Giving From the Ground Up

In these times of crisis, mutual aid seems to have a deeper reach than institutional systems.
By Angelica Ong

A Pandora’s box of social, economic, and political disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic is a combination of a public health crisis, a recession to rival the Great Depression, and heightened socio-political unrest. The result is an overwhelming need for aid, not just in the U.S. but in all parts of the world. This has prompted those who are financially able to rise to the occasion and render help within their communities in a variety of ways, becoming proponents of what has come to be termed “mutual aid.” 

As independent systems operating outside of government or corporate channels, mutual aid networks typically lack funding and access for large-scale publicity. Moreover, they often develop in very organic ways at a grassroots level, generally beginning with just one person or a small group of people. With the immediate community as the target group, the intuitive course of action is to spread a campaign through word of mouth. Under pandemic circumstances, that means Instagram stories and posts, WhatsApp groups, or Facebook pages. This has led to an incredible scale of digital mobilization, one that first reached me a few months ago.

In July, I contributed to a local mutual aid network called waresnotwarehouses. I came to know about them through a friend’s Instagram story, and their account (@wares.notwarehouses) linked me to their Telegram group chat and a spreadsheet they had created. The spreadsheet comprises a long list of needs from various individuals, showing what kind of aid they need exactly (e.g. funds, supplies, or a space), a date indicating when they need it, and their contact information. Certain requests that require more funds or help can be fulfilled by several individuals. Knowing that other contributors would chip in to fill the rest made me feel less intimidated by the amount of funds requested, and I felt less pressured about donating only as much as I could. 

What I experienced when participating in this mutual aid effort was decidedly different from when I donated to charity organizations. I established contact directly with the recipient on Telegram and knew exactly what need I was fulfilling when I wired the money straight to her account. Being able to communicate directly made the impact of the contribution feel that much more real and tangible. While many charity organizations do similarly admirable and important work, the lack of direct interaction can create a sense of distance to the cause, an opacity in contrast to mutual aid's raw transparency. 

The more crucial differences between mutual aid and other more established forms of social welfare, however, are their approaches to distributing aid. Institutional structures, such as government aid and charity organizations, typically take a top-down approach, assessing the situations of their target groups from their own vantage points and then dictating what aid they will be given. There is a degree of detachment and bureaucracy. Conversely, mutual aid networks take a bottom-up approach, allowing the voices of the people in need to take primacy rather than have a spokesperson request help on their behalf. They allow for more individualized aid rather than broad, sweeping packages which may not target their most pressing needs. Mutual aid thus cuts across bureaucratic red tape and doesn’t conform to rigid, legislative criteria for who is allowed aid and how much.

The typical vertical, top-down approach often implies that the afflicted communities are powerless and incompetent in meeting their own needs, thus requiring external and often paternalistic intervention. Even when tangible aid is offered, such an approach runs the risk of undermining the dignity and confidence of the very people it means to help. 

By contrast, the horizontal or bottom-up approach of mutual aid operates on a common basis of respect, trust, and empathy within the community. Mutual aid offers an affirmation of solidarity and reciprocity — not charity. Striking at a more fundamental level, it is an instinctive response to a call for help, a shared understanding that no one will be left behind. This grounds wealth distribution in kindness and camaraderie rather than pity and a twisted sense of superiority. 

Mutual aid cuts across bureaucratic red tape, and doesn’t conform to rigid criteria for who is allowed aid and how much.

For instance, Leveler, which describes itself as a tool that facilitates the distribution of wealth, encourages individuals with sufficient financial means to support freelancers who have lost their sources of income. Founded by Alessandra de Benetti in 2020, Leveler helps connect “distributors” with ten randomly selected “receivers,” sending money between users via Venmo, Paypal, or Cash App. According to an interview conducted on Forbes, these payments can be as modest as $5 or $10 per receiver. This makes the mutual aid effort manageable, feasible and less intimidating for many distributors. There are also mutual aid networks which provide support by rendering a service, such as preparing free lunches for school-going children, or helping the elderly and immunocompromised do their grocery shopping.

In addition, while more institutional forms of aid are typically centralized, mutual aid networks are generally decentralized. Even though centralization can ease administration and create a larger pool of resources, decentralization enables mutual aid networks to work in a more localized manner, targeting the specific needs of their immediate community and tackling them with greater speed and efficacy. 

Within Illinois and other states, there are hyper-local mutual aid networks which operate within specific locales like Champaign County, or even Astoria, a neighborhood located on the west side of Queens in New York City. Mainly referred to as mutual aid “pods,” these tight-knit networks involve even more personal and closer interaction, operating on first-name bases. Hence, mutual aid doesn’t just extend across a country — it embeds itself in every corner and crevice of a neighborhood.

