In the last year, we’ve seen a rise in the visibility of mutual aid in our communities, from informal assistance initiatives, like delivering goods to at-risk neighbors, to more organized groups such as Austin Mutual Aid, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for those experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. 

But while COVID-19 may have pushed mutual aid organizations into the spotlight, their role in communities isn’t new—and it’s far from over. “I think that mutual aid is that access, is the community-building, that will lift so many people out of this,” says Jonathan Van Ness, who shared a deep-dive into the concept on his podcast, Getting Curious. And even if you’re just now hearing about the concept, it’s not too late to get involved.  

“One thing that mutual aid requires is being open to people being on a learning journey,” says Dean Spade, the author of Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), who joins JVN for the podcast episode. “You don’t have to show up already knowing every single thing I know.” Here, we’ll outline the basics of mutual aid as a concept, dive into a brief history of its application in the United States, and look ahead to ways you can get involved in your community. 

What Is Mutual Aid?

Mutual aid is when a community comes together voluntarily to provide for the needs of its members, redistributing resources and exchanging services to make sure each neighbor has what they need to survive. 

Any time you share your assets directly with your community, you’re engaging in mutual aid. But an increasing number of formal mutual-aid networks, such as Crown Heights Mutual Aid in Brooklyn or Denver Community Fridge in Colorado, are gaining visibility lately, too, offering helpful structure to more efficiently direct shared resources to those who need them most. Run entirely by volunteers, these groups build upon the idea that when the needs of each individual are met, the community as a whole can benefit. This symbiotic relationship effectively puts the “mutual” in mutual aid, distinguishing these groups from charities or nonprofits. Rather than being a one-way transaction between a giver and a receiver, mutual aid is an expression of solidarity against the shared challenges faced by a community.

Examples of mutual aid exist in nearly every corner of the world, and the Internet has allowed organizers to expand their influence more widely than ever before. But even as these groups find more prominence and their fundraising power increases, their scope and focus often remain somewhat narrow—and that’s a good thing.

“Mutual aid is based on the theory that we should have decentralized, small projects that maybe are replicating each other’s best practices,” says Spade on Getting Curious. This allows groups to react more quickly to the unique needs of their community. “There’s local wisdom around meeting crises, and it’s all about the people who are in crisis. They’re going to say what they need, and it’s not going to look the same in every single spot with every single group of people,” Spade explains.  “The strength is in the solidarity and networked-ness of all of these small, decentralized things, not in some person or group in the middle saying, ‘This is how it’s done.’” 

How Did Mutual Aid Start?

“The most visible mutual right now is all the mutual aid people are doing around COVID,” explains Spade, citing groups who organized grocery delivery to their at-risk neighbors or set up rent fundraisers for those who couldn’t get government unemployment benefits. But the idea of coming together to help members of the community meet basic needs has been around as long as humans have. 

Many trace the term “mutual aid” to Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin, who outlined his definition of it in 1902’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. In practice, marginalized people and communities of color have led the way on mutual aid programs throughout history. There are records of formal Black mutual aid societies that date back to 1780 when the Free African Union Society was founded in Newport, Rhode Island. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Black Panthers organized health clinics, food pantries, and a free breakfast program that fed thousands of children around the country. Today, many mutual aid networks are informed by these earlier examples of sharing community resources.

How Do I Find a Mutual Aid Network Near Me?

Although there’s no single database cataloging every mutual aid network around the world, plugging in on social media can be a great place to start. Follow organizers in your community and look out for group meetups or calls for donations. 

Remember, donating money isn’t the only way to get involved. Many mutual aid organizations offer ongoing opportunities for willing volunteers. And if you see a need in your community that isn’t being filled, don’t be afraid to start your own mutual-aid network. Below, you’ll find a few resources to help get things off the ground.

Resources for Mutual Aid

“How Can We Show Up for Mutual Aid?”
In this episode of Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness, JVN is joined by Dean Spade to explain how mutual aid works—and how listeners can get involved. 

How to Start a Mutual Aid Group

This step-by-step guide from AARP offers clear direction and helpful tips for anyone considering spearheading a mutual aid initiative. 

So You Want to Get Involved with Mutual Aid 

This crash course from The Cut is a handy guide to understanding how these community efforts work. Along the way, it shouts out several examples of New York-based mutual aid organizations readers can follow.

7 Ways to Meaningfully Stock Your Community Fridge
Bon Appetit shares tips from mutual aid organizers to help your food donation make the greatest impact. 

How Neighborhood Groups Are Stepping In Where the Government Didn’t

The New York Times investigates how mutual aid groups launched in response to COVID-19 are plotting a path forward. 

Many thanks to Jonathan Van Ness for sharing more about mutual aid through this initiative and on his podcast. If you’d like to embark on your self-care journey with JVN, head on over to his new Skillshare Original class today.