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Opinion | What’s Better Than Charity?

Mutual aid reflects one of my most deeply held beliefs: that every big political problem is rooted in our everyday lives. When our nation-states fail us, it is because we have already failed one another. Mutual aid is a corrective for our culture’s competitive individualization, which has isolated us from one another. Connecting with your neighbors to solve a real, immediate problem for someone you might bump into while you’re out walking the dog or doing errands is ultimately a gift to yourself.

Finding a local mutual aid organization or cause might take a bit more effort than finding a charitable organization, but it is worth it. It develops the muscle memory for giving in a way that stretches our empathy as well as our social ties. If you need help figuring out a way to give money and time directly to people who need it, you can check out the Mutual Aid 101 guide by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Mariame Kaba. Another good way to start is by searching “mutual aid” and your city on your search engine of choice. In my area of North Carolina, for instance, Mutual Aid Carrboro keeps a collective ear to the ground for unmet needs and then meets them.

I would also like to tell you about three organizations that would be great stewards of your donation. Each of them has some personal significance for me. As a researcher and an educator, I believe in the liberatory potential of accessible humanities and social-science education. Having access to stimulating literature and social science because of libraries and a well-read family absolutely set the course of my life. I want that opportunity for everyone, yet we generally reserve it for those fortunate enough to make it to college.

I obviously believe in higher education. I have staked my entire professional identity on it. But higher education is not a panacea for social conflict and greed. We have seen what happens when the public does not share an ability to evaluate different kinds of evidence and truth claims, and a basic orientation toward intellectual curiosity. Misinformation and disinformation have become a political strategy. One need look no further than the rancid, politically motivated attacks on teaching culturally responsive history, literature, STEM and current events. The attack on what is mislabeled “critical race theory” is an attack on the very idea of humanistic inquiry.

No single intellectual tradition has reason cornered, and that is why humanities education is so vital to public life. Unfortunately, wealth inequality and financial pressures threaten to make humanistic learning in a group an elite privilege. The Night School Bar in Durham, N.C., is one organization trying to make social inquiry available through pay-as-you-can classes.

Most of my research advocacy has been for higher education, but education is a continuum. The inequalities that show up in college begin much earlier in the pipeline. The Carter G. Woodson School in Winston-Salem, N.C., is continuing a 25-year mission to serve the area’s Black and Latino students. The school involves families in a comprehensive curriculum that includes a school farm program, a robotics program and a very competitive soccer team. It also has a balanced approach to comprehensive K-12 education that de-emphasizes testing and emphasizes caring for the whole child. Because the school offers so many comprehensive services to students and to families of modest means, it has a lot of financial needs.

Finally, on a larger scale, Mother Health International (MHI) offers a way to give that is very personal to me. One of the essays in my book “Thick” describes my experience of going into preterm labor — it was the most traumatic health experience of my life. However, what I don’t detail in that essay is the fact that it was far from the only traumatic or negative interaction I have had with U.S. health care. Our health care system is no picnic for most people, but it’s even worse if you’re a woman. Caroline Criado Perez, the writer and feminist economist, is good on this. Her book “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” is an infuriating survey of how data across many domains — from seatbelt measurements to pharmaceutical testing — fail to account for women’s health.

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