The chaos of 2020, defined largely by the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a reckoning for police brutality and other forms of systemic racism, has signaled a sea change — or at least the need for one — in American society. As trust in big governments and big corporations has waned, communities across the country have come together to provide mutual aid for people in need. Proponents believe that this system, defined as an arrangement where people work cooperatively to meet the needs of the community, could prove to be a model for a future of giving.
Recent examples include the Astoria Mutual Aid Network (AMAN) in Queens, New York, which ensured an 11-year-old whose parents fell sick with COVID-19 still had meals and snacks while they were recovering. Similarly, people across the country have donated to bail funds established in cities like New York and Minneapolis to ensure that protestors who were arrested while demanding social reform would not have to stay in jail. Some of these bail funds became so overwhelmed that they directed people to stop sending money and recommended other organizations to donate to.
Community fridges are another growing example of mutual aid. The fridges were set up in New York and other locations across the country, offering free donated groceries in an effort to provide people who otherwise couldn’t afford it access to fresh food. Similarly, following our COVID-induced rent and unemployment crisis, a growing number of mutual aid posts requesting Venmo and Cash App donations to help the vulnerable people pay for necessities like rent have also begun successfully circulating through social media.
Instead of sending funds to the Goodwills and Salvation Armys of the world, these types of charitable efforts allow individuals to mobilize and cut out the middlemen. According to City Limits, mutual aid has long been part of progressive culture, popular among prison-abolitionist and even anarchist groups because it acknowledges that tragedies often disproportionately affect marginalized communities and allows for quick mobilization without bureaucracy. Communities that are in the most need are often the same ones overlooked by government aid, so members within the community take the lead by pooling resources to help their neighbors directly.
The Guardian has linked a growth of mutual aid to the overall need for community solidarity in 2020. People closing down businesses and sacrificing nights out to protect their neighbors from COVID-19, they said, was one of the ultimate examples of this form of altruism.
But mutual aid is nothing new, according to the American Alliance of Museums. Throughout history, mutual aid has followed moments of profound injustice and disaster. After the Civil War, mutual aid societies formed within Black communities to help support formerly enslaved people. A Jewish mutual aid society in the early 1900s in New York helped provide loan, health and death benefits for its members.
Although these forms of altruism are far from new or radical, they’ve garnered more and more attention over the past year with increased support from politicians and public figures alike. Examples include Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts calling for Senate candidate Sara Gideon of Maine to donate the millions she made from her losing campaign, and even celebrities like Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Nas X have offered money to fans in need.
Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has also advocated for mutual aid during the pandemic, providing a mutual aid toolkit on her site. “We can buy into the old frameworks of, ‘when a disaster hits, it’s every person for themselves,’” Ocasio-Cortez told The New Yorker in March. “Or we can affirmatively choose a different path. And we can build a different world, even if it’s just in our neighborhood, even if it’s just on our block.”
To find out more about mutual aid networks across the U.S. and in your area, visit mutualaidhub.org.