Support Your Community

5

When people first set out to make a difference, they often gravitate toward charity. Yet charity has existed for eons, and the poor are still poor. Learn about the difference between charity and mutual aid projects.

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Mentioned in this episode

  • Food Not Bombs is trying to inspire the public to participate in changing society and focus our resources on solving problems like hunger, homelessness and poverty while seeking an end to war and the destruction of the environment.
  • United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) is the nation’s largest youth-led, student labor campaign organization, with affiliated locals on over 150 campuses. USAS affiliates run both local and nationally-coordinated campaigns for economic justice in partnership with worker and community organizations.
  • NYC Books Through Bars is an all-volunteer-run group that sends free, donated books to incarcerated people across the nation.

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Rebel Steps 005 Support Your Community

Liz: Welcome to Rebel Steps. I’m your host, Liz

When people first set out to make a difference, they often gravitate toward charity. And it makes sense to start there. You see someone hungry, you want to feed them.

For many people, charity or volunteering is a gateway to broader political understanding. I know it was for me. I grew up in a very religious household. During my teenage years, I did some missions work. There was a huge emphasis on “saving” people abroad, both spiritually and materially.

But during college, I began piecing together a different understanding. I was involved with United Students Against Sweatshops or USAS, an organization that supports garment workers abroad. USAS talked directly to workers in factories that made college apparel and coordinated student actions with workers’ demands. The needs and views of the workers were front and center in the actions of USAS.

As I learned more, I moved away from charity and toward solidarity and empowerment. And though I ultimately rejected religion, I’ve always seen my early experiences with charity as foundational to the political beliefs I formed in adulthood.

Dom Hélder Câmara, a Brazilian Archbishop who advocated for liberation theology , summed up this connection by saying “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Even though I tend toward anarchism, I feel like I know what he means.

Liz: In left leaning and especially anarchist circles, support projects are called Mutual Aid.

Chris: My name is Chris and I’ve been a bottomliner at Food Not Bombs Lower Manhattan over the past eight years and I’m also a member of MACC.

Liz: Chris has been involved in mutual aid projects for years. As bottomliner for food not bombs, he helps coordinate weekly free hot meals. He’s passionate about Mutual Aid’s importance and history. I asked Chris about difference between charity and mutual aid.

Chris: To understand the difference between what is charity and what is mutual aid, look at where power is centered and where it goes. On a very basic level charity retains power. And in fact it uses that same power to help but that power is still there and the power relations themselves have not changed. Mutual aid is a matter of giving power to other people. These two things can look very similar but it makes all the difference in the world.

Liz: So unlike charity, mutual aid seeks to empower communities to meet their own material needs, such as housing, food, and healthcare. This idea taps into the inherent contradiction of the rich trying to save the poor. The wealthy make their fortunes by exploiting the poor. If someone’s working 40 hours a week, but still needs food stamps and doesn’t have health insurance, that employer is not doing right by their employees. Yet they can turn around, give the money away to someone else and receive praise and accolades.

For example, in 2014, a study showed that low wage Wal Mart employees were using $6.2 Billion dollars in public assistance. At the same time, Wal Mart runs an extensive giving and grant program. Keeping your workers in poverty on one hand while giving to different people on the other hand just doesn’t add up.

Traditional charities and corporate giving programs are riddled with these sorts of contradictions. Mutual Aid seeks a more equitable future without the exploitation found in the charity world. It seeks a more holistic solution. Here’s Chris again.

Chris: A charity organization would address a very specific problem. There are certain people who don’t have any food and so here is an organization that provides food. There’s certain people who can’t get into college and so here is an organization that provides scholarships. But these are not done with the intention of stitching together a total society. These are meant to shore up the weaknesses in current society. It is sticking your finger in the holes in the dam in order to keep the water from leaking out.

What we know to be society are the institutions with which we interact in order to secure the means for our material existence. Virtually all of the institutions that we interact with for this today are going to be governmental institutions or capitalistic institutions or religious institutions or some sort of hierarchical institution. Is it any wonder why so many people despite the fact that government capitalism all these hierarchies do not work for them why they will defend them even sometimes unto death. And it’s because this forms the sum hole of their experience of what is actually possible. If we want to create a new society then we must create new institutions that follow non-authoritarian non-hierarchical ethics because through interacting with these institutions people’s imaginations for what is possible will suddenly expand.

Liz: One of the most frustrating things to me about our modern society is that we let people go hungry or be homeless when we have food being thrown out and homes that stay empty for years. Some groups focus very directly on connecting these dots.

