I left the West Coast three years ago, in search of refuge from the housing crisis. Before that home was Portland, then Los Angeles. I fell hard for California, but the Oregonian in me looked askance at the climate. It might have felt like home, but it wasn’t; it was an expensive tinderbox. I relocated to the Intermountain West, determined to remain solvent while I finished my book. I fought off my ambivalence with a desperate, pointed optimism. I would be getting out of my liberal bubble! Immersing myself in the Other Half of America! I would learn to grasp polarization from the inside! Educate people who looked like me about the damage our whiteness was doing to other people, and to ourselves!
It was an extreme decision with extreme consequences. Housing is more affordable here, but I pay another kind of price. I am adaptable, but I have my limits, and so does the culture here, which is even more insular than I expected. I can go days, weeks even, without speaking to anyone but my partner and my cat—maybe my students, if I’m teaching that day, or the cashier at the grocery store, but that’s it. Social isolation is one of those things that seems to just happen sometimes, when the weave of agency and circumstance is too messy and tight to untangle. When you look at it this way, attempting to escape on purpose feels like a naive project. I decided to stop trying and just ride it out.
The peace and quiet grew on me, I learned how to spot mink on the riverbanks. Then the pandemic hit, and six months later, the Oregon wildfires started. The second crisis broke my solitude, but it also enforced it, made it doubly surreal. I watched the smoke from my phone, the only window left in the world, and resisted the urge to take up space on the highways. Those familiar curves of tree-lined asphalt weren’t for driving anymore. They were for evacuating. Disaster came home, but I wasn’t there. Helping meant staying out of the way, reduced to texting my mother links to top-rated air filters and obsessively checking the evacuation map. Would the line jump the river and wrap my parents’ house in red? It never did. But it took a while to shake that split feeling of being trapped by crisis on one side and safety on the other.
When I worked as a journalist, and in my current job teaching community college, I’ve experienced a similar confusion about my position. I might have been in the streets at the protest, but I was on the clock. When COVID-19 arrived last spring, I tried to provide structure and continuity for my students, but many of them were essential workers; if they couldn’t get their PPE, how could I expect them to focus on research or critical thinking?
So am I in the trenches, or on the sidelines? The answer, like the answer to most questions worth asking, is probably “Both,” or “It depends.” But is that good enough in times of crisis?
I found a welcome space to think about this in a new book by the scholar and activist Dean Spade. Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis and the Next, was released by Verso in October. It can be read as a manual for people already doing mutual aid work, but it will also be of interest to people like me, who don’t identify as activists but are questioning that identity amid the chaos and pain of the pandemic, continued police brutality, polarization, and climate chaos. Spade contends that in order for as many people as possible to survive these crises, we need to break our social isolation and help each other without the help of the government or large charities, and we need to do it with intention and skill. Mutual aid is the broad term for this process, and can encompass anything from training EMTs in neighborhoods where ambulance response times are too slow to making sure people crossing the border in the desert have access to drinking water. The hallmark of mutual aid is that it works on two fronts: by meeting people’s survival needs in a destigmatizing way, and at the same time, raising people’s awareness about the problems that caused those needs to go unmet in the first place by creating space for education, dialogue, and leadership by those most affected.
The book’s first section defines the theory and practice of mutual aid and puts it in historical context. Spade maintains that cooperative care has been a part of human life for a long time, but colonialism and capitalism have strained it to the limit. This leaves us isolated and at the mercy of unresponsive or hostile systems that derive their legitimacy from credentialing and professionalism, rather than lived experience, and that often worsen the problems they’re supposed to address.
When effective mutual aid projects enter the picture, they are at risk of being targeted or co-opted by the government, or both. For example, the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children drew the scrutiny of J. Edgar Hoover and harassment by police, but it is also credited with creating the conditions to demand expansion of the US Department of Agriculture’s free breakfast program. Spade demonstrates that effective mutual aid has been an enduring feature of both natural disasters like wildfires and hurricanes and human-made crises like the pandemic and poverty. Over 60,000 people volunteered to help Occupy Sandy deliver necessities to people after the storm in 2012, for example. More recently, millions of people donated to bail funds during the protests after George Floyd’s death; the bus drivers’ union in Minneapolis declared its members’ right to refuse to take police officers to protest or protesters to jail; at a protest in DC, when police began making arrests to enforce a 6 pm curfew, people opened their homes to protesters and kept them overnight.
As I read, sometimes I was overwhelmed by how much work there was to do, and how much was already being done by other, better people. Fortunately, Spade mixes an activist’s pragmatism and a scholar’s critique with frank advice for mental-emotional health. “We live in a society based on disposability,” he writes, and that leads us to see everything as expendable, including ourselves. It was sad yet emboldening to read about this dynamic in a context outside of my own life. I realized anew how much I’d internalized messages about the disposability of my own labor; the years have not been kind to an independent press or higher education.
One of the most persuasive things about Mutual Aid is the way it emphasizes emotional intelligence alongside the organizing advice and political analysis. Spade contends that mutual aid shouldn’t feel like volunteerism, but more like a holistic realignment, where our hopes for the future guide our actions. “It should enliven us,” he writes. There are passages dealing with how to identify burnout, workaholism, perfectionism, saviorism, and difficult group dynamics, as well as how to turn them around. Even though much of Mutual Aid reads like a brainy lefty instruction manual (as intended), it is also concerned with hope. But the hope is worldly, free of wishful thinking. The sections on self-care include affirmations that double as stark acknowledgements of human pain, mantras like, “Everyone deserves to exist, including me.”
