Special Edition - April 30, 2020
What is mutual aid, how do we do it, and what can we learn from it? In Part 2 of our 4-part series on mutual aid, we're talking to organizers on the ground about what mutual aid is, what we challenges we face, and what we hope to achieve.
K, they/them, 25, Brooklyn K is an organizer with Survived & Punished NY and No New Jails, and their organizing work has centered around prison abolition, racial justice, reproductive justice and LGBTQ justice. You can find them as @sheabutterfemme on Twitter. This interview has been edited and condensed.
We're in crisis pandemic mode right now and the term mutual aid has started to really gain traction. I have a conception of mutual aid as a political tool, as a way for people to build community with each other and a way for us to materially meet each other's needs - which we all have. But I am wondering how you would define mutual aid.
For me, personally, I first started learning about organizing from Black women and Black people in the South. So the way I conceptualize mutual aid is grounded in that...Basically it's different than charity because it's not just giving people free stuff out of, like, pity. It’s working together to build solidarity and understanding that the systems that cause people to need different things are systems that are also impacting you.
And it's also a way to build political education. So, for example, when we're engaging with mutual aid projects with incarcerated people we're also learning from them about what the conditions are in prison and how we can help them on the outside. So yeah, a lot of people are arguing over mutual aid but it’s inherently political. It basically forces you to form community with people and understand that not only do we need different things but understanding that the reason we need different things is because we live under a system that prevents everyone from having access.
Are there challenges with making the political nature of mutual aid explicit?
A lot of people are scrambling to figure out how they can help others during “the bad thing” and some of these people haven’t been previously engaged in any type of political work before. Which is great and exciting because we have new people doing new things but also it means that we have people with different variations of goals and understandings of what mutual aid means.
I think another issue is - I am queer and I’m also disabled and that along with being Black has just kind of given me a more natural framework to work with when it comes to mutual aid because the way that those different groups conceptualized community is different than other people do. Primarily white people... a lot of white people who are new to mutual aid, they don't see how it's explicitly political because their lives haven't been like steeped in it before. It’s just a new thing for them and it's hard to convince them that it’s more than just giving free shit away. And that it needs to be a central part of our work always, not just during a pandemic.
... People aren't allowed to just be in Survived and Punished and be like “so yeah we should just close prisons.” They actually need to know what structures are in place that creates prisons, how they can perpetuate those structures, and also just different organizing tools and strategies. So I think, like, navigating white people in this way it's just emphasizing the importance of political education. A lot of people are like, oh I don't read or oh I organize from the heart etc. But that can harm a lot of people… You have to learn more constantly otherwise your organizing is going to be stagnant.
Have there been things that you've learned or things that have been reemphasized for you through these past weeks?
I guess just learning more about how we have the tools that we need to survive. By “we” I mean the communities that we are a part of. Disabled people have been navigating feeling close to people while being physically far away for years and years. Queer people have been redefining relationships and care for years and years. So just tapping into that knowledge that we already have and realizing that it's really valuable right now it's something that I'm learning about.
Another thing I'm learning about is just to be proactive in identifying your community. So doing things like pod mapping, which comes from the Bay Area and transformative justice. Just mapping out people in your community that you can count on during times like this. It’s something I wish I had done a little more diligently before the virus started.
Also just, we have to find out a way to hold people accountable digitally...it’s just extremely crucial right now for people to actually engage in strategy around digital organizing.
Have you been in contact with other groups doing mutual aid? Are there relationships there?
The main project that has been taking up my time has been this collaboration between Survived and Punished, our New York chapter, and then a group of abolitionists I’m also in, we call ourselves the Inside Outside Organizing Group. We've raised around $50,000 for mutual aid projects and we've been able to get all the people that we can really contact within New York commissary funds. And there’s some collaborating with other groups across the country to give them money.
Most recently we gave some to Black and Pink in California and then we also gave funds to smaller mutual aid groups that have just popped up because of the virus. It's been really interesting to see how much money has poured in and what people are doing with the money. Now we're focusing on closing down the fund and distributing the rest of the money. Our next step is reaching out to groups that want guidance or ideas when it comes to mutual aid projects.
Long term, how do you see this moment playing out? What do you hope to happen next?
My main focus is we just need rent fucking canceled. In a dream world rent would be canceled and it would be canceled for long after the virus has stopped. Restrictions would be lifted on the things we’re allowed to send people on the inside. Our people would come home and we wouldn't have to bail them out either.
And people would work to maintain this infrastructure. With climate change, this is unfortunately not going to be an isolated incident. This is going to keep happening unless something drastic happens. So in the meantime, I think making sure that we maintain our relationships that we built now so that we’re ready or more prepared for next time is something I’m thinking about a lot.
Who do you learn from in the everyday?
Mariame Kaba. She's amazing and brilliant. She's also in Survived and Punished and her work and her analysis is something that I look to, especially in times of difficulty, but also the fact that she's continuously learning. And always working to improve is something that I really admire. Then I would say my friends. My friend Jamie T., she’s just really involved in a lot of different movements and she's really good at finding out which way she can lend this skill she has to help others. Those are two people that come to mind right now but there's a lot.
Do you have a north star, or a guiding principle? Yeah, it's a quote from my grandma. She's 95 and lives in Nigeria and is not an organizer but she is very smart. It's just really simple: what cannot be avoided must be endured. Like yeah, we have to get through this shit so what are we gonna do to get through is something that I'm always thinking of. She emphasized to me it's important to name when things suck but we have to keep moving forward. I'm always thinking about what comes next.
