What is Mutual Aid?

A Primer by the Climate Justice Alliance

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Principles of Mutual Aid

While folks from neighborhoods that have faced social and environmental injustices or climate disasters may already be quite familiar with mutual aid, for some of us, this is a new term.

Mutual aid consists of the collective actions it takes to support community wellbeing and reaffirm that all lives have inherent value. We all have needs and we are all capable of helping each other to fulfill some of these needs. This approach is distinctively egalitarian and rooted in reciprocity and agency.

A common principle of mutual aid is “solidarity, not charity.” Charity has an inherent imbalance; it moves resources from places of abundance to places deemed as needy, a deficit-based perspective instead of one based on the values and abundance already present within communities. It also places agency in the hands of the “giver” to decide who is most “deserving” of support. In fact, sometimes charity can do more harm than good because often people outside of the community dictate what the community itself needs rather than based on what the community itself knows it needs.

Mutual aid networks often grow from the cracks formed by incohesive public and private sector responses that fail to meet the needs of all people. The lack of a coordinated deployment of resources from national to state and local levels leaves frontline communities no other choice but to gather and share whatever they do have with each other — as the saying goes, “make a way from no way.” The community grows an ecosystem of ways to take care of itself when systems and institutions fail to or even cause them harm.

Right now, this shows up in neighbors setting up meal delivery and grocery schedules for elderly community members or people with disabilities. This shows up in translation of public health resources into multiple languages when municipal agencies fail to do so. This shows up in organizing personal protective equipment donations to local healthcare establishments and sewing masks or creating hand sanitizer to give to neighbors without.

This shows up in volunteers signing up to serve school meals or to serve meals to essential workers. This shows up in people housing displaced folks or people without homes. This shows up in folks organizing to hold the government accountable for its responsibility to meet the needs of the people.

However, we shouldn’t forget that mutual aid has a long history of practice. Free Black populations post-Civil War often had to rely on each other for support. The Black Panthers also had many “survival programs,” intended to develop and fill in the social services that should’ve been provided by the state to underserved Black communities, like free health clinics, providing free breakfasts to school kids, employment and workforce development, and legal aid, to name a few.

Some mutual aid networks in existence today are a result of community responses to recent natural disasters, like Hurricanes Katrina, Maria, Florence, and Harvey, and continue to exist so that neighborhoods remain equipped with a strong social infrastructure to be able to respond to acute crises and rebuild over the long term toward a Just Transition.”

How to Engage in Mutual Aid

Do your research and join efforts instead of starting something new!

Take some time to learn the deep history of mutual aid practices and principles.

Take stock of what you have to offer.

Bring a lot of compassion, for yourself and others.

Be aware of how you show up in a space.

As we all continue to weather this new storm, we hope this will help guide you in the best ways you can support your community and those on the frontlines of our multiple, overlapping crises.

CJA is a national alliance of grassroots communities advancing Just Transition solutions, moving from extreme energy to locally-rooted economies.

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