Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is a grassroots disaster relief network based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and autonomous direct action.
Our national network is made up of many eco-activists, social justice activists, global justice activists, street medics, herbalists, permaculturalists, black liberation advocates, community organizers, and others who are actively organizing around supporting disaster survivors in a spirit of mutual aid and solidarity. It is a decentralized network, defined by the character and creativity of a multitude of communities and drawn together by our collective commitment to stand in solidarity with those impacted by disasters and turn the tide in favor of climate justice. We build our network through education and action, valuing both collective decision-making and autonomy. We are deeply moved by the Black Panther survival programs which served the aim of satisfying immediate needs while simultaneously raising people’s consciousness. Rooted in our history and experiences of social movement organizing we see our disaster relief work in the context of social struggle and believe that we must simultaneously address people’s immediate self-determined needs for survival and organize for fundamental shifts in the way we relate to each other and the earth.
Growing from the seeds of the autonomous, anti-authoritarian, global justice, and occupy movements, the spokescouncil is Mutual Aid Disaster Relief’s main organizing body. Also referred to as “all hands”, “general assembly”, or “general circle”, participants work collaboratively and horizontally to move Mutual Aid Disaster Relief closer to achieving its mission and vision. Depending on size and capacity, either all people affiliated with the ongoing organizing, or just delegates from affinity groups and working groups, coordinate and collaborate to share updates, make decisions that affect Mutual Aid Disaster Relief as a whole, set the general direction with the input of all involved, and help to coordinate activities between the different affinity groups and working groups. When seeking consensus/consent, rather than asking ourselves, “Do I agree with this 100%?” the operative question is “Can I live with this?” This approach, combined with our practice of devolving decision-making to the localest scale possible, minimizes conflict and fosters an environment that is conducive to both sharing decision-making power and respecting autonomous action.
The steering committee is made up of a dynamic group of about a dozen individuals from around the country. Many Steering Committee members have been involved in previous mutual aid disaster relief projects including Common Ground and Occupy Sandy. Steering committee members educate, organize, and mobilize support around Mutual Aid Disaster Relief projects in their respective communities, regions and networks. Working with a light touch, they provide Mutual Aid Disaster Relief with long-term organizational continuity and sustainability, work to build leadership within the national network, and work closely with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief working groups, affinity groups, and the spokescouncil to ensure continuity with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief’s campaigns, needs, and processes.
Semi-autonomous working groups exist within the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief network to help drive certain aspects of our work forward. Some working groups are temporary and are formed around specific needs such as location specific organizing or a solidarity brigade during a specific disaster. Other working groups are more permanent, such as medic/wellness, media/communications, and financial accountability. Working groups communicate via conference calls, emails, list-serves, signal, and/or on the ground and are a point of access where anyone in the network can become more involved in shaping the direction of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief. To get involved with a working group, or to start a new one, contact us at [email protected]
In addition, we believe in horizontalism, decentralization, prefiguration, and that the most effective decisions and actions take place at the level of those closest to the problem or most impacted by the solution. Therefore, whenever possible, we strongly encourage the formation of affinity groups that can maintain their self-organization and autonomy, while simultaneously connecting and working with ongoing Mutual Aid Disaster Relief organizing.
New Orleans, a few days after Hurricane Katrina. In this apocalyptic atmosphere, here and there, life was reorganizing itself. In the face of the inaction of the public authorities, who were too busy cleaning up the tourist areas of the French Quarter, protecting shops, and responding with automatic rifles to demands for help from the poorer city dwellers, forgotten forms of community solidarity were reborn. In spite of occasionally strong-armed attempts to evacuate the area, in spite of white supremacist mobs hunting and killing unarmed black community members, a lot of people refused to leave the city. For those who refused to be deported like “environmental refugees” all over the country, and for those who came from all around to join them in solidarity, responding to a call from Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther, self-organization came back to the fore.
In a few weeks’ time, volunteer first aid first responders, called “street medics” for their work as first aid providers at protests, formed the Common Ground Clinic. From the very first days, this clinic provided free and effective treatment, including holistic, alternative, and western medicine to those who needed it, thanks to the constant influx of volunteers. The clinic, Malik’s house, and other newly formed Common Ground sites like the volunteer housing of those who came to clean and rebuild flooded homes became bases of daily resistance to the clean-sweep operation of government bulldozers, which were trying to turn parts of the city into a pasture for property developers.
