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.