What is mutual aid?
Mutual aid is defined as the voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and/or services for mutual benefit. Mutual aid is a form of political participation where people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions. Although not a substitute for necessary systemic change, mutual aid projects are one way to provide direct support to marginalized communities and close gaps in existing systems.
It’s important to recognize that mutual aid is not a new concept and that people have always worked in collaboration to ensure the survival of their communities. Mutual aid has been particularly popular and successfully practiced in marginalized communities.
What is the history of mutual aid?
One of the most notable historical examples of mutual aid is the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association, which was an organization founded in 1896 that sought to provide pensions to former enslaved African Americans from the Federal government as compensation and reparations for their unpaid labor and suffering. It’s known as the first mass reparations movement led by Black Americans. Led by former enslaved African Americans Callie House and Isaiah H. Dickerson, the organization had a membership in the hundreds of thousands at its peak. These efforts stalled when, despite lack of evidence, the federal Post Office Department accused the organization of defrauding its members and forbade the organization from sending mail or cash money orders. The Department of Justice opened an investigation and in 1901, co-leader Isaiah Dickerson was found guilty of “swindling” in a conviction that was later overturned. Though the organization attempted to move on from this scandal, in 1916 Callie House was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison, which effectively ended the organization’s legislative efforts.
A powerful example of mutual aid from recent times is the success of the Common Ground Health Clinic in the greater New Orleans community. The clinic started on September 9, 2005, just days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. It began with four young street medics who rode around the Algiers neighborhood on bicycles asking locals if they needed medical attention. At that point, no government representatives or agencies nor the Red Cross had offered medical assistance to residents. The medics offered first aid, took blood pressure, tested for diabetes, and catalogued other symptoms that residents were experiencing. The clinic was set up in the Masjid Bilal mosque and nurses, physicians, herbalists, acupuncturists, EMTs, social workers and community activists came from all over the world to volunteer. Since then, the clinic has recorded over 60,000 patient visits at low or no cost. Clinic staff work in the community to address societal health factors like systemic racism and poverty. Patient services include primary care, Spanish medical interpreting, mind-body medicine groups, herbal medicine, social work, acupuncture and HIV testing. The clinic became a federally qualified health clinic in 2013 and has since moved its location to a former corner grocery store.
The importance of mutual aid in our current revolution
Mutual aid funds are a great option for providing direct and immediate relief to people and communities in need. They can be a way of uplifting and providing support to marginalized groups that lack access to federal and nonprofit funding. With fundraising platforms like GoFundMe, we’ve seen individuals and organizations quickly raise money to address critical needs.
Mutual aid projects emphasize our personal power when it comes to creating societal change. For marginalized communities, it can be as simple as enlisting a small group of friends and committing to providing a certain amount of money each month that is then saved to be distributed when one of those group members is in need or put towards a project that can benefit the group at large.
Since the COVID pandemic began in March, we’ve seen an abundance of mutual aid funds to support health care costs and treatment, professions that have been severely impacted by the pandemic such as sex work, and more recently, Black communities affected by systemic racial violence, including LGBTQ+ BIPOC.
For those who seek to be allies, providing mutual aid can range from monthly payments to small-scale groups to covering groceries or moving costs for a community member in need. Participating in this model of fundraising encourages us to be active in our local communities and have an awareness of what the existing needs are.
In the absence of federal reparations, providing ongoing support to mutual aid projects can act as a form of reparations and a way to intentionally redistribute funds to communities that face systemic hurdles when acquiring and building wealth.
Ongoing mutual aid lists and funds to support:
The Okra Project is a collective that seeks to address the global crisis faced by Black Trans people by bringing home cooked, healthy, and culturally specific meals and resources to Black Trans People wherever we can reach them.
In the wake of the murders of Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and so many more Black Trans people, The Okra Project recognizes that Black Trans people are feeling the weight of our siblings being murdered while their murderers, whether it be the assailants or the police force that puts very little effort into finding their killers, walk free.
To honor Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and the many Black Trans people who have been murdered by state-sanctioned violence, The Okra Project is dedicating $15,000 to create the Nina Pop Mental Health Recovery Fund and the Tony McDade Mental Health Recovery Fund. Okra project is asking the community to match our commitment by donating, as you are able, monetary support to sustain this work or donate one of your scheduled sessions with your Black male/female therapist.
The Black Trans Task Force (BTTF) is an intersectional, multi-generational project of community building, research, and political action addressing the crisis of violence against Black Trans people. They provide resources for Seattle-Tacoma Black trans people in collaboration with community partners in order to broaden safety nets and increase avenues for justice that are typically available for white trans people.
The Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative is a Black, trans-led, broad based collaborative to restore an Atlanta where every person has the opportunity to grow and thrive without facing unfair barriers, especially from the criminal legal system.
The Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project (BLMP) envisions a world where no one is forced to give up their homeland, where all Black LGBTQIA+ people are free and liberated. They build and center the power of Black LGBTQIA+ migrants to ensure the liberation of all Black people through community-building, political education, creating access to direct services, and organizing across borders.
Gay and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (GLITS) approach the health and rights crises faced by transgender sex workers holistically using harm reduction, human rights principles, economic and social justice, along with a commitment to empowerment and pride in finding solutions from our own community. They are a project of Project Prosper, which is their fiscal sponsor and they are currently raising 1 million to secure long-term housing for black trans people recently released from Rikers. They are able to secure buildings in Manhattan with this fund. Donate here.
BKLYN BOI HOOD are queer and trans bois of color who create spaces for the community to bloom.
Brave Space Alliance is the first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ Center located on the South Side of Chicago, dedicated to creating and providing affirming, culturally competent, for-us by-us resources, programming, and services for LGBTQ individuals on the South and West sides of the city.
Urban Justice Center – Sex Workers Project approaches the health and rights crises faced by transgender sex workers holistically using harm reduction, human rights principles, economic and social justice, along with a commitment to empowerment and pride in finding solutions from our own community.
Art Hoe Collective (AHC) was started by Queer Black People to provide a safe space for creatives of color.
Additional sources and references:
Feature Image by Alexandra Kacha