WORDS AND ART BY JAYDRA JOHNSON
The pandemic showed us the value of mutual aid, but don’t be fooled. Mutual aid is not a trend—and it could be key to addressing the climate crisis.
The term “mutual aid” re-entered the zeitgeist this past year as people mobilized en masse to pull each other through a rash of once-in-a-lifetime catastrophes. When the pandemic hit, regular folks—often total strangers—united to meet the litany of novel, urgent needs that existing institutions could not, relying on a simple organizing concept: “Give what you can, take what you need.” Thousands of groups coalesced seemingly overnight to organize food banks, prevent evictions, and provide personal protective equipment to the most vulnerable. Later, when police brutality reached a fever pitch or unprecedented forest fires rocked the West, mutual aid groups continued to form and flourish amid disaster. Such aid became so commonplace that it even generated buzz in mainstream media.
But this type of organizing is not a trend. Mutual aid groups demonstrate the power communities have to respond to tragedy at a moment’s notice, but they also exemplify an invaluable approach to addressing more chronic 21st century issues. Building on the momentum generated by all the organized, collective care of the past year could be the key to responding to—and even solving—the climate crisis.
You’ve probably seen mutual aid’s de-facto slogan on an Instagram infographic: “Solidarity, not charity.” But what does it mean? As Dean Spade, legal activist and professor at the Seattle University School of Law who wrote a book on mutual aid last year, explains on his website, “Mutual aid is the radical act of caring for each other while working to change the world.”
Scholars and organizers like Spade point out that mutual aid is key to our ability to survive life-threatening conditions, such as those caused by climate change, because institutions can be slower to act than community (think waiting for those stimulus checks versus borrowing cash from a friend). They can also reproduce oppressive power dynamics through barriers like eligibility requirements and complex applications.
That doesn’t mean mutual aid and government can never work together. While there is often tension between the two groups, cooperation between them is usually already happening, said Dr. Samantha Montano, self-proclaimed disasterologist and assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
“Our emergency management system is designed to have nonprofits and grassroots groups be a central player in the response,” she told Atmos in a previous interview. “Sometimes, when we see mutual aid groups passing out food or bottles of water, it can feel like we’re witnessing a failed government response—and sometimes that is true—but sometimes the government is expecting that nonprofits and other groups are fulfilling those needs.”
The idea is that with immediate needs filled by the community itself, institutions can focus on longer-term, larger-scale projects. Meanwhile, mutual aid groups can continue to grow their own capacity and even push for policy and procedural changes at all levels of government.
People on the margins have long used mutual aid as a tool. The most well-known mutual aid group is probably the Black Panther Party, whose strategy for political change included providing free breakfast and health care for local communities. But fewer know about the Young Lords Garbage Brigade in New York City, which forced city officials to deal with one of the biggest environmental justice issues in late-1960’s Harlem: mountains of trash. A group of young Puerto Ricans organized weekly community clean-ups before eventually mounting a successful campaign that forced the sanitation department to start cleaning the streets. The Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation was an anonymous band of “Janes” that helped women access safe abortions in Chicago from 1969 to 1973 before Roe v. Wade. And then there was the Chicken Soup Brigade, a meal delivery, errand, and companionship service that salved the pain of those dying alone during the AIDS crisis in Seattle during the 1980s and ’90s.
For many, the climate crisis feels more hopeless and huge than any issue we’ve yet faced. Luckily, a diverse array of mutual aid groups is already creating replicable models for how to tackle our shared environmental chaos, one community at a time.
Nihi K’é Baa’ Mutual Aid, which is part of the Indigenous Mutual Aid Network, works to restore tribal health through decolonizing their food system, building traditional housing, and protesting fossil fuels on the Navajo Nation and across North America. To organizers Kim Smith and Makai Lewis, mutual aid is more than a response to injustice. It is a way of life. After all, the New Mexico-based group’s name means “for our relatives” in the Diné language.
“It’s who we are. We take care,” Lewis explained, speaking of a “we” that includes a broad swath of Indigenous kith and kin. “We try to be a good relative to all—the five-fingered, the animals, the plants, the waterways, and the elements. We also see it as a responsibility.” To them, the stakes could not be higher; environmental justice is a matter of survival. Settler colonialism and its consequences has been robbing their people (and relatives) of life, land, and livelihood for generations. “We don’t have any other choice,” Smith said.
Nihi K’é Baa’ started doing mutual aid work six years ago, and since then, it has supported a dizzying number of Indigenous community care projects. One local mutual aid project is their hogan-building society, which addresses the lack of adequate housing on the reservation while reducing emissions through sustainable building practices. Hogans are off-grid traditional homes and ceremonial structures made from mud, wood, and stone.