People came from global justice, anti-war, anarchist, and other movements that survived state crackdown on dissent. Individuals from Food Not Bombs, Indymedia, Veterans for Peace, street medic and housing rights collectives, all joined together to set up popular kitchens, provide free medical care, engage in building takeovers to prevent their destruction, and more. Despite the presence of at least one misogynistic agent provocateur, Common Ground created additional health clinics, a legal clinic, built community gardens, operated a women’s shelter, distributed aid, established a tool-lending library and radio station, gutted houses, cleaned up debris, documented police abuses, created community media centers, bio-remediated the soil, and replanted wetlands to build a barrier against the next storm.
People’s willingness to engage in direct action found a new context in defending public housing, re-opening shuttered school doors, delivering much needed supplies past checkpoints, and helping community members maintain their historic centers of worship despite the opposition of church hierarchies. The experience and wisdom gained from mass mobilizations against globalization melded with the legacy of the Black Panthers survival programs. This practical knowledge accumulated in the course of several lifetimes of social movement practice all found a space where it could be deployed.
The devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina gave movements for liberation and others devoted to social transformation the opportunity to achieve an unfamiliar cohesion and unity that transcended the tired old divisions based on ideology or tactics. Street kitchens require building up provisions beforehand; emergency medical aid requires the acquisition of necessary knowledge and materials, as does the setting up of pirate radios. The political richness of such experiences is assured by the joy they contain, the way they transcend individual stoicism, and their manifestation of a tangible reality that escapes the daily ambience of order and work
Whoever knew the penniless joy of these New Orleans neighborhoods before the catastrophe, their defiance towards the state and the widespread practice of making do with what’s available wouldn’t be at all surprised by what became possible there. On the other hand, anyone trapped in the anemic and atomized everyday routine of our residential deserts might doubt that such determination could be found anywhere anymore.
Common Ground was not an activist utopia. Despite anti-oppression trainings and other limited attempts at stemming oppressive behavior, racism and sexism still were present. In addition, one early leader of Common Ground Relief, Brandon Darby, who later was revealed to be an FBI informant and agent provocateur, used his position of leadership to take advantage of young women, and alienated many people by his domineering misogynist tendencies, militant posturing and other poor behavior. When volunteers insisted that this problematic behavior be addressed, those people rather than the perpetrator were pushed out of the organization. The problems also extended far beyond one individual. Similar to how in disaster capitalism, the economic elite take advantage of the situation to further entrench their privilege and power and introduce neoliberal economic reforms, in disaster patriarchy, which was on full display in Common Ground, the sense of crisis and urgency was taken advantage of by people who used it as an excuse to bypass their principles for expediency. Valorization of hard and constant physical labor, a crisis-laden environment, militant posturing, minimization or degradation of emotion and basic human needs – these were all red flags that painted a toxic and unsustainable organizing culture and were not appropriately addressed. It takes a constant organizational self-awareness and willingness to critically reflect in order to not fall back into the trap of patriarchal, colonial, or other oppressive modes within organizing efforts.
These examples of Common Ground not living up to its ideals should not be glossed over or ignored. They are, in fact, critical to acknowledge and learn from. At the same time, it does not undo the critical, groundbreaking disaster relief solidarity work that Common Ground pioneered. It is often not a matter of whether manifestations of hierarchical power arise in our social movements and organizations, but when. When this does happen, it is critical to name it for what it is, and that this power be contested, opposed, and composted for something new to grow in its place.
Common Ground can be thought of as a mediating organization linking the traditional revolutionary organizing style of the Black Panthers and the diffuse leadership or horizontalism of Occupy Sandy. All three didn’t share decision-making power within their organizations equally, but all three did share power with the communities they were in support of, listening, asking, and responding to people’s needs, while articulating support for radical social change.
