Building Resiliency Together

How Mutual Aid Networks are Building Resilient Communities in the Face of Covid-19

The Covid-19 crisis has been a true test of the resiliency of our communities. It has shown the enormous gaps where government safety nets have fallen short where ad hoc community groups have stepped in to provide needed assistance to people. It has shown where pre-pandemic community resilience building by local and regional governments have shown their purpose. And it has shown potential areas of growth where we can build off of what works.

In the spirit of looking ahead towards the future, we're going to focus here less on what didn't work and more on the opportunities that arose. These areas of light do show where our current systems have fallen short and shouldn't be ignored, but we are hoping this asset-based approach can show us what works and use those examples to highlight how our society can build more resilient communities together.

In February and March of 2020 when the world was effectively going into lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, millions of people found themselves suddenly unemployed. Additionally, many people who were particularly vulnerable to the virus were stuck in their homes for fear of contracting a disease particularly dangerous to them. While the United States government worked at a relatively fast pace--at least compared to their usual glacial pace--to help fill the gap through individual payments, eviction moratoriums, The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and more, it still wasn't sufficient or efficient enough for the far-reaching need. Food pantry lines were growing exponentially and many people had lost their employer-based health insurance

This is where community mutual aid groups stepped in.

Mutual aid is not a new phenomenon and its networks existed pre-pandemic. But in this global, widespread crisis, they cropped up to become one of the essential resiliency programs designed to keep their community members off the brink of disaster. 

Mutual aid networks are somewhat informal networks that strategize ways to support people in a whole manner of ways: specifically stepped up to distribute money to marginalized groups to pay for rent or food or medication or healthcare expenses and bought and delivered groceries for seniors and the immunocompromised. And in the crises on top of the pandemic crises (e.g., massive fires in the West, ice and snow storm-induced blackouts in the South), these mutual aid groups, already well organized thanks to the pandemic, worked to raise money and help people displaced or stranded in unsafe situations due to the disasters. 

Mutual aid is different from the one-way charity model, wrote Amanda Arnold in this article in New York Magazine's The Cut, it's "a form of solidarity-based support, in which communities unite against a common struggle, rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves." The informal mutual aid model, as she describes, has long been in existence in underserved communities where government safety nets do little to alleviate poverty and effects of systemic racism. The coronavirus has merely brought mainstream attention to these models. CityLab's visual history of mutual aid networks in the United States gives a great overview of their origin.

These kinds of support networks exist all over the world, but they might not always be couched under "mutual aid." Many communities create co-op-like systems called "lending circles" or "giving circles'' where members contribute to a pool or pot of money that would then be used for loans for members. While it's not specifically for aid purposes, the collective organization by a co-op has similar effects of creating community and collective resiliency as mutual aid groups do.

Here are some lessons that we're learning from the growth of mutual aid networks.

They're Filling the (Wide) Gaps in Government Safety Nets

Because they exist informally and outside of government bureaucracy and systems, mutual aid networks can show what is possible for societies if we redistribute our resources more equitably. While these networks have arisen because of a need to fill some wide gaps in government assistance and social service programming, they do offer perspective on an innovative model that can be tapped into and formalized.

As Amanda Schupak wrote in the Huffington Post last July, mutual aid networks have a long history within marginalized communities and have been at the root of activist movements through their processes of building solidarity. But there are limits to mutual aid. 

"Whether it’s the 2020s, the 1960s or the 1800s," Schupak wrote, "the dire need for mutual aid exposes the failings of a system that has never provided equally for all people."

Certainly the government has a responsibility to protect and provide for all people in society that isn't rooted in the generosity and donations of other community members. But that's also been a question since the founding of this country. Maybe the rise in mutual aid-type assistance can be a way to show the need as well as models of true resilience of a community outside of a centralized, capitalist system. 

"The question now," as Schupak wrote, "is whether the groundswell will finally shift the landscape in a meaningful way." For example, ideas and calls for defunding the police resemble the core tenets of a mutual aid network—namely how do we match the need with available resources in the community to alleviate harm? Eugene, Oregon has responded to this call for change by creating the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) program where police aren't the immediate responders to 911 calls, especially when a mental health crisis is involved. This has resulted in diverting 5-8% of emergency calls away from police response.

In the way that calls for reframing the role of police in our communities have led to some change (and hopefully even more), this rise in mutual aid network support could also help change policy and government support of citizens in the social services arena.

They're showing us a window into how to build resilient communities

While mutual aid networks are certainly filling a gap the government should be filling, there's something at the macro-level we can learn from these forms of solidarity. In one way, it does show the power of humanity. The power of social capital.

We're not talking about the top-down social capital that links community members to people in power, necessarily. But the social capital between people within communities. Daniel Aldrich, professor of political science and director of the Security and Resilience Studies Program at Northeastern University has studied social capital in how it's connected to the resilience of communities and their abilities to recover in post-disaster situations. 

Aldrich defines three types of social capital: bonding ties (the close ties between close friends and family), bridging ties (the ties between different types of social groups), and linking ties (vertical ties to people/organizations in power). 

"My obsession now," Aldrich said in an April 2020 Covid-Calls interview about social capital and mutual aid, "is the belief that these ties are some of the most important resources that we have access to. And Covid-19's physical distancing makes it all the more important to recognize their power." 

Alrdich, along with his co-author Michelle Meyer, noted in their 2015 article in American Behavioral Sciencethat strong bonding and bridging ties lead to better outcomes for communities during and after a disaster. The trust built in tight knit communities through bonding social ties can "increase the likelihood of emergent social action to respond to disaster victims’ needs," they wrote.

People within a community are the ones that know their neighbors and the people around them and can check in on them after an earthquake or hurricane. They know which houses have elderly people who might need additional assistance evacuating when there's advance warning. They also have the social connections to rebuild together after disaster strikes. And, particularly relevant here, these social ties connect to the development of mutual aid networks. 

Mutual aid is built on networks within communities. The bonding ties extend out to the bridging ties where diverse groups come together in solidarity. The assistance that comes from mutual aid is built on community connection, not from connection to the most powerful.

Aldrich's research in particular has pointed out how government institutions can learn from these mutual aid networks to more fully support their communities. While investing in infrastructure to protect from natural disasters such as flooding or earthquakes or snowstorms are important, that's not where all investments should go. Local governments can invest in building what Aldrich and Meyer call "social infrastructure." 

Many local communities are already creating programs that are focused specifically on ensuring that the groups most likely to have fewer "linking ties" or ties to the government and/or their communities have been dispersed due to gentrification or historical dislocation through government action. Mutual aid groups show how efficient and effective the grassroots organizing can be and there could be an official tie to ensure that the resources government entities have access to make their way to the people who need them most.

Mutual aid networks might be filling a gap, but they also show what works.

Check out these resources to find mutual aid networks in communities around the world and to learn more about mutual aid networks in general.