Mutual aid – when disaster hits, we turn to each other

Good ideas spread. And mutual aid – sometimes known as the ‘solidarity economy’ – is one of them. It has flourished in recent years as a result of the pandemic and climate disasters, and it has thrived on social media, which makes it possible for people who don’t know one another to offer and seek help.

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash

There are countless examples of this self-help during the pandemic. I began collecting those stories in the spring of 2020, looking for hope during a time of fear and confusion, and they lifted my spirit. They were stories, for example, of how people found new ways to help one another, as when people realized that they could donate money to local restaurants to make meals for health workers and the food-insecure – and that this helped those local small businesses as much as it did the meal recipients. New approaches, rooted in the sense that we needed to love our neighbours as ourselves, appeared with surprising speed – as when governments bought hotels in order to house the people who were homeless.

I hear the same kind of stories on the radio as people in British Columbia are trying to recover from the devastating floods that have just followed a summer of fire and heat. And I see them popping up in so many of the stories I read these days. In how the Wiyot people in California are building a restorative economy, working with Cooperation Humboldt, which in turn was inspired by Cooperation Jackson, which grew out of the mutual aid networks that sprang up in the wake of the disastrous hurricanes that have hit the area over the past two decades. 

They draw on much older traditions. Think of how Indigenous tribes shared the food from their hunting and gathering. Of how farmers on the Canadian Prairies came together to raise barns. Or the collective social movements that emerged in Latin America, or the Basque region of Spain, in response to austerity policies in the 1980s and 1990s.

Cooperation Jackson, in Jackson, Mississippi, and Cooperation New Orleans, grew out of the need for disaster relief after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when they brought immediate help to people in New Orleans, the river parishes, and down the bayou. And, as they look to a future when the weather will become ever more unpredictable, they have been working to build more sustainable economies.

Says Kali Akuno, executive director of Cooperation Jackson: “Climate and mutual aid is forever now, and it’s going to become more of our daily reality.” He saw the devastation of Hurricane Ida, as he travelled with a crew to New Orleans and south to Houma on the first of multiple supply runs as soon as the roads were passable. They were the first to arrive with help, people told them as they handed out diapers, bottled water, and canned goods. 

For the past seven years, Cooperation Jackson has been building its members’ capacity to help one another. It has established cooperative businesses; planted community gardens; taught; apparel printing skills in its maker’s space; produced personal protective equipment at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; trained community members for emergency preparedness; and hosted people’s assemblies. 

“Cooperation Jackson has also been organizing in adjacent neighborhoods with a clear goal: to draw the wider community in, to have folks see and feel the need to take care of one another, and to recognize that doing so is within their power,” says The Real News Network in a feature story about the mutual aid work.

New Orleans. Photo by John Middelkoop on Unsplash

Kendra Unique Wills, an organizer with Southern Solidarity, was among the New Orleans’ residents who could evacuate before Ida hit, but she rushed back three days later to see what she could do to help. “FEMA and the National Guard are always going to be late,” she said. “You’re on your own. The first week it’s the people who are going to be taking care of each other. It’s the people who wake up the next morning and say ‘It’s time to start grilling out!’ And mutual aid… Mutual aid was activating itself long before anyone from the National Guard was handing out a case of water.”

After Ida, Southern Solidarity partnered with the Greater New Orleans Caring Collective to create a well-stocked distribution center at the Unitarian Universalist Church in New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood. “I could walk in and request 10 trays of hot food for distribution in Wallace [Louisiana], and they’d be provided; or request imprint information in Spanish about de-molding homes, and pick the instructions up with the relevant cleaning supplies to deliver to Spanish-speaking families,” says Maya Pen of Cooperation New Orleans.

There are differing views about how to rebuild after disaster, and they don’t always take into account the needs and wishes of the people who live in devastated areas. It is not always easy for people to see that we are connected and that what we do affects all of us. In this realization lie new possibilities – as for example, the work of EcoPeace Middle East, a unique NGO that is approaching peacebuilding by helping people see that Israelis and Palestinians share the same waters – and that this affects both.

Cooperation New Orleans is anchoring a “Peer Loan Fund” to get business loans to local workers who want to own and manage their own cooperative businesses, if it’s a business the community says they need; launched a 10-week Black Liberation Coop Academy to “lift up Black cooperative history, create our own economic opportunities, meet collective needs, and develop successful collaborative economic practice”; and counsels people about developing their business ideas or transitioning their existing businesses to cooperative ownership. 

This last is the same kind of work that has been done for more than a decade by the Democracy Collaborative, which focuses on how to build community wealth through wider participation and through varied models of ownership that include employee ownership. They track how these new models are emerging across the US and in the UK.

While all these kind of ideas often get caught up in the political divide that has become so common in the US, the value and importance of mutual aid is becoming clearer to more and more people. Unless one is a millionaire or billionaire, it will be our neighbours we look to first when disaster hits our lives.

“Mutual Aid is my life,” Kendra Unique Wills told The Real News Network. “I can’t imagine my future without it. It’s not only about me helping people survive this interesting world we have set up, but, selfishly, me making sure that I have a support system. That has helped me feel more secure in life. Because with storms like Hurricane Ida, you may get a couple of days to prepare, but the repercussions can last months, even years.”