Dean Spade on How Mutual Aid Will Help Us Survive Disaster

We have to fundamentally reimagine community if we want to avoid “intensive, uneven suffering followed by species extinction.”

Clara Liang

Dean Spade's new book on mutual aid serves as a how-to guide for all people hoping to build community power and resilience in the face of disaster. Illustration by Galine Tumasyan

Amid the catastrophe of the pandemic, climate emergency and racist state violence, mutual aid has exploded. Ordinary people around the globe, from Seattle to Nigeria, are finding ways to support each other when the government won’t.

Mutual aid isn’t just that we help each other. We help each other based on a shared recognition that the systems aren’t delivering and are actually making things worse. We’re simultaneously building a movement to address the root causes of the crisis we’re in.

Activist and law professor Dean Spade’s timely new book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And the Next), is a guide for enduring disaster by taking matters into our own hands. It’s at once a theory, history and step-by-step manual on mutual aid, which Spade defines as the survival work done in conjunction with social movements demanding transformative change. The book outlines how we can radically redistribute care and wellbeing, avoid common organizing pitfalls and, ultimately, heal ourselves and the world.”

Spade’s message is philosophical and urgent. He argues that if we don’t fundamentally reimagine community, governance and power, we will face (to put it bluntly) intensive, uneven suffering followed by species extinction.” But the book is ultimately hopeful, noting how many times humans have survived and reminding us that, for most of our history, we didn’t live under exploitative capitalist conditions. 

In These Times spoke to Spade in early October about the importance of being ordinary, the power of imagination, and more. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Clara Liang: What’s the one thing you want people to walk away with after reading your book? 

Dean Spade: Mutual aid is something everyone can do right now. It simultaneously builds movements and addresses survival conditions. People come to movements because they need something that’s not being provided, or because they desperately want to immediately help other people who may be struggling. Mutual aid is the doorway in, and the more we can build mutual aid infrastructure, the fiercer and stronger and more powerful our movements will become. 

Clara: You provide a great history of mutual aid, from the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program to Indigenous anticolonial projects. Mutual aid isn’t new. What new forms is it taking? 

Dean: During a lot of disasters — storms, fires, floods — we get attention to people’s mutual aid activities. In the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of attention brought to what the Black Panthers called survival programs, which took form in so many different movements. In the feminist movement, for example, people were figuring out how to do their own contraception and abortions. 

Covid-19 really lifted mutual aid to the surface, because Covid-19 is happening everywhere, to everyone, whereas most fires, storms and floods happen in particular regions. These obstacles of not being able to get your groceries or pick up your meds — it was happening all at once, everywhere. 

There’s been a significant set of shifts in left movements since the 60s and 70s, when movement organizations doing powerful mutual aid work were organizing themselves in very hierarchical models. The Black Panther Party is one, with its almost militaristic model of certain leaders on top. Those models had really big costs: They made it easier for the government to infiltrate them and take out one leader; they often permitted more sexual and gender violence and hierarchy inside groups. A lot of groups, from that time on, experimented much more extensively, often inspired by Latin American social movement organizations, with more horizontal forms. 

Clara: What challenges might the recent attention to mutual aid bring?

Dean: A lot of media coverage indicates a pretty thin understanding of mutual aid. One tendency I’ve seen is an attempt to say, Mutual aid goes hand in hand with state interventions.” People will try to find examples that suggest that mutual aid is not actually oppositional to the status quo, is not actually a threat to government systems.

Similarly, I found some coverage during Hurricane Harvey [in 2017] saying, Look at these people who are using their own boats to rescue people. We don’t need state support.” There’s a sort of right-wing read on mutual aid efforts that really takes them out of context and tries to use them to push for eliminating state safety infrastructure. 

Mutual aid isn’t just that we help each other. We help each other based on a shared recognition that the systems aren’t delivering and are actually making things worse. We’re simultaneously building a movement to address the root causes of the crisis we’re in. That’s really different from the charity model, where some volunteers occasionally give some people some stuff. 

Clara: Can you talk more about the relationship between mutual aid and transforming the root conditions — such as capitalism and racism — that are responsible for large-scale human suffering?

Dean: The opposition has all the money and all the weapons. All we have is people power. We need to build movements that aren’t based on trying to convince them to let go of the reins of power. We need to build movements that have enough power to throw a wrench in the way the systems are now and to stop the things that are harming people, for instance by defunding the police and stopping gas and oil companies from further extraction. 

Mutual aid work inevitably becomes deeply intersectional, because people’s lives are intersectional. If we’re in a homeless encampment doing direct work for people living there, we’re also joining the fight to defund the police because we see how the police harm the people in this encampment, and we’re also showing up at the migrant justice rally to close the detention center because we know and love people who were taken out of this encampment and thrown into the detention center. 

We don’t want to just keep trying to get help where there could never be enough, we want to see change. It’s not rocket science. People wouldn’t be homeless if they had housing. 

Clara: The forces that keep the distribution of power and resources so unjust can feel insurmountable. You write that things are really terrifying and enraging right now, and feeling more rage, fear, sadness, grief, and despair may be appropriate.” How do you sustain hope and trust in the mutual aid process while also tuning into grief, rage and despair? 

Dean: In capitalism, we’re encouraged to actually be numb to our own pain and to others’ pain. And that is demobilizing. I think it’s mobilizing to be tuned into and caring about the harm and brutality that is our current system. We are literally facing the end of humanity because of climate change. We are really staring fascism in the face. We’re dipping into the next horrible economic crisis. People are dying, in huge numbers, of Covid-19. There’s no way to not be affected by that if you’re paying attention to suffering. 

