the neighborhood who have donated. For the most part it’s all been small, individual donations. We just have a Venmo account so we get to see all the names of people who donate and many of them are people in our group and our neighbors and names that we recognize.
Now the primary function of our group is helping with rent and bills. We’ve also decided collectively to not be just distributing money, that our work is more than that. Even though helping people pay their bills is really core to what we do and we recognize that if some people in the neighborhood have money and other people need it, it should go to people who need it, we also see the value that comes from creating a community that is accessible and safe for everyone. We’ve thought about ways that we could create that community ethos and culture in McKinley Park.
That meant supporting the Black Lives Matter uprisings when they began and trying to think about what that means in McKinley Park and as residents how we could actually create a neighborhood that supports Black lives. We see this work as not just actively supporting Black Lives Matter organizers in other parts of the city, but also what the movement would look like here in McKinley Park.
Caroline: We started as a really direct response to the pandemic and the economic disparity we saw. All of us saw how close we were to people who were struggling. It was a really big awakening for the entire city, and the whole nation, but specifically for the people involved in this group. That led us to pooling the resources within our community and redistributing to the people who are in need. As we started to develop our values we saw that it is really a kind of short-term investment, helping people short-term, quickly, as a one-off investment in our community to help people in need. That’s so important to what we do, but when you think about these core values of caring and creating a safe environment, it expands to a much bigger picture and more long-term things that we need to work on.
Dana Blanchard: I would love to talk more about that—the connections between the antiracist rebellions this summer and the work of mutual aid networks. How is your work connected to the fight against systemic racism? I know you all have been out at events around CPAC and Black Lives Matter, and COVID has exposed and exacerbated racism and inequality. Mutual aid work obviously intersects with fighting systemic inequality in a major way.
Matthew: We need to be engaged in having conversations within our group about what the neighborhood is like and what the experiences are like specifically within McKinley Park for POC at large and Black people more specifically. Those conversations led us to discussing our values, especially around the different protests that were happening. We had a large discussion about where our values are aligned and that led us to doing what I would call solidarity building. This meant going to CPAC events and going to Black Lives Matter events and building coalition with other groups in the neighborhood who are engaged in that work.
But it also meant doing the campaign around neighborhood signs. We worked with a local printer to design these Black Lives Matter in McKinley Park window signs that are designed to have some similarities to the We Call Police signs that we have seen around. We came to the park on a weekend and began distributing those signs. We wanted to have an event to distribute those signs where we could engage with people in the park and have conversations with them around this issue. We distributed these signs as a way to interrupt the We Call Police narrative and to support the idea that we don’t need to call the police. Calling the police often creates more harm than good for our neighbors and for our community members, and especially for those most marginalized within McKinley Park.
We want to encourage safety through cooperation and through working together, and through advocating for things like access to mental health, access to resources, access to jobs, access to money, rather than advocating for calling the police to keep us safe.
Caroline: When we think about a safe environment where people are able to reach their full potential we all need to think about a whole spectrum of things, and that includes making sure that people in our neighborhood know that Black lives matter here in McKinley Park.
Even if the only resource you have right now in the work is a poster we made for you, and all you can do is put that in your window, that means something to the people here who are walking on our streets and enjoying the park. Reaching people on a broader basis around true community building is important.
Dana Blanchard: Speaking of the importance of window signs, the We Call Police and Back the Blue signs are a huge problem in our neighborhood. There are certain blocks that are very intimidating, I would imagine, for people of color in our neighborhood.
Matthew: One of the things that it means to be involved in mutual is to understand your interconnectedness and to understand that even though we are connected we don’t have equity in this neighborhood. It was really important for us to acknowledge the strong police presence and pro-cop presence in the neighborhood and counter it in whatever way we could. It also means acknowledging that Black community members might not feel safe in our neighborhood, and that needs to change.
Dana Blanchard: Let’s talk a bit more about how mutual aid is political work. I want to ask you about the Black Panthers because I feel like a lot of people are looking to the Black Panthers as a model for connecting community-based mutual aid work and political work fighting inequality and racism. They had this short motto: “build and dismantle,” this idea of simultaneously building a vision for the communities you want while dismantling the systems of oppression. Can you speak to what this idea of build and dismantle means in your work and also if there are any historical models or current movement organizations that you see as good examples of connecting mutual aid work and political work?