Fast-forward several years and an earthquake has just devastated Haiti. Most of us have left New Orleans and Common Ground and focused again on building other movements like the International Solidarity Movement, No Mas Muertes, Earth First! Rain Forest Action Network, Engineers Without Borders, Mountain Justice, the Beehive Collective, what became the Occupy Movement and countless others. But finding each other through acting directly and in concert with people affected to achieve their survival and other needs, besides giving us a heightened sense of inner power and fertilized imaginations, also built bonds that survived the years. Some people reconnected temporarily under the name Mutual Aid Disaster Relief in Haiti and sent several teams into Haiti providing medical care, supplies and assistance.
Many of us helped shut down Wall Street, however briefly, as part of the Occupy Movement and participated in local encampments. Occupy Wall Street began in New York’s Zuccotti Park in 2011, where a number of protesters attempted to take nonviolent direct action to shut down Wall Street and raise awareness about issues of economic injustice and inequality. Many of us also participated in Occupy Sandy, the grassroots disaster relief network that emerged out of Occupy to provide mutual aid to communities affected by Superstorm Sandy. Occupy Sandy programs included medical assistance, construction, a tool lending library, volunteer mold removal, free meals, distribution of aid, free legal help, a free store, educational services, and more. OpOK, Boulder Flood Relief, the examples are numerous and clear. Mutual aid and solidarity is far more effective and efficient than top down approaches. Even the Department of Homeland Security, ordinarily diametrically opposed to the work of anarchists, anti-authoritarians, anti-capitalists, and other dreamers of a better world, concedes the superior effectiveness of this horizontal, decentralized, network model compared to the top down command and control one.
Mutual aid disaster relief is a radical approach to disaster relief and to social movement organizing. Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, the organization and network, acknowledges failures of the movement for solidarity-based relief in the past and seeks to learn from those mistakes, build on lessons learned from decades of community-led disaster response, and ensure that best practices, relationships, and resources are ready to be deployed to support communities impacted by future disasters.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief has continued the legacy of autonomous, decentralized, and liberatory disaster relief by responding to the historic floods in Baton Rouge, flooding in West Virginia, Hurricane Matthew, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Florence, and more – building wellness centers, providing life-saving medication, cleaning debris, gutting flooded homes, distributing supplies, assisting with sustainable rebuilding efforts through water purification and solar infrastructure, tarping roofs, advocating for incarcerated prisoners, amplifying other liberatory relief efforts, and many more activities to support people’s survival, empowerment, and self-determination.
Reconnecting with such gestures, buried under years of normalized life, is the only practicable means of not sinking down with the world. The time has come when we take these up once more. Extreme storms are increasing in intensity and frequency. Climate change is threatening life as we know it. The time to build a permanent network to respond, from below and from the left, to these and other disasters is now, and we welcome you to help write that history with us.
Frequently Asked Questions
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is a grassroots network whose mission is to provide disaster relief based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid, and autonomous direct action. By working with, listening to, and supporting impacted communities, especially their most vulnerable members, to lead their own recovery, we strive to build long-term, sustainable and resilient communities. Mutual Aid Disaster Relief responds to disasters, educates about community organizing as disaster preparedness and collaborative neighborhood crisis response, collects and disseminates lessons learned in the field, and supports and provides a connective tissue between other grassroots groups doing response work.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief includes activists who have been involved in a variety of disaster responses, have experience doing educational work and network building, and have and continue to support their own communities’ mutual aid based projects and justice work. We are witnessing and adding to a movement of responders who provide an alternative to the government’s and nonprofit industrial complex’s hierarchical, charity-based model of response, which preserves the status quo and profits off the disasters it creates. Instead, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is solidarity-based, relationship-based, participatory, and rooted in the understanding of disaster relief work as justice work whose larger aim is survival, self-determination, and collective liberation.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is a decentralized network, defined by the character and creativity of a multitude of communities and drawn together by our collective commitment to stand in solidarity with those impacted by disasters and turn the tide in favor of climate justice. It is a moving, growing, contracting, organic, dynamic milieux of like-minded yet diverse people. Our network is not so much a standing army of volunteers as an interlocking web of individuals, affinities, and relationships, some already acting, many more holding the potential energy to act when a disaster strikes. The fluidity and amorphous nature of our network allows us to adapt to shocks and changing circumstances, and support different contexts in unique ways.
