What I don’t know about Mutual Aid

Disclaimer: Before getting to that, I think I should make a disclaimer, especially since I shared the 2021 Peace and Social Concerns report of my yearly meeting, Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). I included that because Mutual Aid is mentioned in the report. “These injustices are some of the effects of systems of white supremacy. The concept of Mutual Aid is becoming an increasingly used model for communities working for justice. The idea is to have a horizontal hierarchy, where everyone has a voice. And work to ensure a vertical hierarchy does not develop. Without a vertical hierarchy, there can, by definition, be no superiority. Several of our meetings are supporting existing Mutual Aid communities or considering creating their own. These are opportunities to begin to disengage from the colonial capitalist system and white supremacy. Ways we can model justice in our own meetings and communities.”

But that doesn’t mean what I’ve been writing on this blog has been approved by the Yearly Meeting.

What I do know about Mutual Aid comes from my two years of experience with Mutual Aid in Des Moines.

I met Ronnie James, and Indigenous organizer and now close friend, when he came to a vigil we held in February 2020 in support of the Wet’suwet’en people’s struggles to prevent the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through their territories. He came because he wanted to know who was supporting the Wet’suwet’en, because their struggles were not being covered in the mainstream media. That was a good organizing strategy, a way to find allies.

Because of the COVID pandemic, he and I didn’t meet in person for several months. But during that time, he was very generous in teaching me about his work with Des Moines Mutual Aid (DMMA). I quickly saw there was much more to Mutual Aid than just distributing free food, or propane tanks for the houseless in winter. I could also tell the people involved in DMMA were very careful about who they associated with because they were on the police radar, so to speak. Several had been arrested, some several times, as they demonstrated to support Des Moines Black Liberation’s protests of police violence after the killing of George Floyd.

But after months of email exchanges, I felt we were getting to know each other well enough that I could ask if it would be appropriate to participate in his work. I knew it was important for allies to be careful about inviting ourselves into situations in ways that are not appropriate.

Fortunately, he said yes, and I have been participating in the food distribution part of Des Moine Mutual Aid nearly every Saturday morning since (for more than a year).

I thought I would see how this worked for a few weeks, and that might be the end of it. But I found the actual experience of being present in this community taught me so much that words written in emails could not.

When I arrived that first morning, apprehensive about what might happen, I was told this was Mutual Aid, which meant all of us were encouraged to take any food we wanted, ourselves. For many weeks I did not take any, but finally realized that was a mistake. It was like I wasn’t really buying into the mutual part of this. I realized this when one of my new friends, in a friendly manner, asked why I wasn’t taking any food. Now I do.

I also witnessed the truly uplifting way every volunteer greeted each car of people who came for the food. It was always, “hi, how are you doing? Have a great day.”

I also saw this insistence of avoiding any kind of vertical hierarchy. No one said, “do this, do that…”. When there was a problem, anyone with a solution was expected to just do it. Or when the van of food arrived, someone would say “the van is here” and whoever wasn’t doing something else would just go out and help unload the food.

Also, one of my new friends who volunteered to help with the food distribution told me she was once in the position of needing the food herself.

And I know my friends always show up. As they did yesterday, New Year’s Day, with a wind chill of -11 degrees. As we had on Christmas day the week before.

So a new person has to learn a new way of working together. Learn how to act in a situation where you aren’t told what to do by someone above you in a vertical hierarchy. To learn to be always aware of what is going on around you. See if there is something that needs to be done, then do it yourself.

Multiple times I’ve heard someone say these Saturday mornings together are the best part of their week. I feel that, too. That’s one of the important parts of Mutual Aid. We are enthusiastic about this work. It pulls people in when they are doing something that has an immediate impact.

This is one of the many reasons I’m encouraging Friends and others to learn about, create and participate in Mutual Aid. Most of the Quaker meetings I’m aware of have dwindling numbers of people attending their meetings. And we don’t attract many/any young people or Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC).

I’ve thought we should have more workcamps, as we did when I was growing up. Those were experiences people appreciated. Mutual Aid can be the answer today.

But there is a more fundamental reason to adopt Mutual Aid. We need to accept that our political and economic systems are failing. Are not meeting our needs. “We” being those of us fortunate to have had livable incomes. Those who don’t have known the failure of these systems their entire lives. We have no choice but to come up with alternatives. I believe Mutual Aid is one alternative.

Finally, we get to what I don’t know about Mutual Aid. The key to Mutual Aid is for everyone in the community to be involved in the work. But most of us live some distance from our Quaker meetings. Is it possible, or desirable, to find ways to create Mutual Aid communities if people are not physically present with each other? Is ZOOM Mutual Aid possible, or desirable?

I don’t know. If you have some ideas about this, please write them in the comments.

Thank you.

Bear Creek Friends

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