Over the last year and a half, mutual aid’s increased popularity has helped people connect with neighbors, build relationships, and attempt to combat racism and economic inequality. Now, mutual aid structures are being tested by hurricanes, fires, and other climate crisis-induced natural disasters, showing the strengths and limitations of neighbors helping neighbors.
In Louisiana — which bore the brunt of Hurricane Ida’s landfall last month — Jimmy Dunson, an organizer with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, has been distributing supplies from across the state to those in harder-hit areas.
“When disaster has happened, people default back to mutual aid — regardless of whether they call it by those words or not — people spontaneously come together and care for each other in a time of crisis,” Dunson told Sojourners. “[When] there’s profound loss, devastation, and trauma, there’s also a sense of communalism and coming together.”
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief collects food, clothing, money, and other necessities from mutual aid groups across the country and redistributes those supplies to over 20 mutual aid groups in the most affected areas, including Down The Bayou and Bvlbancha Collective.
Dunson said that Mutual Aid Disaster Relief has prioritized listening and responding to Indigenous and marginalized communities that tend to be left out of traditional recovery efforts.
Mutual aid prioritizes viewing each member as equal, whether they are on the giving or receiving end of supplies.
“If somebody has just lost money, their vehicle, their home, maybe even a loved one, they don’t need to feel like an empty vessel to be filled with a blanket or canned goods or used clothes,” Dunson said. “People who are impacted also have something to offer.”
Compared to larger nonprofit disaster efforts, which need to pay for salaries and other overhead expenses, many mutual aid groups are volunteer-led and thus able to use most of their funds for resources and supplies.
In other parts of the country, organizers are utilizing the best of mutual aid tactics to help their approach to community support. Cooperation Humboldt, a nonprofit organization in Eureka Calif., aims to transform society from the grassroots on up with multiple programs — from local artists symposiums, to giving fruit trees to locals who in turn share the fruit with their community, to paying an honor tax to the local Wiyot tribe. The organization was founded by David Cobb and Melezia Figueroa, two colleagues from past Green Party campaigns who wanted to try a more localized approach to systemic change following Donald Trump's 2016 victory in the presidential election. They drew inspiration from Cooperation Jackson, a network of worker cooperatives in Jackson, Miss.
When the pandemic began, Cooperation Humboldt created a platform to connect people, information and resources together, helping form the Disaster Response and Resilience Team through partnerships with national groups like the American Red Cross and local groups like Centro Del Pueblo — a local, Indigenous immigrants group. Cobb said the cooperative’s urgency, along with its clear and uncompromising convictions, allow them to work together with both mutual aid groups and larger, established organizations.
Cobb said Cooperation Humboldt was well prepared to respond to the pandemic because it had experience with other disasters, like wildfires that Californians are facing with increasing regularity.
“Nobody I knew, [was] predicting a viral pandemic, but we were poised to react to disaster in ways that most people weren't,” he said. “And that’s what makes us very similar to a mutual aid network ... we really are premised on, ‘Let’s just help each other and facilitate that.’”
Partnerships between churches and mutual aid
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, a historically Black church in the ELCA, has been partnering with mutual aid group Greater New Orleans Caring Collective and other nonprofits, churches, and restaurants in preparing and distributing over 500 meals around their neighborhood everyday.
Rev. Ben Groth, Bethlehem Lutheran’s pastor, said the church tries to cast a wide net in partnership. After the hurricane, Groth had two Episcopal priests, a neighbor, and a volunteer from a large nonprofit knock on his door at the same time, all looking to donate to relief efforts. Groth said there are benefits to working with large institutions — resources and support, as well as the level of accountability and professionalism that can make institutional disaster-relief run well and efficiently — but he said there are still limitations in the approach.
“I think that bigger institutions and congregations are afraid of the individual level of suffering,” Groth said. “[Eventually] you're going to run up against a number of individuals that you don't have the capacity to help right now.”
This focus on the individual needs, rather than simply mass-supplying necessities to large groups of people, is where mutual aid excels. But Dunson said mutual aid is not without limitations. In an economic system where most people need a day job, mutual aid can be limited by its members’ time, money, and availability.
Nevertheless, a commonality that Dunson believes drives mutual aid groups, as well as people of faith, is a vision for a better world grounded by love.
“After a disaster, even in the midst of the ruins or the ashes or the devastation all around … people create a beloved community with each other — sharing goods and services with each other, reimagining our relationships with each other, relating to each other authentically and spending our time caring for each other,” Dunson said.
Groth lamented the lack of partnerships between mutual aid groups and churches, seeing similarities between the two.
“If you look at the Book of Acts, the church sure sounds like a mutual aid organization,” he said.