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Opinion | The Coronavirus and a Summer of Mutual Aid in Chicago

We wanted to ensure that our initiatives were rooted in community care and Black joy. Our aim was to build welcoming spaces where families felt no shame seeking resources and didn’t have to worry about having to prove their circumstances. This is the opposite of the hard-to-navigate unemployment system, the ID requirements that meant people couldn’t pick up food-bank items on behalf of others and the stimulus checks that left out undocumented neighbors.

Mutual aid blurs the categories of “recipient” and “volunteer.” We engage in mutual aid because we think we owe one another more than the tepid support our institutions provide. At both the Grab-n-Go and Market Box, for example, participants bagged groceries, redistributed to neighbors and spread the word. Volunteers grew in their understanding of how to be flexible, responsive and accountable to neighbors.

Mutual aid has long been a way for communities to survive hostile systems. To call on a neighborhood mediator before calling the police, to raise your children alongside their play-cousins like a village, to cook for your neighbor who falls ill — these are not new concepts. Black, immigrant and Indigenous communities, especially, have long known the necessity of relying on your neighbors instead of calling on the state.

This summer, we saw thousands of our neighbors recognize the urgency of embracing mutualism over individualism. Now we hope that the people of Chicago can use mutual aid to reimagine what our city — and our country — could look like: What if the way we ran our society and funded our society reflected the mechanisms of mutual aid? What if relationships built through mutual aid led to campaigns to organize tenants for housing rights, make government aid more effective or minimize the role of the police?

By the end of the summer, five more food sites on the Grab-n-Go model had been started by friends and collaborators across the South and West Sides. Market Box has started working with a grocery store that sources from Midwestern farms to continue our deliveries in the local farms’ slow season.

As this year continues, we will see volunteers spending their weekends packing bags of groceries, cooking bulk breakfasts for volunteers, sharing the food deliveries across their buildings and organizing their neighbors. In these projects we see glimpses of a society where we meet one another’s needs, not with shame but with the sense that contributing is an essential thing we do for one another. These are the practices that keep us safe.

Photograph by Aundre Larrow.

Maira Khwaja, Trina Reynolds-Tyler, Dominique James and Hannah Nyhart are mutual aid organizers and writers in Chicago. Ms. Khwaja and Ms. Nyhart are on the leadership team of Market Box, which continues to distribute fresh produce to families on the South Side. Ms. James and Ms. Reynolds-Tyler are on the leadership team of The People’s Grab-n-Go.

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