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Special Edition - May 8, 2020

What is mutual aid, how do we do it, and what can we learn from it? In Part 3 of our 4-part series on mutual aid, we're talking to organizers on the ground about mutual aid and political education, mutualism, and what's on the horizon.

Part 1
Part 2

Jonathan Soto, he/him, 34, Bronx

Jonathan is doing mutual aid work with the Samelys Lopez campaign and has previously organized with Occupy Sandy and worked in disaster relief after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 


Tell us a little about what you’re seeing as you’re doing mutual aid with Samelys Lopez. Were you involved with Samelys Lopez’s campaign before the pandemic? 


I got involved before. It’s been interesting to see the response, the evolution and focus. Every campaign is experiencing this. A lot of systems are breaking right now, so I think that there has to be not just electorialism, not just social movement organizing. There really are no categories and new ones are going to be created based on meeting material needs. There’s going to be a lot of people who are going to be hungry. It’s interesting to see how the campaigns that have been able to notice that quickly are the ones that have been more connected. We’ve seen a really large growth after Covid-19 of volunteer engagement and support. I think that’s a function of us reaching people in a different way. 


One of the things we’re seeing, for example, with churches - a lot of churches used to be the majority suppliers of food relief in New York City. Churches, mosques, temples. But what happened is that many of their suppliers were restaurants or small food depots that are out of business. So the food supply has been entirely cut off and the problem is that the big food distributors don’t work with or have relationships to accommodate smaller [places]. That's why you start to see the neoliberalization of disaster relief. I’m fearful of that dynamic. 


So yeah it’s about how we counter the neoliberalization of disaster relief and it can’t be just taking photo ops with food. It has to be about the political education that is shared. I think food policy is important, education policy. For example, the city is doing a really shitty job providing parents from public schools with nutritional food access. They’re giving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with chips and apple juice. Those are the meals that the Department of Education is giving out. 


This is the same exact thing that has happened in Puerto Rico and that shows me that austerity has really taken hold everywhere.Our reality is a little more shaky than we realized. Covid is creating new possibilities of political organizing because more people are going to be shocked into awareness.


Re: combatting neoliberalism. How do you make the political connection in mutual aid with groups or spaces that were doing “apolitical” relief work?


We’re going to create educational pathways on food policy for example, right? Like this is the food policy that leads to your child getting bad nutritional outcomes in school. People are really going to pay attention to that now that they’re relying on [the Dept of Education’s meals]. Then you fall into the entire conversation about educational equity. I think that’s the way to do it.


I don't look at politicization here as a pejorative because actually it's a matter of life and death. It’s not electoralism either, right? It’s politicization in the sense of it being how we act in the world and how we distribute resources equitably. I think food will be a radicalizing force. Or at least change people’s engagement with what’s possible. People are going to starve if we don’t.


What challenges are y’all facing in your organizing spaces right now?


Coordination and being able to access supplies. There's price gouging happening with PPE or PPP and I think that speaks to some of the existing gaps. I think part of the social safety net situation. We don't have a social safety net. Therefore essential supplies become shaped by market forces to be inaccessible. So price gouging is going to happen so it's been hard for us to get masks and gloves. 


Another challenge is the point of distribution - what's most efficient right and how do you define efficient allocation of resources? If you do deliveries to people's homes that requires like 400 volunteers, whereas if you just do a big drop-and-go that could take two or three volunteers. The problem is that by doing what is most efficient, you’re actually leaving out the most vulnerable. That’s been a challenge because you have to challenge the logic of capitalism but it’s hard to do when you have only 30 volunteers and a limited amount of time.  


I think that's the tension there and that's why we need to talk more about this and have spaces that are intentional about organizing being able to sift some of this through. And make sure that directly impacted folks are the ones organizing as well. I think that’s critical because if not then it’s just parachuting in and gentrifying mutual aid. 


Are you having a lot of people from impacted communities participating in your mutual aid?


We have folks with disabilities that are part of our leadership that are also going hungry so it's hit close to home. I think that’s created an urgency around what this looks like. There's been instances where we've delivered to a pastor and they’ve connected us to a congregant who has said absolutely I'd love to help out with my building or my tenant association. It’s happening.


