What’s the future for mutual aid in New York City?

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In New York City, the pandemic has reawakened the tradition of mutual aid, and groups have formed to deliver groceries, stock community fridges, and meet the needs of neighbors. Recently this has come to include helping folks schedule and get to appointments to receive Covid-19 vaccines. Unlike government agencies, traditional non-profits, or charitable organizations, mutual aid is built to bend and flex with the moment—a much needed model of support in a rapidly changing, unpredictable time.

We spoke with mutual aid societies in and around Brooklyn to ask how their work has evolved over the past year, and those conversations were so rich and interesting that we’ve written a series of stories for you—this one about the transformational power of mutual aid in New York City, Q&As with two people who have worked closely with Crown Heights Mutual Aid and with Woodbine in Ridgewood, Queens over the past year. And a piece about how Gowanus Mutual Aid is far more than just a free store.

A radical safety net

Historically, mutual aid projects have emerged when there is need that outpaces existing safety nets, or where none exist. Black mutual-aid societies formed in cities around the country starting in the early 19th century as formerly enslaved people sought to build new lives without any institutional support or protection. Immigrant groups welcomed new arrivals to the U.S. though mutual aid that assisted with housing, employment, and English language skills. During the Spanish flu, pandemic mutual aid multiplied, and the labor movement was heavily influenced by mutual aid and fraternal organizations that the working class long relied on for sick leave, health insurance and pensions.

This ethos has very much been in play during the pandemic. Conditions have changes so rapidly that mutual aid has been well positioned to help people directly. And that’s the point. “We’re not waiting for the government to do it, or waiting for some non-profit, humanitarian charitable organization to come save us ,” says Matt Peterson from Woodbine, a Ridgewood-based group that pre-dated Covid. 

For communities that have long been ill-served by government, the resurgence of mutual aid offers a welcome alternative to business as usual. “We’re not just depending on the government,” says Tiane Goines, a NYC-based artist and creative, and a member of Gowanus Mutual Aid. “They can be disappointing sometimes. Even if they do something like to contribute back to the community, they don’t get it.”  That approach to mutual aid has an extensive, and colorful, history in New York.

In 1969, Puerto Rican activists in Spanish Harlem known as the Young Lords asked their neighbors what they needed. The answer? Better service from the Department of Sanitation. The went to the local sanitation office to make an official request and were asked to leave. So they started cleaning up, bagging trash and sweeping the streets. Still, no trash pick-up. After the Young Lords piled the trash they had collected in the middle of the street, the police came. When they set the piles on fire, the media showed up, the mayor responded, and city trash trucks started serving the neighborhood. “If we didn’t have the support of the community, we couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of months,” Hiram Maristany, one of the Young Lords told The New York Times. “They really protected us.”

While the pandemic has once again brought mutual aid into the spotlight as a form of grassroots community empowerment, some critics argue that it’s most useful in showing us where the social safety net needs reinforcing, rather than serving as the net itself on a permanent basis. “Most on the left likely do not want to replace what remains of our welfare state with a gift economy,” Joanna Wuest writes in The Nation. Her article points out that historically the most successful mutual-aid efforts started as informal networks of care and inspired systems of institutional support—working class pension groups faded after FDR signed the Social Security Act in 1935. “By the start of FDR’s Second New Deal in 1935, the mutual-aid society had been superseded by a new nexus of state and social institutions more capable, protective, and widespread than any voluntarist variant that came before it,” she writes.

Mutual aid work is not charity work

“Solidarity, not charity!” is a motto for mutual aid groups, and it purposefully implies that charity is a less effective means of caring for our communities.

Ava Cotlowitz, an elementary school art teacher, and founding member of Gowanus Mutual Aid, explained why focusing on donations and volunteering can be problematic: “If someone is giving a resource, whether it’s money or time or skill, their individual experience of giving doesn’t define who the group is,” Cotlowitz said. “I think that is really radical for people to wrap their minds around because a lot of volunteerism revolves around whiteness and othering and me-versus-you. The mutuality and the reciprocity of mutual aid says that you could give something one day and need something the next. In our group, we’re making decisions from both sides of the coin, from both needing support and giving support, and that binary is fluid. It’s hard to think about it that way sometimes.”

It’s easy to nod your head along with that explanation, and more difficult to really let it sink in. If you listened to the podcast Nice White Parents, then you can recall the tension around a gala thrown by the fundraising committee at the French Embassy to fund the school’s French program. It was a successful fundraiser that brought the socioeconomic differences in the school, and access to power, into sharp relief. 

Donating and volunteering are usually in service of specific goals—a new soccer field, Thanksgiving dinner, a middle-school French program. Mutual aid is more about working with people you are somehow connected to, by location, profession, or identity, and creating a network of support, whether that’s a pension fund paid for by dues, or stepping in to provide an essential neighborhood service that has been unmet. It seeks to create a web of interdependence, rather than to replicate the same power dynamics that make charity necessary in the first place.

Flexing with the needs of the neighborhood

The many mutual-aid groups that have emerged during the pandemic will, in time, leave their own legacies of cooperation and change in a city that has struggled with gentrification and inequality for many years. As we move forward into a new phase of the pandemic—the long tail of recovery—mutual aid will again flex and bend to best fill the needs of the neighborhood.

We find that every time we ask folks what they’re interested in, and receiving support from, or getting involved with, there is always more that can be done,” says Lawrence, who preferred to give only a first name, of Fort Greene Clinton Hill Mutual Aid. “A good example of this, we started off as food security as our first thing we did, with delivering directly to folks’ homes, but quickly found that that was only the very tip of the iceberg and even how that has evolved has changed. It’s become much more a mix of delivering to homes as well as directing money to folks so they can shop for themselves. In the summer, we saw folks asking about AC units. We asked neighbors who might have available AC units that they might be planning to throw away or didn’t need to use more anymore, and asked them to divert those to those who were in need.”

Some mutual aid groups will continue on as neighborhood-based efforts, and others will transform into larger programs in partnership with other organizations—which is already starting to happen.

“We’ve done more partnerships with other groups or at least supporting actions at the Crown Heights Tenant Union,” says Catherine Zhang of  Crown Heights Mutual Aid. “We do education workshops, all of those things like that. So now that we are at a time where we can see maybe the end of the pandemic, we are thinking about how maybe we can shift our model from the original kind of crisis response delivery option to whatever else is needed.”

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