When I needed to donate a box of vegetables recently, I called a nonprofit in my neighborhood in Queens, New York, that organizes low-wage immigrant workers. As we arranged the pickup, the organizer, Will Rodriguez, said, “You know, Rinku, we don’t usually do this stuff, but we just had to jump in because the need is so great. People are suffering so much.”
By “this stuff,” he meant mutual aid, in which members of a community work together to meet each other’s urgent needs. Normally, the day laborers and domestic workers who are members of his organization, New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), work together on direct-action campaigns to fight exploitation and advocate for their rights. But the pandemic has pushed them into organizing mutual aid around food.
They are not alone. In recent months, members of progressive direct-action organizations have developed new systems for checking on their neighbors, dropping off food and medicine, providing protective personal equipment to incarcerated family members, and giving cash to those suddenly unemployed to meet immediate rent, food, and medical needs. At the same time, they’re continuing to press for workers’ rights and proper health care during the pandemic, as well as ensure access to federal stimulus money for individuals and small minority-owned businesses.
In so doing, these organizations are harkening back to their roots: people creating social ties by helping each other out, and those ties fueling collective fights for new systems and policies.
Combining mutual aid and direct action might seem like common sense, but in today’s corporatized and professionalized nonprofit world, this model had disappeared almost completely. Community-based nonprofits in the United States today are split into distinct silos, with service provision firmly compartmentalized in one box and direct-action organizing in another.
The roots of this split lie in the increasing professionalization of the sector over half a century, driven by no small amount of sexism, classism and racism.
Throughout American history, mutual aid societies existed wherever poor, disenfranchised people could be found, particularly Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities. Chinese immigrants of the 19th century formed networks to defend against xenophobic violence and to fund their businesses when banks refused. Native Americans formed urban community centers in the 1950s and 1960s after the government terminated the rights of more than 100 tribes, forcing people off traditional lands across the Great Plains as well as California, Texas, New York, Florida, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Montana. These urban centers provided employment support, housing assistance, and health care, creating both the material and political conditions for self-determination.
During and immediately after slavery, free Black people formed mutual aid societies to provide resources denied them by the white community. The first was the Free African Society of Philadelphia, founded in the 1770s to provide a place to worship and financial resources to members. Similar organizations soon sprung up in Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans and Newport, Rhode Island, providing non-denominational spiritual guidance and resources such as banks, schools, burial societies, newspapers, food, support for widows and orphans, and more. W.E.B. DuBois called these “the first wavering step of a people toward organized social life.”
These organizations were a threat to the racial status quo. Charleston shut down the Free Dark Men of Color in the 1820s for fear of slave insurrections and Maryland made it a felony to join a mutual aid society in 1842. Despite the crackdowns, thousands more societies formed after the Civil War, making enormous gains for Black communities. Decades later, these self-organized groups would become the infrastructure of the Civil Rights Movement and the inspiration for the Black Panthers, who famously served up free breakfasts and health programs alongside their fight against police brutality and exploitation of Black communities.
European immigrant communities of the 19th and 20th centuries, too, relied on cooperative efforts that helped their members learn English, find decent housing, and resist labor abuse. Incorporating a mix of mutual aid, community organizing, and legislative campaigning, the social reformer Jane Addams founded Chicago’s Hull House in 1889, sparking a movement that counted more than 400 “settlement houses” within 20 years. Addams had been inspired by visiting an English settlement house where she saw boundaries of language, class status, and religious affiliation stretching and blurring. In the United States, settlement houses were community arts centers, social service providers, and civic action committees all rolled into one.
Formalizing social work for white people began with the settlement houses. In the late 1890s, Addams’ training of settlement house volunteers became the basis of early social work college programs. Settlement house workers increasingly felt the need for credentials because the medical doctors and lawyers who intervened in the lives of poor families routinely ignored the insights of the volunteers, mostly well-off white women, whom they perceived as amateurs. Early training programs were practical, such as the 1904 partnership between Columbia University and the New York School of Philanthropy. In 1915, medical educator Dr. Abraham Flexner critiqued social work as lacking professionalism of the sort that’s found in medicine, law, and preaching, and labeled social workers as “narrow minded technicians.” Colleges then began to push curricula that would elevate the “theory” of social work rather than the practice.
The settlement houses, meanwhile, continued their social reform projects, including sanitation reform, women’s suffrage, temperance, legislation against child labor, and labor law. Movement leaders such as labor advocate Frances Perkins wrote many of these ideas into the New Deal. In the throes of the Great Depression, the Social Security Act of 1935 created pensions for the elderly, care for the disabled, a state-run medical insurance program for the poor, and unemployment insurance. But the legislation also reflected the prevailing racism of the time, excluding domestic and farm workers in a compromise that ensured that Southern Democrats and the agricultural industry would continue to have access to cheap labor. Left to fend for themselves, those communities, largely comprised of people of color, continued to rely on mutual aid even as they tried to organize for change.