We understand that connecting with diverse communities and learning from each other every day is one of our greatest strengths, and countless informal networks already exist, with more forming every day. Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is just one tiny little branch of this swiftly growing super-organism, and is comprised of people committed to supporting the growth of the greater autonomous, mutual aid based disaster response movement by seeking to encourage more connections, inspire newcomers, and facilitate learning of important skills and tactics, all while contributing to disaster survivor’s well-being and self-determination.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief sees itself as a swiss army knife within the larger toolbox of the autonomous, mutual aid-based disaster response movement. Our network includes multiple projects, including on-the-ground response work, networking and relationship building across the movement, and educational programs that seek to grow the use of mutual aid as a framework for disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. But we also recognize and strive to support other initiatives and projects with similar aims as we believe that only a movement of movements can help us survive the spectre of climate devastation looming on the horizon.
We recognize and celebrate that the movement of grassroots, liberatory, solidarity-based, autonomous disaster response is so much larger than Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and is made up of many diverse individuals, collectives, organizations, and networks with their own identities. Part of our mission is to support this interlocking web of people who are inspired to act during disaster, regardless of what they call themselves.
Additionally, we don’t see ourselves as a vanguard or central authority on disaster response. Other groups with varying beliefs and structures have and will continue to respond to crisis. People all over the world are engaging in disaster relief from a mutual aid perspective every day, and we want to encourage and learn from this important and affirming work. We did not choose the name Mutual Aid Disaster Relief because we want to co-opt these movements, but because we want to constantly uplift this tactic and this perspective, and to provide a home for any others who, like us, find profound meaning in orienting their lives around community disaster preparedness and DIY crisis response.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is currently made up of many semi-autonomous working groups with different scopes of work. The direction and activities of each working group is largely set by the working group itself. While working groups have a fair degree of autonomy to carry out activities that fall within their scope, they are all accountable to a larger circle. The working groups sometimes bring proposals to the general circle for ratification, particularly when it’s a matter of concern for the full organization, like amending our internal policies.
The general circle is made up of people who have expressed and shown long-term commitment to the project and meets regularly to help share information between working groups and make decisions that need everyone’s input. Program, operational, and ongoing mobilization working groups meet as frequently as needed. Increasingly, we try to devolve decision-making to the ‘localest’ scale possible (“Subsidiarity”), meaning more decisions are made within smaller working groups, by those closest to the problem and most impacted by the solution, rather than the general circle. Consent is the operative word. We try not to vote, but arrive at a mutually satisfactory outcome for all participants. If one is not comfortable with a decision, they identify and propose new alternatives. Rather than the question, “Do I agree with this 100%”, often the question is “Can I be ok with this?” Just as important, an effort is also made to share decision-making power with affected disaster survivors when at all possible.
Another element of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief’s decision-making is the Steering Committee, which fulfills its duty of care by closely monitoring the activities of the organization, regularly reviewing financials and operational matters, and intervening in decisions it believes to be harmful, overly risky, threatening to Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, or contrary to the mission, but otherwise works in tandem as co-decision makers. They also provide Mutual Aid Disaster Relief with long-term organizational continuity and sustainability, work to build leadership within the national network, and work closely with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief working groups to ensure continuity with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief’s campaigns, needs, and processes.
We also strongly encourage the formation of affinity groups and, if needed, spokescouncils, to promote self-organization and autonomy within Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, especially in the event of a large disaster response mobilization.
This multi-pronged approach has enabled us to remain fluid, dynamic, and responsive to the needs of disaster survivors, and to combine collaborative, participatory decision-making with respect for autonomy.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief strives to support locally rooted groups in their response and inspire more affinity groups to act, more collectives to form, and more organizations to coalesce. We don’t want to supplant or replace spontaneous manifestations of mutual aid and we don’t undo the need for emergent groups to form. Instead, we seek to build relationships with, learn from, and listen to locally rooted groups in our on-the-ground response work.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is opposed to disaster colonialism. The real first responders are the people most affected on the ground, and we respect this in our analysis and approach. Other groups with varying beliefs and structures have and will continue to respond to crisis. We want to make clear that we support and want to amplify local emergent response groups, (such as the Centros de Apoyo Mutuo, West Street Recovery, etc.,) but we certainly don’t speak for them or any other autonomous, independent disaster response or mutual aid efforts. We aim to speak and live out our truths while lifting up the voices of those doing similar work.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief may be able to help in a number of ways. We can publish lists of needs, fundraisers and news to our national audience. We may be able to put you in touch with groups that have experience organizing response and recovery work if you’re looking for counsel or inspiration, or provide this advice or mentorship ourselves. We may be able to direct an Amazon Wishlist to you. We may be able to direct volunteers or supplies your way. Being an all-volunteer network, our capacity varies. But we are flexible and fluid and, just like we do with individual disaster survivors, we prioritize asking and listening to emergent disaster response efforts. So, if you have a need or request, even if it’s different than what you just read here, please reach out.
