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

Social Justice

As discussed elsewhere in this resource, social justice refers to the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits (or outcomes) of economic growth (International Forum for Social Development, 2006). Mutual aid networks can thus also be thought of as organized, natural extensions of efforts dedicated to addressing social and economic inequities that exist within our midst and have proven to be an exceptionally effective way for members of underprivileged communities to work together and support one another (Fernando, 2021).

I. Migrant Rights and Mutual Aid Networks

Earlier in this chapter, it was discussed how Kropotkin (1902) developed his concept of mutual aid through a lens that reflected his anarchist worldview; it is perhaps through campaigns for migrant solidarity that one most explicitly sees the connections between mutual aid and anarchism’s anti-authoritarianism.

For example, the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network (MSMAN) in Washington, DC, explicitly states their way of working. Instead of waiting for businesses and governments to solve the crises currently impacting underprivileged communities, MSMAN believes in creating new social relations between (and within) communities that foster resilience, self-reliance, and autonomy. This is accomplished through the facilitation of calls to action aimed at pressuring local government authorities to reverse course on social policies that harm migrant families and of volunteer opportunities whereby newcomers are provided with temporary shelter, transportation to and from community appointments, basic daily living supplies, and medical and legal supports.

Although MSMAN has existed for years, its work began to take on a more prominent role in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States. In particular, the organization has been doing vital work in supporting asylum seekers who were bused to Washington, DC, from other parts of the country. By providing warm meals, temporary shelter, clothing, and connections to social support and faith-based community services, MSMAN is responding where the government has failed (Gomez, 2022).

Similarly, many immigrant/refugee communities often find themselves ineligible for government social programs and thus are left to fend for themselves when natural disasters occur. Stepping into this void are mutual aid networks such as Familias Unidas en Acción, an immigrant-led organization that has been operating in Louisiana since 2018, which recognizes that many communities cannot rely on the government and do not believe that the government is interested in supporting them or serving their interests (Kiefer, 2021). As is the case with other mutual aid networks, Familias Unidas en Acción has set its mission as developing community leaders in justice movements and achieves its mission through the distribution of donated resources to families in need and through direct actions against organized systems of oppression that disproportionately (and negatively) impact local migrant diaspora communities.

Elsewhere, mutual aid networks supporting asylum seekers have emerged in places such as New York City, which continues to serve as a destination of choice for many migrants hoping to build a better future for themselves and their families. One such network is the Black and Arab Migrant Solidarity Alliance (BAMSA), which does its best to provide those seeking refuge in New York with the necessities of life—something the municipal government fails to do. BAMSA provides temporary housing, food, and clothing, as well as advocates for social policy changes that facilitate the integration of Black and Arab asylum seekers, many of whom encounter significant headwinds in attempting to access the limited services offered by the city (Chowdhury, 2023).

More broadly, mutual aid networks can also engage in high-level campaigns to alter and dismantle systems of oppression that create the conditions whereby vulnerable populations are trapped in situations that render them reliant on charity and unable to support themselves. One such campaign is international in scope and argues for the legal recognition of all undocumented workers and other migrants (Tribone, 2020).

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of money raised by mutual aid networks to support undocumented individuals has greatly increased, though it is still far below the level of need in many migrant diaspora communities. Many of the individuals who are recipients of funds distributed by mutual aid networks are ineligible for social or income supports offered through local governments even though they constitute almost a quarter of the foreign-born population in the United States, remain gainfully employed, and sustain the American economy through their labour power.

As a result, many mutual aid networks are engaged in political advocacy campaigns that pressure governments to grant legal status to undocumented workers and asylum seekers (Tribone, 2020) and push for a world that is less inclined to rely on borders for international migration. Groups such as No One is Illegal in Canada and the Big Door Brigade in the northwestern United States apply the principles of mutual aid to engage in migrant advocacy campaigns, particularly in support of refugee claimants facing significant threats of harm if they have their asylum claims rejected and face deportation, and, by extension, fight for a people-centred world without borders (Allouba, 2013).


Learning Activity 5: Mutual Aid Network Examples

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: This activity lends itself best to an in-person, small group breakout or think-pair-share but could also work in a synchronous online learning environment or as an individual reflection.

On your own, take 15 to 20 minutes to explore different examples of mutual aid networks that exist in North America. After a preliminary exploration, focus on one of the listed networks and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Where does your chosen mutual aid network operate?
  2. What is the purpose of your chosen mutual aid network?
  3. What kinds of activities does your chosen mutual aid network do?
  4. Why might the organizers of your chosen network have felt the need to set up a mutual aid network in their home community?
  5. How are the principles of reciprocity and solidarity practised in your chosen mutual aid network?