Liz: In Greece, there’s a series of hotels and houses that anarchists have turned into homes for refugees. One example, the City Plaza Hotel, was unused and empty for 6 years before it became a squat. The squats aimed to solve the problems of overcrowding and isolation that plagued the government and NGO camps.

Chris: You have all these refugee camps over in Europe, southern Europe you know people coming in from Syria, North Africa and the like and they are basically in these camps stuffed to the gills with people and they are essentially held there by people. And there is very clearly a power dynamic there. You have the people who serve and you have the people who are served and that can be an incredibly demoralizing position to be in.

Chris: Where the anarchists squats that people talk about in Athens differ is they have these very same refugees centred as the ones actually running these places and so are able to do so understanding the needs and experiences of their fellow refugees. It is done with a sense of empowerment and of having a confidence in their own abilities. And being able to contribute being able to not just be a mouth and a stomach which is how a lot of these NGOs and a lot of these governments very bluntly view these people. They are also a brain. They are also a pair of hands. They are also a voice and it’s been the anarchists not the NGOs that will be able to recognize that in them and to be able to help them come into their own power.

Liz: In addition to offering housing, these squats have created an engaged and supportive community. The community hosts everything from language classes to queer parties to a health clinic.

Unfortunately, they’ve been persecuted by the local right wing press and the government has tried evict them multiple times.

The orders to evict the squats were issued last summer, but the squats continue to fight. The Coordination of Refugee Squats wrote, “As long as they try to evict the squats, as long as they build camps and detention centers, as long as there are borders - we will also be there to fight back and fight for a `better world! We will show them again what we already proved, we live together, we struggle and we resist together – to defend the dignity of each individual, to defend our principles of solidarity.”

You don’t have to go Greece to participate in this kind of work. Food not Bombs is a web of groups that cook and distribute vegan food in most major cities.

Chris: Food Not Bombs is premised on the idea that if the nations of the world spent nearly as much on their hungriest and neediest people instead of on weapons of war we would probably be in a much better place, but they don’t. And so one part community service, one part political activism, Food Not Bombs is very presence indicates the failures of our current system and points out that the promise of industrial capitalism is essentially a lie that is being sold to the people because if it weren’t a lie then we wouldn’t actually have to be there on Sundays.

Liz: They emphasize both the outcome and the way they do the work, writing “We are also showing by example that we can work cooperatively without leaders through volunteer effort to provide essential needs like food, housing, education and healthcare.” Liz: In addition to providing support to a larger community, there are lots of examples of mutual aid within our own political communities.

Daniel from Books through Bars who spoke on the Write A Letter episode thinks about prisoner support with this lens in mind.

Daniel: I don’t see it as a charity. I view it as mutual aid or even just a gesture of solidarity albeit a small one. Was probably not too small to people that are getting a big fat package from us when they have no ability to read other than that.

Liz: Mutual aid is sometimes overlooked in organizing, but we can’t underestimate it’s value. Meeting people’s material needs has been used repeatedly as a way to challenge established power.

Chris: Everybody wants to do these very glamorous sort of things everybody wants to be able to get in the newspaper. People want to punch a cop or something along those lines. But what movements are ultimately made of is the boring work, the unglamorous work, the unsexy work. If a movement expects to be able to have an impact then it’s going to need to figure out an effective way to do this boring stuff and the efficacy of these projects in the efficacy of these organizations would then wind up sapping legitimacy from the ones that we were opposing right now. Look to the Black Panthers. Their school meal program was seen as far more threatening than any of their direct actions were.

Liz: The Free Breakfast for Children Program was one of the many Black Panther survival programs. For period of time, the program fed over 10,000 children daily.

Chris: It was the Black Panthers school meal programs that eventually shamed the federal government into creating ones of their own because they knew that that actually directly challenged their own legitimacy and so they needed to implement this program themselves because without it they looked like fools.

Liz: The episodes so far have focused on specific action items. This episode is more about a paradigm shift. Charity has existed for eons, and the poor are still poor. The world has the money, the food, and resources to care for everyone and eradicate poverty, but we have not done so.

Showing up to volunteer is a great first step. Don’t be afraid to take on an organizing role in this context. Offer to set up or clean up for your group. Take on the side salad at Food not bombs. Coordinate new volunteers at the next event.

Our work has to be about a balance between challenging the power structures and providing immediate aid. Look for projects that empower those in need. Give to organizations working toward systemic change. If you’re already volunteering, consider how your group fits into this paradigm.

For more resources check out the show notes at rebelsteps.com. You’ve been listening to rebel steps. I’m your host liz. Believe yourself trust one another and get organized.

This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Music for the this episode was kindly gifted to us by Morgane Fouse and also includes a few songs that I created. Special thanks to our interviewees, Chris and Daniel and their organizations.