I find that being in mutual aid groups with other people who also are feeling that pain and urgency, and also trying to do things they think might reduce suffering, is actually my greatest relief. I hope to live out this incredibly transformative, difficult period engaged with people about things that they care about, even if it’s the last thing we do. 

It’s not about avoiding the pain; it’s about turning toward the pain and engaging with principle, which I think is very de-numbing, and not easy, but preferable to the capitalist numbing pattern.

Clara: Toni Cade Bambara’s call to make revolution irresistible” comes up in your book. Who are some of your other teachers?

Dean: Probably the central intellectual tradition that has impacted me is the set of women of color feminists deeply invested in prison abolition who critiqued the idea that you can solve gender-based violence through criminalization. A lot of those thinkers — many of whom are included in the wonderful INCITE! anthologies like Color of Violence and The Revolution Will Not Be Funded—named this trap that social movements are encouraged to fall into, where we build nonprofit organizations that use elite strategies like policy change and very depoliticized services, where we partner with the police and the military. Feminist women of color brought these deep critiques of not only what’s wrong with that political agenda and how it didn’t work out, but also what’s wrong with the ways it tells us to organize and the way it erases mutual aid and other feminized care labor.

I think a lot of my learning has come through participating in grassroots, unpaid mutual aid projects, and projects to stop prison expansion and jail expansion. Doing this work is how we get our politics, how we know what’s really going on, how we get an analysis of what it would mean to actually dismantle these systems versus getting duped into reforms that expand, legitimize and stabilize the current system.

There are so many people, like Andrea Ritchie, who have been working for decades. They do their work whether it’s popular or not. To me, that rigor and care and relentlessness in that work — they’ve taught me how I want to be. 

Clara: Mutual aid is often hard, boring work: going to grocery stores, waiting in lines at welfare offices. Tell me about your conviction that we might cultivate a desire to be beautifully, exquisitely ordinary just like everybody else.”

Dean: I meet a lot of young people who say, I want to make a difference in the world. I want to be an executive director of a nonprofit.” We’ve been told that leadership is about being important, exceptional. That causes a lot of people to act capitalist, white supremacist and patriarchal in our leadership styles, regardless of our identity. 

Mutual aid suggests that the work to immediately help somebody make sure they have a mask or hand sanitizer today is just as important as something somebody is doing in your state capitol trying to close the detention center.

When we show up with a lot of integrity, when we care about all the people around us, make offerings, and expect to make mistakes and receive feedback, the reward isn’t going to be some moment of fame or perfection. It’ll be the ongoing ups and downs of being connected to other people. 

Clara: How do you understand mutual aid in relation to electoral politics? Do you view voting as harm reduction, or as antithetical to mutual aid’s belief in emancipation from broken systems?

Dean: Regardless of what happens in this election, we’re going to need mutual aid more than we ever have. Our political culture tells us that voting is the most important political act. It really tries to quell dissent and mobilization by telling us that this is the only place to act, in this orderly, state-approved fashion. There are secondary ones, like it’s okay to post on social media, it’s okay to go to a permitted march once in a while. There are approved ways of dissenting, and then there are broadly disapproved of, and criminalized, ways. 

I’m not an absolutist. I think there’s room for almost every kind of political action. So, absolutely vote, but I hope that’s not the beginning and end of anybody’s political activity. It’s really important for people to know that they can, in addition, do more satisfying, more directly impactful political activity with people, and break their own isolation, and feel a sense of purpose.

Clara: You note that capitalism makes it difficult for people to imagine surviving any other way, even though humans long lived outside this system. Mutual aid, you write, is inherently antiauthoritarian, demonstrating how we can do things together in ways we were told not to imagine.” Can you indulge for a moment in your most free, limitless imagining of what could be?

Dean: I can imagine a world based on the principles of mutual aid in which everybody has what they need to survive, and people are working on reproducing the means of survival not because of a coercive system where they’ll die or be criminalized if they don’t have a wage job, but instead because of the pleasure of growing food that other people will eat, and making a sewer system that we’re all using. People doing the work because they want everyone to have these things, not because if they didn’t do that work, they would starve. A key piece is this deep desire to share well-being with all, and make sure everybody has what they need and nobody has a lot more than they need.

I could see people living in a society where they’ve grown a lot of capacity to not avoid conflicts but instead have generative conflict, give and receive feedback, and be aware of their own emotional landscapes. 

I can absolutely imagine a world without borders, prisons or wars. A world in which we’re not producing all of these weapons, where people aren’t using them on each other or threatening each other with them. In most of the history of the world, there weren’t militarized borders, there weren’t millions of people in cages. 

I can imagine a world in which Indigenous people are restored sovereignty over the lands that have been taken from them, and deep processes of repair and care and connection are led by them — under their terms — to dismantle the settler state and settler relations. 

I can imagine a world where we don’t center fossil fuels. We can change what we’re using to transport ourselves, to produce our food. 

There would be a lot of collective self-governance on lots of different scales at the same time, complex nets of coordination so that the people growing food are connected to the people eating food, and it’s all connected to people doing healthcare. 

People are really afraid of this world I’m talking about — that there wouldn’t be medicine or innovation or technology. I just really don’t believe that. That’s one of the lies of capitalism.

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Clara Liang is a writer based in San Francisco and Assistant to the Managing Editor at In These Times. She recently graduated from Carleton College with a degree in American Studies and Race, Ethnicity, and Indigeneity Studies.

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