Spotlight Exclusives

Mutual Aid Hub: Helping Community Members Help Each Other

Nathan Williams Nathan Williams, posted on

When the pandemic hit last year, particularly before Congress was able to pass relief legislation, informal groups sprung up around the country to try to provide help for neighbors in need. The digital organizing team at Town Hall Project was looking for ways to get involved in pandemic relief, so they started a site, Mutual Aid Hub, to help these groups communicate with and learn from each other. A year later, the Hub has identified more than 1,000 such groups in the U.S. and plans to keep on serving as a bridge to these diverse mutual aid organizations. Hub organizer Nathan Williams spoke to Spotlight recently about the effort; the conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell us how the Mutual Aid Hub came about and the relationship with the Town Hall Project?

Town Hall Project has evolved into several different projects; the town hall research program has joined the organization Indivisible and the mutual aid component is now led by an economic justice organization based in Los Angeles, Ground Game LA. After four eventful years, Town Hall Project had grown into so many different subprojects that it felt like a good time to sort out the best places for different components of this work to continue long term.

In early 2020, Town Hall Project was continuing our mission of encouraging dialogue between lawmakers and constituents to strengthen democracy and make lawmakers more responsive. In March 2020, all that came to a halt and we found ourselves facing the question of what does an organization dedicated to the importance of people exchanging views in a room together do when we can’t get in a room together? Part of that led to our work in hosting and encouraging virtual town halls and promoting best practices for those kinds of events, which can have problems with transparency and accountability. But we had this group of very talented people and the virtual town hall work didn’t seem urgent enough in the scope of the crisis we were experiencing.

I became aware that mutual aid organizing had really started to blossom. I’m in Portland, Or., and Seattle was one of the cities impacted early by COVID along with New York and the Bay area, and I became aware of this mutual aid organizing model there. And our basic tech skillset at Town Hall Project is to find data, put it on a map and empower people to use that information. So, we started tracking all the Mutual Aid groups we could find, putting them on and then trying to get in touch with these groups and seeing if there were commonalities or reasons for them to connect with each other. Part two of the work was getting these groups engaged with each other, so groups in Seattle or New York might be in touch with groups in Vermont or Arkansas where the economic dislocation hadn’t happened yet and helping them learn from each other. The core goals of the Hub were to amplify the impact of the organizing model and to connect groups to each other to help them develop.

I also do want to emphasize that these groups are not our chapters or are not a formal part of Mutual Aid Hub in any way. There’s a community and I’d like to think we have contributed to the health and growth of that community. But the tactical differences, the demographic differences, the ideological differences among these groups are quite substantial. So, I am not speaking on behalf of the movement itself. It’s a big, diverse movement and they’re certainly capable of speaking on their own behalf.

Understood. Give our readers a sense of what these groups look like – how big are they, what kinds of things are they doing?

The basic model that you see most often is collecting food and hygiene items, basic life necessities, and distributing them within a geographic community. Sometimes there is redistribution of cash as well, other groups limit themselves to material goods. This was especially urgent before Congress acted last year but even after, in many cases, for people who were slow to get their stimulus checks or don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. In many communities, you have undocumented neighbors who weren’t getting any formal government support. Since mutual aid networks could do this so quickly and with such nuance and specificity, they were able to act faster and in a more targeted way in many cases than state and federal government. Obviously, the scale of what they can do is limited; the federal government can spend trillions of dollars and mutual aid groups are not redistributing trillions of dollars. But they can meet those pressing needs so quickly. Your neighbor down the street needs diapers, you can get the diapers that afternoon. You don’t have to apply for a grant or wait for a check to clear.

These are volunteers who may be connected to a faith-based organization or a political organization or come out of labor organizing. But as individuals, they range from college students to retired folks, with a lot of diversity.

Was there a recognized model or structure that these groups could follow or was it more that they started helping neighbors and found out this kind of volunteerism has a name?

I think there were grad students and the like who were aware of the formal concept of “mutual aid” from the Russian anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin in 1902. But for most people, community organizations and churches have been practicing the reality of mutual aid in the United States for decades. They weren’t calling it mutual aid, but you had food drives for folks in the neighborhood, driving community members to doctors’ appointments, and things like that. I don’t think most people in 2020 came to it with any kind of sense of formality and I think the mutual aid terminology came as much from the media around it and the social media prowess of some of its more well-known early adopters. (New York Rep.) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the activist Mirame Kaba led an influential conference call on mutual aid organizing in March of last year and used the term.

How many groups have you identified?

Currently, on the site, we have just over 900 active groups in the United States and a few in Canada. Additionally, we’ve removed another 128 groups that are, to the best of our knowledge, defunct. So, over a thousand in total over the last year. In the months ahead we’re hoping to start to add mutual aid groups in Latin America as well.

Was the collaboration these groups found mostly geographic – finding another group nearby to combine resources with? Or were there other ways? 

I think there was a good amount of geographic coordination. The groups grew, they expanded their scope, and in the bigger metro areas, it was helpful to know that you didn’t have to cover the whole city if there were other groups doing the work. On the best practice calls, we hosted there were discussions about how best to distribute resources, how to get the word out in your community, particularly early in the pandemic, when people really didn’t know what was safe and what wasn’t. In the beginning, people were cleaning the flyers before they handed them out or posted them. There were conversations about different software choices, how to set up a hotline and staff it with volunteers. And also, just sharing moral support. In most situations, there are more people who need help than can be helped and given that these volunteers didn’t have a career of charitable work, the emotional challenge was very intense. A lot of the people doing this work also have jobs or had their own child care or health care issues to attend to. The moral support people gained through the hub seemed just as important as the tactical sharing.

How did you find that they were interacting with government aid services or more traditional nonprofits? Was there cooperation there? Was there a sense of competition?

It really depends on where you’re talking about. In many places, the local governments would list the websites or the call-in numbers of these organizations, and sees them as vital resources for their communities. In other places, the mutual aid group see themselves aligned with a set of political ideals that were very different from the local government and they didn’t feel like it was worth it to work with the local government. I can’t speak for 1,000 groups, but in plenty of places, there was and is coordination between these groups and government agencies. The Mutual Aid Hub itself is on AARP’s website, so there’s coordination there.  If you browse the site you’ll see the wide range of ideological diversity among the groups.

Is the plan for the Hub to continue, post-pandemic?

Certainly, the plan is to continue and I think there are plenty of groups that are now really looking to what this work looks like post-pandemic. I don’t think anyone anticipates that the impact of the pandemic is going to be gone in many communities anytime soon. This work will still matter, though it will be different. One thing a number of groups are doing is to address vaccine inequity – arranging rides in areas where people can’t get to vaccines, letting people know that they’re eligible, serving as translators where there are language issues. There’s a level of trust that these groups have that’s pretty powerful. I don’t think many of them plan on turning into political action, though some might. Having trusted this group of your neighbors that brought you groceries last year when you were in desperate need, you might be more likely to trust them when they tell you something is important. I think there is a commitment to continue this work as the challenges evolve in the months and years ahead.

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