Episode #10: What Is Mutual Aid?


With the global and local effects of COVID-19 bearing down on us and without any clear expectation of when it might end, it’s as important as ever to take care of our communities. In this episode, we talk about the importance of mutual aid, the history of these networks, and why – if you haven’t before – now is the time to seriously consider getting involved with them.

Full Transcript:

Drew:                   You’re listening to Decolonize Social Work, a conversation about social work, oppression and liberation. I’m your co-host Drew.

Ondine:               And I’m your co-host Ondine.

Drew:                   Hi everyone. Greetings from Decolonize Social Work. We are releasing this episode today to check in about the state of things, the order of the new world and avoiding New World Order because it’s menacing and hopefully-

Ondine:               And that’s also wrestling, isn’t it?

Drew:                   Well there’s that too. Yeah.

Ondine:               Yeah. We hadn’t planned. We have another episode actually that we were planning on releasing soon, which we will release and we’re excited about. But because we’re experiencing a global pandemic, that’s really thrown a lot of people’s plans out the window. We wanted to do temperature check, share with you guys a little bit about how we’re doing and how we’re dealing with all the crazy feelings we’re feeling and call out to all of you that if you want to share how you’re managing through this time and we’d love to hear it.

Drew:                   How have you been doing?

Ondine:               How have I been doing? I’m going through probably lots of different stages of grief.

Drew:                   I had that discussion with somebody the other day. A couple of people, they were describing something. That was my comment to them, I was like, ”This just sounds like different stages of grief.”

Ondine:               Yeah. It’s also multilayered depending on what I’m grieving. I personally am doing okay because I haven’t lost my job and I’m able to stay in my house and I have good access to technology. So, I’ve been able to keep in touch okay with most people, and we had a virtual karaoke birthday party.

Drew:                   That was really fun. We also tried out Netflix party the other night watching some Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Ondine:               I downloaded a new app called Houseparty. I haven’t used it.

Drew:                   That’s the rage.

Ondine:               But people are using it. So, I am okay. Immediately I’m very worried about family members and friends, friends who’ve lost their jobs, people who I know who are immunocompromised or in the older group that is in even more immediate danger because of this. I’m worried about people all over the world who I don’t even know, who are already living under some terrible conditions that are accelerated by climate change and capitalist disaster and imperialism. And you add in a pandemic that… Yeah, it’s just rough. So, I feel a lot of different things throughout the day, every day. What about you?

Drew:                   I’m probably close to, if not, on the same wave as you. Like you I’m pretty fortunate that although I didn’t work from home before this, it was easy to transfer or transition to work from home and although some things weren’t set up we. We did it on the fly. So, I’m really, really privileged. Fortunate to not have my income stream disrupted. But like you, I’m also just literally watching the world out my window and in my Black Mirror phone and it’s just so discordant because the day to day life that we have, it’s a nice house, I don’t really see too much disruptive… I haven’t seen catastrophes yet. But I know catastrophes are happening.

Ondine:               Yeah. For anyone who doesn’t already know for context, we live in Kentucky. It’s a mostly rural state.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               We’re watching New York and Seattle on the news and we’re just scared.

Drew:                   Every time I see something about New York or-

Ondine:               New Orleans.

Drew:                   New Orleans. You mentioned other parts of the world, news from different areas in India. Every time I read something it’s just like… I’ve read books about what happened in Hiroshima, in Cambodia when they were under Pol Pot and all of these horrific things and I’m still having difficulty. My imagination just cannot comprehend how bad this is in some places and it just scoops something out of me that just leaves a hole, and I hate the way it feels and it’s so terrifying. So, I’ve been doing a little bit of trying to keep that healthy balance right, of staying informed and knowing what’s going on, but also trying to do things to keep myself busy whether that’s building a garden bed, or trying to figure out how to at least support stuff locally.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Do things within my control.

Ondine:               Yeah. Yeah, we wanted to talk a little bit about that because our audience is social workers and you all work in a variety of settings and probably some of you are working from home now too. Some of you may find yourself unemployed and then many of you are probably working in health care settings and you are very, very much on the front lines of what’s happening right now. But even if you’re not a social worker, it’s super easy to feel overwhelmed with what can I do? What can I do most immediately? That urgency to step up for our neighbors and be a part of community should always be there. But we can also look at this weirdly as an opportunity to start building the networks and the solidarity and the mutual Goodwill that we are going to need to weather the next storm and the next disaster and pandemic and whatever else. So, with that, I’d like to talk a little bit about something called mutual aid. You’re laughing at me.

