In times of crisis, how can communities care for each other’s sustenance needs in a way that affirms and advances these needs as basic rights? Mutual aid (MA) offers a robust area to investigate this question. MA generally refers to “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs … from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them” (Spade, 2020). MA has roots in indigenous practices and has long been a tool of collective care and resistance by traditionally marginalized communities (DecriminalizeUW 2020; Hartman, 2018; Nelson, 2011). While MA can take many forms, during Covid-19, it has expanded as grocery delivery for the elderly and immuno-compromised, rent pools for people out of work or facing eviction, and bail funds for people in jail. Alongside last summer’s uprisings against racial injustice and ahead of the 2020 election, MA networks have also been sites of political discourse.
From November 2020 through June 2021, I conducted fieldwork with neighborhood-based MA groups that emerged since the onset of Covid-19 and focus on grocery operations in Brooklyn, New York. Through interviews and participant observation, I examine whether and how communities use MA as a platform to broaden recognition and protections of human rights.
Research Questions and Methodology
My research questions emerged and evolved through the course of fieldwork. They include:
- How and why do people participate in MA?
- How do people make meaning of their participation in MA?
- How is MA related to other forms of collective action?
Participant observation primarily included grocery operations, supporting a local free store, and engaging in political education programs. Through participant observation and snowball sampling, I connected with 33 MA organizers and participants for interviews.
The power imbalances inherent in qualitative studies were particularly apparent during Covid-19, the economic fall-out that followed, uprisings against racial injustice, and democratic decay. Given that this fieldwork took place during these ongoing, intersecting crises, I was particularly mindful of my positionality as a young white researcher, and the ways in which research could contribute to, rather than extract from, communities. In June, I held a group call with MA organizers to share preliminary collective findings, and I remain in contact with several interviewees about ways this research might inform their ongoing work.
This research offers insight into the ways in which MA serves as a platform for neighbors to take collective action to support subsistence rights and advance political and economic rights more broadly (Mancilla, 2019). More specifically, this research reveals the ways in which:
- People join MA: Several MA participants name the absence of state support for those directly impacted by the physical and economic toll of Covid-19 as an affront to human rights, the devastation of which is particularly acute when juxtaposed with police violence against Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. For many, then, MA offers a way to shield rights upon which the state actively infringes.
- People ascribe meaning to MA: MA appears to provide a path for collectively caring for each other’s rights, and for collectively resisting structural forces that violate these rights. Several interviewees described MA as an “ad hoc redistribution system” while critiquing capitalism and the welfare state for jeopardizing subsistence rights. For others, they do not see MA as explicitly political or tied to policy objectives but describe the ways in which it serves as a way to connect with neighbors with whom they previously did not interact. While these responses reveal a potential limitation to MA’s framing (Benford and Snow, 2000), further analysis probes whether and how this relationality and the quotidian activities of MA constitute political acts in and of themselves.
- MA connects to other forms of collective action: For instance, MA participants describe intentionally patronizing locally, black-owned coffee shops; MA groups began coordinating vaccine appointments for neighbors in addition to grocery operations; and MA online platforms elevate the work of longer-standing local advocacy groups that organize door-knocking events to raise awareness about the eviction moratorium, stimulus check donation drives for undocumented neighbors, environmental justice debates about local development, and alternatives to calling 911.
As I prepare to submit this research for my master’s thesis, I look forward to putting these findings into conversation with the broader human rights literature. The UW Center for Human Rights Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Fund made this research possible, and I greatly appreciate the support and opportunity.