Tovia: Actually we found that a lot of the people in the group are organizers in other spaces. It’s been really beautiful to see the ways that has come into the group, that people have different experiences with organizing, and models, and resources and skills. We have some people who are immigration rights organizers, we have some union folks and people from other movement spaces. We’re also really intentional about language justice and having everything we share in Spanish at the minimum. We also try to have it in Mandarin as well, and all our written materials in Mandarin.
These different movements show up in many indirect ways. We allow the group to be formed and shaped by the people who make it up and by the experiences and values and brilliance of each one of us. Contemporarily it’s actually been really cool to do mutual aid because there are people all over the city doing it. We’ve drawn a lot from groups that are working in other neighborhoods, and that’s been really helpful.
And we’ve been able to connect folks. We sometimes get requests from people who don’t live in McKinley Park, and we’ve thought a lot about what it means to have borders when many of us believe borders can be harmful. Even though we are based in McKinley Park we have fulfilled a lot of requests for people beyond our neighborhood, like in Brighton Park for example, which is deeply connected to us.
In the beginning, before we’d raised much money we got money from a Bridgeport group, who was willing to pay rent for folks in McKinley Park. When there are people who are pretty far outside our neighborhood, we’ll try to connect them to a local mutual aid group, and we’ll often do the work of reaching out to their local mutual aid group and figuring out what their resources are and what we can do to help. We think it is actually more effective for people to be connected to somewhere local if possible.
There are both the historical models and all of the things that are happening right now around us that we’re drawing from as a group.
Matthew: There’s a through-line that I’d never considered before until just now with the work of the Black Panthers and even the work of an organization like Act Up. We are part of a community and we have identified a disparity and a need for care during a time of crisis, and as a community we want to respond. We are both trying to fill that need for care while also identifying the power systems that create need and work against them. These systems of power are not only ignoring the need for that care, but also exacerbating it. We must dismantle those power systems or at least hold them accountable.
Dana Blanchard: I’d love to expand on this a bit more. What is the relationship between providing mutual aid and care and both challenging the current systems of power and building alternative systems that challenge the status quo?
Amanda: The relationship is that providing for people’s needs means understanding the gaps that exist. This work has laid bare the gaps between what is needed and what these systems are not providing for us. Folks can’t pay their utilities, folks can’t pay their rent or get groceries, and they are not getting help from the system. I think this is related to something that we heard a lot around the uprisings this past summer: “We take care of us, we protect us.” We can see more clearly in these times that we are not being protected by cops, we are not being protected by the government, and the government is not providing relief for things like rent or food for people who need it.
The first thing in our work is that we see in real life where these gaps are in these systems and we understand that we got us. When we need to pull together we do, and I think that happened in a really beautiful way around the uprisings. There have been so many instances in which we could just completely do without certain systems, in which people realize we could instead rely on our own networks to take care of us. This provides a window into what that could look like, and that is going to disturb the stability of the systems and lead to people questioning those systems and why we have them.
One example is when people ask things like Well, if we don’t have cops, who is going to keep us safe? But we see what happens when the cops are the ones that are inflicting violence, and we’re the ones actually taking care of each other. We’re forming our own teams of medics, we’re forming our own teams of people to provide safety and physical barriers to those who are being targeted with violence.
On a smaller scale these are efforts of imagination in what things could be like instead of what we have now. Once we start imagining what it can look like, that starts to threaten systems because we start to question why things are done this way in the first place.
Dana Blanchard: Community-building and mutual aid work can be really hard. How do you all sustain yourselves? How do you see building relationships and connecting with each other as a way to sustain your work? Finally, I would love it if you could speak to your vision for McKinley Park that is different from where we are now, because I also think that imagining a better future can also help sustain our work today. This is really coming back to that idea of building something new while we dismantle what is rotten and the hopefulness at the heart of mutual aid work.
Latham: In terms of how we sustain ourselves I think we do really try to share the work; it’s one of our community agreements and one of our core values. We share the workload but we also care for each other and make space for people to take time and space when they need to. That feels incredibly sustainable. While there’s all this ugliness around us in the world, there’s also been a lot of beauty coming together and generosity and people feeling really called to support one another, to do kind things for total strangers.
