Austin Mutual Aid Organizations Share Resources During COVID-19 and Beyond
Looking for solidarity, not charity
"I was living in a camp under 183 and Burnet, and a couple people came by with some food one day. That was right when the pandemic started, about in March."
Britt, a 57-year-old volunteer with Austin Mutual Aid, had been houseless on and off for 17 years when her encampment, along with about 15 others around Austin, began receiving meals and water from ATX Camp Support at the start of the pandemic. "I didn't have anything else to do and conditions are pretty bad under there, you know. So I just started helping them pass out food there in that area, and got to know them and become friends with them. They were making a great impact in people's lives – they were helping people. We saw an immediate need for masks and hand sanitizer, [and] we made masks by hand. I made over probably 300 masks by myself out of T-shirts. That's how I got involved."
The effort she got involved with, ATX Camp Support, is a collective bringing together several different groups that provide aid at encampments across Austin, including Primrose Community Care, Austin Food Not Bombs, Stop the Sweeps, and Austin Mutual Aid. The last name explicitly describes what they all practice, and new mutual aid groups continue to arise to meet community needs among not only those without shelter but all Austinites. A recent example is the ATX Free Fridge, which provides refrigerators in food-insecure neighborhoods where residents can take what they need and leave what they can to help others.
As of about two months ago, Britt is housed in a co-op and receives a weekly stipend with the help of Austin Mutual Aid. But she did not abandon her community in the Burnet encampment. For months, she prepared meals every day to be distributed by volunteer drivers on Burnet and at other encampments across town, until she had to quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure in July. (In the interim, three of her housemates got COVID-19 and recovered.) Now, she and other co-op members help a camp near them with outdoor showers and other hygiene supplies.
Britt says when the pandemic hit in March, mutual aid efforts were the first on the scene, before the city had organized any relief. "In the beginning the city did not provide any masks, hand sanitizer, there was no one down there checking on us. And that's what we took over." She defines mutual aid as "people helping people." Though she has worked with ATX Camp Support and likely will in the future, she says it's less important to be affiliated with one particular group than to address a need wherever it pops up, in whatever way she can.
Rebecca Steingut, who volunteers virtually with Austin Mutual Aid, says, "The simplest definition of mutual aid ... is each giving what you can and ensuring that others in the community are provided for, who in turn will give, right? It is very Othering to be constantly the recipient of charity [and to] not feel that you have something to give." A phrase that often comes up among mutual aid workers is "solidarity, not charity."
For Steingut, that means organizing pickups and drop-offs of supplies through a Facebook group and connecting those with needs to volunteers through the platform Covaid from her computer when she's not occupied with her 17-month-old baby. "We have people contact us with all kinds of needs, like their uncle needs a mask, or diapers, or they need someone to help them get their stimulus check," she says. "We've been pairing those needs with volunteers on our list. Sometimes it's picking up something and delivering it somewhere, other times it's just connecting [people with] information."
Primrose Community Care, which operates a mutual aid center out of MonkeyWrench Books and takes in donations from 4-8pm, comprises a more physical side of the effort. "I had gathered donations from my own little neighborhood group for them – water, toiletries," Steingut recounts. "I said, 'I really can't get to you guys from 4pm to 8pm because of the baby's dinner and bedtime, could you send someone to pick it up?' And they said, 'Absolutely, we will make that happen; in the meantime, do you need anything for your baby?' Complete, exact definition of mutual aid."
Caring for Communities
Bobby Cooper, who founded Austin Mutual Aid in March, stresses that it's about building relationships to invest in communities, rejecting the top-down model of traditional charitable organizations. Cooper moved to Austin from New York, where in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy he founded Occupy Sandy, a disaster relief effort that raised millions and garnered 60,000 volunteers, and filled in where the Red Cross and FEMA weren't. "[They] really dropped the ball in New York. A lot of that was that they didn't understand, the[ir] model is very top-down." Cooper's model, conversely, is derived from the original use of the term "mutual aid" by the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin in 1902. "The anarchist model is, you go to neighborhoods, you talk to them and ask them what's on their mind," Cooper says.
But during the pandemic, mutual aid has had to adapt to social distancing. "COVID really tied our hands. In a natural disaster, going door to door is the first thing we do, you know. Mutual aid to me is all about talking to people and getting to know what families, individuals, communities want, what they're missing, and what they have to share, whether it's time or skills or resources. I live in East Austin and most of my neighbors are over 70 on my block. ... They're the kind of people I wanna look after, make sure they are doing OK. Unfortunately in the beginning, instead of running out the door, we had to build up more of an effort online."
