Part of why mutual aid has captured the focus of radical movements around the world is that its very praxis challenges the idea that politics happens only through states. Building on classic anarchist models of direct action, mutual aid seeks to meet people’s needs directly by creating community relationships outside of the hierarchical models offered by governments, capitalist institutions, and NGO-styled charities.The underlying logic of mutual aid is itself a critique on the systems it emerges near, breaking through the cracks that the same system’s failures have allowed. By performing mutual aid, you challenge the state’s hegemony on service, thus acting out an entirely new type of social relationship.
If our current society is rooted in colonial disenfranchisement and exploitation, then community care is a revolutionary act. Supporting communities to share food, medical resources, fundraising, offering childcare, and other types of mutually contributed forms of support are themselves a new world in utero, and they are also how we build up the capacity to do any form of organizing that has the ability to reproduce itself and build capacity.Kelly Hayes is an organizer and writer in Chicago who has been bringing care and mutual aid into her organizing work for decades. She writes about this with her co-author Mariame Kaba in her new book from Haymarket Books, Let This Radicalize You, where she talked with organizers around the country about how they are able to piece together a workable plan to take on injustice. I talked with her about her own history with this work, how to build coalitions, and how we are balancing love and grief.
Tell me a bit about your own history doing mutual aid work. What does that word mean to you and how has it played out in your organizing?
My mutual aid work has varied a lot over the years. I have looked after children and read them stories, while their striking parents were picketing, I’ve served food to co-strugglers and neighbors, I’ve organized mass mask distribution during the pandemic, done defense committee work to free imprisoned survivors, and my collective has helped a lot of Black and Native activists and organizers meet their basic needs during hard times. Sometimes that means getting a disabled activist the crutches or cane they need, or an air conditioner during a heat wave, and sometimes it means making sure someone’s rent gets paid.
My collective, Lifted Voices, is sunsetting this year, and one of the things I am most proud of is the work we’ve done behind the scenes to keep other people’s mutual aid efforts up and running, whether a mutual aid space needed money for roof repairs or a new fridge, or Corsi-Rosenthal boxes to help reduce the risk of COVID-19, we have spent a lot of our efforts during the pandemic years helping other organizers and groups sustain their work and well-being. To me, mutual aid has always been part of the equation, even when my primary focus was being in the streets, doing direct action, or training people up to take action. Because, as you and I have talked about many times, people cannot take meaningful sustained action without also taking care of each other. And communities that take care of each other are more likely to take action in one another’s defense. These are just basic realities that a lot of people miss when they are jumping from one event or campaign to the next. If you want a movement fabric that doesn’t tear easily, the bonds of care are essential.
The values that inform that work are also going to be essential, more so than ever, in the coming years, as climate collapse reinforces a scarcity mindset, and leaving people behind, and therefore yielding to injustice, is increasingly normalized. We have already seen that tendency get a major jumpstart with the pandemic. All of the ways that mass suffering and death had been normalized to people living in the U.S. got supercharged by the normalization of COVID. To me, there is no meaningful resistance or livable future without mutual aid.
How should other types of social movements relate to the concept of mutual aid, or established mutual aid groups. For example, how can a tenant rights organization connect with Food Not Bombs or a COVID-inspired mutual aid group?
I think that’s going to vary across movements and geographies, but we know those connections need to happen. None of the work that any of us do can be sustained without care and compassion. We need a movement of movements, and those movements can’t just be the temporarily harnessed energy of people who are being drained like batteries. If we believe that people are more than their productivity, then we need to treat them as such. We need to form, as Aaron Goggans talked about on Movement Memos recently, communities of shared risk. We talk about how my liberation is bound up in yours, but if we want people to internalize and actualize those politics, then my well-being has to be bound up in yours, too. I think we have both experienced that in our own communities, when we have been under threat – the knowledge that we are not alone, the support we need to endure when we are not safe. We need that kind of energy to be prioritized more broadly.
I think a lot about the Ayni Institute’s explanation of Movement Ecology, and how we need people working on strategic campaigns, people working on personal transformation, and people who are building alternatives to existing institutions, and how all of these things are needed and should reinforce one another. We need to nurture the connections within that ecology instead of dismissing one another’s work as “unrealistic,” or, alternately, not radical enough. We need to look at ways that we can sustain one another. Like, right now, in Chicago, there is a network of folks doing mutual aid work in support of asylum seekers. Not all of those folks have the same politics, but I have met a lot of rad people who are doing that work who have a strong political vision, and they have been challenging the city on policies and practices that they feel are harmful to asylum seekers and exploitative of volunteer labor. After all, mutual aid is not supposed to be unpaid city labor, and that’s how many of these folks feel they have been treated.
I would love to see more organized, structured support for those folks at the political level. I would also love to see more connections being made between groups that are frustrated about how the city is handling the massive influx of asylum seekers we’re seeing – people who are being sent here en masse, with as many as 15 buses arriving each day from Texas, as a form of ideological warfare. Some people are angry that long standing community needs are not being treated with the urgency that the needs of migrants have been, and I would love to see us recognize that the problem is universal. Housing for all is the answer for both migrants and longtime Chicago residents who need homes. Nourishment for all is the solution for hunger for both migrants and longtime residents.
