When I needed to donate a box of vegetables recently, I called a nonprofit in my Queens neighborhood in Queens, New York, that organizes low-wage immigrant workers. 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 t 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.
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 sexism, classism and racism.
Throughout American history, mutual aid societies existed wherever poor, disenfranchised people could be found. 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 New York, New Orleans and Newport, Rhode Island, providing non-denominational spiritual guidance and resources such as banks, schools, burial societies, newspapers, and food. W.E.B. DuBois called these “the first wavering step of a people toward organized social life.”
These organizations threatened 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. 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 free breakfasts and health programs alongside their fight against police brutality and exploitation.
European immigrant communities of the 19th and 20th centuries, too, relied on cooperative efforts to 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. In the late 1890s, Addams’ training of settlement house volunteers became the basis of early social work college programs.
The settlement houses’ social reform projects, including sanitation reform, women’s suffrage, temperance, legislation against child labor, and labor law, were eventually into the New Deal. 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, reflecting the prevailing racism, excluded domestic and farm workers in a compromise that ensured that Southern Democrats and the agricultural industry would still have access to cheap labor.
Left to fend for themselves, those workers relied on mutual aid even as they organized for change. 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” by starting with local issues to rally people for broader political change.
The Alinsky model featured highly professionalized, well-paid organizers who kept any radical politics to themselves. 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. By the time 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. 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. 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. Mutual aid fuels the audacity to demand more because it reinforces that we are not alone in our suffering.
Rinku Sen is a longtime journalist, racial justice strategist, and former executive director of Race Forward. She is the author of Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy. She wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.
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