Mutual Aid: A Feel-Bad Story

by Amy Obermeyer

It is March 12, 2021, and I am riding home to Queens over the pockmarked industrial roads of eastern Mott Haven. I am crestfallen, having just had to tell a regular whom I bring food to that our mutual aid organization is running out of funds to keep up the grocery delivery system we’ve had going now for a year. For a year, we’ve been able to bring groceries and supplies to some of the members of our community most marginalized and most harmed by covid. I’ve been delivering to this individual nearly from the beginning. I always knew the funds would eventually dry up, that the initial outpouring of generosity last April would give way to ennui and normalization. It doesn’t make it any easier. I promise her that I will figure out something, that I will keep visiting and bringing any food I can scrounge up from local food banks and the like, but unfortunately, it won’t be quite as robust.

I still think a lot about an article mentioning our group that I read in early fall. One of our organizers told Eater in September, “We are helping all these people who can’t leave their homes. Who was helping them before? I don’t fucking know”. No one seems to know. The state unemployment office, along with some other government service providers, referred people to us and to other mutual aids around the city. Almost invariably, especially in the early days, the stories of mutual aid took a feel-good tone, of the “look at the city coming together in a time of crisis” genre. Organizers have been pushing back against this narrative, but media outlets remain hesitant to name the failure of the state.

Mutual aid is a sort of prefigurative politics. In lay terms, it is about living the world as you want to see it in advance of it actually existing. It is communities caring for one another, where everyone is fed and housed, with dignity and agency. Organized around the notion of “solidarity not charity”, mutual aid is by design distinct from the not-for-profit model. It recognizes the mutual dependence inherent in community and eschews (at least in theory) hierarchical models that separate “donors” and “recipients”. Mutual aid was the principle behind the Black Panther’s Free Breakfast Program, which at its height fed tens of thousands of children despite authorities’ frequent attempts at sabotage. In fact, it is ultimately because of the Panthers’ persistence that the US Federal School Breakfast Program exists today. An ethos of mutual aid led the Young Lords Party in 1970 to “liberate” a tuberculosis truck in order to provide TB screenings in East Harlem. Both the Panthers and the Young Lords made great strides not just in serving the immediate community, but in expanding popular understandings of how society should provide care and who should have access to that care.

The radical possibilities of mutual aid are consistently elided by mainstream accounts, which have yet to ask even, for example, why we accept that 1.4 million New Yorkers are dependent upon emergency food aid such as food pantries and soup kitchens. Mutual aid in the time of a pandemic does not just bring people food, coordinate childcare, and organize skill sharing. Mutual aid pushes us to ask why these basic needs remain otherwise out of reach for so many, and why the impact of the pandemic has been so disparately borne by communities of color and immigrant and working-class communities. Given that one year in, the city continues to push the most vulnerable further to the margins, mutual aid should feel to us not as a feel-good story, but a feel-bad one.

Around New York City, many mutual aid organizations are celebrating their one-year anniversaries. On March 11, 2020, New York University, the institution with which many of us are affiliated first announced a three-week shut-down of in-person activities. On March 22, 2020, New York State announced its shelter-in-place order known as PAUSE. Few of us then had any notion of what would be to come. 

Since then, many of our lives have gotten by necessity far more local in the ways they are lived day to day. In recognizing that, this series seeks to think through forms of local activism and its role in resisting forms of exploitation and oppression that transcend even national boundaries. We’re looking for a broad variety of pieces, from first-person narratives to opinion pieces, to interviews and even translations of articles appearing in other venues (with permission, of course) on issues that haven’t been well covered in Anglophone media. Keeping in line with our larger philosophy, we are open to exploring expansive understandings of what constitutes “local”.  We are interested in not only text-based submissions, but visual, video, and sound-based submissions. To pitch a contribution of your own, please email

To help us get food where it’s needed across New York City, see our fundraiser here.