There’s a lot of talk right now about what’s “politically possible,” but we are living in a degrading system because capitalism and liberal democracy are basically in divorce proceedings. We can pursue non-reformist reforms, but the fundamentals of what’s considered “politically possible” are going to change in the coming years, and they can either change for the better or worse. The right doesn’t worry about what sounds “politically possible.” That’s why they’ve won victories that weren’t supposed to be possible. To truly change the world, we need robust networks of mutual aid that work in concert with bold movements for change. We need to support one another’s efforts and defend one another’s experiments.
What kind of practical organizing models do you turn to, or methods, for building coalitions? For example, do you use spokescouncils? How do you recommend trying to build the connective tissue that binds together different organizations and social movements into a common cause?
I like spokescouncils, but the last spokescouncil I was a part of was a cluster fuck. It’s a model that only works if people are truly committed to it, so I think you need to be sure of the will and intentions of all of the groups involved. What’s the glue holding folks together? What’s the shared purpose and shared commitment at work? What happens if people fuck off and disregard group agreements? I think it can be a great model, but it’s not something people should latch onto without understanding it, or being truly committed to what it demands of them. Because, in that last case I was involved with, people loved the model for getting labor and collaboration when they wanted it, and just kind of did what they wanted when agreements proved inconvenient.
I take agreements made in a spokescouncil very seriously, and you have to be sure that’s the norm among folks involved.I think building the connective tissue we need largely comes from the relationships we form through collaboration. The groups I am most closely bonded with are groups I have worked on mutual aid projects with in times of crisis, or groups that I have mobilized with in response to injustices as they were unfolding.
But of course, we need more than that, and I think that to get there, we have to do something that is rarely any fun more often: getting people from different organizations into rooms together to talk about shared struggle and shared goals. Those conversations aren’t fun and they are often messy. Sometimes, they wind up feeling like a waste of time, but our groups and organizations need to be in community with one another, grappling with tough questions and asking things of each other, and not just when there’s a super immediate crisis or goal on the table. We need to map the ecosystems of work in our communities, and the relationships between the different work that’s happening and what our goals are. We need to create space for that.
How can we make coalitions, often built around one specific goal, a more permanent thing? Should we even do that?
I think trying to make coalitions permanent can be a very tricky thing, because you often have a lot of people who don’t agree on a lot of stuff, but can agree on this one thing, this one time. I think what’s more important than trying to make a coalition permanent is trying to keep the connections between groups and people alive. If alignment between those groups and people – or at least some of them – can be revived to meet the next moment, I think that’s what matters most. Too often, people aren’t looking at what can be preserved for the future in terms of relationships and alignment.
What do you think the virtue of an affinity group is vs a formal organization?
Affinity groups have so many advantages. For one thing, they can offer a political home outside of organizations, which is deeply important. We all need community to stay engaged and to weather the storms we’re navigating. And let’s be real, as much as people are coached to just join an organization, a lot of organizations or organizational chapters just kind of suck. When all of a person’s energy and political identity gets wrapped up in an organization, and the organization lets them down, they can feel like they don’t have a place in our movements anymore. I’m in favor of people joining organizations, but I think it’s a great thing to have something outside of that, where ideological alignment and/or strategic alignment might be more reliable.
Affinity groups also allow for a certain freedom of movement. You don’t have to get a whole organization on board to do something you believe must be done. You just need a committed team that is hopefully training up and doing the political education work needed, collectively, to be a constructive force on the ground. I think we need work that is structured in the organizational sense, and I think we also need smaller, decentralized, committed teams of people making decisions together about how to protest and how to extend care.
Do you think mutual aid networks are growing? What factors do you think that is attributed to? And are they doing it better than we did years ago? If so, what do you think is helping them improve their strategies and tactics?
I think that social media and the accessibility of forms and spreadsheets and such have allowed people to get organized in ways that were far more challenging in the past, and that these advancements have also made the work people do more replicable. Of course, a reliance on these modalities also costs us something, as none of that stuff really belongs to us and all of it is easily subject to infiltration and surveillance. But I do think the explosion of mutual aid we saw at the start of the pandemic changed things, even if a lot of those people aren’t active anymore. People saw what they were capable of, they built skills and connections, and I think all of the activation we’ve seen will continue to make more work possible in the future.
How do you balance the concepts of hope and grief?
I am intentional about my practice of hope and my practice of grief. I don’t leave either to chance. Because it’s easy to get caught up in spirals of bad news, and not make space to focus on what we are building toward, or to make room for possibility. And it’s also easy to not make space for allowing ourselves to feel loss, and to really inhabit our humanity around what we are losing. If I neglect either of those practices, it will catch up with me, and I will find that I am struggling to cope, or I will find that I am struggling to regulate my emotions.
Usually, when I can’t find a balance, psychologically, the answer is to make room for something that I am not making room for. And that’s not to put it all on me. Sometimes we are overwhelmed because things are terrible and there’s just no good way to respond to what we’re experiencing. Sometimes we just have to feel our way through those moments. But what keeps me able to function, and get out of bed in the morning, most of the time, is remembering what I want to see happen, or what values I want expressed, and thinking about how I can move toward that. Win, lose or draw, I can almost always think of a way to move toward that.
