A Beginner’s Guide to Mutual Aid

As the world enters its fifteenth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, with 176 million cases and 3.8 million deaths, governments worldwide have been failing to provide adequate support for those affected by the virus. Confronted with this systemic failure, individuals and communities have turned to each other for support, exemplifying a concept known as mutual aid.

Volunteers handing out food at a mutual aid event in Everett, Massachusetts. Via Getty Images.

History of Mutual Aid

Mutual-aid is a concept born from a hybrid of Russian evolutionary theory and anarchist thought, associated most commonly with Peter Kropotkin and his writing of Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Kropotkin developed mutual aid in response to the profound impact of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and its focus on competition. While Kropotkin did not deny society’s elements of competition, he believed that cooperation was at least its equal in the process of evolution, stating that, “The fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community.”

In the United States, outside of churches, mutual aid networks were the most popular form of voluntary association in the US in the mid-19th to early-20th centuries in the absence of government welfare provision. These informal organizations, run by the working class, provided more aid than any other public or private institution. By the turn of the century, mutual aid societies had come to perform a wide variety of vital social functions, many instituting a cradle to the grave system, including orphanages, hospitals with full-time doctors, and a sick leave allowance for every member.

Among the impressive features of these organizations was the democratic political structure they took: committees regularly debated and voted on how funds would be allocated. Also impressive is the diversity of communities that adopted the model: mutual aid societies organized by and for women multiplied especially during the influenza epidemic, with many developing women’s only health centres in the 1930s. All-black mutual aid organizations also grew rapidly, the majority concentrated in New Orleans. There were also a number of Hispanic and indigenous mutual aid networks: in Tampa, two centres were founded in 1905 to care for Cuban and Spanish cigar workers, resembling the cooperative clubs of nineteenth-century Cuba. By 1913, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona all had documented mutual aid networks among Hispanic miners, and across the Southwest, “Sociedades mutualistas” offered support to Indigenous communities.

In 1969, the Black Panther Party began their Free Breakfast Program in Oakland. Within a year, the Panthers were feeding more than 10,000 children every day before school. Expanding across the country, Black Panther chapters added other “survival programs,” including free clothing, groceries and “People’s Free Medical Centers.” The Black Panther Party for Self Defense went on to create over 60 Survival Programs where rank and file members served their communities, “body and soul.” This is the ultimate philosophy of mutual aid — to care for one’s own community where state programs will not.

Solidarity, not Charity

Standing in contrast to conventional methods of charity, mutual aid has been described as being horizontal solidarity in that there is no hierarchy involved, only community. Charities are primarily funded by wealthy individuals or institutions such as corporations and universities — commonly to exempt themselves from taxes — while mutual aid is funded by members from within communities rather than through top-down hierarchies.

Mutual aid aims to create permanent systems of community support and self-determination, as opposed to charity, which creates a temporary system of dependence that will inevitably fail to solve permanent, structural issues. Through mutual aid networks, everyone in a community can contribute their strengths, even the most vulnerable: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Where charity maintains the same relationships of power, mutual aid is a system of reciprocal support.

Mutual Aid in Action

Mutual aid can take many forms, whether through the distribution of goods and services or direct monetary support. An excellent example of the varied forms that mutual aid can take is the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, which was formed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Providing emergency medical care and rebuilding infrastructure, their mobilizations provided much-needed relief after the Haiti Earthquake, and floods and hurricanes in the American South, especially given the inadequate response from local governments.

Community fridges, where food is free and readily accessible to all, have become a common sight on the streets of various major US cities such as Los Angeles and New York City. Bail funds, community organizations that collect money to post monetary bail for incarcerated people, garnered significant attention during this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Similarly, legal support for protesters has been community-funded through decentralized tools such as Venmo and GoFundMe.

Local Mutual Aid

Asian Unification Project: Asian individuals, especially those who are disabled, immunocompromised, or 50+, can request grocery delivery or errand running.

Canadian Muslim Response Network: Anyone in need across Toronto can request emergency kits including non-perishable food items, and essential hygiene and cleaning products.

COVID-19 Resource Map: This tool has up-to-date service listings across Toronto, including food banks, meal delivery programs, community health services and more. Additional layers and details are being updated daily by 211 Toronto.

COVIDhelpTO: Helps frontline workers answer their clients’ most basic questions around financial and housing support. Content in 14 languages: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), Farsi, French, Gujarati, Korean, Punjabi, Somali, Spanish, Tamil, Urdu, and Vietnamese.

The 519 LGBTQ+ Community Centre: Free takeaway meals, 7 days a week 1 pm and 4 pm, Monday to Friday 12:30 pm, 12:30 pm Saturday and Sunday. Location: In front of the Fabarnak Cafe, 519 Church St.

West Neighbourhood House: Help with grocery and pharmacy pickup, friendly calls, social support, information and referral, and other needs emerging in the community. Sign up to volunteer or request help at westnh.org/help. Email mutualaid@westnh.org or call 416–532–4828.

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