II. Mutual Aid as Decolonization – Connections to Indigenous Ways of Thinking, Being, and Knowing

This chapter has spent considerable time and effort positioning this discussion of mutual aid within a particular theoretical context that emerged in Europe in the early 20th century. It is vital to reiterate and recognize (as was briefly done earlier in this chapter) that the concepts popularized in Kropotkin’s work have a long history in many non-Western (and non-White) communities.

Settler colonial societies (such as Canada) have engaged in systemic efforts intended to destroy Indigenous peoples and cultures for centuries, and a key plank of these genocidal practices has involved the destruction and criminalization of many traditional Indigenous cultural practices (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015b). Many of these cultural practices (such as potlatches) revolved around the redistribution of wealth within kinship groupings and were seen as subverting conventional views of private property and thus were considered politically threatening by governments. However, these practices endured and continue to be powerful examples of Indigenous survival and resistance to ongoing assimilative efforts of settler colonial governments (de Loggans, 2021).

In addition, more recent examples of Indigenous cultural revival provide further evidence of mutual aid as a more comprehensive component of the evolution of human societies. Echoing calls of tierra y libertad (or “land and freedom”), the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN) elected to take up arms against the Mexican state in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, on January 1, 1994 (Klein, 2019).

This armed insurrection was to coincide with the implementation date of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed between the governments of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Cheered by proponents as a necessary reduction of red tape to better facilitate the flow of goods and services across international borders, NAFTA was a lightning rod of criticism from many underprivileged communities across the continent. Among the most vocal voices against the accord emerged from Indigenous communities in southern Mexico, who viewed NAFTA as a continuation of colonial practices that eroded their social, political, cultural, and economic rights (Godelmann, 2014).

As such, it is essential to note that at the moment it launched its insurrection, the EZLN was made up almost entirely of Indigenous people, a substantial portion of whom were women. They occupied seven towns throughout the eastern half of Chiapas, including the largest city, San Cristóbal de las Casas, though they relinquished control 48 hours later. Afterwards, they traded their military objectives of taking over the Mexican state for a more broad-based social revolution, one that provides a glimpse into what another world—one organized around the principles of mutual aid—could look like (Klein, 2019).

Central to the Zapatista worldview is the concept of Zapatismo, which is associated with the phrase para todos todo, para nosotros, nada and roughly translates to “everything for everyone, nothing for us” (Gahman, n.d.). In short, Zapatismo can be viewed as a model for community building, and as helpfully summarized by The Mixed Space (2023), consists of seven principles:

  1. Obedecer y No Mandar (To Obey, Not Command): Leaders should obey the wishes of the community and not command from a position of authority.
  2. Proponer y No Imponer (To Propose, Not Impose): A solution or pathway forward should be proposed and not imposed.
  3. Representar y No Suplantar (To Represent, Not Supplant): Aligned with the principle of community self-determination, this involves an understanding that leadership is a position of trust to represent what a community wants.
  4. Convencer y No Vencer (To Convince, Not Conquer): Convincing others of one’s perspective should be done through logical, open dialogue and the consideration of multiple points of view, and not through the application of force.
  5. Construir y No Destruir (To Construct, Not Destroy): Focus should be on the construction of institutions and practices that serve community needs in a sustainable way and end exploitative, destructive mechanisms.
  6. Servir y No Servirse (To Serve Others, Not Serve Oneself): The need to serve the collective should be balanced with ensuring that the needs of oneself and one’s family are also taken care of.
  7. Bajar y No Subir (To Work From Below, Not Seek To Rise): Collective work is central to life. Remaining grounded in community is key.
International summit for women in the struggle called by the Zapatistas – Zapatista women hide from the sun under a mural which reads “Our voice is not only the voice of the indigenous women of Mexico, it is also the voice of women of the world”
International Zapatista women’s summit. The mural reads: “Our voice is not only the voice of the Indigenous women of Mexico, it is also the voice of women of the world.”

On a more practical level, Zapatista communities have structured themselves according to the principle of mandar obedeciendo (to lead by obeying). In short, mandar obedeciendo represents a commitment to engage in traditional Indigenous decision-making processes, where a leader is charged with representing their community as a delegate at general assemblies and carrying out the will of the community at the assemblies (Rebrii, 2020). This form of “bottom-up” delegate system stands in sharp contrast to systems of political representation formally employed in many Western European nations and their former colonies. In those systems, elected political representatives operate in a “top-down” manner and are empowered to make decisions on behalf of their constituents, and individual community members have far less influence in discussions on matters of importance to their lives and their communities.

