Mutual Aid and Subsistence: An Anti-Capital Analytic of Community Support

Art by Audrey Njo

Underlying mutual aid theory and most mutual aid projects is the core tenet: everyone has something to contribute, and everyone has something they need.

This sentiment is true to how Mutual Aid Medford and Somerville approaches its own efforts to provide ongoing support to any Somerville or Medford resident who requests it.  

Claire Blechman, a coordinator for MAMAS and Medford resident, has been involved with MAMAS for the past three years since the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020. It was at this time that MAMAS began in earnest, providing support to community residents through initiatives, one of which allowed residents hesitant to grocery shop in person to have other group members deliver their groceries to them. Now, MAMAS largely focuses on initiatives like Supermarket Sweep and ongoing programs such as the Gardening Collective and Neighborhood Point People, in addition to an ongoing importance placed on redistributing cash donations. MAMAS has redistributed over $700,000 since March 2020. 

Similarly to MAMAS, Tufts Mutual Aid was created in March 2020 in response to the COVID crisis. TMA worked to serve Tufts students and meet their specific needs as a result of the pandemic. Within hours of President Monaco’s announcement that students residing on campus were to move out in a matter of days, then junior Jordan Hillman began the process of organizing TMA. By the next day, the group had already redistributed a total of $5,130 between students, according to a 2020 article from the Tufts Daily. Throughout its year and a half long tenure, TMA also stocked and promoted a community Food Pantry located at Hillside Community Church in Medford. The organization also offered forms of aid including institutional advocacy and support for systemic change, per information published on their website.  

MAMAS and TMA are just two of many mutual aid projects that emerged at the beginning of the COVID crisis. In a 2020 New Yorker article, Jia Tolentino writes that in a time of crisis—such as COVID—“Everything circles a bewildering paradox: other people are both a threat and a lifeline. Physical connection could kill us, but civic connection is the only way to survive.”

Mutual aid is a simple concept, as Regan de Loggans wrote for Briarpatch Magazine in 2021. It’s about “equitably reallocating resources and knowledge.” Essential to grasping this practice of aid is understanding that it functions as a political act and orientation. “Mutual aid is a commitment to anti-capitalism… Mutual aid is not charity,” Loggans writes. 

Generally, mutual aid networks function as an alternative to philanthropic projects such as non-profit and charitable organizations. In “Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival,” Dean Spade, a professor at the Seattle University School of Law, writes, “Mutual aid projects face the challenge of avoiding the charity model” and they “must also be wary of saviorism, self-congratulation, and paternalism.” 

Rather than charitable nonprofits or community service, where the flow of support is often one-sided, mutual aid relies on community solidarity to maintain its efficacy. Blechman said that MAMAS “disagree[s] with the way the Nonprofit Industrial Complex works.” Per Spade’s reflection on the concept, the Nonprofit Industrial Complex refers to the “eligibility requirements” that individuals often encounter when looking for support from nonprofits, philanthropies, and other so-called charitable institutions. Spade writes, “Nonprofitization has reproduced antidemocratic racist and colonial relationships between the winners and losers of extractive, exploitative economic arrangements.” 

According to a document available on MAMAS’ website titled “MAMAS Vision + Agreements,” MAMAS adheres to a belief that “every person deserves dignity and stability in their lives. No matter why someone is reaching out, we do our best to support them.” To MAMAS, mutual aid is, in principle, reliable and ongoing. Blechman also shared,“Tufts students—and anyone in Medford or Somerville—is eligible to receive aid from us. And we always want help, too.”

A mutual aid group’s longevity is not necessarily guaranteed. On September 2, 2021, TMA posted to Facebook they would be “shutting down indefinitely” due to a lack of volunteers, compromising the group’s ability to “continue sustainably.” The absence of TMA may leave an important gap within Tufts students’ ability to support each other’s financial and material needs. 

Lux Trevelyan, a sophomore and member of the Tufts Labor Coalition, wrote in a statement to the Observer, “Many members in our student body have access to extreme concentrations of wealth while fellow students face food insecurity and work several jobs.” Trevelyan continued, “True solidarity between students in community with each other requires material support of each others’ security and quality of life.”

In the wake of TMA’s absence, in a statement to the Observer, junior Katie Moynihan voiced concern regarding how “attempts to create Tufts-specific mutual aid may burn out with student turnover.” Because there is no mutual aid group that is specific to Tufts, Moynihan suggested it might be in “the Tufts student body’s best interest…to support MAMAS for the beautiful mutual aid community that it is.” 

In living at Tufts, both on and off campus, Tufts students have a part to play within the wider Medford and Somerville communities. On the relationship between MAMAS and the Medford and Somerville municipal governments, Blechman said MAMAS often petitions “our city government to put money towards the needs of people in general. And we feel that they’re not particularly doing that.”

Likewise, as Spade writes, “Mutual aid projects emerge because public services are exclusive, insufficient, or exacerbate state violence.” Mutual aid projects like MAMAS and TMA emerge from a long history of anarchist thought and struggle against oppression. Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin coined the term “mutual aid” towards the end of the 19th century. According to “Reclaiming Power: Mutual Aid in the United States” by Daniel Parker, Kropotkin’s “analysis of mutual aid has inspired many.” 

However, as Regan de Loggans wrote for Briarpatch Magazine in 2021, “Often, people will cite…Kropotkin as the father of mutual aid… The reality is that mutual aid has its roots in community resistance by Black and Indigenous people, who have been criminalized for these exact practices that are now celebrated by the white mainstream.” To this end, by the 19th century, “more than half of Black Americans were part of at least one mutual aid society.” 

A prominent example of a mutual aid program that encountered violent opposition from hegemonic institutions is the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program, created in response to “malnutrition in Black communities.” According to an article by Diane Pien, in 1969, “the Panthers fed more than 20,000 children nationally.” 

The Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program in particular is notable not only for its overwhelming success, but also for the targeted and violent response brought on by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. According to an article from NPR’s Throughline, Hoover argued that, because of the Free Breakfast Program, the Panthers were the “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” To Hoover, this justified the FBI’s “attempts to destroy the program” which eventually led to the end of the Free Breakfast Program and most Panther chapters by the early 1970s. 

Through the Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, the FBI used a variety of “sinister” tactics to dismantle the Panthers’ breakfast program. This included writing “anonymous letters to the churches that served as venues for the breakfast program, hoping to lead them to rescind their offer.” Additionally, according to an article by Branko Marcetic, the FBI “manufactured a violent and racist coloring book for children that it claimed was made by the Black Panthers,” in the hopes of leading the businesses that donated food to the breakfast program to cease doing so. 

The Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program, created in response to “malnutrition in Black communities,” is a prominent example of a mutual aid program that encountered violent opposition from hegemonic institutions. According to an article by Diane Pien, in 1969, “the Panthers fed more than 20,000 children nationally.” Additionally, in a 1969 U.S. Senate hearing, the national School Lunch Program administrator confessed “that the Panthers fed more poor school children than did the State of California.”  

According to Spade, “Mutual aid exposes the failures of the current system and shows an alternative. It builds faith in people power and fights the demobilizing impacts of individualism and hopelessness-induced apathy.” 

Trevelyan is hopeful for a future at Tufts that includes networks of mutual aid. They wrote, “The alliance between community care and movement building is essential, and [I] see significant potential for mutual aid and redistribution work on Tufts campus.”