Chapter 10: Mutual Aid: A Factor in the Evolution of Settlement Work in Canada


This chapter has explored mutual aid and how it presents an alternative view of Social Darwinist conceptions of the evolution of human societies. Most specifically, the theory of mutual aid articulated by Pyotr Kropotkin argues that the idea of a harsh and brutal reality necessitating the “survival of the fittest”—where the “weak” are dominated by the “strong” in the struggle for finite resources available on our planet—is not valid. A more thorough explanation of evolution can lead one to conclude that cooperation rather than competition is a more successful explanation for human (and biological) diversity.

Support for Kropotkin’s (1902) conception of human evolution can be found in numerous examples of everyday mutual aid, where people respond in an unprompted manner with kindness, compassion, and a desire to help others in their time of need. This propensity to work collaboratively with others in times of crisis was further illustrated by a marked increase in the number of mutual aid networks that emerged in North America as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

These networks represent an “evolution” of service design and delivery for communities in need, an evolution based on the principles of solidarity and reciprocity, and where self-determined communities develop mechanisms for taking care of their members without relying on the government for assistance.

In addition, the inspirational revolutionary work of autonomous Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico, demonstrates how the adoption of Indigenous ways of thinking, being, and knowing—most explicitly through the principles of mandar obedeciendo (to lead by obeying) and para todos todo, para nosotros, nada (everything for everyone, nothing for us)—resulted in the creation of new structures of governance that maintain power and influence in the hands of community members themselves.

The contention that the Zapatista way opens up opportunities for other communities to find their own ways forward is very much connected to the principles of mutual aid (Marcos, 2002). These connections extend to potential reimagining of current practices currently employed in settlement work. Mutual aid allows for alternate conceptions of strengths-based approaches and anti-oppressive practices and can be particularly applicable in instances where settlement workers serve in a cultural brokering capacity.

As such, as difficult conversations continue around the concepts of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the design and delivery of settlement services, and people living in Canada continue to grapple with how to move forward in discussions around how to reconcile Canada’s colonial history through the work we do, settlement workers would be well advised to consider adding mutual aid to their proverbial toolboxes.

Mutual aid provides opportunities for people to co-construct a more just and equitable world with their fellow human beings. By virtue of the work they do in the greater community, settlement workers are uniquely positioned to lead discussions on the “evolution” of our societies into the foreseeable future. They should not pass up the opportunity to do so.


Learning Activity 8: Cooperate or Compete (Redux)?

INTSTRUCTOR NOTE: Although this activity can work well in an in-person think-pair-share format, it could also work well as an online discussion forum topic.

On your own, take a few minutes to reflect on your responses from Learning Activity 1 at the start of this chapter.

Has your opinion on whether the “survival of the fittest” provides a reasonable explanation for the evolution of our species changed? If so, why? If not, why not? How might the conversations sparked by this chapter cause you to re-evaluate your approach to settlement work?

Learning Activity 9: End of Chapter Quiz

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: This should be an online activity but can also serve as a marked assessment at the discretion of the instructor.



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