Mutual Aid Goes Mainstream

Mutual Aid Goes Mainstream

Now that the pandemic has shifted from an immediate to a chronic crisis, organizers have a chance to rethink the political implications of their efforts.

Mutual aid efforts sprang up on campuses across the country to meet people's needs during the pandemic. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Last spring, within hours of the University of Chicago’s announcement that classes would be held online, students created a Facebook group to coordinate mutual aid efforts. Even with finals right around the corner, UChicago Mutual Aid came alive with activity. Students eagerly offered and accepted support in the form of advice, essential supplies like food and moving boxes, and spreadsheets listing leads on resources like housing. 

What I witnessed at my college was just one example of the many mutual aid networks, both college-based and non-college-based, that sprung up across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mutual aid, a radical practice that has been undertaken by marginalized groups for decades, became a mainstream buzzword almost overnight.

Mutual aid efforts often arise during moments of crisis when those in positions of authority fail to help people, and when the importance of grassroots efforts comes into full focus. When the immediate crisis passes, groups may either fizzle out or choose to adapt to a new context.

Today, the UChicago group is still active and boasts a membership of nearly 6,000 on Facebook, but the pace of its posts has slowed down. Scrolling through the public group, you might see questions or requests for help receive just a few responses or none at all, especially if the poster is not a UChicago student.

As the new school year begins, however, there’s still a need for mutual aid. The pandemic revealed inequalities between students on campus that have not gone away. COVID-19 continues to take a toll on many college students, both physically and psychologically. What’s more, temporary measures that were intended to relieve stress—such as colleges choosing to adopt a universal pass/fail grading system—have all but faded away. Though students may no longer be scrambling in the same way they were last spring, many are now struggling to meet a new series of challenges.

To learn how mutual aid groups are approaching their activities as students return to campuses, I spoke to organizers at six different universities. I found that even as donations slow down, many groups are eager to experiment with their structure and broaden the scope of the work they do. Students have found that mutual aid provides a unique way to build solidarity with others both on and off campus.

Carleton Mutual Aid was founded in May 2021 by student organizers with Sunrise Carleton, an environmental justice activist group. They were inspired by a supply drive set up by Carleton College students to help those protesting the police killing of Daunte Wright in a nearby Minneapolis suburb in April. After seeing how students collected funds, food items, medical supplies, and hygiene products for protesters, organizers decided to set up a fund to meet daily needs on their campus.

The mutual aid fund is only open to Carleton students. Requests are filled in a first-come, first-served order. The group doesn’t prioritize based on the type of need, instead choosing to trust that people who make requests for funds would truly benefit from them. So far, the fund has fulfilled students’ requests for things like groceries, travel expenses to and from campus, hospital bills, and sneakers.

The group’s organizers told me they want to challenge the scarcity mindset that pervades campus: the feeling that one will never have enough of something, especially money. They also want to strengthen ties between campus community members. “I feel like the money that goes towards mutual aid blesses someone else in a way,” said Hannah Ward, a Carleton Mutual Aid organizer and second-year student. “Say you get money for your sneakers, then somebody’s like, ‘Oh, I love those sneakers.’ . . . I feel like it enforces a feeling of community.”

The group also wants to promote the importance of wealth redistribution. Mutual aid “means an end or at least a step toward the end of wealth hoarding,” said Ellie Zimmerman, a recent Carleton graduate and former organizer with Sunrise Carleton and Carleton Mutual Aid. “If you have excess, there’s a lot better places that that could be sitting than your trust fund.”

Carleton’s mutual aid group is relatively new. At Georgetown Mutual Aid, which was founded by students Megan Huynh and Binqi Chen in August 2020, organizers have been working long enough to encounter donation fatigue.

Most of the mutual aid organizers I spoke with mentioned a slowdown in donations as the pandemic has continued. In response, groups have tried out a variety of new tactics to solicit contributions, including posting on social media, setting up systems for recurring donations, and expanding their fundraising outreach beyond students to professors.

As an elite private institution, Georgetown has more than its fair share of well-off students. You might expect that proximity to wealth to simplify fundraising efforts, but that isn’t the case, according to Huynh. “We go to school with international royalty’s children or ambassadors’, or TikTok influencers,” she said, “but it is kind of interesting to note who is donating to mutual aid and who isn’t.” Huynh and Chen have found that it’s poorer students—those most in need of assistance from mutual aid themselves—who are the most likely to donate their time and resources. That sentiment was echoed by other organizers.