That kind of practice is what Joanna Macy calls “active hope.” That’s what my practice of hope is like. The other thing I have to make room for is grief, and that can be expressed in a lot of ways. I found, after my father’s death, that I felt closest to him when I want to the woods or to the water, not just because he loved those things, but because I think of the wilderness that he loved and the water that he loved as a living relative that connects us. So, I go to those places to honor his loss, to feel close to him, and to honor other losses, and also to grieve what’s happening to so much of the natural world. When a relative is sick or dying, what do we do? We support them as best we can, and we spend time with them. If there’s something we can do to make their time better or more meaningful, or to help them survive, we do that, but we also put in time, because we know how precious that time is. I think we should all invest time in what’s precious to us, and that doing so can be part of our practice of grief. Sometimes, grief is just inhabiting the love we feel, and allowing ourselves to feel the fullness of that love, which includes ache and includes loss. I feel love very fully when I am with the water, or when I can smell the soil, deep in the woods, where there’s so much life all around me.
How are the rhetorics of "violence" and "non-violence" used against social movements? What is the role of community self-defense organizations?
As Mariame and I talk about in our book, violence is an elastic concept. It will be stretched and reimagined to encompass anything that we do that disrupts the status quo or threatens the power structure. Sometimes, we disagree about what constitutes violence, but I think we get too hung up on those conversations sometimes. Like, I don’t believe property destruction to stop the destruction of a forest is violence, if no humans or animals are injured. But if you were to persuade me that, yes, monkeywrenching that machine is violence, it wouldn’t change my position on the righteousness or necessity of the act itself. Sometimes, people are not given what we would characterize as “peaceful” choices. Some people say self defense is not violence.
To my mind, if I hurt someone, even if it’s because they were going to hurt me, that’s a violent act. But it can also be a necessary act. It can be an act I have the right to take. The framing of violence and nonviolence matters in terms of how we are publicly depicted and how we are targeted for carceral violence by the state, but when we are looking at what it takes to survive, and what it takes to save the worlds we inhabit, I think we need to focus more on what is necessary and unnecessary, what is right and what is wrong, and what is strategic and unstrategic, because we will probably never fully agree on what constitutes violence, and the ruling class is always going to portray us as violent if we threaten the violent system that benefits them. To them, peace is us surrendering to the violence of the current system daily. To them, peace is order. So, I think we need to make our own choices, as strategically as possible, about what is right and what is necessary.
How are you seeing transformative justice being used as an alternative to the carceral state? What projects have you worked on in this model, and how did they work?
Fundamentally, transformative justice involves halting a harm, restoring safety and dignity, and trying to change the conditions that made that harm possible. People practice this in countless ways in their organizing. Community accountability processes are just one shape that transformative justice can take, though that’s what people think of most often. I see this process of interruption, restoration and transformation at work all the time in the organizing of people who have internalized these ideas. It’s about moving beyond punitive responses and into the work of creating the conditions we want. It’s about recognizing that simply telling people they are wrong or retaliating against people does not change the conditions in which we live.
Some people get confused about these concepts because they think they are being asked to apply them to Nazis or people who hate us, but it’s not like that. Transformative justice can be practices in communities with shared values. It’s about how we live in community together and how we stay in community together. My comrades and I do our best to address conflict in this way, because we are not looking to punish each other for our mistakes. That doesn’t help or heal us.
What are the lessons you think social movements should learn from the recent battles against pipelines and for indigenous land sovereignty? (Maybe that's not even the right framing or question!)
Well, one thought that occurs to me on this front is that we are still here, and some people need to reckon with that. Some radicals understand the value of Indigenous stewardship and some do not. I saw a socialist who does not appreciate that value say recently that while Indigenous genocide was very sad or whatever, it should be recognized that our land battles were lost many years ago – an argument that I find hilarious, coming from a socialist. If you want to tally up losses and declare defeat, I have bad news about socialism. But fortunately for us, and for the socialists, that’s not how anything works. Indigenous people are still here, against all odds, in spite of conditions we weren’t meant to survive, and our peoples have lessons to teach – lessons that I believe we cannot survive without. One could make the same argument about socialism, or anarchism for that matter – that despite so much loss and many defeats, these ideas and the people who carry them forward are very much with us, and it would be a mistake to write them off as defeated or over. Because the marriage of capitalism and liberal democracy is coming to end and there will be a new political era. That era will also be an era of collapse and catastrophe.
The right has a formula for that. They plan to use migration crises as a crowbar to wrench anything resembling leftist or liberal values out of the hearts of people who are being boxed into a scarcity mindset. They are clear on the transformation of values that they are offering for a new age. Are we? I believe that if we are going to offer something useful in those moments, Indigenous lifeways and stewardship have to be a meaningful part of that equation. For one thing, if people are going to fight for the earth itself, they have to remember their relationship to it, and that’s something that Indigenous people bring to the table.