Another pivotal difference between mutual aid and more traditional channels of social welfare is the very tangible connection established between the benefactor and the beneficiary. This is certainly part of the reason why School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) alumna Brejenn Allen (BFA 2020), the founder of Happy P’Jappies, is invested in mutual aid. Owned and run by Allen’s family, Happy P’Jappies has been producing funky, tailor-made, and more dignifying hospital gowns and masks for patients around the world since Brejenn was 14. In this pandemic, her and her family’s contributions have become even more essential. 

Allen explained that being able to interact with her beneficiaries directly enables her to feel the real impact of her efforts. She expressed, “They’ll send me a text message or email, or they’ll tag me in a photo on Instagram of their kids in a hospital gown [who hasn’t] smiled in six months and I’m like ‘Oh, my God! I’m changing the world!’” Allen and her beneficiaries share in palpable joy and elation. The more casual aspect of direct messaging on Instagram or Whatsapp makes the impacts of mutual support become more visible, inspiring faith and encouraging people to continue to pay it forward.

Yet, while this may be heartening, we must remember that mutual aid is fundamentally borne of crisis. It is but a balm to governmental failure, a broken system that fails to sufficiently cater to the needs of the society whom it supposedly serves. As mentioned above, governmental bodies identify disadvantaged groups and provide targeted aid. However, many fall through the cracks, such as those who miss the criteria by only a hair’s breadth, college students, the elderly, or undocumented immigrants, and communities who are marginalized and oppressed by the very government that is supposed to support them, such as the LGBTQ community and communities of color

Another pivotal difference between mutual aid and more traditional channels of social welfare is the very tangible connection between the benefactor and the beneficiary.

This is an ironic, awful and outrageous situation where privileged administrators determine who is “poor enough” to receive aid. Moreover, financial institutions and legislation put applicants through tedious, strenuous, and demanding administrative procedures to even begin the process of proving that they qualify for aid. This puts extra strain on them when their time is already being fully consumed by frantic job-searching, the juggling of multiple jobs, and the caretaking of dependents.

But there’s also a question of how sustainable mutual aid groups are in the long run on account of both labor and finance. Running a mutual aid network can be a time-consuming and taxing responsibility. Facilitators aren’t paid for their efforts, which means many work day jobs or attend school, too. Thus, as the amount of requests for aid becomes overwhelming, facilitators may begin to experience burnout, physically and mentally. 

Even though Allen and her family are able to focus on Happy P’Jappies full-time, they certainly feel this strain. The business takes paid orders and contracts, but over 80 percent of orders that Happy P’Jappies fulfills are donated. And Allen shared that keeping these mutual aid efforts funded has been a challenge. “When people aren’t ordering gowns online or if they’re not coming in [to the physical store in Mississippi] to buy something,” funds for gown and PPE donations run dry. Determined to keep donations going, Allen added that there were moments when she had to tap into her personal accounts.

The family also experienced burnout during certain periods when they had to work through the night all seven days of the week to keep up with the escalating need for masks and gowns. Hiring extra hands or recruiting volunteers may seem like viable solutions, but physical restrictions like a lack of space in Happy P’Jappies’s small workshop for adequate social distancing pose a problem; expanding to meet rising demands is not as straightforward as it may seem. 

Furthermore, for mutual aid networks like waresnotwarehouses, major challenges arise with establishing trust. Facilitators of the aid network shared in their Telegram group that a handful of potential aid-contributors had hounded some of the aid-seekers for documentation and verification, a return to bureaucracy and red tape, causing great stress for those who had bravely stepped forward to lay bare their vulnerabilities to the public. 

Now, waresnotwarehouses asks requesters to submit an application form first so contributors know that the listings have been screened, diminishing their hesitation and relieving the burden of constant verification for beneficiaries. Opportunists who exploit mutual aid irreparably undermine and damage the invaluable trust and confidence that people have for one other, and when communities are mired in distrust, it becomes difficult to carry out mutual aid. 

Considering these challenges, perhaps the government could step in to work in tandem with these decentralized, grassroots-level groups. When asked about this, Allen expressed that Happy P’Jappies would certainly benefit from additional funding, but she is wary of all the strings that may come attached with government grants, and feels like “it might put more pressure than is necessary on [them] to be able to help people.” This (warranted) distrust of the government probably reflects the disillusionment that brought about this proliferation of mutual aid in the first place, and there remains much to be explored as to how governmental bodies can better aid communities and their mutual aid organizations.

Ultimately, the rise of mutual aid is proof that we are capable of rising together in solidarity to help our neighbor in the face of tremendous hardship and deprivation, as well as immense wariness of and exhaustion with institutions. Here in Singapore, we call this “kampung spirit,” a spirit of empathy, resilience, and unity within small neighborhoods (referred to as “kampungs”) which arose in Singapore’s early years of poverty from the 1960s–80s, in which “neighbor helped thy neighbor.” 

Yet, it is crucial to remember that the very existence of mutual aid is proof of systemic failure, and that while the spirit of mutual aid is laudable, its necessity is not. In difficult times such as these, let’s contribute to the mutual aid networks in our locale to uplift the people around us and keep these networks roaring.

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