These conditions present another challenge. “A lot of the people who need aid don’t have the time or energy to organize something like this,” said Mallika Luthar, a University of California, Berkeley student and co-founder of Mutual Aid at Berkeley. As a result, the group contacts relevant student organizations, like environmental groups and low-income support groups, to ensure that students who most need aid are aware of Mutual Aid at Berkeley’s resources. The group is also trying to tap into networks of students involved with tech and business activities on campus, who have access to bigger pools of funding. 

Student mutual aid groups will need to carefully consider how much time and effort to spend wooing potential benefactors. A large donation can go a long way, but it’s important that organizers not forget whom mutual aid is truly for: those who are the most vulnerable during a crisis. Mutual aid as a means to redistribute wealth is a worthy goal, but the practice can only go so far when it relies on the voluntary giving of the rich.

In anticipation of a return to in-person campus life this fall, many organizers are considering how to foster a sense of community both within their mutual aid groups and with other groups on campus. Some are planning social activities, like potlucks and art shows. Others are hoping to expand the services they provide, like teaching people how to apply to federal and statewide programs that provide benefits.

Lily Levin, a co-founder of Duke Mutual Aid (DMA), said that she hopes her group will give members the opportunity to lead political education meetings. DMA’s Instagram is already populated with posts on topics like how mutual aid is connected to LGBTQ+ struggles and how Duke contributed to the gentrification of Durham, the city where it’s located.

DMA’s funding request form has been open to Durham residents and Duke workers as well as students. That allows resources to be redistributed from students, who tend to be wealthier than people who live in the area, to locals. That redistribution is racialized: in recent months, DMA has seen an increasing number of requests from university workers and Durham residents who are Black and brown.

Since its founding in March 2020, DMA has worked closely with groups beyond campus. Organizers received help from a Massachusetts-based group called Mutual Aid of Medford and Somerville. Last summer, in order to streamline its operations, DMA entered into a fiscal sponsorship with local nonprofit Durham Congregations in Action.

In the coming year, DMA wants to build relationships with local organizers and organizations that do work related to food insecurity and food sovereignty. Keeping channels of communication open with organizers and longtime residents is key to expanding the vision of student mutual aid groups and ensuring that their work stays relevant.

Among the groups I spoke with, Mutual Aid at Berkeley’s strategic approach to off-campus community engagement also stood out. Though its funding request form is only to Berkeley students, Mutual Aid at Berkeley works alongside other groups in the Bay Area Mutual Aid Coalition. As a member, the group participates in initiatives like donating water or Gatorade during heat waves, or providing people with gas masks during wildfires.

All of the student organizers I spoke to for this piece emphasized two core tenets of mutual aid: that the practice is not charity, and that it should be rooted in a sense of community. But I was struck by how, at times, their descriptions of their work took on a calculating tone.

One Carleton organizer described their hope that wealthy students would donate and see their donations as “paying back a historical debt.” An organizer with Georgetown termed the structure of their fund the “microgrant model.”

I suspect the occasionally transactional feel of these groups is due to the conditions in which they arose. During the early days of the pandemic, students with UChicago Mutual Aid were focused on giving and getting supplies and advice to as many people as quickly as possible. Given the time crunch, there was no way to focus on doing anything else: the more supplies delivered, the better.

Without a doubt, transactions fill immediate needs and are necessary for short-term survival. But they have limited lifespans: they begin when one party decides to give and end when the other receives what is given. At their worst, transactions are cold, impersonal, and one-and-done. But at their best, transactions can be springboards for deeper relationships that will keep students and community members involved in a mutual aid group even when they don’t need anything, or when they don’t think they have anything to give.

“Mutual aid is a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions,” wrote organizer, lawyer, and mutual aid advocate Dean Spade in 2020. Mutual aid involves people “building new social relations that are more survivable.”

Now that the pandemic has shifted from an immediate to a chronic crisis, organizers have a chance to think about the politics of their work. Though there is no one correct way to do mutual aid, some college organizers are further along in considering how to create new, more survivable social relations than others. They’ve done this through challenging social hierarchies on campus and off, and through recognizing the limits of their approaches.

“I really hope that [the group] outlives us, but perhaps not too long,” Chen of Georgetown Mutual Aid said about the group she co-founded. “I hope that Georgetown picks up on some of our needs,” like groceries and rent, “and fills them so we don’t have to exist. . . . The best-case scenario is that there is no need for Georgetown Mutual Aid.”

I’m inclined to agree with Chen, although I think a world in which a Georgetown Mutual Aid existed and then no longer needed to exist is a better one than a world where the organization never existed in the first place. While the services provided can seem like the most important aspect of mutual aid, especially in an emergency, what we are left with in the end are new relationships. If these groups can survive, they will not only be ready to respond to the next crisis but to use the power they have built to demand more.

Lucia Geng is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, a contributing editor at the South Side Weekly, and Dissent’s college columnist.