A Wyandotte County mother messaged the WyCo Mutual Aid Facebook page explaining she had recently become unhoused and had been trying to find someplace for her 6-year-old and 9-year-old children to stay, but with no luck.
“It’s too cold to have my kiddos out standing at the bus stops. Shelters are still full. I’m not sure what I’m asking for, but I know there is others that need help as well,” the mother said in a message to the group.
The WyCo Mutual Aid group worked rapidly and asked group members for help. Soon after, a community member in the Facebook group completely funded the family to stay in an apartment for the week.
“That’s what mutual aid truly is supposed to be,” said Dustin Hare, co-founder of WyCo Mutual Aid. The group is now urgently looking for a long-term place for the family to stay.
Since the pandemic, thousands of mutual aid organizations popped up in local communities all over the nation, including WyCo Mutual Aid and Kansas City Mutual Aid. The groups have grown steadily since then.
“Certainly, when the pandemic hit, we anticipated that the need was going to be extreme in Wyandotte County, and we knew that mutual aid would be the model to help address it,” Hare said.
What is Mutual Aid?
Mutual aid groups are all about solidarity, community-helping-community, and teaching that everyone has something they can offer.
“We connect people in the community with other people in the community, or resources that can help them best survive,” said Kimberly Weaver, co-founder of WyCo Mutual Aid.
The term mutual aid comes from 19th-century anarchist Peter Kropotkin, who theorized that society must cooperate to survive.
While the idea of mutual aid has been around throughout human history, one of the first African-American-led mutual aid organizations, the Free African Society, was created to provide financial and emotional support to newly freed slaves. Then, during one of the worst outbreaks of U.S. history, the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, the Free African Society worked together to provide resources to sick families in Philadelphia.
From there, Black mutual aid organizations took off across the nation, including some of the programs the Black Panther Party started – like the breakfast program, to strengthen and mobilize the community.
“(Mutual aid) means we recognize that our well-being, health and dignity are all bound up in each other,” is how Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez explains it in a toolkit for how to create a mutual aid group.
Mutual aid is much different from charity, which tends to be a one-way relationship between an organization and individual that could have barriers preventing that individual from qualifying for support. Both WyCo and KC Mutual aid seek help for anyone who asks.
“With charity, people are trying to reach down and hold people’s hand and bring them up. That just isn’t productive and it doesn’t leave people feeling whole,” Weaver said. “Solidarity is us reaching across the table and realizing that everybody has something to bring to the table, and everybody has things that they can also contribute.”
While the mutual aid groups agree that nonprofits and charity work do a lot to help, Hare said many of those entities are funded by foundations that are formed as tax havens and ways to hoard wealth.
“What we’re saying is instead of relying on those nonprofits, let’s actually talk to people and figure out what they need and give direct aid instead,” Hare said.
How Does it Work?
Both WyCo and KC Mutual Aid have private Facebook groups where members can either message the founders privately, or make a post with their needs — whether it’s clothing, a job or help moving furniture.
Bailey Walton, founder of KC Mutual Aid said charity also can depersonalize people and their situations.
“Part of the reason why a Facebook group was successful is because you can actually see that these people have lives and families. It humanizes them,” Walton said. “You get to see how you’re actually making an impact and building a community that cares for each other.”
Some of the most common things people ask for help with are phone service, food, money for bills and rent.
Then, other members in the group offer their help, which turns into a cycle of community members who receive help and then pay it forward. Both groups also accept cash, gift cards, clothing and food donations that also help support those in need.
But both groups’ mutual aid work doesn’t just take place on the Internet. WyCo Mutual Aid and KC Mutual Aid also have boots on the ground in their communities, spending nearly 40 hours each week -between online and on-the-ground support.
KC Mutual Aid has hosted coat drives, food delivery programs and created a container garden program, where community members can pick up containers of herbs and vegetable plants.
Most recently, WyCo Mutual Aid has been focused on Wyandotte County’s homeless community, so Hare and Weaver visit homeless encampments, bringing donated warm clothing and food. They have also been working with the Unified Government and the health department to create more shelter opportunities.
While it’s difficult to quantify how much the local mutual aid groups have helped the community, WyCo Mutual Aid estimates that they have assisted between 150 and 200 people with direct aid. Between both groups, there are more than 3,500 members with multiple posts each day.
“(Mutual aid)” means we recognize that our well-being.