Building an Authentic Community of Practice


[10] The Mutualism in Mutual Aid: Which Level Are You?

We were formally introduced to the concept of mutual aid in class as it was coined by anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin in response to social Darwinist theory. By providing examples of cooperation and mutual aid in nature, Kropotkin builds a strong argument against the notion that competition and survival of the fittest are the sole drivers of evolution. Values of voluntary cooperation, reciprocity, solidarity, equality, community empowerment, and sustainability also have all been embodied by indigenous and non-Western societies long before they were forced to adapt under colonial oppression. Not only did we learn about recent historical examples of successful mutual aid initiatives such as the Black Panther Party’s Breakfast for Children Program and the Young Lords Party’s takeover of Lincoln Hospital, but we were also lucky enough to be enrolled in Introduction to Social Justice during the recent 2024 CCNY Gaza Solidarity Encampment which followed intimately in the footsteps of the historic 1969 CCNY Black and Puerto Rican student takeover.

The power of mutual aid and other notions of collective action, power, and responsibility are steadily being brought back to the forefront of social justice conversations. That is why I think it may be beneficial for us as social justice students to update ourselves on current research and theories. The most recent academic article I found that addressed what mutual aid has developed into today was published in June of 2022 and is titled “Solidarity, not charity: Learning the lessons of the COVID‐19 pandemic to reconceptualise the radicality of mutual aid.” In the article, scholars today begin to analyze the ways in which the term “mutual aid” has been used to describe different approaches to supporting communities in need—particularly, the co-option of mutual aid during the pandemic by the very state institutions and capitalist systems to which mutual aid seeks to challenge.

Here are the three contemporary models of mutual aid emerging today:


  • aid from neighbors, volunteer groups, faith networks, and food banks
  • roots in 19th-century ‘friendly societies’ where people pooled resources to support others in the name of philanthropy
  • has evolved into a mix of for-profit and non-profit entities under ‘conscience capitalism’ that makes modern charities:
    • rely on affluent volunteers (majority White, professional, and female)
    • compete for funding and incentivized to keep costs low
    • lack political power to address root causes of inequality
    • maintain existing social hierarchies and perpetuate dependency on external aid


  • aim to empower marinalized individuals to participate actively in society
  • emphasize self-help and community resources
  • focus on individual recovery rather than systemic change
  • promote adaptability and ‘resilience’ within the existing unjust system


  • aim to tackle root casues of inequality perpetuated by capitalism, not just the symptoms
  • seek to fundamentally change the conditions that cause socioeconomic disparities by restructuring society
  • create of spaces for marginalized people to meet their basic needs and participate in civic life
  • conduct work that is essentially linked with anti-capitalist politics, with an emphasis on collective action and true solidarity

From food insecurity to threats of eviction, this pandemic demonstrated how quickly marginalized communities can slip further into vulnerability. It exposed how fragile and incompetent institutional systems of social welfare support are in crises, but allowed radical mutual aid groups the opportunity to build community through true solidarity and push back against state-led ideas that legitimize capitalist logics. Again, I think as social justice students we should all take note of the distinction between the different models of mutual aid being used today and understand the importance of evaluating them based on their levels of mutualism between mutual aid actors and those they serve. State governments will likely continue to incorporate mutual aid ideas into social welfare programs but it is important to remember they should never be considered authorities on the concept, not while they perpetuate reliance on the unjust socioeconomic system communities in need are subjugated under. Under charity and contributory models, though helpful and welcomed to a certain extent, do not empower nor enact changes that would really solve the systemic issues marginalized communities face both in and out of periods of public crisis. Individuals further interested in this issue should consider which model their mutual aid activities fall under, and whether or not they would like to shift on the spectrum.