There’s a lot of folks that are organizing data and organizing mapping and categorizing networks and that's great. I think the act of delivering - even though it’s contactless - that being out there and engaging in the act itself, something happens. Something happens and people then come back to volunteer more and more.


What do you think is on the horizon? Is this the moment where big change happens? 


I think the frequency at which crises are hitting is becoming faster. Looking at that trend, we need to rearrange our society. People really have to be flexible. I see degrowth as a key element here. Our economy is based on unfettered growth and we could see that with everything stopping, the earth is breathing again, it's like a lung that's able to breathe.


I do think there is going to be a strain of nationalism or fascism - like, a techno-fascism, so I've been part of Zoom conversations that have introduced a different type of trolling that is very dangerous. We're going to be increasingly virtualized and the virtual world is the easiest place for totalitarianism to take place. We have to be very careful about that. I think mutual aid is important because it’s going to force us to interact in physical space but I see a greater shift into virtual space and I’m concerned about how we communicate through these spaces.


If you do mutual aid with political education and that becomes a tool of liberation then the Trump administration can easily have the NSA or whoever monitor people’s mutual aid engagements. The Young Lords faced that, the Panthers faced that. 


It’s going to be very chaotic and a lot of crisis. It’s more important than ever to strengthen these networks and be committed to their development and scale them.


Who do you learn from? 


I really get inspired by a lot of the student activists in Puerto Rico. I spent a lot of time the last four or five years in Puerto Rico, especially after Hurricane Maria and they've been facing austerity. Austerity is wild but there's like a sense of joy and hopelessness. I think that's the kind of spirit that's needed in the next couple of years as capitalism is dying out because I think that’s what is happening. It’s dying out.


Do you have a north star or guiding principle? 


I’ve been reading more and more adrienne maree brown's Emergent Strategy. “What you pay attention to grows” is something I’ve been very much trying to pay attention to. What we focus on is what develops, that is a superpower we have.


A lot of leftism I’m seeing right now is very reactionary. I think there’s something beyond reaction we can do, something affirmative, something creative. I think that’s a process of decolonization. Me going back to Puerto Rico in the last three or four years has opened up an entire different space for me that's beyond Western ways of crafting meaning.


I’m trying to pay attention.


Donate to Mutual Aid Funds

Simone Norman, she/her, 27, Brooklyn

Simone is an NYC DSA member and has volunteered for Bernie Sanders and worked for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She's currently organizing around mutual aid in DSA spaces and with the Crown Heights Mutual Aid neighborhood collective.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 


What definition of mutual aid do you feel aligned to? 


The one I feel most aligned to is not necessarily the one that’s being done in practice, and that's okay because what is being done is, you know, good. I don’t think anyone would ever argue that  grocery delivery for folks who are food insecure is anything other than good. It's good but the definition of mutual aid that resonates the most with me would be something more in the spirit of true mutualism. When we say resource and goods exchange that is reciprocal, you know, resources and goods would be flowing in both directions.


Right now you have a lot - not only - but mostly white Millennials and gentrifiers who are basically doing a wealth distribution where they donate their money and labor to folks in need in their neighborhood who are facing income and food insecurity. That is great. No one's knocking that, and we need a big wealth redistribution and that's for sure, but it's not mutual aid. It’s a decentralized form of charity that is better than the bourgeois non-profit industrial complex kind of charity. But it's still not mutual aid.


I think what's the most helpful way to approach these forms of “mutual aid” is to not pretend that they are upholding mutualism as much as they could be, and work continually to try to develop relations with the folks we're serving to be able to foster trust in the community and enable future reciprocal community exchange. 


Keeping it centralized, keeping it horizontal, and trying to keep it as mutual as possible without letting it get co-opted by opportunists or 501c mafia or the like.

What do the conversations around mutual aid look like right now? 


For me, with Crown Heights mutual aid, we had an all-hands call both days of the weekend where we workshopped what is our collective goal in this mutual aid, what are we doing that upholds the spirit of that, what are we doing that detracts from that? How can we identify the ways we’ve fallen short? 