(NOTE: While beyond the scope of this particular conversation, you can read more about the Westminster political system employed throughout the nations of the British Commonwealth, the Presidential system used in the United States and other republics, and the Semi-presidential political systems used in places like France and Russia.)

In addition, decision making within Zapatista communities employs a consensus-based model, where all perspectives are encouraged to be shared and a formal decision is not made at an assembly until an acceptable compromise is reached for all those in attendance. As such, under the principle of mandar obedeciendo, leadership in Zapatista communities is less about the accumulation of personal power and more about one’s responsibility to serve the interests of one’s community (Marcos, 1994). Leadership is regularly rotated in different communities and ensures that community leaders are never far removed from the people they are serving. Any leaders who do not carry out the wishes of the community are swiftly recalled and replaced by the community members themselves (Marcos, 1994).

The Zapatista commitment to following the principles of mandar obedeciendo and para todos todo, para nosotros, nada is another example of mutual aid in the evolution of human society. Through a thoroughly collectivized and directly democratic system of government, decisions on important matters in a community are made by community members themselves. The principles of solidarity and reciprocity are on full display, and social power within the community is maintained at the level of the community itself.

The results of this structuring speak for themselves. In addition to the creation of independent health care, education, economic, and justice systems based on traditional Indigenous practices (Rebrill, 2020), Zapatista communities explicitly strive for full and equal participation of women in leadership and decision-making processes (Klein, 2019) and have been able to curtail the use of alcohol and illicit drugs in their semi-autonomous communities. Furthermore, food production has become more sustainable in Zapatista communities, and its proceeds are equitably distributed. This has allowed the development of a greater connection between Zapatistas and their land and has resulted in further revitalization of Zapatista languages and cultural practices (Gahman, 2017).

However, perhaps the most powerful demonstration of the Zapatista commitment to the principles of solidarity and reciprocity that serve as the heart of mutual aid is the impetus to link their struggles for self-determination with others. Rather than simply replicating what has worked for Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Marcos (1994) contends that other communities must find their own ways forward. Although Zapatista experiences can be illuminating and instructive, the Zapatista refusal to engage in relationship building that results in the accumulation of power places the responsibility for a particular community’s self-determination squarely onto members of that community themselves (Gulewitsch, 2011).

The above examples provide useful (and powerful) refutations of the idea that human civilization masks humanity’s inherently self-interested orientation and that threats to civilization would unleash the worst elements of “human nature.” If such a perspective were true, how could the emergence of mutual aid networks in underprivileged communities—in the past and present—be explained?

The reality is that although our systems of power reward naked self-interest and those interested in the ruthless pursuit of social, political, and economic power, the principles of solidarity and reciprocity that lie at the heart of mutual aid appear equally as natural in human societies (Solnit, 2020). This implication can have profound impacts on effective practices in the field of settlement work, which will be the focus of the final section of this chapter.


Learning Activity 6: Otro Mundo es Possible (Another World is Possible)

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: This activity would be optimal as a small group activity in a synchronous learning environment but could also work as an individual reflective exercise for different modalities.

Watch the video Who Are The Zapatistas? (Schools for Chiapas, 2014) and take notes on key points.

Once you have finished watching the video, take five to 10 minutes to reflect on what you learned. Discuss how our concepts of community building and/or effective professional practice in the field of settlement work can be expanded to include the concepts of mandar obedeciendo (to lead by obeying) and para todos todo, para nosotros, nada (everything for everyone, nothing for us).

Learning Activity 7: A Mutual Aid Toolkit for Community Building

INSTRUCTOR NOTE: This activity lends itself best to an in-person, small group breakout or think-pair-share but could also work in a synchronous online learning environment or as an individual reflection.

Oftentimes, we may find ourselves thinking about the gap between the world as it is and the world as we think it should be. However, bridging that gap is no small task, and it may feel daunting even thinking about how the first step could be taken. Take 15 to 20 minutes to examine the Mutual Aid 101 Toolkit and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What issue would I try to build a mutual aid network for?
  2. Why is this issue important?
  3. Who would I want to reach out to first to try to work with on this?
  4. How would this work be different than what might be done through charitable organizations?
  5. What goals would I like to accomplish through a mutual aid network, and when would I like to accomplish them by?
  6. How could I apply the principles of mandar obedeciendo (to lead by obeying) and para todos todo, para nosotros, nada (everything for everyone, nothing for us) in the development of a mutual aid group?
Image Credit

Zapatista women’s summit by Global Justice Now, CC BY 2.0


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Canadian Settlement in Action: History and Future Copyright © 2021 by NorQuest College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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