By: Noella Williams, Florida A&M University

Throughout the pandemic, mutual aid has benefitted communities that were unable to receive government assistance. From employees who were unexpectedly laid off from their jobs and poverty-stricken communities of color, the pandemic disproportionately affected a variety of people.

In a mutual aid system, the common goal of the organization is to build a sustainable network to support the members of a community. After the United States government only provided a limited amount of stimulus funding while an overwhelming number of people in need, individuals began to turn to their neighbors for support. This includes helping those who are experiencing homelessness, elderly who need assistance with groceries, women who are unable to afford feminine products or undocumented citizens.

In Tallahassee, Florida, Leon County is home to several organizations like Tally Community Aid, which devotes its time to combating food deserts in the city’s south side. Tally Community Aid founder Nik Rye created one of the many mutual aid networks that popped up during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Rye spent the last of their pocket change on miniature care packages that eventually turned into a bigger network supplying food, clothing, hygiene products and more.

“I think it’s important to define mutual aid as solidarity and not charity, because it’s not a hierarchical issue,” Rye said. “Basically, the community is helping each other, and it’s not about power at all. “It’s about, ‘Hey, I have a bunch of water, and you have a coat; I’m cold and you’re thirsty’ you know.’ And it almost acts as a training system.”

Rye, who was previously unhoused, said hygiene products– like toothpaste, pads and tampons– are an essential product that isn’t easily accessible. Currently, she spends her weekends at The Plant, a nonprofit in Tallahassee, creating care packages that include items from high calorie snacks to fentanyl strips.

“I saw this inherent need to help the folks in Tallahassee – the houseless community and the disenfranchised community in general – because all of the restaurants are getting closed down, which is huge,” Rye said. “We don’t have a good structure in Tallahassee for dealing with the houseless community in the first place.”

Leon County’s Development Review Committee recently denied the application for a local facility to create a shelter for the city’s unhoused community, stating its presence would be a “nuisance”. Although there are several other shelters and charities located throughout the city, additional support is needed. Rye said traditional non-profits like the Red Cross and Salvation Army are seen as a one-way trade between the organization and recipient that don’t provide a personal connection similar to mutual aid. The primary difference between mutual aid programs and charities is that it is funded by the community, versus wealthy individuals and corporations.

Florida State University student Carolina Bances kneeling next to vegetables. Credit: Carolina Bances

“The thing about mutual aid is that you don’t need permission. I think it’s important too that you really don’t need permission to help people. And you shouldn’t need permission, and I think we’re just very used to the society that we’re in, where we think we have to ask if we can help someone, or that we have to get engaged with an organization,” Rye said.

Mutual aid exists to have your neighbor’s back. Although the term is recently gaining more exposure, it existed prior to the pandemic– especially in communities of color. In 1969, The Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program began feeding more than 10,000 children. Similar to the Panthers’ program, the idea that mutual aid creates a bond within your community is a concept that is enforced in present-day groups. Currently, mutual aid organizations provide children and college students with assistance in groceries, personal care products and funds.

Students like Carolina Bances view this type of assistance as a way to combat food insecurity while educating yourself on food sustainability. Bances views the group as a “tight knit, resilient and self-sufficient community.”

“[Mutual aid] works to heal itself through community engagement and reciprocity. It dissolves the nuclear family as we understand that our community’s wellness is everyone’s responsibility and not just our immediate family,” Bances said.

Along with being a full-time nutrition student at Florida State University, they coordinate the Frenchtown Farmers Market on the weekend and tend to the farmers’ market’s newest garden project.

“Mutual aid from community gardens not only brings me nutrients from fresh local produce, but also gives me the tools to garden on my own,” Bances said. “Learning to grow your own food is crucial as we navigate the climate crisis. Growing food allows me to heal and develop a positive relationship with exercise and food.”

In order to begin a mutual aid network or join an aid organization in your area, you must understand that mutual aid is mutual. Ask yourself – what support can you give and what would you like to receive? The answer can be direct monetary donations or the distribution of canned goods, but it doesn’t stop there. 
Community fridges, housing for queer youth and bail funds for incarcerated people are all forms of mutual aid. To get involved with a local mutual aid program in your area, Mutual Aid Hub has created an extensive list of organizations.