Absolutely! Contact us at [email protected].
So much of justice-rooted disaster response work takes place before the disaster occurs as the local strength of collectives, affinities, and networks provide the nutrients for a vibrant people-powered response at the time of a crisis. Part of our work as a network then is to continually deepen and grow our connections with diverse people across the country in advance of disasters. When disasters do hit, these relationships between our network and other networks local to the disaster help guide us in our ability to respond in a supportive way.
We are a small but growing crew of volunteers who have limited personal and organizational capacity. In addition, we are committed to incorporating community care and healing justice into this work, instead of perpetuating disaster patriarchy. So we cannot promise to respond everywhere, everytime. When we do respond to a disaster, we do so where we are invited and when we have the capacity so that our work forms organically in relationship with the local response. We are continually growing our network, building and solidifying relationships, always imagining what we will be able to do tomorrow. And in the meantime, we do what we can, respond when we are able with integrity, respect, compassion, and care, in the spirit of mutual aid and solidarity. And we hope that you are inspired to do likewise.
Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is currently not a chapter-based organization. We support affinity groups and collectives who continue being autonomous and working in their local communities, at the same time that they plug in to disaster response when they are able and willing. We encourage folks to work with others in their home community to form and grow locally rooted and diverse mutual aid programs, with their own names and identities. And then, whether as an individual or as a collective, leverage those relationships and resources when a disaster hits either locally, regionally, or farther afield. And of course, we are always looking to grow and welcome new volunteers. Please join our Facebook group or email [email protected] and let us know the ideal ways you would like to plug in.
Yes. Mutual Aid Disaster Relief is a social movement rooted effort, and our ebb and flow of participation, affinity group model, non-hierarchical based organizing, and so much else about us doesn’t fit neatly into a nonprofit model and we remain critical of the nonprofit-industrial complex. Nevertheless, we chose to access nonprofit status to help open doors and provide an element of continuity and permanence to the autonomous disaster relief movement. Donations are tax-deductible, and we can provide you a donation receipt upon request.
No. Sorry! But we aren’t set up currently to be a fiscal sponsor for other organizations.
During a Mutual Aid Disaster Relief mobilization, as a general rule, to discourage disaster tourism, volunteers are expected to fund their own way to the site of a disaster. We expect volunteers to get on site using their own finances, thereafter we may be able to provide reimbursements for supplies that you purchase or other similar expenses related to doing the work. We want our volunteers to feel empowered to meet critical emergent needs of disaster survivors, with the knowledge that Mutual Aid Disaster Relief will back them up. Get in touch with us at [email protected] or check in with a site coordinator to see if we can provide a reimbursement before making a purchase. Receipts are always required. We currently rely on small donations and have a shoestring budget so any private fundraising for individuals’ or affinity groups’ relief efforts is encouraged.
We recommend that you plan to come into any disaster situation as self-sufficient as possible. Many volunteers that have worked with us have their own vehicles that double as a place for them to sleep. Often we work with local churches, mosques, and other community centers to be able to have basic volunteer housing. Other times, camping or staying on a couch is the only option. We generally eat what we share with the community. If you have specific dietary or other needs, of course we will try to accommodate, but we advise you to bring what you need.
We meet sometimes formally, sometimes informally every day to discuss emergent needs and ways to meet those needs. It’s totally normal to be nervous your first time. But we want to be a welcoming community, and will help orient you.
Definitely! If you align with the core values and guiding principles, we welcome you to join us. We have a lot of work to do and we always want more people pitching in on our existing projects and scheming up new ones. Reach out to us at [email protected] to let us know your ideal way of plugging in.