At the same time, Black social work traditions grew out of mutual aid organizations, added journalism to the practice, and for decades had a testy relationship with the white social work establishment. Leaders like Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Jane Patterson founded the Colored Women’s League in 1892 to generate racial uplift through self-help. Thyra J. Edwards, virtually unknown in mainstream social work history, was also a trained journalist. These women made lynching their top priority.
Despite political action among social workers of all races, Saul Alinsky is the white man credited with codifying the social action elements. Starting in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s, Alinsky eventually became the nation’s most famous “community organizer” with his approach of starting with local issues in order to rally people to fight for broader political change. He described this approach in his 1971 book Rules for Radicals: “They organize to get rid of four-legged rats and stop there; we organize to get rid of four-legged rats so we can get on to removing two-legged rats.” Alinsky built the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), one of the largest and most powerful organizing networks of the 20th century, uniting churches, ethnic associations, and neighborhood groups in direct-action campaigns. It was an IAF affiliate in Baltimore, for example, that won the first local Living Wage law in 1994, the precursor to today’s “Fight for $15.”
The Alinsky model came to dominate the way activists were trained and organized. It featured highly professionalized, well-paid organizers who kept any radical politics to themselves in the name of people power. The IAF also had a distinctly male culture. Alinsky expected organizers to work around the clock; women, he thought, were too delicate, even if he didn’t publicly discourage them from the work.
Alinsky’s influential “rules” saw services—mostly organized by and provided by women—only as a means to direct action campaigning. The goal was to deliver “winnable” material improvements as well as change the relations of power between everyday people and the institutions that shaped their lives. Described as “non-ideological,” this model characterized membership-based community organizations for many years. But over time, organizers who were women and people of color have disrupted and changed that norm, arguing that racism, sexism and capitalism would never be challenged under these conditions.
In any case, the split between providing services and advocating for systemic change had long been established in the U.S. When the National Association of Social Workers was formed in 1955, providing services via casework and organizing for systemic change had become distinct streams of social work. By 1960, they had their own tracks at various universities. Funding patterns followed. Philanthropists, too, viewed these functions as separate, driving far more resources to apoliticized service provision than they did to community organizing. When I was learning to organize in the late 1980s, I was consistently told that self-help schemes, lending circles, and cooperative businesses had little to do with “real” organizing.
Today, though, a new generation of activists is erasing that distinction.
The pandemic, in particular, has clarified that organizing cannot be divorced from actually helping people. In March, on a webinar about race and COVID-19, the moderator asked us panelists, “What inspires you?” I applauded all the self-organized mutual aid schemes and noted that prominent organizing networks have jumped in, including the Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Black Lives Matter, United We Dream, Faith in Action, and Make the Road, among many others. All are responding to the immediate needs of their constituencies—food, masks, money, help navigating government assistance—and diverging from their pre-coronavirus activities. Another panelist countered: “But mutual aid can’t solve this crisis at scale. Only government can do that.” Some activists fear that politicians will try to replace government care with community care, or that mutual aid will absorb all of our energy, leaving nothing for political fights.
But especially in times when the state dramatically fails to deliver what people need, mutual aid is a powerful way, sometimes even the only way, to help people manage daily life while sustaining their spirits in the struggle for systemic change. Organizing requires courage; courage comes from community. Mutual aid fuels the audacity to demand more because it reinforces that we are not alone in our suffering.
Chai Moua, the Civic Engagement Director at Freedom, Inc, a 17-year-old coalition of Black and Southeast Asian groups in Wisconsin, told me that her organization has been ready for this moment. “We have always believed in combining service and organizing to get to a bigger future,” she said. “Our food pantry is actually part of our civic engagement work. We’re not just giving you food but showing systematically ‘this is why our folks don’t have access to healthy food,’ and then changing those systems.”
The United States, and perhaps the world, is at the beginning of a string of fundamental shifts in culture, politics, economy and daily life. The combined disruption of an ongoing deadly pandemic, record unemployment, and multiracial uprisings to defend Black lives will soon make many of our existing models irrelevant. Photos of sophisticated mutual aid operations at recent Black Lives Matter protests powerfully symbolize the future of organizing, protest, and direct action. Everyone is discovering what some of us have always understood: The social ties cultivated by mutual aid are the same ties needed to fuel a historic boycott, a union organizing drive, or a campaign to close down prisons. Our ancestors knew this well, and now we do too.