How to build mutual aid that will last after the Coronavirus pandemic

Volunteers on Staten Island, New York, distribute food in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in November 2012. The challenge is maintaining such enthusiasm among mutual aid groups in the long run. (iStock/AnnaLauraWolff)Volunteers on Staten Island, New York, distribute food in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in November 2012. The challenge is maintaining such enthusiasm among mutual aid groups in the long run. (iStock/AnnaLauraWolff)

Some of the holiest experiences of my life have been experiences of mutual aid—the kinds of coming together that are now spreading around the world along with the coronavirus. For years, the background picture on my phone was an overhead view from the choir loft of an Episcopal church in Brooklyn that was turned into a supply depot, full of boxes and cans ready to be sent to areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Most of the work was being done by people who normally would not have set foot in a church—a self-organized network of volunteers who had mobilized to meet urgent needs. Some stuck around for services and prayers. This was a church acting as a church, like I had never seen before.

Similar wonders are happening now, all over the world. Because of the need for social distancing during the pandemic, a lot of it is happening not in churches but online. For example, MutualAidHub.org has a map-based directory for new groups forming in the United States. HelpWithCovid.com lists projects looking for volunteers, while CoronavirusTechHandbook.com has information on how to get involved in things like designing open-source medical devices. Mutual aid groups are coordinating grocery deliveries, making joint purchases of scarce supplies and pre-empting loneliness—all person-to-person, without waiting for government or big institutions.

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Mutual aid groups are coordinating grocery deliveries, making joint purchases of scarce supplies and pre-empting loneliness—without waiting for government or big institutions.

There is so much happening, and once again it is holy. But can this mobilization be as patient as the virus is?

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One thing about the mutual-aid mobilizations I have witnessed over the years is that they do not tend to last. Quick-and-easy connections in social media groups, with no structure but the compassion of volunteers—these are beautiful at first, until they begin to fade and reveal the absences of accountability and responsibility underneath. If our communities’ response is to be stronger than the virus, we will need to remember older forms of community-building, which translate enthusiasm into robust organization.

The Hurricane Sandy effort, for instance, went on for a few months. At first, the grassroots effort was way ahead of officialdom, whether established nonprofits or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. I remember when uniformed troops arrived, after an impressive amphibious landing on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, and started asking the volunteers already hard at work how they could help. But after a few months, the volunteers had fallen into rivalries with each other or were simply burned out. They had warned from the beginning that real-estate developers would take advantage of the crisis to drive poor people out and gentrify the area, but by the time the developers moved in, there was not enough structure to sustain an effort to protect longtime residents.

Rebecca Solnit has written powerfully about the “improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society” that emerges during disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. But a necessary companion is Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which documents how powerful political and business forces find ways to turn disasters of many sorts to their advantage in the long run.

Ms. Klein, for instance, has written about the role of Vice President Mike Pence—now leading the coronavirus response—in helping to design the so-called reconstruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as then-chairman of the Republican Study Committee. This included turning the city into a testing ground for a privatized school system and rolling back environmental and wage protections for workers. Now Ms. Klein is warning about a similar “coronavirus capitalism”—that fears of the pandemic will enable the removal of public guarantees, such as civil liberties and labor protections, that would be less assailable in normal times.

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Too often, groups that rely on short-term adrenaline are not ready to contend with the longer game that the more powerful are prepared to play. Looking past the energy-fueling mutual aid in the early days of the pandemic, I fear the burnout, the defeats and the cynicism that will follow. But that does not have to be the story. We can start building long-haul mutual aid right now. We have to beware of the short-term allure of social-media-friendly coming-together stories when they don’t have the ingredients for outliving a media cycle or two.

One small contribution I have been working on is a website called CommunityRule—a set of editable templates for how groups can self-govern, kind of like mini-constitutions. I have been inspired by some of the oldest governing documents still in use: medieval monastic templates like the Rules of St. Benedict and St. Augustine. A few simple guidelines can go a long way. If groups plan ahead for making hard decisions and defining roles, they have a better chance of weathering the challenges sure to come. When groups forget to do this, they risk finding themselves stuck with what the second-wave feminist Jo Freeman has called a “tyranny of structurelessness.”

Looking past the energy-fueling mutual aid in the early days of the pandemic, I fear the burnout, the defeats and the cynicism that will follow.

Common-sense governance is just a start, though. There is so much more we can do to nourish our mutual aid.

In a recent episode of America’s Jesuitical podcast, Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, the chief clinical officer at the Seattle-area hospital Providence St. Joseph Health, points out that much of the Catholic health system was born of pandemics. The founder of her own institution’s Sisters of Providence died of cholera after caring for the victims of an outbreak. The 1918 flu pandemic led the Sisters of St. Joseph down the path of building hospitals. They stepped in when they saw a need around them, and they turned one moment’s compassion into lasting infrastructure.

Institutions all around us—including many we take for granted but would hate to lose—started out of community responses in times of crisis. Many credit unions, labor unions, fraternal societies, rural cooperatives and charities have such an origin story. As their founders worked humanely, they also thought institutionally. They recognized that often the needs that arise in a crisis have been there all along, and the solutions need to outlive the crisis, too.

What legacies will we build out of our responses to this crisis? What institutions emerging now will shape the world to come? Our need for mutual aid did not begin with the present pandemic; we should design our aid now with the aftermath in mind.

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