"Have you ever given a dollar to the unhoused guy on the side of the road or helped out when a friend or neighbor couldn’t do something? Did you know that those are forms of something called mutual aid? But what is mutual aid, especially on a larger scale?" --Orion Songster, 9th grade
To understand mutual aid, you need to understand extreme individualism. Individualism can be good at base levels, when everyone can achieve equity instead of the entire group getting the exact same thing. But people also take advantage of that idea and revert to extreme individualism. They may take everything for themselves while leaving the others behind. Mutual aid serves as a way to introduce solidarity, where everyone can share resources to help everyone else. A good way to think about it is with the phrase ‘Today you, tomorrow me.’ This means that today you are helping people in need, knowing that full well, someday you might be in need instead. You would hope that the community you live in will be there to help you as well.
Despite the similarities, mutual aid is not charity. Of course, both of these things work to help others, but in vastly different ways. For example, mutual aid is a direct way of giving, often with local groups at the head of the cause. People who donate their resources and time to these groups can often see their involvement working firsthand.
Charity tends to be much less accountable. They work on a larger scale, and often you don’t know exactly where your money and time are going. There is a history of misused funds in charity, while practically none in mutual aid. Charity is often heavily funded by the state in some way, unlike mutual aid. In an interview, West Oakland Punks With Lunch organizer Ale del Pinal said: “I think there’s a lot of reliance on the state for help, but we recognize at least as a group, that the state’s help is so limited that we have to look out for each other.” This brings forward solidarity in the form of a self-sustaining community.
Charity also relies on hierarchy, with the idea that the less fortunate are below and must always need help. Mutual aid serves to bring up anyone and everyone who needs help, whether permanent, temporary, lots, or little. Of course this does not mean that you shouldn’t participate in charity, it can still be good in many ways. But be aware that often, mutual aid can be a better option.
Mutual aid can be anything from opening up a free food fridge on the side of the road to offering a place to stay for someone on an especially cold night. There are so many ways to do it, especially in the Bay Area. Some common types of mutual aid include:
- Food Fridges- One of the most popular types of mutual aid. There are fridges all over the place in many cities, which are completely free to take from. Anyone can get food from the fridges, although it of course is preferred for people who really need the food to take it. You can contribute to them with food you have bought, dumpster dived for, made, or any other method. Some organizations, for example the non-profit called the Community Kitchen, fill up fridges around Oakland with food made by home cooks. A volunteer named Audrey said that these small fridges really do make a difference. When she first started volunteering, she noticed how “one of the fridges is… off the beaten path [and] not on a main street… it was the only fridge where there were still meals in it a few days later, but now there aren’t.” People learned about resources and really used them.
- Supplies- Another kind of mutual aid is to gather and provide supplies, which can include food, toiletries, medical supplies, materials for building, and pretty much anything you can think of. These things are usually given out in person. People set up (usually) tables full of supplies and give them out to anyone who wants it. Ale found out about mutual aid as a teenager while reading about anarchism, and at one point of their life, they were working at a fine dining restaurant. During that time, they had already begun to give water to their unhoused neighbors. Then, they had an idea: “since I was making food for very affluent people, I figured why not also make food for the people that are within my own neighborhood.” And soon, Punks With Lunch was formed.
- Housing- This can be something along the lines of actually building a small community of houses, buying tents, renting a hotel room and letting someone use it, or even providing your own home to someone who needs it. This is usually a large scale and long term form of mutual aid, however, and so not everyone can do it. In fact, it’s probably best to start small and work your way up to free housing, if at all. As Ale said, “The difference that we make is so small, yet so large, like I can’t make any [systemic changes], like I can’t give people housing… but what I can do is be a face that’s there often, be a person that they can talk to, be a person who can… help them with whatever they need, when everyone else has said no.” You may not be able to make a large difference, but it’s the small stuff that counts.
So why do mutual aid? As Ale said, “I want people to feel seen, I want people to feel loved and that somebody cares for them, when there’s a world that shows that nobody cares for them.” People need help when no one is giving them help, and so mutual aid shows up to provide it. According to Audrey from the Community Kitchen,“If everyone does a little bit, it can help a lot.”
To actually get involved, especially as a young person in the Bay Area, start with the Oakland Mutual Aid Collective has a page on their website with a list of their partners, all centered in California or the Bay Area. Another great way to start is to look around on social media. Audrey began doing mutual aid after she found out about it on Instagram, for example. Ale recommended that after you learn about an organization, you can go to a location and watch the magic: “so that you can understand what it looks like, what it takes -it takes so much more than people think it takes- to get an idea of what it looks like and how to actually be a part of the community.” You can slowly begin to take part in the action, or even start your own organization.
Thank you to Audrey and Ale for providing unmatchable answers.