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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2021

Mutual aid in a post-pandemic world

What does the future look like for those organizing around the immediate?

Furqan Mohamed

Illustration by Jared Briggs

“We started this because it’s a need,” says Omar Kinnarath.

Kinnarath is the founder and one of the organizers of Mutual Aid Society Winnipeg (MAS Winnipeg). The group started in March of 2020, immediately in the wake of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Stores across the city faced severe shortages of necessities: diapers, baby formula, and toilet paper. “Basic foods were flying off the shelves because of panic-buy,” he says. The pandemic encouraged Kinnarath and others to create a network to support their community. “It’s been an idea to create a mutual aid network in the city for years, but no one’s got around to doing it. But, when the pandemic hit, it was a necessity
that we needed to do this in this city.”

Mutual aid is a form of organizing that involves sustaining cooperation and solidarity between networks, neighbours, and communities. The projects that arise from mutual aid are entirely voluntary and without hierarchy. Mutual aid groups utilize direct action, meeting people where they are, in order to fulfill their needs.

Many of the communities that mutual aid projects arise from are populated by working-class, disabled, Black, and Indigenous people. With mutual aid, anything can be exchanged, from cash to food to clothing, even artistic goods and services.

The support systems that are created through mutual aid are built and sustained regardless of socio-political conditions. The ongoing pandemic has aroused an interest in mutual aid, and in the wake of less than ideal responses from governments of every level, people have realized the power of this particular kind of organizing and its potential for ongoing transformation.

MAS Winnipeg utilized social media to meet people’s needs. “We began organizing, and we started a Facebook group,” says Kinnarath. The group snowballed, amassing 9,600 members, eight organizers, and 100 regular volunteers, assisting with various projects.

Mutual aid is a form of caretaking outside the parameters of the state, and many marginalized communities have been doing this work long before the global pandemic. “In Winnipeg, we have a large newcomer population, and we have a huge Indigenous population,” says Kinnarath. “So, those attitudes of collectivism, of collective identity and responsibility, are already ingrained in the city—I guess why this has been so successful and has grown this much is because those ideas were already in place.”

In a world that is slowly recovering, organizers are continuing their projects. However, mutual aid commitments have not been without challenges, especially for the people involved. “There’s lots of trauma going on. It’s hard to look at every day; it’s hard to manage every day. But it feels good when someone requests something, and a community member fulfills that,” says Kinnarath.

Kinnarath also explains his external frustration that has come out of doing this organizing is just how much he and others can fulfill the needs of their neighbours with few resources, and the government, with all its resources, is seemingly unable to. “When we try our hardest, there’s great success, and we do that with zero money. You have millions, billions of dollars, and you’re failing at it,” he says. But this has not discouraged Kinnarath, his fellow organizers, or other mutual aid organizers across the country.

In Halifax, premier Iain Rankin’s words rippled across the small province as he urged residents to isolate. “He told everybody to stay in place at home, and that sort of raises the question, ‘What if you don’t have a home? Where do you stay?'” says Campbell McClintock.

McClintock is a frontline resident support worker with the Out of the Cold Shelter in Halifax and serves as the external spokesperson for Halifax Mutual Aid. HMA began around September of 2020, building tiny shelters for their houseless neighbours. “Having this type of space, where somebody can feel safe, where they can store their things and where they can be protected from the elements—that’s the very first priority of Halifax Mutual Aid,” he says.

The presence of the tiny shelters in Halifax has forced the government to reckon with their lack of support for this vulnerable group of people. And in the future, it’s clear that there is a need for groups like HMA, as there has recently been a spike in real estate investment in the province of Nova Scotia, with government response yet to be seen. “There are many housing solutions that we don’t feel they’re pursuing,” McClintock says. “The city, for example, owns a number of public properties that have been sitting vacant for years … There’s no shortage of strategies.” Like MAS Winnipeg, HMA has faced challenges with their project, primarily political ones. McClintock explains, “a lot of the obstacles revolve around people thinking and stating that these shelters are unsightly or that these shelters are unsafe, that they’re bringing more trouble into their neighbourhoods.” The confrontation, he says, is part of the strategy and ultimately will help to fight for better housing conditions down the line. “My belief is that, especially for the politicians, this issue should be right in front of their face. They should be reminded every day that these are their constituents, and these are the people they ought to be fighting for.”

Mutual aid requires relationships with those you are working with. “Mutual aid is a way to approach neighbours, people in your community, who may need support, and to engage with them to try and understand what is needed and then to work with other people to gather the resources, supplies, time, and energy needed to achieve those things, on an ongoing basis.” McClintock says. The connections built between everyone involved with HMA and mutual aid groups just like them will undoubtedly prove helpful in their next steps to holding the government accountable regarding housing.

So what does the future look like to those whose main political prerogative is the now? “Mutual aid is a philosophy. It’s a type of organizing. It’s not something that could be institutionalized,” Kinnarath says, echoing McClintock’s statements regarding community solidarity. “Whatever city you go to, mutual aid organizations are holding it down.” He references the major snow and ice storm that impacted parts of the U.S. in February 2021, specifically the organizers in Texas. “Mutual Aid Houston was out knocking on people’s doors…. They were there doing the work before the Red Cross, the state government or the federal government got there.”