Austin Mutual Aid's biggest project right now is the "Beat the Heat" GoFundMe campaign to buy water and shade supplies that help the unhoused deal with the grueling Texas summer. So far, they've raised $18,568 of their $20,000 goal. Cooper says at first he was reluctant to solicit funds, having mostly dealt with in-kind donations in the past, but he soon realized how much longer they could provide support if they raised money. "It's literally a drop in the bucket ... I think people are in a really giving mood right now and they want to help, but can't leave their home. So what they have to offer is funds."
While Austin Mutual Aid has shifted its model to work with the current climate, it still deals primarily with in-kind donations. Another group in Austin, the UT-student-led Mutual Aid Collective ATX (MACATX), carries out its relief efforts entirely online.
"I think we're very different – Austin Mutual Aid and the Camp Support folks are really great with hands-on volunteers, all the folks at MonkeyWrench Books are great with donations and keeping up a physical mutual aid center. We're more financial," says Sarah Philips, a recent UT-Austin grad who formed her collective in March. MACATX operates as a fundraising and education platform, creating social justice infographics and raising thousands in donations.
Philips says Austin Mutual Aid and MACATX fulfill complementary roles in the Austin landscape. "It feels like it's working well, because we have our roles and fill different holes in the community. It just made a lot of sense to do financial [work] because we [UT students] exist in this weird dynamic where some of us are not from Austin, and a lot of people ... are now moving out of Austin because of COVID. I can do all this online and remotely, and still be helping people around me."
Sharing the Wealth
"All this" is one gargantuan job: fielding several requests a day from people who have filled out a Google Form or contacted the collective directly on social media. Both Philips and Cooper have trouble connecting with people offline, especially with the physical restrictions of the COVID-19 world. "It's not always possible because of the volume of requests, but I like having some sort of back-and-forth ... Especially for folks who don't have transportation and can't use the buses right now. Also, not everyone has Venmo, Cash App, all these online money transfer systems ... Like, of course we can send money, but are you able to access what you need with that money?"
MACATX began as a COVID-19 relief effort for students but quickly grew to help communities far beyond UT. In the intervening months, it's been so successful that it's been able to share funds with mutual aid groups in Dallas and Houston as well. Philips attributes it to a sleek social media presence (@mutualaidatx) run by students, some of whom have just finished a degree in advertising or graphic design, and fundraising capability with the use of the platform Phly, founded by a rising UT junior, Lucious McDaniel IV.
Phly allows MACATX more speed and flexibility with donation distribution than platforms like Venmo and Cash App, which, due to their strict limits on how much groups can take in and send, "have large sums of money held in limbo," McDaniel explains. "We allow them to take in an unlimited amount of money ... free of charge." Philips says these strengths, due to students' skills in marketing and business, have made MACATX successful, and "we kind of need to share the wealth."
The flow of wealth can fluctuate in a completely donation-based model, and MACATX made an Instagram post acknowledging that fact on August 11: "We are temporarily pausing our emergency fund redistribution due to some administrative tasks/financial restructuring." But rather than the flow running dry, it's quite the opposite. MACATX clarified with the Chronicle that they'd "been using personal bank accounts to handle transactions and redistribute money to folks who need it. This wasn't an issue back when we were getting $20-100 donations from a few folks, but since our base has expanded to thousands, we've been moving thousands of dollars in [and] out which has to be reported as earned income [and] taxed. Because we'd rather not let those donations be wasted on tax, we're looking into ways to become a nonprofit." In the interim, in-kind donations of supplies can pick up the slack.
Both Austin Mutual Aid and MACATX have contributed support to Black Lives Matter protests, with food and water and with cash to pay medical bills. MACATX's stated principles include abolition of police, Black liberation, and Indigenous sovereignty, among other commitments, and Cooper says that the concept of mutual aid is deeply intertwined with racial justice movements. "Forming connections and building community is something that I know, for East Austin, we need. We need to support the culture and the people that have lived here who are facing gentrification. Even when the police brutality protests started a few weeks ago, that made me think, our mutual aid effort is something that could replace the need for calling the police. Because if we have neighborhoods where people know each other ... that's another way to solve our problems within our community. I think mutual aid can help with that, can replace the need to buy something or call an authority."
Britt, who has lived experience with both offering and receiving assistance through mutual aid, intends to continue to help those who helped her. "Last night, I came home and cried because there's some people still out there, some of my friends, and it's very hard sometimes to go home and be sheltered and know that they're not. And so I cry, and I get it out, and I just get up and do it again the next day. I'm very passionate about what I do because I just recently got housed and it's wonderful. All my needs are met, I'm funded for a whole year ... and through that I'm able to help more people. It's the real definition of mutual aid; We're people helping people."