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Gem, they/them, 25, Brooklyn
Gem is an organizer and vegan chef. Their work centers creating community with Black folk and accessible political education. You can find them as @urdoingreat on Twitter and Instagram. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you come up with the mutual aid fund idea for Black folks specifically?
I remember being in my apartment in Brooklyn and getting an email from CUNY - I work for CUNY. The email told us that we weren't to come back to campus, that we would be working from home for the next few weeks and then I got on on Twitter and it was just like students that didn't have anywhere to go. Like “I can't go back to my parents’ house” or “I don't have a parents’ house to go to.” You know, everybody was just very stressed out and then people started losing jobs.
And I got frustrated because like, where's the help? People needed things and I wasn’t sure how to help on a mass scale. I had done some organizing work with BYP100 previously so I had friends and connections there, I had just finished running a fundraiser a few weeks before that for self-defense so I knew that I could use my platforms to raise money.
The first thing I did is I reached out to like organizers that had been doing this organizing work and that are consistent with that. I called a bunch of them. I was like yo, like people need help they're suffering right now and I have a platform. Like I have a megaphone. It wasn't my idea. I didn't come up with it. I said I have this platform but I need your expertise: what can we do to get people the help they need?
The work that I do is always for Black people, always. Going into it my intention wasn't to make a Black folk only mutual aid but the organizers that I work with were, like, off bat, you know, Black New Yorkers will be the most affected and so that's who we want to organize around. Lo and behold, you know a month later Black New Yorkers were the most affected.
I'm working with some really really really dope organizers that have been consistent in doing this work, so when shit hit the fan like we weren't scrambling to put together an infrastructure, there already was an infrastructure, we just had to do the thing.
How do you conceptualize mutual aid?
Mutual aid is an organizing tool. Mutual aid is how we take care of each other's material needs, how we share political education, how we share resources. Mutual aid is about the people caring for each other without involvement from the state while organizing to get the long-term needs met. Like, we are aware that recycling the same $20 between our community is not a long-term strategy so the goal here is okay, like, you need food right now. We will get you food right now but we will also give you the education that you need so that you can come organize with us.
Do you have a particular politic?
Most recently I'm calling myself an anarchist and abolitionist. I think anarchy and abolition go one in hand.
Yeah, I'm seeing a lot of mutual aid work coming out of abolitionist groups. I think if you've been in any abolition work or political education, you’re used to having a dream of a horizon, and that horizon involves building community. I see mutual aid being an abolitionist project.
And that’s what I was talking about before. The infrastructure is already there for many abolitionist groups. We’re already having these conversations and already doing the work to build out these movements, right? Already doing the work to imagine something more. So it’s easy to say, okay, like let’s just take care of everyone’s needs then. Our imaginations are already there. We don’t have to convince anybody that we can do it.
...We built a large coalition with our mutual aid and our ethos was kind of, you know, people can request whatever they want and we will give people whatever they want. Yes we will give people what they need and it will be okay. I find that that’s a trademark of abolitionist groups and I appreciate that about us.
What challenges are y’all facing as you're doing this work?
We’re experiencing a challenge with the need population as well where they’re like what's the catch? Where are the strings? What do you need from us? We're kind of like no, this is it, if you have a need, we will meet the need.
Also, I’m seeing a lot of mutual aids right now that are coming out of non-profits. They’re making you write a thesis to explain what your need is and you have to verify and a whole bunch of stuff that is not mutual aid. Our challenge right now is refuting this bastardization of the word mutual aid, of the concept, and trying to make it very clear what it is we are doing. What the eventual goal is.
We're seeing a lot of co-opting the way, the way they always co-opt abolitionist language. They're kinda taking over mutual aid and turning into something very different.
Is there a strategy that you or people you’ve been working with have to keeping mutual aid a radical concept?
We’re actually working on a resource right now to share education. I do political education on my Instagram and I’m working on a story and some graphics that we can just send out to the need population to explain what it is we’re doing and why. I think the only way to refute this bastardization is by educating everyone. I say it all the time but the only way to refute propaganda is with our own propaganda. We need to be strong and consistent with our messaging. That’s the work we’re doing right now.
Long term, what are you hoping to build?
My goal with this mutual aid is to spark the seeds of radicalization with the folks that we're helping. I would love to see some conversation start about a longer term rent freeze or a rent strike in general or a labor strike. I want to see people imagining bigger and better. If we can at least get folks to start having these conversations and start looking for education then I’ll consider this a success.
Who do you learn from?
Off the top of my head I can say Mariame Kaba is a big one. I try to attend like every workshop she hosts in the city. Angela Davis, she's always been a big one. I learn from Black women, Black feminists, Black artists.
I learned from anyone who's like, imagine something better. Who says unapologetically that prisons shouldn't exist, that we can just have all our needs met. Anyone who's offering radical ideas and standing strong in them.
Do you have a north star you follow in your work?
What did bell hooks say? She said love is in act of will both of intention and extension, and I hold that as a personal ethos. All of our politics needs to be rooted in love, radical love, that everyone deserves to live a comfortable life and everyone deserves to have their needs met. All of our work needs to be geared towards taking care of each other whether that's emotionally, spiritually, or physically. Everyone deserves to just be okay.
What We're Reading Social Distancing and Crip Survival: A Disability Centered Response to COVID-19 - Sins Invalid Mutual Aid and Radical Care in the Time of Increased Uncertainty - Wear Your Voice Copwatching during COVID-19 - Justice Committee Community Care Resources and Pod Mapping Resources
About Us Artwork in this edition by Yuri K Interviews conducted by Cheryl R You can reach us or request to join our organizing listserv here, visit our website, and submit events and article/art pitches for future issues here.
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