Introduction to Mutual Aid and hierarchies

As I’ve been talking and writing about Mutual Aid, I’m not surprised that most of the questions relate to hierarchies. Mutual Aid is founded on a flat or horizontal hierarchy, where everyone has a voice in decisions.

I would highly recommend Dean Spade’s book , “Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next)”. Two of the videos he has produced are very helpful. [See below]

My practical experience related to hierarchies comes from the past two years with Des Moines Mutual Aid. My friend Ronnie James is an Indigenous organizer with twenty years of experience and has been my Mutual Aid mentor.

It is widely acknowledged that it takes time to learn how to be in a mutual aid community. We are so entrenched in vertical hierarchies in our society.

By participating in groups in new ways and practicing new ways of being together, we are both building the world we want and becoming the kind of people who could live in such a world together.

Dean Spade

Here are a few examples of my mutual aid education. One day we had to set up tables in the school yard because the basement of the church we normally use was holding a vaccination clinic that day. Our routine was somewhat interrupted. I was arranging the tables to put the food on. Ronnie came and asked me what I wanted him to do. Even though he had been working with mutual aid for years, he didn’t suggest that I should look to him for decisions in that situation.

Because the vaccination clinic was using the tables we usually used to setup the food boxes, we needed to find other tables.  Ronnie said he was going to go upstairs to look for some. He didn’t say I should go with him, left that decision up to me. I chose to go which turned out to be good because we did find some tables to use. Which were on the third floor. Someone said that was the day Jeff got the tables. There is a lot of humor when we’re together.

I often hear people asking questions, and most commonly someone will say “I would do … but do what you think is best”.

Or when the van of food arrived, someone will say “the van is here.”  Then all who aren’t busy go out to unload it. No one tells certain people to “go unload the van”.

When we’re done, the tables and floor need to be cleaned. Whoever is free just does that.

On the other hand, when there are things we just don’t know, we gravitate to asking Ronnie because of his experience. And there are certain people who routinely go to Hy-Vee to pick up the food, because they know how to do that.

So, Ronnie is accorded respect, but as I said above, he doesn’t tell people what to do. I don’t think that represents a vertical hierarchy.

The people involved in Mutual Aid, with a flat or horizontal hierarchy, all bring different, valuable skills or perspectives, which is used to inform decisions made by the Mutual Aid group.


Most people work or go to school inside hierarchies where disobedience leads to punishment or exclusion. We bring our learned practices of hierarchy with us even when no paycheck or punishment enforces our participation, so even in volunteer groups we often find ourselves in conflicts stemming from learned dominance behaviors. But collective spaces, like mutual aid organizing, can give us opportunities to unlearn conditioning and build new skills and capacities. By participating in groups in new ways and practicing new ways of being together, we are both building the world we want and becoming the kind of people who could live in such a world together.

Dean Spade. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) (Kindle Locations 208-212). Verso.
Horizontalist and Participatory Characteristics of Mutual Aid ProjectsCharacteristics of Hierarchical, Charitable Non-Profits and Social Service Programs (or what tends to change about mutual aid projects as they move toward becoming charities or social service programs)
“Members” = people making decisions“Members” = donors 
De-professionalized survival work done by volunteersService work staffed by professionals
Beg, borrow, and steal suppliesGrant money for supplies/philanthropic control of program
Use people power to resist any efforts by government to regulate or shut down activitiesFollow government regulations about how the work needs to happen (usually requiring more money, causing reliance on grants, paid staff with professional degrees)
Survival work rooted in deep and wide principles of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, racial justice, gender justice, disability justiceSiloed single-issue work, serving a particular population or working on one area of policy reform, disconnected from other ‘issues’
Open meetings, as many people making decisions and doing the work as possibleClosed board meetings, governance by professionals or people associated with big institutions or big donors, program operated by staff, volunteers limited to stuffing envelopes or other menial tasks occasionally, volunteers not part of high level decision making
Efforts to support people facing the most dire conditionsImposing eligibility criteria for services that divide people into “deserving” and “undeserving”
Give things away without expectationsConditions for getting help or participating in something—you have to be sober, have a certain family status, have a certain immigration status, not have outstanding warrants, not have certain convictions, etc.
People participate voluntarily because of passion about injusticePeople come looking for a job, wanting to climb a hierarchy or become “important”
Efforts to flatten hierarchies—e.g. flat wage scales if anyone is paid, training so that new people can do work they weren’t professionally trained to do, rotating facilitation roles, language accessEstablishing and maintaining hierarchies of pay, status, decision-making power, influence
Values self-determination for people impacted or targeted by harmful social conditionsOffers “help” to “underprivileged” absent of a context of injustice or strategy for transforming the conditions; paternalistic; rescue fantasies and saviorism
Consensus decision-making to maximize everyone’s participation, to make sure people impacted by decisions are the ones making them, to avoid under-represented groups getting outvoted, and to build the skill of caring about each other’s participation and concerns rather than caring about being right or winningPerson on top (often Executive Director) decides things or, in some instances, a board votes and majority wins
Direct aid work is connected to other tactics, including disruptive tactics aimed at root causes of the distress the aid addressesDirect aid work disconnected from other tactics, depoliticized, and organization distances itself from disruptive or root causes-oriented tactics in order to retain legitimacy with government or funders
Tendency to assess the work based on how the people facing the crisis the organization wants to stop regard the workTendency to assess the work based on opinions of elites: political officials, bureaucrats, funders, elite media
Engaging with the organization builds broader political participation, solidarity, mobilization, radicalizationEngaging with the organization not aimed at growing participants’ engagement with other “issues,” organizations, or struggles for justice

Characteristics of Mutual Aid vs. Charity Mutual aid projects depart from the charity model in crucial ways. Most mutual aid projects are volunteer based and avoid the careerism, business approach, and charity model of nonprofits. Mutual aid projects strive to include lots of people, rather than just a few people who have been declared “experts” or “professionals.” If we want to provide survival support to as many people as possible, and mobilize as many people as possible for root-causes change, we need to let a lot of people do the work and make decisions about the work together, rather than bottlenecking the process with hierarchies that let only a few people lead.

Despite these important goals, avoiding the pitfalls of co-optation, deservingness hierarchies, saviorism, and disconnect from root-causes work requires constant vigilance. The last half-century of social movement history is full of examples of mutual aid groups that, under pressure from law enforcement, funders, and culture, transformed into charity or social services groups and lost much of their transformative capacity.

Here are some guiding questions for mutual aid groups trying to avoid these dangers and pitfalls:

  • Who controls our project?
  • Who makes decisions about what we do?
  • Does any of the funding we receive come with strings attached that limit who we help or how we help?
  • Do any of our guidelines about who can participate in our work cut out stigmatized and vulnerable people?
  • What is our relationship to law enforcement?
  • How do we introduce new people in our group to our approach to law enforcement?

While there is no single correct model for a mutual aid group, being aware of general tendencies that distinguish mutual aid from other projects can help groups make thoughtful decisions and maintain their integrity and effectiveness.

Dean Spade. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) (Kindle Locations 640-658). Verso.

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