Much of the discussion and debate about mutual aid occurring among socialists looks at mutual aid in a very narrow way. It is argued that the only way in which mutual aid can be helpful is when it is operating in conversation and connection with labor, such as in the example of Bread for Ed, which raised money to provide food for striking teachers. This narrowness is misguided, because it discounts a lot of social movement work. In this article I am going to give several examples of ways in which mutual aid has been used to expand how the work is seen and understood. I’ll actually start with labor.
Recently in Chicago, teachers were preparing to strike over negotiations on returning to in-person learning in schools. A lot of the teachers that were preparing to strike, protesting every weekend, and going outside in solidarity with their colleagues to teach in the cold, were also participating in mutual aid efforts. The reason they were doing that is because they know that they have to be building power as workers, and they also have to be engaging with the communities that they know need them the most, and that this engagement builds solidarity with people that are going to also support the teacher’s struggle.
These teachers were organizing mutual aid pantries, making sure that there were warm clothes available for students, and trying to help families in any way that they could. Several of my friends who are teachers engaged in this kind of work.
I think it is important to point this out because we want to be creating communities of care. Ultimately, what we want is a society that is based on the values of solidarity.
Mutual Aid in the Immigrant Rights Movement
In the immigrant rights movements here in Chicago, mutual aid is a core component. Here in my community, the Albany Park Defense Network has an initiative where people or families who had immigration cases would come and get help in terms of support, to have accompaniment to go with them to hearings, and for legal aid. There was also a lot of fundraising that was done for families that had lost a breadwinner due to deportation or incarceration.
After these people got help, they would then become part of the fabric of organizing, and would themselves accompany others to hearings, help fundraise, and help with legal aid. That built a lot of support in the immigrant rights movement and got people engaged. A lot of these folks who were doing that mutual aid work were also the same people that organized to pass the Welcoming City Ordinance without carve-outs that we were able to pass in the last City Council meeting here in Chicago. This ordinance is a huge deal and will make Chicago one of the safest cities for immigrants in the US.
Mutual Aid in Puerto Rico
In Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, mutual aid was the only thing that there was. It was really important for people to be able to have access to basic things like water and food, or medical help. The movement in Puerto Rico that culminated in the massive riots and revolt that ended up kicking out the Governor in Puerto Rico had a lot to do with those mutual aid projects that were created on the island.
And some of those mutual aid projects evolved. One mutual aid project in Caguas grew out of people occupying a building and doing mutual aid and community work from that building. Now, they have created a supermarket that is a workers’ co-op in that space. This is worker power right?
Mutual Aid and Building Power
It is important to trace out how mutual aid has impact and value beyond the very important immediate provision of support that the state is either unable or unwilling to provide. One example that points to this particular issue is that here in Chicago, there are a group of people who provide support to people who are being released from Cook County Jail. People are being released in the cold with no clothes, no shoes. So people sit in front of Cook County Jail, and they make sure that people released are clothed and that they have fare to take public transportation or that they have a ride. This work has very publicly illustrated cruelty that institutions like Cook County Jail inflict on people. As a result, now it has gotten Cook County’s attention and they are discussing how to change those policies.
I think that there is a lot of power in people making sure to meet the needs of the people who are most vulnerable. But what I don’t understand is why some say that that work is exclusive, that mutual aid excludes protesting and organizing and building worker power. Because I don’t think that’s the case.
We definitely need to talk about how we build social movements, which are essential for radicalization of consciousness in people. For some, the focus in this conversation is on arguing that we cannot be doing mutual aid because it dilutes our efforts to build these movements. Instead, it is argued, we just need to be focused on organizing worker power. But we actually need to be doing both things right now.
There’s not a lot of people that are unionized either. And this is especially true in the undocumented community. But they work. They are workers. And you can actually help people radicalize, and help people understand how to come together and try to transform the material conditions that we live under. That can happen in a lot of different ways, and I think seeing mutual aid as a very narrow thing reducible to charity or philanthropy is misguided. We need to create space in the fight for socialism for mutual aid and for people that are interested in doing this kind of work at the same time that we demand that the government does the work that it needs to do.
These things can be done at the same time. Here in Chicago we are a part of the mutual aid work that is underway even while we push for the government to provide these services. We actually have a really big opportunity right now because people have been very responsive in terms of wanting to volunteer to do mutual aid; and at the same time, they get engaged in other fights, like the fight to get a non-police crisis response with the Treatment Not Trauma council order that I introduced. There are people that are coming to try to fight for these things after they have volunteered to do work with the mutual aid project that operates in my ward. So, I think that there are a lot of possibilities, and this can excite people and instill a lot of compassion and love in the political work that we’re doing.
In my ward during the polar vortex, we realized that there are very few warming centers in our area. So we decided to keep the office open during the whole weekend to make sure that people could come and get warm and get food. We had lots of supplies, coats, gloves, masks. We continued doing that as long as the temperatures were frigid because we do believe that the government should be taking care of people, and we want to set a novel trend of the government serving people, particularly the most vulnerable.
Mutual Aid Models a Society Built on Care
When you look also at the use of mutual aid in our communities and what the Black Panthers were able to accomplish, you see how it actually became government work, as it should be. It exposes what needs the people have and makes sure that we push for the government to be able to fund the satisfaction of those needs as one of our main goals. Mutual aid helps us put this message out there in a very compassionate way. It shows that we can go and we can protest; but also, we can protest while we take care of those needs. I think that’s a beautiful thing, and it’s a really important thing that we should be embracing.
We have seen people that have started coming to help in a lot of different ways because they need that human connection. And I think we all need that right now as well. So, it is also a way to keep hope alive and remind ourselves that we are all part of this ecosystem and that we need to be there for each other.
I’m not saying that there are not times when we need to strategically focus our organizing on something very specific, but I do think that in general we want to be welcoming to people. We want to make sure that the way in which we fight is in harmony with our ultimate vision that we have for this world.
Finally, organized labor has a part in this. I think the CTU is a really incredible model because of how they have built that fight. They are making sure that they’re fighting for their rights as workers and creating more democracy in the workplace and making sure that their working conditions are as good as they can possibly be, while at the same time bargaining for the common good because they are really aware of what the situation on the ground is for a lot of their students. So they place demands that the government provide services for homeless students, for example, or sanctuary for undocumented students. All of those things are really important, and they come from social movements. So we also need to be pushing labor to make sure that they are following that model because that is the perfect place where labor meets social movements and the needs of the people.
What mutual aid can do is help us look at the absolutely necessary and urgent work we could be funding in our communities. Mutual aid is doing the work that a government that is truly for the people should do. We want them to provide and mutual aid exposes that they don’t. We do this by looking at what communities have been doing in order to survive and take care of one another. In this we can also envision the kind of jobs and opportunities we can create for all while building the power to win them.
This article is based on remarks first made in an interview with Behind the News.