In some ways it’s been somewhat easy to organize our work because we have been able to call on our communities and they have shown up. We’ll see how long that lasts. Will that last beyond the crisis of the pandemic and the uprisings? We all are hopeful that our work can be sustained. It will need to be.
Matthew: The collective work of mutual aid is really baked into how we organize and how we operate. We are non-hierarchical; we don’t have a defined leadership. For example, every meeting we rotate the job of facilitator. At the start of every meeting we talk about taking space, sharing space, about stepping in and stepping out, and making sure you’re contributing but not burning out. We have members who are starting school or need to take a step back, and it’s not about just allowing them to do that, but also looking for how we can help support them and collectively work as a team. This is one of the things that personally gives me a lot of joy in our work. I remember the first time we saw each other in person. It felt so joyful, and it felt so restorative. Also making those same kinds of connections with different organizations in the neighborhood is really restorative.
Tovia: I remember the first meeting that we had on Zoom back in late March and the first go-around we had was why people wanted to be there. Many people shared things like “I feel helpless,” and “I’m here because it feels good to do something,” and it was clear then and still is now that people are in the group not only to care for others but also to be cared for themselves.
I have thought wow, if something happens to me or I get sick I have fifteen people who live within a few blocks of me who I trust deeply to be there. I think it’s personally and collectively sustaining to have so many new friends in the neighborhood. I run into people now in the park and we say hello and know each other.
In terms of how we sustain the work collectively we’ve also been really intentional about how we deal with harm in the group. That was something that unexpectedly came up a few months into organizing the group. There was somebody who had been an active participant who we felt had caused harm.
They wrote an article for a neighborhood publication that seemed to glorify people who were defending property during the uprisings and that felt harmful to people in our group. There had been interpersonal things, too, where they had been sort of mansplaining and being inappropriate with people in the group. We tried to have a restorative justice circle where everybody had space to share how that had made them feel. And I think that sort of process sustains the group because we know that there’s accountability and trust among one another, and that people are invested in trying to address harm when it happens. And so that is part of the sustainability of the group; it’s the way that we operate, the way that we treat each other, our shared ethos.
We created a restorative process, and that became part of the group. We collectively created principles and values that we operate by and when new folks join, we share that with them.
A lot of the sustainability has been the investment in operating. In other words, building the group in the way that we want the world around us to operate. And when we’re building that little tiny world of organizers we try to build on our core values knowing that it replicates itself outside. It’s like a ripple effect.
Caroline: Our goal is to create a network of people as a mutual aid network. Each person that we meet, each volunteer, each person we help is a huge win for us in growing that network. I would like to see our network continue to expand to include this entire neighborhood. The McKinley Park I want to live in is one without those little invisible borders that we create. By bringing people together and getting to know each other, we get to see that those are meaningless, harmful borders that we create. We are trying to dismantle those invisible things that keep us from seeing how close we all are to each other. Building those connections to each other will help us overcome these crises, and that is the hope.
McKinley Park Mutual Aid Core Values:
Mutual aid and resource sharing
We exist to care for our neighbors through material, structural, and emotional support.
We recognize and tap into the strengths and assets already within our community.
We share responsibility and leadership.
Creative re-envisioning of community safety and care
Our work is a direct response to racism, capitalism, and other forms of systemic oppression.
Institutions and governments are not keeping us safe. We believe safety can come from creative responses to community and systemic problems.
We trust each other and we move at the speed of trust.
We intentionally build trust with one another.
We prioritize shared humanity over privatized wealth and property.
We strive to make our spaces accessible and inclusive.
We believe everyone has something to contribute.
We make and hold space for the diversity of our communities and their experiences.
We meet people where they are at.
Centering the needs and experiences of impacted communities
We strive to be inclusive of historically excluded communities/individuals, especially our BIPOC neighbors as well as undocumented, disabled, queer, trans, and those experiencing homelessness.
We recognize our own privilege and work together to align our work to address the root causes of systemic oppression.
We reduce harm and commit to accountability.
We do not call the police on one another.
We commit to our own learning and growth to better support one another.
We assume best intentions, and attend to impact.
We strive to develop policies and practices that ensure the safety of the most marginalized.
We see this as a living document that grows along with us.
Find out more about McKinley Park Mutual Aid on their Facebook page.
Dana Blanchard is a member of the Rampant editorial collective.