You’re not building community if you’re not building infrastructures for self-healing and sustainable mutual aid.
Like many, I suspect, my holiday week was spent in a COVID daze broken only by periods of coughing, sneezing and trying to sleep. Eventually, late last week, I was considering the idea of cleaning my home office when news popped up of a wildfire that would soon be whipping across neighborhoods 20 miles northwest of us.
I later opened up What’s Better than Charity? by Tressie McMillan Cottom. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to catch up on Cottom’s writing.
The essay is a masterclass on how mutual aid can be at the center of a community’s daily existence. Not just something to wind up in a crisis.
Cottom writes of a childhood immersed in communities that practiced mutual aid. Giving was a collective act. You gave, helped and taught because you knew you would receive aid, learning and support from others.
My great-grandmother was fond of reminding all of her children and their children of the two rules of giving: Always give better than you would buy for yourself, and never call attention to your giving. It was implied that doing so for others — giving your best and affording people their dignity — would mean that when our time came to be on the receiving end of someone’s giving, they would afford us the same. This reciprocity is what distinguishes mutual aid from other types of giving.Tressie McMillan Cottom
Last Thursday’s Marshall Fire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes in Louisville and Superior, Colorado. The majority of the damage was done in the 10-12 hours between the fire’s start around 11 am and the winds dying down in the evening.
People woke up that morning with no idea they would soon evacuate and possibly lose their home. Nobody expected the fire. Nobody was prepared.
This is when people turn to their community and government aid for help. If we live in mutual aid communities we can expect aid from others. Just as we would provide it when needed. And it’s working, at least when it comes to fundraising. The Boulder Community Foundation raised over $12 million for its wildfire fund as of January 4.
It’s GoFundMe, though, that seems to be the modern incarnation of mutual aid. At least in disasters and other crisis situations. Probably because it can fill short-term needs. Fund disbursement from a community foundation takes time and nobody knows where the money will go.
My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of friends sharing GoFundMe pages: families who lost their homes in need of money for clothing, food, shelter. The most basic necessities.
GoFundMe is mutual aid. But its application is mostly individualistic. Someone with the best photo, biggest personal network, good hashtag game or a bit of luck may receive more. GoFund e is powerful, useful and a lifesaver to many. It’s also a reminder that while we live in communities we are essentially alone. Aid is often individualized. We make a pitch. Hope for the best.
How mutual can community be?
What does mutual aid mean to those of us who work in community building and membership? I think it means building community habits, infrastructures and systems grounded in mutual aid. What if we see aid (and support and solidarity) as a first principle? Not as a thing to be extracted or provided at some future date.
A provocation: you’re not building community if you’re not building infrastructures for self-healing and sustainable mutual aid. You may be building a membership list of people who can donate money or goods when needed. But is this a mutually beneficial relationship.
Mutual aid and community: Possibility and problems.
I’m always interested in how we transform the work of “membership” into building stronger communities. Societies have more opportunity and potential when individuals are able to see, act with and feel for the collective benefit. Too often, membership is defined and operated in the context organizational, not community, needs.
Grounding membership and community in mutual aid would be a step forward. A mutual aid driven community would be open to others. It would be more able to self-sustain in times of challenge (disaster) and transition (economic shifts and slow changes like climate change…which are slow until, like a wildfire, they’re very very fast).
A mutual aid perspective doesn’t come without concerns and questions.
- Exclusivity. Is mutual aid for the community or membership only? Is that defined and exclusive? Are boundaries built on race, gender, class and other definitions that divide rather than grow community?
- What are the values on which you base community? Who do these values exclude and include? Why and how is that good or bad for the broader community.
- Will there be a sense of (or actually doing) mission creep. Most organizations and communities don’t have a history or mission of mutual aid. Is what you’re doing a fit? Good for the budget? Fundable?
- Build connection before you “need” connection. View mutual aid as ongoing, part of the community culture and DNA. Not something that is cobbled together as needed.
- Make giving and receiving aid accessible to different people and their needs, personality, location, technology.
- Serve people and value their needs. Ask the community. Talk with people. Invite them into action and leadership.
Many of the strongest civic and community institutions are (or were) focused on mutual aid. And politics often enters into their work. Or did. Or could. Political parties, unions and churches organize members to support educational, social and even financial needs. An advocacy organization that strives to build, create and sustain community can, perhaps should, embed mutual aid in its programs and values.
The need to lead and teach mutual aid has never been more important.
Some interesting bits on community and language.
The importance of language in gathering by Erin Mikail Staples. Shared language shapes and sustains community.
Implicit Feudalism: Why Online Communities Still Haven’t Caught Up with My Mother’s Garden Club by Nathan Schneider. The importance of norms, expectations and language to talk about them.
“Not supposed to happen in your 20s”: Grieving young adults find support around virtual dinner tables by Elizabeth Hernandez. The Dinner Party helps people grieve together.
The antidote is always turning deeper towards each other. Anne Helen Petersen’s conversations with Garrett Bucks about community building and white grievance snake oil salesmen.
Cancel culture: Why do people cancel news subscriptions? by Nieman Lab. People are cutting local news subscriptions. But that’s not all. A great look at what people value and pay for when it comes to news. And why they leave.
A 2021 narrative reading list to launch your 2022. A curated look at articles and research on narrative change.
Photo by Tim Dennell via flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)