New to mutual aid? Welcome to 'helping' for the long haul.

Mutual aid *can* look like this.

Mutual aid *can* look like this. Maggie Ryan Sandford

If you’ve heard the term “mutual aid” popping up in conversations more frequently lately, your ears aren’t deceiving you. Not only are the words floating through the air, the acts themselves seem everywhere we turn, too.

But if you're still wondering what that means, and how to, erm, effectively participate… You're not alone!

Put simply, “mutual aid” entails individuals caring for each others’ needs, by drawing from within one’s community to provide reciprocal support. “Mutual aid” isn’t a thing, or a selfie — it’s doing. Think solidarity, not charity! No receipts for tax purposes are given. The radical simplicity of mutual aid makes participation a political act.

What does mutual aid look like in the real world? Well, it can take many forms… A few examples:

  • First looking to find what groceries are needed, and then showing up to a designated distribution point with those requested items
  • Ongoing programs like that at Full Cycle Bike Shop, which provide bikes and mechanic skills to youth experiencing homelessness, thereby easing transportation issues for statistically at-risk community members
  • Seeking out Narcan and/or First Responder training to properly attend to neighbors in crises
  • Placing online grocery delivery orders for our elders and immunocompromised, for whom skills and/or access create barriers to food during this pandemic
  • or Directly Venmo-ing/Cashapp-ing those who ask for help, without demanding proof of need.

Consider our present situation locally and globally – the double-whammy of a burgeoning revolution nested within a pandemic – and it makes perfect sense why mutual aid seems like it’s having a big moment. Mutual aid networks have traditionally formed in communities the state has abandoned. Among the most famous and impactful mutual aid services in modern history was the Free Breakfast For School Children Program, established in January of 1969 by the Black Panther Party, which directly led to the USDA founding the school breakfast program (still operating today).

Find yourself pumped by all this? Great! Mutual aid networks need not be reinvented from the ground up for your participation. In fact, attempting to do so is probably not the best move.

Though mutual aid feels buzzy right now, activists and community builders here in the Twin Cities have long advocated for community-wide involvement and, in fact, have been asking us to engage with their efforts since well before we, uh, were listening.

Behind the massive response spanning the metro over the past few weeks – waves of groceries and medical supplies arriving at schools and churches by the bagful and carload, establishing the Sheraton Sanctuary housing individuals displaced by sweeps of the Hiawatha encampment, etc. – were years of effort, which formed the foundation for everything seemingly deployed “so quickly."

Social media is brimming with info about one-off opportunities right now, which often include up-to-the-minute requests for what's needed on a moment-to-moment basis right down to specific diaper size. But before rushing out the door, check the timestamp/dates on those posts, as algorithms don't always show the most up-to-date info first! And when in doubt, pick up the phone to contact a coordinator at the drop-off point.

Invaluable, curated resources have already been created to ensure you’re engaging in a manner that’s beneficial to recipients – not just your ego.

When the pandemic descended in early March, organizers built the Minnesota COVID Response site to respond to the public health emergency. There you'll find links to mutual aid resources like rent assitance, unemployment guidance, and much more.

Another, map-based tool is the Twin Cities Mutual Aid Project site, which sleekly breaks down donation-type participation into achievable nuggets, focused on ensuring needs and ideals actually converge. Its operators are very busy actually making the thing actually run, so let us explain how it works: Want to contribute supplies but don’t know where to get them? Let an updated map on the site check for you. Want to donate, or find yourself in need of goods? There's a separate, live-updating map for that!

For those who want to show up in the present moment, Support the Cities has a volunteer page that links to an ongoing list of Facebook events that require human bodies to smoothly operate. 

It's going to take a very long time to rebuild the Twin Cities into a better, more equitable home than before – and we're still in the very early stages.

Mutual aid works kind of like caring for a friend who's grieving; staying present for the long haul means much more, but is less showy than sending flowers. No one will be looking later as interest wanes, but people will still be hungry and inequity will exist, long after stores and restaurants are rebuilt.

Best if we all start recognizing and addressing emergencies that don't look like fires, sooner rather than later.