Anke al-Bataineh desperately wanted to help after fires erupted at protests over George Floyd’s death. She created a Facebook page to build a mutual aid network of neighbors directly helping people needing things from food to finances.
“I thought, let’s see if I can connect people who live around here, maybe make sandwiches, arrange food,” said al-Bataineh.
“I was thinking a couple hundred people. Within about a week, we had 16,000.”
Called the South Minneapolis Mutual Aid Autonomous Zone Coordination, it is part of a surge of mutual aid networks sweeping Minnesota and the nation. They eschew the traditional model of charity, harnessing people-to-people assistance without the hierarchy, rules or oversight of traditional giving and receiving.
The south Minneapolis group, now with nearly 20,000 members, fields requests to find low-cost eyeglasses and car repairs, air mattresses and coolers for tent communities, cash for families’ rents, diapers and medicine. Offers range from bedroom furniture to money for an eviction prevention fund.
The groups vary widely in size and focus. The East Side Learning Center in St. Paul has 100 members, while the Neighbors Helping Neighbors group in Winona has more than 2,000 members. Larger Twin Cities groups that emerged after Floyd was killed at the hands of police combine political organizing with aid.
They’re a 21st century incarnation of mutual aid societies that flourished in the United States in the 1800s, especially in immigrant communities. This time around, they’re fueled by the fears and hardships linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread unemployment and growing demands to address racial inequities.
“I don’t remember a time when I’ve seen so many people who care about each other stepping forward,” said Lawrence Shulman, University of Buffalo dean emeritus, who has written extensively on mutual aid groups.
“There are all kinds of crises happening right now. A crisis can bring out the best side of us, the side of us that understands our stake in the health and welfare of others,” he added.
Ini Augustine, whose family emigrated from Nigeria, has witnessed the evolution of mutual aid. Growing up, her mother and friends contributed money each month to a fund, which was then awarded to one member in need. Today Augustine is an administrator overseeing the Midway-St. Paul Mutual Aid Autonomous Zone Coordination, a 2,000-member group that sprang up after Floyd’s death.
“Mutual aid has been the energy of the decade,” said Augustine, a health care network engineer from St. Paul. “I did two stints in AmeriCorps, and one thing they tell you is that people have all they need within their own communities. That’s what this is about.”
National web grows
Google “mutual aid near me” and you’ll find a website called mutualhub.org as well as a new AARP web page directing readers to a U.S. map marked by hundreds of dots. These are a fraction of the groups now on the ground, many launched this year following the social and economic strains unleashed by COVID-19.
The East Side Learning Center in St. Paul has long been a face-to-face mutual aid group, pairing volunteer tutors with students. But with COVID-19, it organized online to offer a broader range of community supports, said Suzanne Al-Kayali, the center’s development associate.
Al-Kayali searched the internet to learn how to set up a mutual aid group and discovered a spreadsheet template like the one used by the Wedge neighborhood in Minneapolis and Frogtown-Rondo Mutual Aid, she said.
“There’s a form you fill out if you’re willing to help people with yardwork, their taxes, groceries,” said Al-Kayali. “And a form if you need help.”
Al-Kayali then acts as matchmaker between the volunteers and those seeking help.
The south Minneapolis group, meanwhile, initially was about connecting emergency food, shelter and other services to people after arson fires destroyed businesses and buildings in their community. It has morphed into something akin to a full-service social service agency, with mental health counselors, some medical professionals, a security team, grocery referrals and a constant stream of requests for help and offers of aid.
It doesn’t use spreadsheets or tightly track the avalanche of activity. Like other newer Facebook networks, it has a crew of moderators who connect members to resources as well as monitor inappropriate content.
It offers links to the Twin Cities Mutual Aid map showing where donations are needed, offers twice weekly cash fundraisers for people of color, a monthly calendar showing where to donate each day, and constant and sometimes surprising offers of support. Recently one woman donated 1,500 pairs of socks, and a volunteer cook received 600 pounds of onions.
It also keeps members up to date on the latest protests and political action related to Black Lives Matter, people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, the homeless — people who they argue are not being served by traditional systems.
For some, it’s political
For organizers such as al-Bataineh, mutual aid is a political statement that underscores “the inequalities of capitalism that are being bared right now.” Mutual aid is fulfilling the many unmet needs, she said, and at the same time it is building community and breaking down barriers between haves and have-nots.
“Doing mutual aid is complicated,” said al-Bataineh, a linguist who consults globally on multilingual education. “It’s important that people don’t see it as receiving charity — or as themselves being a savior.”
Many members of mutual aid groups both give and receive. Jennifer Lancour has been cooking warm meals for the homeless for two months. Three days a week she volunteers in the kitchen of First Congregational Church in Minneapolis, preparing more than 200 meals that will be delivered to folks living in tent communities and to others in need. She recruits volunteers from the south Minneapolis aid group to help cook and deliver the meals.
Last week, the tangy smell of Mexican salsa greeted visitors as she and two volunteers prepared quesadillas. Lancour is the chief fundraiser, grocery shopper, donation drop-off spot, as well as cook. It’s a labor of love.
“I believe everyone should have basic needs met, it doesn’t matter how they got there,” she said.
When her washing machine broke recently, she posted a request for help online. She was able to buy a new machine thanks to those donations.
While their popularity is growing quickly, mutual aid networks have limitations. The often-exhausted organizers, many who also hold down professional jobs, acknowledge they face challenges of volunteer burnout and donor fatigue in the face of constant requests for help. Fundraising can be constant.
But Kate Barr, a longtime Minnesota nonprofit leader, said mutual aid is filling a crucial niche during these challenging times. It offers a swift and direct response to urgent community needs, something traditional nonprofits often aren’t equipped to do.
“It’s so authentic, so responsive to the immediate community,” said Barr, president and CEO of Propel Nonprofits, an organization that works to improve nonprofit management. “You don’t need a strategic plan. You respond to a gap in need. ... And the amount of aid they’re doing is mind-boggling.”
Organizers say mutual aid not only fills a void by addressing community needs, but also fills a void in the human heart.
“I’m sad that we are experiencing so much pain,” said Augustine. “This was trial by fire. But we’ve done it.”