A digital illustration of a brown person  in a cape standing on top of a pair of Black and brown hands, shaking hands. The background is gray with stars and constellations.
The coronavirus pandemic inspired many to get involved with lending aid to the unhoused community. Author Needa Bee asks, are these groups truly providing mutual aid? (Connie Noble)


During the Covid 19 Pandemic and the shutdown, we saw the best of humanity emerge as people mobilized to take care of each other during this crisis, rather than wait on the slow moving, bureaucracy heavy government to act.  “Mutual aid” became an action word amongst many—predominantly anarchist circles—and dozens of groups sprung up to provide food and direct support to unhoused Oaklanders in the very visible informal settlements. 

What is mutual aid? In practice it is nothing new: the unpaid and intentional, reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit of all. Simply put, it’s people in a community taking care of each other. And in a political context it means taking care of each other because the government has either failed to do so ro refuses to do so. It is a value and practice as old as the human desire to survive. It is also the basic fundamental value and practice towards self-determination for oppressed and marginalized communities. 

Mutual-aid groups are generally member led and organized, and open to any and all to join. They often claim to have non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic structures, and use consensus-based decision making—all indigenous concepts and practices. 

Mutual aid is very different from charity. Mutual aid is folks giving what they can and getting what they need from their own community. It’s a reciprocal give and take that allows a community to practice self-determination and interdependence. Charity is when people from outside the community in need give, but there is no reciprocal give and take. This dynamic of people from the outside offering charity creates lots of problematic dynamics, including lack of cultural and historical understanding of the community in need; romanticizing oppression; and “othering” the community in need. Charity does not have a reciprocal exchange of material resources. It is a one way exchange of funds or supplies that creates feel good emotions for the givers, while not supporting self-determination and interdependence amongst the community receiving. Charity empowers the givers and makes the receivers dependent.

Mutual aid is folks giving what they can and getting what they need from their own community. Charity is when people from outside the community in need give, but there is no reciprocal give-and-take

There are quite a few historic examples of mutual aid groups in the United States that were formed out of necessity by oppressed and marginalized groups with limited to no access to services and support. For example, in 1787, the Free African Society was formed to provide aid to newly freed blacks, so that the African American community could “independently advance their own education, employment, entrepreneurship, enterprises, and estate across fields, disciplines, and industries. The vision is to see Philadelphia’s Black African diaspora’s history, heritage, culture, and tradition made healthy and whole,” the group’s website says.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigrants from various ethnicities and counties formed mutual aid societies to serve as support nets for their newly migrated communities. These mutual aid groups offered financial support to members experiencing illness and unemployment, emotional support during crisis, and social and cultural support in their new and very forgeign home.The largest of these organizations included the Italian-American mutual aid societies called Societa di Mutuo Soccorso and Mexican-American organizations called Sociedades Mutualistas.

In 1969, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense created the Free Breakfast for Children program to serve families in Oakland, California. By the end of the year, the program provided hot meals to more than 20,000 children in 19 cities. Other survival programs emerged over the next years, including clothing distribution, free medical clinics, political and economic education, self-defense and first aid training, transportation to prisons for families of incarcerated folks, an emergency-response ambulance program, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and testing for sickle-cell disease. These programs were led and organized by members of Black communities for their communities. 

In the 1970s, the Young Lords, an organization devoted to neighborhood empowerment and self-determination of Puerto Ricans in the United States emerged in the streets of Chicago and New York. They were inspired by the Black Panthers to create several community programs, including free breakfast for children, the Emeterio Betances free health clinic, free dental clinic, community testing for tuberculosis and lead-poisoning, a community day care center, free clothing drives, and a “Garbage Offensive” to clean up garbage in Puerto Rican neighborhoods neglected by city sanitation.

Ironic that indigenous people around the world have lived by these values and practices for thousands of years, and oppressed, exploited, and marginalized communities HAVE to take care of each other to survive and eventually thrive. Yet like most things created by People of The Sun (the melanated), what we create or do isn’t always given a name or a label.

Back to the present day. Prior to the pandemic, there were a handful of these volunteer mutual aid efforts in Oakland, created by long-time residents. These groups have existed for the past six-plus years, such as The East Oakland Collective and The Village in Oakland—of which I am a co-founder of and the current interim executive director. These grassroots organizations have been working in the trenches of informal settlements day in and day out with little resources. 

For both The Village in Oakland and The East Oakland Collective, the past 20 years of gentrification and the homeless state of emergency created by Oakland’s racist and classist development model has had traumatic impacts. Our leadership and members have watched our neighborhoods, our communities, and our families be displaced, erased, and criminalized through the process of gentrification, and either be forced to move out of Oakland or end up living in the streets. The Village in Oakland is led by currently and formerly unhoused Black, Indigenous, and Filipina Oakland residents who have been the victims of the displacement that is the foundation of the gentrification development model. The Village only exists because the government does not meet the most basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, water, sanitation, and sately of its most marginalized residents. The Village also faces lots of barriers and pushback from the government for our political ideology, holding politicians to the fire, and our direct action tactics. 

Unlike these efforts that were created by longtime Oakland residents who are the most impacted by gentrification, displacement, and homelessness, many of these self-labeled mutual aid anarchists waving anti-authoritain anti-establishment banners, who have emerged to provide aid to houseless communities since the start of the pandemic, come across as middle class children of the gentry who just recently arrived in Oakland and the Bay Area. 

They are the folks who chant “Who’s streets? Our streets!” during police brutality protests while those of us from marginalized communities cringe at the twilight zone-esque protest marching past us. They are folks who moved here in the past 10 years or less who are squatting in houses to fight gentrification by housing themselves in squats. They say they are against gentrification while they pay rents people from Oakland can’t afford. These are the folks who seem to never have met a Black or Native American person in their life, never had metal detectors in their high schools, never were on welfare or stood in free food lines, never had to rely on hand-me-downs or thrift store sales because they had to—yet claim “they” are “we.”