“When we build the hogans, we are rebuilding and healing ourselves,” Lewis said. “We are re-equipping ourselves with cultural knowledge.” According to Lewis, such cultural knowledge insists on a return to ancestral ways, which may include living as a tight-knit community in low-carbon tiny homes.
The group also practices traditional foodways that provide alternatives to machine-intensive farming. To top it off, Nihi K’é Baa’ allies with other Indigenous resistance groups to fight resource extraction and pollution.
In spring 2020, Nihi K’é Baa’ showcased mutual aid’s flexibility when it quickly pivoted from its usual work of building hogans and fighting resource extraction to providing aid specific to the pandemic. During COVID-19, the group has mostly redistributed water, food, and firewood to those in need on the reservation.
During the last hurricane season, Louisiana alone saw five major storms, a record-setting number. Enter Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, a network that has been coordinating relief after superstorms since 2016. After Hurricane Laura in 2020, the network distributed supplies, such as herbal medicines, and helped repair and rebuild homes, said Jimmy Dunson, cofounder of the collective. “We also have a solar trailer so that, without city grid networks, people can still have access to electricity,” he said. Food, shelter, health care, and power are often the most time-sensitive needs after a storm, and mutual aid groups are uniquely suited to fill them due to their ability to quickly leverage pre-existing community relationships.
Mutual aid is crucial to a just disaster response. “When we go to housing projects and trailer parks, people always ask, Where is FEMA and Red Cross? We haven’t had any help.” Dunson explained. People can fall through the cracks waiting for institutional support. Mutual aid fills in those gaps.
When the network isn’t helping communities recover from storms, it still remains active pre-positioning supplies and infrastructure in places where disaster is forecast or networking with other groups. “Community organizing is the best form of disaster preparedness,” Dunson said. “The more we can all be involved in social movement organizing and ongoing mutual aid projects, the more fertile the ground will be for a people-powered disaster response to blossom once a disaster does happen. The relationships we cultivate are our strongest source of resilience.”
Like Nihi K’é Baa’, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief also provides direct support to frontline communities, such as those at Standing Rock and Line 3, that are pushing back against the very resource extraction—fracking, mining, and logging, for example—that makes climate chaos worse. “We see that type of organizing as preventing future disaster,” Dunson explained.
You might expect a group of emergency responders to be cynical, but Dunson is the opposite. He radiates hope, even when discussing what he knows will be a difficult future: “We understand the precarity of our political and economic systems, let alone our climate reality. Given that, now is the time to build connections and start building infrastructure so that we can meet each other’s needs.”
Help Without Hesitance
Climate calamity came again to Texas this past February, when a freak snowstorm hit Dallas, Austin, and the surrounding areas. Nearly 4.5 million homes and businesses were left to weather the storm with no power. Kirby Lynch, cofounder of North Texas Rural Resilience (NTRR), a mutual aid group that focuses on rural Texans living in poverty, found herself ankle-deep in snow outside the RV where she lives with her family, scrambling to fill aid requests remotely while most stores, restaurants, community organizations, and roads were closed.
Then, a mutual aid miracle happened: NTRR was mentioned in a widely shared graphic about the storm, and contributions poured in from all over the country. “We made $30,000 in three days.” Mostly, the group saw smaller donations of $10 to $20, Lynch said, adding how powerful it was to see those small contributions build to an amount that could make a huge difference for the community. “I had never seen this much money, ever.”
What happened next demonstrates how mutual aid can help communities bounce back from climate events quickly and effectively. According to Lynch, community members alerted NTRR to a problem in Aledo, a rural town just outside Fort Worth, where about 200 school-age children and their families were without water access for days after the storm ruined their private wells, water pump systems, and pipes. Armed with those financial donations, NTRR went door-to-door checking on people, connecting families to volunteers providing free services (like plumbers), and also offering instant cash support.
“One day, we had around $8,000 in a little lockbox, and we just went around handing out cash to these houses,” Lynch remembered. “A couple of hundred dollars was literally changing their entire month or next couple of months. The government is not gonna do that!”
Besides helping after storms, NTRR takes a holistic no-questions-asked approach to community care. They bring folks together online to help feed and house each other. Their mutual aid work regularly includes sending free groceries and household necessities to those in need and holding public education trainings on gardening, native ecology, and more. One day, they hope to acquire some land to farm cooperatively, too.
Like other mutual aid organizers, Lynch is optimistic despite the challenges: “The power of the collective blows me away every time.”