What is Mutual Aid

April 25, 2021
By Annika Prager, Jimmy Haas, Maryam Shariat Mudrick

What is Mutual Aid?

Mutual aid is a form of collective action that seeks to meet people’s immediate needs with no strings attached. It exists to meet people’s survival needs, build solidarity, and facilitate community-based problem solving. On the community level, mutual aid groups are able to address immediate needs by linking neighbors with resources in a symbiotic web of support. On the macro level, mutual aid has the capacity to address large systemic issues like racism, food insecurity, and climate change through their established connections on the local level. Thus, in a world that prioritizes competition, individualism, and hoarding of wealth, it is a radical act to engage in mutual aid.[1]

How did mutual aid begin?

While the act of human beings cooperating for the good of the community has existed since before civilization, the term “mutual aid” was popularized by Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 essay, “Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.” Through his research on certain animals and his studies on human history and sociology, he argued that cooperation among groups was as influential, if not moreso, than competition in guiding the evolution of a species. He saw that animals worked together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the group, which ensured its survival and the continuation of their line. Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen a huge influx in the number of groups identifying as “mutual aid.” Despite this recent popularity, mutual aid has always existed in indigenous and BIPOC communities, and will continue to exist long after this pandemic is over.

Which groups and communities have historically been doing the work of mutual aid?

Mutual aid is born out of the idea that we already have the tools and knowledge to care for each other. It is important to acknowledge that the concept of mutual aid has always existed in indigenous communities, queer communities, and communities of color. Often, marginalized or minority groups have used mutual aid organizations when government either failed or refused to assist those in the greatest need. Left to fend for themselves, the people of the community stepped forward and did what needed to be done.

Examples of Mutual Aid from History

Groups of people have worked together for the benefit of their community in varying levels of official recognition throughout human history. Because there are no barriers to receiving support, mutual aid groups are able to be intersectional. Devoid of the resources and infrastructure provided to white and straight communities, Black trans communities have historically relied on one another for support. From the founding of trade unions, to the West African concept of sou-sou, to many of the Native American tribes, to relief camps set up after disasters such as the San Francisco earthquake or Hurricane Katrina, to the free breakfast programs set up by the Black Panthers, to the Zapatistas in Mexico, humans have always worked together for the greater good.

What is the difference between mutual aid and charity?

Mutual aid seeks to democratize power and access to resources. In a Mutual Aid mindset, everyone has something to offer and may have something they need. Typically in mutual aid there is no major "eligibility" check to access resources support and the individuals who "do the work" are self-organized and operate in a non-hierarchical structure. This is in contrast to charity, which perpetuates a mindset of "haves and have nots" and restricts access to power and resources by requiring people to meet certain criteria or jump through certain hoops to access support. Most often charities work in a very hierarchical structure.
[1]: Dean Spade, “Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity during This Crisis (and the next),” in Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the next) (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2020), pp. 7-8.