Drew:                   A little bit. Yeah, and we in full disclosure have been involved with a network of a mutual aid group to support the town we live in. And I’m actually going to pass it over to you to talk a little bit about what mutual aid is and various permutations.

Ondine:               Sure. I’ll do my best. So, we are all learning in public, remember that, and I have heard the term mutual aid tossed around for a long time. But I didn’t know what that meant and it turns out that I’ve probably been involved in mutual aid work for quite some time in different shapes and forms, but we didn’t really call it that. But mutual aid is a system essentially of neighbors and community members networking with each other to make sure folks have what they need in order to survive, and it is very much not charity. Charity operates from this top down model where you have rich people or people in power to feel good, handout whatever to people below, and it often comes with strings attached. I know all of you guys who work out in the nonprofit industrial complex are quite familiar with things like eligibility requirements.

Drew:                   Right.

Ondine:               Mutual aid does not work that way. Mutual aid is… There are some different pillars that are the foundation of mutual aid, but one is that the world is fucked up and that it’s fucked up because of these horrible structures that are lifted up and held up through white supremacy and colonization and capitalism and that’s why people suffer. But then also we know what we need as community members and we can help ourselves. We don’t have to wait for those structures to save us and quite frankly, they’re not interested in saving us.

Drew:                   They’re not. Those structures that dispense charity also, some would argue, and I think I agree with this, that model creates a dependency of the recipients of that help too, because it’s never enough to actually get you out, right? Look at unemployment benefits, right? You’re never actually going to have enough to make ends meet on unemployment. But then as soon as you get a gig job or a part time job, those benefits get decreased immediately. There’s no cushion to actually help you do better. A lot of people would say that you get punished for bettering yourself and that can be complicated, unpacked in different ways. But in some, that’s what it looks like.

Ondine:               Yeah. The bureaucratic nature of charity. I was just thinking as you were talking about how these systems are set up in such a way that you can never actually thrive. I was just thinking about how in the work we’re trying to do right now in our community to make sure people have what they need to get through this moment, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you were corresponding with somebody who needs food and you had recommended that they talk to our local food bank and apparently even in the middle of a fucking pandemic, there are rules that a person can only be referred to our local food bank by way of a nonprofit agency.

Drew:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               That’s not even suspended right now.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               So this is why mutual aid is really important because you just can’t assume that folks are going to be taken care of again by systems that didn’t catch everybody to begin with.

Drew:                   Yeah, and that example that you mentioned that I was involved in, not only did they have to be referred from somewhere, but I talked to them on Saturday and their appointment was Thursday and they said they still don’t have any food. And that’s where the mutual aid part could fill in that gap. But again, like you said, even in this global pandemic that is unlike anything-

Ondine:               At least you and I have experienced.

Drew:                   I can’t imagine anybody who’s still on this earth has seen anything like this, that’s globally affected like this.

Ondine:               There was one guy I saw floating around on social media who’s Italian who apparently lived… He’s a 101 and had lived through barely the influenza of 1918.

Drew:                   Wow.

Ondine:               I’m sorry to take your-

Drew:                   No, that’s okay.

Ondine:               You’re right. This is unprecedented.

Drew:                   But even then, they couldn’t waive this requirement that you have to be referred or that there’s this waiting period and I get that you couldn’t just help everybody. But I think that’s a very good example of what this has exposed all over, which is all this bureaucracy is already operating at a very high stress point.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Drew:                   And it’s also just made up bullshit too.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   What are we worried about that somebody is going to take more food than they actually need? Who are we to decide what they need? And that gets back into those really gross things that we as social workers should be familiar about, with those Elizabethan poor laws about who-

Ondine:               Idea of worthy-

Drew:                   Who the worthy poor is. Who’s worth assisting or helping, and I think if you didn’t believe that that was still in our systems of social welfare today, I hope that this moment in our lives has opened you or focused your eyes a little bit to be able to see how truly built into those systems these very 400 year old abusive policies are of deciding who’s worth saving and helping and who frankly isn’t.

