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5 Book Plan: Mutual Aid

Dean Spade picks five books that explore how mutual aid projects have been part of every powerful social movement.

Dean Spade27 October 2020

5 Book Plan: Mutual Aid

Dean Spade’s new book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next) offers both a theoretical understanding of mutual aid and practical tools for sustaining this crucial movement work. Spade defines mutual aid as “collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them. Those systems, in fact, have often created the crisis.” Spade explores how mutual aid projects have been part of every powerful social movement, citing examples such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s, the Black Panther Party’s survival programs that provided free breakfasts and medical clinics in the 1960s and 70s, and the resource and skill-sharing that emerged in the Occupy encampments starting in 2011. In the contemporary moment of the widening wealth gap, a global pandemic, increasing storms, fires, and other crises resulting from climate change, as well as myriad other social inequities, Spade demonstrates how and why mutual aid is essential for meeting people’s needs and building big, transformative movements that get to the root causes of these crises.    

Here, Spade selects five books that shaped his thinking on mutual aid.    

Dean Spade's Mutual Aid, along with all of our pamphlets, are 30% off until Monday, November 2 at 11:59PM EST. See them all here.

Harsha Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism (AK Press 2013)
Walia is a brilliant activist and independent scholar whose book draws from her many years working for migrant justice, including in the organization No One Is Illegal which has autonomous chapters across Canada. This book provides an important theoretical account of border imperialism as a state building process that includes both dispossessing people from lands and criminalizing and racializing migrant laborers in order to justify commodifying their labor. In this way, the book guides readers to think about what is sometimes narrowly understood as “immigration policy” in the context of colonialism and global capitalism. Walia also gives detailed accounts of the work of No One Is Illegal (NOII), including explaining how NOII’s border abolitionist work is tied to their mutual aid work, which includes “drafting legal submissions, coordinating group delegations to immigration offices, providing child care, mobilizing court support, raising funds, hosting press conferences, running errands, organizing public actions, and offering emotional support.” (102) She describes how NOII’s mutual aid work strives to operate as “solidarity not charity” (103), “responding to [the] lived realities”(102) of migrants and building power and momentum through campaigns defending specific people and groups from deportation. When I turn back to this book, which I often do, I like to watch the video of 2,000 people taking over the International Terminal at Vancouver Airport to stop the deportation of Laibar Singh, in December 2007. It reminds me what might be possible with enough people power, and how mutual aid is a way to build that power.

Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)
The Black Panther Party’s “serve the people” programs are the most famous example of mutual aid in US movements. Nelson’s book provides a rich account of the BPP’s health programs. She demonstrates how these programs how they grew from study of the work of Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong, how these programs related to the BPP’s beliefs about armed self-defense, how they were surveilled and criminalized by the police and FBI, how they interacted with medical professionals and sought to deprofessionalize medicine, and how the Party struggled with questions about whether to accept government funding for these programs. Body and Soul also provides insight into the daily operations of the “serve the people” programs and how they related to the Party’s hierarchical structure. This book exposes the complex questions that faced the BPP, and still face people doing mutual aid today, as they experimented with ways of building autonomy and wellness in a brutal context of violence and inequality. Nelson does an excellent job letting the reader into the debates and dilemmas that party leaders contended with as they practiced and theorized mutual aid.

The Young Lords: A Reader ed. Darrell Enck-Wanzer (NYU Press, 2010)
I first learned about the Young Lords through Iris Morales’ wonderful documentary, !Palante, Siempre Palante!. When the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was first starting, our whole collective watched that film together to learn more about Sylvia, who was part of the Young Lords, and we were deeply inspired by how the movie theorized the connection between directly serving the people and fighting the root causes fights against racism, colonialism, and capitalism. The Young Lords Reader adds even more depth to this account, providing the writings from the Young Lords newspaper, Palante, as well as speeches and images from their work. All of the materials in this book were designed to reach an audience of the authors’ peers—mostly young Puerto Ricans and people in allied and connected movements for racial justice and decolonization and against war and patriarchy. The writing is full of the urgency and energy of the time, and describes the Young Lords’ theoretical foundations and practical work, including bold mutual aid interventions like the 1970 hijacking of the city’s mobile x-ray unit and taking over Lincoln Hospital. The book also includes discussions that were underway within the Young Lords about sexism and anti-Black racism within the Puerto Rican community. It shows how the Young Lords engaged in political education within the organization and its constituents to build greater solidarity. Like Body and Soul, it also provides a useful account of the internal structure of the Young Lords that can help us understand why many left organizations moved toward horizontal and collective structures in the decades after the 1970’s, aware of how hierarchical structures made the Panthers and the Young Lords vulnerable to government infiltration and made internal power dynamics difficult to address.

The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex ed. INCITE! (South End Press, 2009, republished by Duke University Press, 2017)
When the Sylvia Rivera Law Project started in 2002, we set out to build a collective structure based in women of color feminist approaches. We rejected the hierarchical model of most legal services organizations with white lawyers dominating leadership and depoliticized services disconnected from grassroots movements. We were thrilled to send a collective member to the 2004 INCITE! Conference that was also titled The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, because we were eager to learn from others who were also trying to do front lines work and reject the corporate model in use by most non-profit organizations. As soon as they became available, I ordered the audio recordings of the conference on CD and listened avidly, and have read and re-read the book that emerged in 2009 since it was published. RWNBF is an anthology featuring mostly grassroots activists reflecting on how the non-profit sector developed to contain and control social movement work, how particular movements (especially the feminist anti-violence movement) became more conservative because of it, and how various organizations are resisting these dynamics. For me, it named what I saw in how queer liberation struggles had conservatized after the 1970’s, with emerging corporate-sponsored, white-led non-profits coming to focus on marriage, military service, and hollow legal protections rather than on police violence, queer and trans poverty, and anti-militarism. It also helped me understand why poverty legal services organizations did not seem built to end poverty, but instead an extension of the various systems that manage and control poor people. It is a remarkable collection full of short essays that will be compelling to anyone who is trying to figure out how transformative change happens and why social movements changed so much between the 70’s and the 2000’s.

Anarchy Works: Examples of Anarchist Ideas in Practice, by Peter Gelderloos (2014)
I did not actually read this book until 2019, but Peter Gelderloos’ ideas have been influencing me since I first read How Nonviolence Protects the State in 2008. All of Gelderloos’ writing is deeply researched and full of tangible, practical examples that make it wonderful for community reading groups and classrooms alike. Anarchy Works addresses the hard questions about what a world based on mutual aid, rather than state violence might look like. How would decisions be made and enforced? Why would people work if it was not for wages? How will people have health care and who will take care of old people and people with disabilities? What will stop people from destroying the environment? How will reparations for past harms be worked out? What if some people are practicing these ideals but their authoritarian neighbor wants to take over? How would such a society defend itself? I hope my book on mutual aid raises these questions for readers, and I recommend Gelderloos as a source for fascinating and, in my view, credible answers. Anarchy Works provides concrete examples from struggles against capitalism, slavery, white supremacy, colonialism, and heteropatriarchy around the world of what it might mean to live freer than we are currently allowed to imagine.  

I taught a course on mutual aid in 2019 at the University of Chicago for which I developed reading questions and teaching exercises related to these books and others. They might be useful to people using the teaching guide I made for Mutual Aid in reading groups or classrooms.

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Mutual Aid
Around the world, people are faced with crisis after crisis, from the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change-induced fires, floods, and storms to the ongoing horrors of mass incarceration, brutal imm...

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