I first encountered Spade’s work years ago, browsing the zine table in an Oregon forest where a group of environmentalists had gathered for the week. The space was open to all except cis men and there was an abiding atmosphere of camaraderie, but there were moments when the cumulative stress of classism and sexism was palpable. I remember someone complaining about having to work and do activism on the side while kids with trust funds could organize full time. Those people think I’m trash! someone else laughed. I asked a young musician what had inspired them to come. They grinned at me over the smoky remnants of the breakfast fire. Because I didn’t want to deal with the man-archists, they said.
That time it was my turn to laugh. It was galvanizing, and a relief, to be around people who were smart and driven enough to do whatever they wanted and had chosen to spend their time doing work that could be pretty thankless. But inspired as I was, I still spent too much time in my tent, exhausted from the talk about a prospective new coal plant and what it would do to people’s lungs, about patriarchy, about all the habitat that would be lost if the latest logging sale went through.
The tradeoff was that as I lay atop my sleeping bag listening to the river, I managed to read most of the opening chapter of Spade’s first book, Normal Life, a work of legal scholarship and critical trans theory, when it was just a stapled photocopy with grainy clip art on the cover. Spade is so good at illustrating how administrative systems like prisons, shelters, and government identification treat and label people like objects, and why that’s bad for anyone who can be labeled as somehow different, not only trans people. Mutual Aid continues this work in a new context, as Spade contends that charity and government aid sort people into two boxes: those who “deserve” help, and those who don’t.
Some of the most striking examples he offers have to do with who gets access to shelter. For example, to be eligible for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a person must have a prior address, so unhoused people who are displaced by disaster have no recourse under this system. This sorting tendency also tends to put the most vulnerable people at risk. The Homeless Management Information System is a computerized tool that requires federally-funded aid groups serving unhoused people to input personal data on their clients, which can be dangerous for people who are undocumented. Other housing programs also enforce a hierarchy of deservingness, too, such as those that require residents to maintain sobriety or receive counseling. Spade isn’t arguing that treating addiction and mental illness is a bad thing, but rather, that as long as eligibility systems and other institutional sorting mechanisms lock people into categories based on behavior or identity, survival and care are rationed when they should be universal, and that this rationing is based on a value system that is inconsistent with people’s lived experience.
Spade makes clear that there are specific ways of approaching mutual aid that help ensure it remains an effective and sustainable alternative. In addition to dealing with challenges like burnout and infighting, activists also have to navigate the pull of performativity. “Social media has encouraged our individualism and has enhanced the desire to ‘brand’ ourselves as radical or as having the ‘right’ politics,” he writes. “Everyone wants a selfie with Angela Davis to post, but many people do not want to take the time to visit prisoners, go to court with people, wait in long lines at welfare offices, write letters to people in solitary confinement, deliver groceries to an elderly neighbor, or spend many hours in meetings about how to coordinate care for people in need.”
I kept coming back to this warning as I thought about the aspect of the book that left me with the most unanswered questions: Spade maintains that in a crisis, people are naturally giving, that human selfishness is primarily a product of capitalism, a work of propaganda, a myth. On the one hand, I buy this. Competition and scarcity beget hoarding, and people with less power are easier to manipulate when we see each other as the problem. I once had a student whose warehouse boss was so jealous his employee was in college that he manipulated his schedule until my student had only two choices, quit work or fail classes. I have a difficult time arguing that it is in our nature to desire for each other an indefinite future of hucking boxes for minimum wage.
On the other hand, I’ve seen people subsidize their own idealistic existence outside the system by exploiting others who aren’t in a position to opt out. To me this is the result of something more complicated than myth or propaganda, something more akin to the dynamic of social isolation, where even as we make hard choices within real constraints, we are also at risk of using those constraints to justify what are really acts of self-interest. Isn’t it possible that selfishness is a survival instinct, part of the animal in us?
But humans are not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as animals, even if some systems treat us that way. Now that climate chaos is making the dilemma of our bodies more obvious to more of us, I wonder if that will change. As rents and oceans rise and more people move farther from our homes to survive, finding and creating new kinds of support networks could make the difference between well-being and preventable suffering, even life or death. The refreshing thing about Mutual Aid is that Spade doesn’t claim to have all the answers about how activists, and anyone weighing the possibility of getting more engaged, should go about doing this; the book is more interested in outlining infrastructure and habits of mind and practice that have held up to experience.
Spade is clear that this work is not just about getting people the food, shelter, and care they need, but about having conversations in the process, in order to build a shared understanding of why anyone has to go without what they need to survive in the first place. But these conversations are not in the book. I imagine there are many reasons for this, reasons like privacy, consent, priorities. Who has time to document work that is as urgent and demanding as this sounds? Still, the absence was frustrating. I wish there had been at least a few short illustrations of how these conversations can be started, what works to keep them going, what people are actually saying.
I used to report on gender and policy in addition to activism. For a story about proposed cuts to federal funding for domestic violence survivors, I spoke to a woman who’d survived her abuser’s attempt on her life, and to the social worker she regarded as a family member, someone who accompanied her through the process of reestablishing her life without her abuser. She needed a protection order and disability, a confidential address program. The two women waited in a lot of lines together, the same unglamorous lines that Spade warns are sometimes forsaken for attention or posturing. I tried to illustrate the familial side of their relationship with a few touching anecdotes, but I failed to capture it. That was a much longer story, one probably known only to them. I finished Mutual Aid feeling similarly, not excluded in any way, but held at arm’s length, like participation in the work was the price of entry to concrete examples and detailed insight. I still can’t decide whether that is a missed opportunity for the book, or just as it should be.
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