Ondine:               Yeah. I mean I’m interested in projects and networks that are about building solidarity with each other, not charity.

Drew:                   Which brings us to-

Ondine:               It brings us again back around to mutual aid. So I want to talk a little bit about we’re trying to pour some of our time and energy and scared feelings into here to make our community better. But before that, let’s chat a little bit about and share with folks what we learned from the Highlander Center the other day. And for anyone who’s not familiar, the Highlander Center is an amazing, powerful resource. They’re located in New, Market, Tennessee, in Appalachia, and they’re a place where leaders and networks and movement builders have been organizing for a very long time in Appalachia and the U.S. South. Just some badass grassroots activists have come through that space and the Highlander Center put on a very timely webinar the other day called The History and Principles of Mutual Aid. It was great. It was really great and there are several pieces that came out of that I think are worth sharing in this conversation.

Drew:                   What are some examples that you learned about of what mutual aid is that probably some people have heard of?

Ondine:               Yeah, that’s great. And right before I say that, I just want to acknowledge too that mutual aid, we’re talking about contemporary mutual aid at the moment. People taking care of each other is old as hell and indigenous communities and black and brown communities and people who have been severely marginalized and oppressed folks, these folks have had networks of taking care of one another for a very long time.

Drew:                   Right.

Ondine:               So, I just want to say that. But some examples of mutual aid network. So, some of you may have heard of a group called Food Not Bombs. Have you heard of Food Not Bombs?

Drew:                   I have. There’s I guess a collective or chapter of that here in our town.

Ondine:               Yeah. It’s a really loose network of people. You can start it up yourself. You can just do it, who create, who prepare food and give out food to folks in public. Our chapter does that I think on Tuesday nights downtown. So, that’s an example of mutual aid. Just people say they’re hungry, we can feed them.

Drew:                   No questions asked.

Ondine:               We don’t need to get some permit from the health department or be a part of some group that proselytizes to people in order to get the peanut butter sandwich or whatever.

Drew:                   Boiled hot dogs.

Ondine:               Another example of mutual aid work, there’s an organization out of Chicago and it’s called Black Mamas Bailout project, right?

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               And will you say a little bit more about that because you’re actually the person who introduced them to me.

Drew:                   Yeah, and I found out about them, as with all things, on Twitter. But basically it is an organization or a group of folks in Chicago who use a mutual aid fund. Basically people, anybody from not just Chicago but anywhere and can donate money to them, and what they do is pool that money to go and help out people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial but don’t have the money to pay their bail or their bond. And so they’re just stuck in jail or prison waiting for their hearing date and the only thing that’s literally keeping there is a lack of money. So, this Black Mamas Bailout fund uses that money to go and free these people, free these women to let them go home, await their trial like everybody should be able to. And they usually have a big organized event around mother’s day too, but it’s a year round thing as well. But yeah, that’s a great example of one.

Ondine:               Yeah, thanks for sharing that.

Drew:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               So, there are lots of examples of this. But as you can probably tell, people are just like, ”Hey, there’s a gap here. We know what we need, we’re going to make it happen.” So, that’s mutual aid and it’s really a collaborative thing and it exists outside of the state just as a… I just have to name that our cat’s super wild right now. She knows that we’re recording a podcast and so you’re going to hear her probably yelling and climbing up on stuff. So, sorry about that. There she goes.

Drew:                   Right on cue.

Ondine:               That’s her cameo. Tell me how did you feel about the Highlander Center webinar? Was there any thing that came out of that that you learned or that you thought was worth indexing for later?

Drew:                   Yeah, I did. There were actually a lot of things that I took notes on. They went over the history of it and as you mentioned too, this isn’t by any means a new practice and it certainly wasn’t innovated by Western white cultures. It’s existed in communities or indigenous communities, black and brown communities, all over the world. This isn’t new. It might be new to us.

Ondine:               Yeah, we didn’t make a mutual aid.

Drew:                   There were so many things and they talked about some of the Black Panther’s work in Oakland, school lunches and stuff like that. Things that have become standardized in a way. Everybody knows that you get lunches at school.

Ondine:               My understanding is that the state essentially co-opted that program.

