Dean Spade: ‘Mutual Aid Always Pops Up Where Disasters Are’ –

Posted: December 16, 2020 at 12:58 am

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Facing the fallout from a polarizing election, the global spread of a deadly virus, and impending ecological collapse, the contemporary political moment has been defined by crisis after crisis. Even in this formidable context, where wealth inequality, gender-based violence, and racial discrimination have been brought to the foreground, social problems are still often seen as individual shortcomings rather than systemic problems.

I think of charity as a centuries-old practice in which rich people give really small amounts of relief to poor people whom they select as deserving.

Writer, teacher, and trans activist Dean Spades new book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And the Next), defines mutual aid as survival work done in conjunction with social movements. Mutual aid is described as a way to meet peoples needs from an awareness that the current systems in place have failed to do so. Through mobilizing, expanding solidarity, and collective action (as opposed to saviorism), mutual aid aims to take back control from forced dependency on hostile systems and put it in the hands of community-led operations.

Deftly exploring the grassroots theory of mutual aid and its role in social justice movements, Spade critiques the existing systems and the need to fix people who are in need, as well offering actionable advice for activists in this recent interview for The Progressive.

Q: You write in the books introduction that successful social movements have included mutual aid. What specific challenges are we facing in todays society with the climate crisis and the pandemic, and how can mutual aid offer solutions?

Dean Spade: The crises were facing are arguably the most significant crises that humanity has ever faced. Were facing the climate crisis, a pandemic, a significant economic crisis, housing crises in many parts of the world, the crisis of militarized borders, and racist law enforcement.

So we are living under this huge set of crises, which are, in many ways, deeply tied to the severe concentration of wealth that has happened through the last half century. The only thing that we can fight this with is movements that have hundreds of millions of people. The opposition has all the money, all the guns, control over land, control over enormous militaries and police forces and border protection agencies. Its essential to build movements that have lots of people in them.

In the United States, social change is generally narrated as being about legislation, court cases, and charismatic figures. We talk about when that person gave that speech or when that law was passed. And thats not the bulk of what social movement work is. Mostly, its people who youve never heard of helping each other survive and building the people power capacity to fight the root causes [of injustices].

Mutual aid is vital for that. Its not a coincidence that that has been narrated out of how we talk about social change. That is why I really wanted to write about this tactic, this aspect of social change, and draw it to the surface.

Q: What do you think it is about the COVID-19 pandemic specifically, compared to other disasters, that has proliferated mutual aid groups?

Spade: Mutual aid always pops up where disasters are. If you look at the media coverage of a hurricane or a flood, youll see people discussing mutual aid. But because this disaster rolled out everywhere at once, that proliferation of mutual aid projects was more visible. Many people started doing mutual aid projects at the exact same time. Thats the main reason the idea of mutual aid went mainstream during this period.

Q: You refer to the long history of mutual aid, including Indigenous anticolonial projects and the Black Panther Partys free breakfast program. What was your personal introduction to the idea of mutual aid?

Doing mutual aid work for the long term means that we need to really care for ourselves and each other.

Spade: I was first involved in mutual aid projects related to people living with HIV/AIDS in New York City in the 1990s. The city was failing to house homeless people living with HIV/AIDS and putting them in really dangerous shelters and other dangerous situations. That was mutual aid work. It was going with people to the welfare office, and helping people find a place to stay when they needed it. I continue to do a lot of different work related to different groups of people who are not getting what theyre supposed to get from New York Citys welfare authority.

I dont think I called that work mutual aid when I was doing it in the 90s. At that time, I was also in communities that were doing harm reduction work and a lot of work related to resisting the war on drugs. We all knew that if you care about something, youre going to directly support the people facing it while youre trying to solve the root causes together. But the work of mutual aid is something that Ive been doing probably for around twenty years.

Q: Most people have grown up being taught that donating to charity is the best way to support vulnerable people in society. Can you explain why this charity model is flawed?

Spade: It is important to distinguish mutual aid from charity. I think of charity as a centuries-old practice in which rich people give really small amounts of relief to poor people whom they select as deserving. And so, charity is always moralizing. Most charities also have very racialized and gendered norms built into them. Those kinds of distinctions uphold existing systems that are producing poverty and crises for certain populations.

Charity is problematic in the way it usually involves lots of eligibility criteria that keep most people out. Its designed to not actually solve the problem. Charity is rich people seeing the problem as a few poor people who have something wrong with them. And maybe we should make them take a budgeting class or a parenting class. It suggests that theres nothing wrong with having the wealth concentrated in the hands of very few, and many people living severely under resourced lives.

Mutual aid says lets get everybody everything they need right now, without strings and without eligibility criteria, and charity says lets figure out who are the people who are deserving.

Q: You talk about the idea of having a cause as part of a persons brand and activism as a kind of lifestyle accessory. What do you think about the boom in online activism? Do you see it as helpful or self-serving?

Spade: Its essential for us to understand social media as an entry point for some people. Certainly, as were trying to recruit people into social movement organizations, including mutual aid organizations, social media can be a useful entry point. But social media has a very thin relationship to social movements and what we want to see is thick, participatory relationships to social movements, and to each other. Right now, social media can be very demobilizing. We are encouraged to post images related to certain political positions and then kind of be done. And that is very convenient for the existing systems to have us only self-branding about these ideas.

There is a lot of social pressure for people to just announce their political positions on social media and seek credit in that way. And thats not a very good practice for our movement. Social media is very individuating, and it can lead to shallow branding approaches to transformative ideas. Our job as activists and organizers is to use [social media] strategically to bring more people into active participation.

Q: The term self-care has been a bit of a buzzword over the last few years. Would you say self-care and mutual aid are at odds?

Spade: Doing mutual aid work for the long term means that we need to really care for ourselves and each other. And thats hard, because capitalism gives us a really strong message that products will make us feel better, or buying services will make us feel better. And thats not totally untrue, there are things that we want people to have that will support their wellbeing.

The bottom line is that mutual aid asks us to grow a lot of self-awareness. What does it look like when Im under too much stress? How do I ask for support? When do I need time alone, when do I need time with others? Those kinds of questions are like a deeper self-care inventory.

Q: In your book, you ask a very interesting question: What would winning look like? What would you say to people who are overwhelmed and pessimistic about the challenges we face today?

Spade: When people are involved in a mutual aid project where they are focusing on something specific, like grocery deliveries for elders in their neighborhood, or supporting childcare for low-income people, or whatever it is, that can be really grounding. And we learn through our work about more and more ways that people are experiencing harm, which is an organic way to build our solidarities. Then you move from feeling overwhelmed to doing grounded action you care about.

Q: Where is your work heading now? Do you think the work will shift under a Biden presidency?

Spade: I dont think were going to see a lessening of any crises coming soon, despite the shift from Trump to Biden. Our movements are just as necessary as ever. Ill probably just continue doing the same work Ive been doing for decades in prisons, and with people facing deportation and things like that.

My next book project Ive been working on for maybe six years will go more into how we do this kind of self-awareness and self-development work. A lot of my early writing was about the grand scale of how we misunderstand power. Its hard to find tools that are about this level of the self that arent actually just reifying individualism. Thats where my writing is going next.

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Dean Spade: 'Mutual Aid Always Pops Up Where Disasters Are' -

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December 16th, 2020 at 12:58 am

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