Mutual aid stems from a deep understanding and skepticism of traditional systems and conduits of power. Dean Spade, an American lawyer, professor, and one of the most recognizable names when it comes to scholarship on mutual aid, writes, in his book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) that this kind of organizing is “stemming from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them.” and that “[t]hose systems have often created the crisis, or are making things worse.”

One person who understands this acutely is executive director Elene Lam. Lam is the founder of Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, known to many as simply, Butterfly. She founded the organization in 2014, explaining, “At the time, there were sex workers who were organizing. I was involved in sex worker organizing back in Asia and realized there was no platform here in Toronto, so we had to create one.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Butterfly created a mutual fund to support sex workers impacted by the circumstances. Precarious workers from all sectors endured a difficult time, but sex workers, in particular, faced challenges from all sides this year and the last. “People feared to disclose their work and report their income because of banks freezing their accounts and police investigations,” she says. The aid fund was necessary because sex workers are denied pandemic supports. “Sex workers are not recognized as workers or people with businesses. They didn’t receive financial pandemic help meant for workers and businesses.”

Mutual aid during the pandemic was also vital to this demographic because traditional avenues of support from governments and charities hinder the lives of sex workers, and entail surveillance. “A lot of resources go towards anti-trafficking laws. We are up against that and immigration policies, and that ends up with people being scared to ask for help,” Lam says. “People frame any Asian or migrant sex worker immediately as a human-trafficking victim. They don’t know the full story of these workers because they only listen to the mainstream media, the government, who don’t listen to workers.”

Kinnarath echoes her sentiments. “When it comes to government or institutional levels, we haven’t got a lot of support from them,” he says. Because mutual aid is not tied to governments or politicians, it is fair to question if those working toward progressive gains should abandon electoral politics as we advance into the future. Kinnarath suggests it does not necessarily have to be either-or. “You can’t have the seats without the street; you can’t have the street without the seats,” he says.

“You need to first and foremost organize communities, make sure they get everything that they need or try to the best of your best ability. And you have to create mass movements, the electoral part. That’s secondary.”

In an already deeply unequal world situated in a pandemic, it is a politics that requires frankness about the current conditions people face and is best understood as a coping mechanism for dealing with day-to-day injustices, saving people from slipping into complete purgatory. Kinnarath is honest about his personal political beliefs and how he reconciles those with his mutual aid commitments. “I consider myself an anarchist. But I consider myself a realist. I believe in this sort of politics, but I also understand the current paradigm,” he says, outlining what mutual aid is all about. Mutual aid allows us to take care of one another while we are in our current positions.

In the meantime, HMA is more than prepared to continue in a post-pandemic world. “If the city doesn’t change its strategies—if it doesn’t provide sustainable, affordable housing—fine. We’ll keep building shelters, and we’ll keep amassing people and resources to be able to provide for more than just a small wooden shelter there.… And because it’s a mutual aid group that is constantly adapting to circumstances, I do feel there is room and capacity for this group to grow and do more things.”

Lam says the same of Butterfly. “We have some funding we will put towards different projects. For us, there’s not a difference between the work we are doing now and the work we plan to do going forward. Even after the pandemic.” These projects will build on Butterfly’s already existing platform of advocacy, workshops, and financial supports, allowing them to mount challenges against government policies affecting sex workers going forward.

Kinnarath says he notices a shift in the way people in his community have reacted to mutual aid, and says that it has had a butterfly effect on organizing in Winnipeg. “It seems like everybody understands what mutual aid is. People I talked to on the street that don’t even know me will thank me for my work…. Then they read up about it and then start to organize themselves, creating their own little mutual aid networks.”
Many in the mutual aid organizing space feel that sense of inspiration from other organizers. Lam explains, “We are building solidarity with other movements as well. Abolitionist movements, racial justice movements. We now know we have so much in common. We have to work together.”

“Khaleel Seivwright and the group that he’s been working with within Toronto are a huge inspiration for Halifax Mutual Aid,” says McClintock. In Toronto, North of Bloor Mutual Aid provided people in their community with assistance when booking COVID-19 vaccines in multiple languages. They began their presence in June of 2020, and throughout the pandemic North of Bloor has hosted everything from neighbourhood cleanups to free online art classes for kids. Like other mutual aid groups, they have gone beyond just supplying material goods for people, further instilling a sense of solidarity.

Kinnarath is already considering a world beyond COVID-19 restrictions. “We’re just itching to go out into the world because now, we’ve built a reputation.” The end of the pandemic is not the end of mutual aid but the beginning of new opportunities for organizers and communities to further connect, learn, and grow. “We can start having community feasts, markets, and educational events like book fairs,” he says.

“We are going to keep doing this work,” Lam asserts. She is confident this work will continue, because it has proven what organizers are capable of. “Asian and migrant sex workers know they are strong.”

Kinnarath is optimistic, too, that this work will carry on in a post-pandemic world because of the lessons it has taught us. Speaking of mutual aid projects, he says, “It’s kind of showing a new type of organization, and a new type of leadership as well.” Kinnarath says, “The movements in the future will be led by people, or be led by organized people who just put in the work.”

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