Drew:                   Started by the Black Panthers in Oakland. Yeah. So, hearing about that. But they were really clear on the principles around mutual aid. One of the things that one of the speakers talked about was as you’re building this infrastructure and trying to meet people where they are, you’re going to work in solidarity with them. It’s not charity. It’s solidarity and they said, hopefully, but when you go to help and participate in mutual aid, hopefully it’s because you’ve been asked to come help. You don’t just go parachute down and get hired or give yourself a job to dispense this mutual aid because that’s just basically duplicating that nonprofit industrial bullshit that we are trying to actively get away from in this mutual aid work.

Ondine:               Yeah. One of the lead facilitators on the call with Highlander cited the Zapatista and they talk a lot about leading by asking.

Drew:                   Yeah. There was also a really good I think Zapatista quote or Maxim that came from that… I know you’ve got it written down.

Ondine:               I’ve got it written down.

Drew:                   Yeah. What is it?

Ondine:               ”Everything for everyone. Nothing for us.”

Drew:                   That’s so awesome.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   That is so cool. Yeah. So, I think a lot of that frames up the approach of mutual aid. It helped for me to distinguish the difference between Food Not Bombs to your nonprofit food bank and what those differences are, even though the probably end goal, i.e. feeding somebody in that example, is the same. That process is very different.

Ondine:               And for folks who don’t like gray areas, I’m not trying to totally shit all over our local food bank.

Drew:                   No, they’re necessary.

Ondine:               I think they do a lot of good work and I’ve known people who’ve worked there and a lot of people get food. But we can do so much better.

Drew:                   We could and I think that is also one of the things I’ve learned about mutual aid is that this is not something to try to make charities or the state do better. This is something to exist outside of the state and without the state.

Ondine:               Yeah. Mutual aid really is an opposition to capitalism because it’s about cooperation, which is not… It rejects this idea of pulling up yourself by your bootstraps and going it alone, right?

Drew:                   Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ondine:               We need each other. We’re all we have. So, we were feeling… I mean I was feeling a lot of fear about just how swiftly things have been changing here in Lexington and I was spending a lot of time on Facebook, which is never healthy. But one thing that came across my desk, my virtual desk if you will, was someone shared with me a Google forum that folks had created. These folks live in central Ohio and it was a rapid response forum so that people who need things, need money, need rent, need pet food, need childcare, could get connected then to people who can offer that stuff. And I was like, ”I’m just going to do this. I’m just going to replicate this. Maybe change some questions here and there and just not get stuck in the cyclical ruminations about what can I do? What should I do? Should I do this? No, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’m going to wait and see.” I just did it.

Drew:                   Yeah. I think the outcome of it has been pretty powerful too.

Ondine:               Yeah. So, we’ve got some folks now who are helping to connect people through it and we’ve been able to connect people who have money to give directly with people who need money. We are not policing, people don’t have to prove to us that they need this stuff. They say they need it, they need it. Today, I was able to coordinate people dropping off dog food to each other and it was cool. So, now one thing that I’m trying to be thoughtful about as I can and to continue to approach carefully is that mutual aid is not apolitical, right? This is about responding to people’s immediate needs but also so that we can build each other up and hold each other up and move forward together to address the systems that oppress us.

Drew:                   In fact, some people would probably say it should be political.

Ondine:               It should and it can’t not be.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               That’s what I’m trying to say, right? It can’t be apolitical. So, I am struggling through what that looks like for us as we are just right now again a motley crew of really dedicated volunteers who we care a lot about our neighbors, right? Trying to make sure people have what they need. How do you use this as an organizing tool? I think I’m going to be reading a bit about some Black Panther breakfast or lunch programs here in the near future.

Drew:                   Before you get to that though, you also found a pretty cool explainer video on YouTube, right? Shit’s Super FUCKED! Or something like that. What’s it called?

Ondine:               Yeah. Thank you so much for reminding me. Yeah. So, we will share some resources with you guys through our social media, but this one is really good and it’s a video called Shit’s Totally FUCKED!

Drew:                   Totally, not super. Okay.

Ondine:               What Can We Do?: A Mutual Aid Explainer, and it’s a 101 by a couple of folks. Dean Spade and Ciro Carrillo. I hope I say that right, I apologize if I don’t. But they define in this video mutual aid projects, that they are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and for changing political conditions. Not just through symbolic acts or putting pressure on representatives, but by actually building new social relationships that are more survivable. So, I think that’s what we’re trying to do with our very nascent learning mutual aid network here on the ground.

