Mutual Aid Case study 1

Things at our weekly Mutual Aid free food project didn’t go as usual. Which is a good illustration of how and why Mutual Aid works so well.

Every Saturday morning my Des Moines Mutual Aid group comes to Trinity Las Américas United Methodist Church in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. There we continue the free food program that was started by the Black Panthers in the 1960’s. see: Feeding the hungry

When I arrived, there were a number of people already in the basement, none of whom I knew. And the tables were set up differently. Someone asked me if I was with Des Moines Mutual Aid, introducing himself as Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz, pastor of the church. Several months ago Ronnie James asked if I knew Alejandro, saying he was an amazing organizer (which was something coming from someone who is a great organizer himself).

Alejandro told me they were running a COVID vaccine clinic this morning. And that he had spoken to Ronnie about the change. Just then Ronnie arrived and said Alejandro was going to show him where to find the tables for us to use.

Now this is a small thing but illustrates the flat hierarchy that is the basis of Mutual Aid. Rather than Ronnie telling me to come with him, he started up the steps with Alejandro. It was up to me to decide if I should go along. I went with them to the THIRD floor where the tables were. We began to fold up the legs and carry the tables down. Others joined us as we went back up for more. They laughed when I said we were getting our cardio workout.

We set these tables up in the yard of the public school across the street from the church, eventually setting up about 25 of them. Although it had rained earlier we were blessed the rain held off for the rest of the morning.

It’s kind of magical how the food boxes are created. When we begin there might be about a dozen empty boxes. So we put the food that will eventually end up in a box in piles on the table itself. Then as each box of food to be distributed is emptied, that becomes a box to fill with one of the piles of food sitting on the table. Eventually there are usually enough boxes for all the piles of food. In the rare times that hasn’t worked out, plastic bags are used for the remainder.

There are often a few minutes of rest between the arrival of food to be distributed from various sources. We share our stories, getting to know each other better. We’re all wearing masks, so it can take a second to figure out who you’re talking to. You have to be careful about what you share on social media because law enforcement scans for that kind of information.

I met person 1 four or five months ago. He had been otherwise occupied and hadn’t been at the church for some time. But I read about the work he was doing for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. And I’d seen him “like” my photos sometimes. This morning he said he enjoyed the photos of the deer I posted on Facebook yesterday. He introduced me to a young person who wanted to become involved in Mutual Aid. I later heard from someone else, who themselves (person 2) had been arrested at a Des Moines City Council meeting, that person 1 had been arrested, also. And that he had been hurt in the process.

Person 2 said the police were much rougher than they needed to be. She was targeted for arrest because she was videotaping what was going on. When I asked if they took her phone, she told me she had arranged for another person to take it if it looked like she was going to be arrested. So the police didn’t get her phone. Good to plan ahead.

Despite the fact that we needed to totally rearrange our process, we were ready for the cars to come down the line to pick up the food at the designated time of 10 o’clock.

While the food was being distributed, some of us began to clean and fold up the tables, and carry them back up to the third floor of the church.

As I was getting ready to leave, Ronnie asked if the tables had gotten back to their original locations. Just checking that we all had done our part in cleaning up.

I hope this shows how we stay connected through multiple means.

This is how Mutual Aid works. Being able to adapt. Taking your own initiative. Maintaining a flat hierarchy. Sharing stories. Sharing the joy.


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