It was a really generative conversation, it was really cool. The racial implications of the young, privileged white people serving older communities of color is not in any way lost on those participating. The first step of this is identifying it.


We’re going to make sure we follow up with people. A drop off of groceries and checking someone off your list and never engaging with them again is basically charity. Just delivering food and saying bye doesn’t foster a relationship or establish trust in the community. Folks don’t think of us as leftist who are doing mutual aid work, they think we’re a food pantry. To follow up and make a phone call, to check in on the folks that we assist is absolutely crucial.  


Building that relationship is power. And we can't write off these families and these folks as unable to contribute anything back. Yeah, maybe they might be strapped right now but their connections in the community, their existence there matters. We build horizontal power where we live.


Are you seeing a direct connection from mutual aid to your other organizing work? 


I am not an anarchist, I want to build communism with a party or whatever. But right now what matters what is what you can do locally. Right now delving into this work [in a way] I haven’t previously beyond a basic understanding of ‘it sounds good’ - what I’ll forever take with me is not taking relationships you build for granted.


Local collectives of neighbors who are working towards the betterment of their shared spaces and shared well-being -  the power there in those relationships is that once trust is established you can start to talk about more than groceries. You can talk about ‘has your boss been doing this’ or ‘I just got laid off’. What’s going on in the building with rent, is there a strike? Childcare. Whatever! 


As soon as you establish that connection you open up a whole world of possibility for people to build power together and plug into sites of struggle that you and your neighbors are both experiencing together. This is an organic crisis, and it’s all connected. The state is failing. I view the United States as a failed state and I’m not afraid to say it. 


Are there things you’ve learned doing mutual aid? 


I’ve learned you should never assume that somebody is not going to be interested in politics or engaged in the politics of their lives. I put notes on my neighbors’ doors, basically if anyone needed anything there is my phone number and if anyone wants to talk about rent strike. I fully expected that no one would respond and I was incredibly heartened that no, not everyone responded but a fair amount of folks did. It opened up an entire world of connection and relationships that I previously didn’t [have].


I’ve seen it happen with friends or other organizers. People say ‘oh no one is going to want to do this or go with me.’ All that stuff. To write someone off like that before giving them the chance to engage with it is not wise.


What are relationships like with other mutual aid groups? 


Everyone just really wants to show each other the best practices, the pitfalls, everyone has been eager to share resources. Crown Heights Mutual Aid formed because Bedstuy Strong was so successful and took us under their wing and developed us. We were able to do the same for Flatbush United and Brownsville. So it spreads like that.


Everyone also can agree that we should be complicating the idea of mutual aid and what we’re doing, and we should racialize it and consider all of the class, race, age divides going on here. We won’t bury our heads in the sand and just say it’s good to give hungry people food and keep it apolitical. Some people may mean that but mostly everyone seems on board with self critique. All of these groups will probably collapse after the pandemic or they might be incorporated into the non-profit industrial complex if they don’t get serious now about politicizing and critiquing their work on the fly.


Who influences you? 


You, the rest of Abolition Action, my comrades in Emerge. Definitely the people I organize alongside. Yeah, I’m inspired by, like, Rosa Luxemburg and revolutionaries and radical agitators. Fred Hampton. I love theory which is annoying and embarrassing. But nothing inspires me like seeing one of my fellow organizers leaping into an initiative on a project and just sounding so smart and self-assured. When you talk to them they say ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m just doing it.’ It really reminds that doing the kind of work you admire and respect - you might as well just start.


Do you have a north star or guiding principle? 


My north star that I do not follow enough is to not jump the gun. Don’t jump the gun. It’s something I do so fast cause I’m a people pleaser. I’ll jump in and say I’ll volunteer or I’ll speak first or answer the question first or bottom-line this. You take up too much space that way. In general it’s good practice to let others take up space.

What We're Reading

Dean Spade's Mutual Aid Chart

From Mutual Aid to Dual Power in the State of Emergency - ROAR Magazine
Solidarity can Save the Planet - New Republic

Community Care Resources and Pod Mapping Resources

About Us

Artwork in this edition by Yuri K
Interviews conducted by Cheryl R

You can reach us or request to join our organizing listserv here, visit our website, and submit events and article/art pitches for future issues here

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