Drew:                   And that can be really broad, right? Everything from being a community resource to each other about toilet paper, all the way to how to respond to violence without calling the police.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   That’s a huge spectrum that you can do, right?

Ondine:               Yeah, and I’m all about that.

Drew:                   I am too. Me too. It reminds me a little bit, we talked about this in an earlier episode about social work in Cuba and the way that model was really rooted more in community organizing and almost somewhat of a mutual aid, at least from what I understood from what we read at that time of basically the community was supporting each other, but then the social worker’s job was actually to almost be the liaison with the state to get stuff that the community needed in order to facilitate that support.

Ondine:               Yeah, and in this specific example, we’re not even trying to create a liaison with the state, right?

Drew:                   Yeah, we’re trying to do it totally outside of the state.

Ondine:               We’re trying to do this outside of the state and I mean it would be really cool if after we were able to connect some folks who can immediately help each other with stuff that’s urgent. What if we took it to the next step then teach each other how to respond to stuff in our communities without involving law enforcement? I mean that’s a great thought.

Drew:                   And I will unfailingly probably catch a lot of heat for this, but one thing that really appeals to me about mutual aid is in a way it deprofessionalizes social work, and I say this because I am not a big proponent of the professionalization of social work because I think it puts us in competition for legitimacy with lawyers and attorneys and doctors… Lawyers and attorneys. Attorneys and doctors and other folks.

Ondine:               Licensed professions.

Drew:                   Licensed folks and I don’t think that’s the path we should be going on. Sure, there should be accountability and I guess maybe even some regulation, but that gate keeping of who gets to do social work, who gets to call each other with social work. I’m not a fan of that.

Ondine:               I am less interested in being accountable to some state board than to being accountable to my neighbors.

Drew:                   Me too.

Ondine:               Right? People in my immediate community.

Drew:                   And I think in a post-colonial social work, what we’re doing is mutual aid networks and we’re not there yet, but that’s always the process of decolonizing social works. We said this really early, in a decolonized world, social work doesn’t exist because we’re doing something mutual aid communities, right?

Ondine:               Because we’re all just doing legit mutual aid.

Drew:                   Yeah. So, I do also like mutual aid for that prospect because anybody can tag in, get caught up and just start this work. Everybody’s got something to offer and we’ll take care of each other as each person needs it.

Ondine:               So, have you been struggling a bit with what can I do? Maybe what would it look like to start developing mutual aid network wherever you live? And think longterm, right? Think about helping people connect with each other and build and form relationships so that we can survive, but not just through this moment, this crisis, but through the next one and the next one so that we can build a better world together.

Drew:                   And even though this is an immediate crisis, the COVID-19 stuff, there are people who live in indefinite crises too. Communities that are targeted by police violence. Communities that are targeted by ICE. There are things like this that are just ongoing as well that mutual aid networks, like the Bail fund I talked about in Chicago for Black Mamas. That’s just one that’s ongoing.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   So, again, it doesn’t take a global pandemic for you to suddenly start thinking about it. I will admit that’s what it took for me to get to thinking I could participate in one or-

Ondine:               Oh, you’ve participated, but you didn’t have this language.

Drew:                   I guess that’s true. That’s a fair way to put it. Thanks.

Ondine:               You’re welcome. Well, we’re going to wrap up because we didn’t intend to make this episode, but here we are. We wanted to check in with you guys and please take care of yourself. Take deep breaths, take care of the ones you love. Something that came out of the Highlander webinar too that I just wanted to share, Je Naé Taylor, I think… Yeah. Je Naé Taylor shared it with us on the webinar, but that right now we keep hearing social distancing, social distancing.

Drew:                   Right? Yeah.

Ondine:               But really what we’re doing right now to protect one another is physical distancing. But we can be socially close, right? Physical distancing while creating social solidarity. That’s what we should be thinking about, we should be doing. Just because we aren’t physically together, doesn’t mean that we can’t hang out with each other or be connected. So, let’s not sacrifice connection right now during this time because it’s more critical than ever.

Drew:                   That’s a perfect way to sum this up.

Ondine:               All right. Take care everybody.

Drew:                   All right, stay safe.

Ondine:               Bye.

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