Amongst anarchists and white leftist circles, Peter Kropotkin, a 20th century Russian anarchist and outspoken academic from the Russian aristocracy (gentry), is credited for popularizing the term “mutual aid.” In his essay collection, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, he asserts that cooperation and collectivity, not competition and individual progress, was the essential value behind the evolution and longevity of the human race. Many of us from indigenous and/or colonized, oppressed, and exploited communities already value and practice these ideas. But most Europeans and European Americans were embracing an entirely opposite belief system popularized by Darwin. While our communities were taking care of each other, the non-melinated-world upheld survival of the fittest, competition, and domination as the answer to humanity’s survival on earth. 

So while indigenous communities and other oppressed and marginalized groups have been living with the values of mutual aid, here come the white people, the wealthy, the privileged, the gentry with an ah- ha moment! Folks who grew up in the Amerikkka that values rugged individualism, pull yourself from your own boot straps, separate from your first taste of mutual aid—your family—and leave home at 18 years old, these folkshave thought of something totally “new,” and necessary, and HUMAN!!!!! Mutual aid is being treated like a “new paradigm of being” they have “discovered” during the crisis of the pandemic, which rocked their comfort and their luxuries, making  life feel suddenly difficult, fragile, erratic, and unexpected. 

I want to raise a question: are these new groups that have multiplied across Oakland to serve the unhoused during the pandemic truly “mutual aid” organizations? Based on the history and formation of mutual aid organizations and societies, I want to argue they are not mutual aid, but actually, charity organizations. Over the past year, we of The Village In Oakland have witnessed, learned, and experienced first hand how some of these gentry charity organizations move thru our community, many times in ways that lead to more harm than good.

In this era of Black Lives Matter, an important truth has been amplified: that Black voices and Black leaders need to be listened to and uplifted. For many of these newcomers to The Town, their impressions, information, and beliefs about Black folks have been gained thru racist stereotypes, anti-Blackness, and white supremist education. Due to the guilt, their fear of their own internalized white supremacy, their inability to relate to Black folks, their inability to deal with real street shit, and their inability to understand the traumas BIPOC folks and poor folks experience, newcomers run the risk of failing to appropriately navigate all the different ways that trauma shows up. All of this can create enabling or harmful behavior, and fuel mental and emotional traumas.  

Not being part of the communities they are sharing resources with also creates an “us and them” dynamic, and rather than encouraging unhoused folks to self-organize, advocate, and push for self-determination, it magnifies a culture that poor people are already ingrained in that we desperately need to break away from: dependency and the welfare mindset.

Another phenomenon we learned of within these charity groups within the anarchist community is not only can they afford residential housing and brick and mortar store fronts, for the most part, they do not extend access to these spaces to the people they offer charity to or the existing community based organizations that are struggling to do the work. They easily access spaces and share them amongst their anarchist cliques and circles. On the rare occasions that organizations like the Village in Oakland or unhoused folks are granted access to these spaces, our bodies are policed, we endure micro aggressions and flat out racist behavior that is left unchecked and protected, our resources are stolen, our social capital is pimped for legitimacy, and almost every time our access to these spaces are eventually denied or blocked.

So how can these well intentioned gentry in denial rectify this situation? It’s very simple: rather than create their own charity organizations misnamed as mutual aid groups, they can join and support the existing efforts led by Oaklanders who are most impacted by gentrification and the homeless crisis. They can and should donate their time, their skills, their resources to the BIPOC, low-income leaders who were here before gentrification and who are still here fighting against displacement, poverty, and erasure. They should follow our leadership. 

Folks who came to Oakland after gentrification started need to couple volunteering with actual community grounded mutual aid organizations with challenging white supremacy workshops and dedicating to a lifelong path of decolonization. They need to sit back, and learn about the culture and ways of Oaklanders, not so they can fit in but so they can better serve in Oakland-rooted organizations.

And if they really want to be down, newcomers who want to fight against gentrification can sign over their lease or sublease to an unhoused household who cannot qualify for a lease. In a truly militant and revolutionary and paradigm shifting act, they can work to educate their own families and move out of gentrifying neighborhoods, with the objective of decolonizing their people and freeing up resources. They can send these resources back  to mutual aid groups and other grassroots organizations that are still here, still doing the work, still struggling against displacement, injustice, and erasure.

Each curbside community needs to learn to come together, unite, and decide for ourselves what we need and want to get us out of the situation we find ourselves in. And when these gentry come to our communities with handouts, we need to tell them exactly what support actually looks like. We should give them lists of what kind of provisions we need. We should give them marching orders for what doors need to be unlocked and busted open, what resources need to be freed up, what government offices need to be protested and held accountable. We should ask them to put their bodies on the line and defend our communities when the bulldozes come to demolish us and throw away our belongings. 

We don’t need charity. We don’t need folks who have never walked in our shoes to act like they are in the same boat as us. We don’t need folks who are momentarily rebelling against their class and/or race. We need folks who dedicate their lives to flex their privilege to dismantle the very system that granted and upholds their privilege. We need accomplices against poverty and displacement and injustice, but we need them to be honest and authentic about who they are to themselves and to us.

Word on tha Curb is a column that covers the struggle to exist on the street. It is produced by The Village, an advocacy group in Oakland. 

Anita de Asis Miralle, also known as Needa Bee, is an unhoused mother, educator, mentor, writer, poet, activist, organizer, and trouble maker, with a passion for justice and love for the masses.