Gem, they/them, 25, Brooklyn
Gem is an organizer and vegan chef. Their work centers creating community with Black folk and accessible political education. You can find them as @urdoingreat on Twitter and Instagram.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How did you come up with the mutual aid fund idea for Black folks specifically?
I remember being in my apartment in Brooklyn and getting an email from CUNY - I work for CUNY. The email told us that we weren't to come back to campus, that we would be working from home for the next few weeks and then I got on on Twitter and it was just like students that didn't have anywhere to go. Like “I can't go back to my parents’ house” or “I don't have a parents’ house to go to.” You know, everybody was just very stressed out and then people started losing jobs.
And I got frustrated because like, where's the help? People needed things and I wasn’t sure how to help on a mass scale. I had done some organizing work with BYP100 previously so I had friends and connections there, I had just finished running a fundraiser a few weeks before that for self-defense so I knew that I could use my platforms to raise money.
The first thing I did is I reached out to like organizers that had been doing this organizing work and that are consistent with that. I called a bunch of them. I was like yo, like people need help they're suffering right now and I have a platform. Like I have a megaphone. It wasn't my idea. I didn't come up with it. I said I have this platform but I need your expertise: what can we do to get people the help they need?
The work that I do is always for Black people, always. Going into it my intention wasn't to make a Black folk only mutual aid but the organizers that I work with were, like, off bat, you know, Black New Yorkers will be the most affected and so that's who we want to organize around. Lo and behold, you know a month later Black New Yorkers were the most affected.
I'm working with some really really really dope organizers that have been consistent in doing this work, so when shit hit the fan like we weren't scrambling to put together an infrastructure, there already was an infrastructure, we just had to do the thing.
How do you conceptualize mutual aid?
Mutual aid is an organizing tool. Mutual aid is how we take care of each other's material needs, how we share political education, how we share resources. Mutual aid is about the people caring for each other without involvement from the state while organizing to get the long-term needs met. Like, we are aware that recycling the same $20 between our community is not a long-term strategy so the goal here is okay, like, you need food right now. We will get you food right now but we will also give you the education that you need so that you can come organize with us.
Do you have a particular politic?
Most recently I'm calling myself an anarchist and abolitionist. I think anarchy and abolition go one in hand.
Yeah, I'm seeing a lot of mutual aid work coming out of abolitionist groups. I think if you've been in any abolition work or political education, you’re used to having a dream of a horizon, and that horizon involves building community. I see mutual aid being an abolitionist project.
And that’s what I was talking about before. The infrastructure is already there for many abolitionist groups. We’re already having these conversations and already doing the work to build out these movements, right? Already doing the work to imagine something more. So it’s easy to say, okay, like let’s just take care of everyone’s needs then. Our imaginations are already there. We don’t have to convince anybody that we can do it.
...We built a large coalition with our mutual aid and our ethos was kind of, you know, people can request whatever they want and we will give people whatever they want. Yes we will give people what they need and it will be okay. I find that that’s a trademark of abolitionist groups and I appreciate that about us.
What challenges are y’all facing as you're doing this work?
We’re experiencing a challenge with the need population as well where they’re like what's the catch? Where are the strings? What do you need from us? We're kind of like no, this is it, if you have a need, we will meet the need.
Also, I’m seeing a lot of mutual aids right now that are coming out of non-profits. They’re making you write a thesis to explain what your need is and you have to verify and a whole bunch of stuff that is not mutual aid. Our challenge right now is refuting this bastardization of the word mutual aid, of the concept, and trying to make it very clear what it is we are doing. What the eventual goal is.
We're seeing a lot of co-opting the way, the way they always co-opt abolitionist language. They're kinda taking over mutual aid and turning into something very different.
Is there a strategy that you or people you’ve been working with have to keeping mutual aid a radical concept?
We’re actually working on a resource right now to share education. I do political education on my Instagram and I’m working on a story and some graphics that we can just send out to the need population to explain what it is we’re doing and why. I think the only way to refute this bastardization is by educating everyone. I say it all the time but the only way to refute propaganda is with our own propaganda. We need to be strong and consistent with our messaging. That’s the work we’re doing right now.
Long term, what are you hoping to build?
My goal with this mutual aid is to spark the seeds of radicalization with the folks that we're helping. I would love to see some conversation start about a longer term rent freeze or a rent strike in general or a labor strike. I want to see people imagining bigger and better. If we can at least get folks to start having these conversations and start looking for education then I’ll consider this a success.
Who do you learn from?
Off the top of my head I can say Mariame Kaba is a big one. I try to attend like every workshop she hosts in the city. Angela Davis, she's always been a big one. I learn from Black women, Black feminists, Black artists.
I learned from anyone who's like, imagine something better. Who says unapologetically that prisons shouldn't exist, that we can just have all our needs met. Anyone who's offering radical ideas and standing strong in them.
Do you have a north star you follow in your work?
What did bell hooks say? She said love is in act of will both of intention and extension, and I hold that as a personal ethos. All of our politics needs to be rooted in love, radical love, that everyone deserves to live a comfortable life and everyone deserves to have their needs met. All of our work needs to be geared towards taking care of each other whether that's emotionally, spiritually, or physically. Everyone deserves to just be okay.