Across America, the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to skyrocketing unemployment, leaving millions unable to afford rent, food, and other necessities. While the unrelenting spread of the virus has hit Americans hard, communities continue to come together to look after each other, with help from the leaders,organizers, and activists who have stepped up to meet the moment.
Community-led responses to the pandemic are proving to be a successful model for addressing issues in collaborative and creative ways. Mutual aid networks, which are based on the simple idea that someone always has something to contribute and someone else always has something they need, have become increasingly popular as the pandemic rages.
We asked LaSaia Wade, founder of Brave Space Alliance Opens in a new tab , to break down the benefits of mutual aid networks and to share advice on how you can join one or start your own. Since the pandemic first began, Brave Space Alliance has employed a number of mutual aid efforts Opens in a new tab to help queer, trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people in Chicago weather the crisis.
Q: For folks who may be new to community organizing, can you explain what mutual aid networks are and why they are often so effective?
A: Typically, mutual aid groups are member-led, member-organized, and open to all to participate. Mutual aid network participants work together to figure out strategies and resources to meet each other’s needs, such as food, housing, medical care, and disaster relief, while organizing themselves against the system that created the shortage in the first place.
They are often structured as non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, with members controlling all resources. They are egalitarian in nature and are designed to support participatory democracy, equality of member status, and consensus-based decision-making.
Q: If you had to pick the ingredients of a successful mutual aid network, what would they be?
A: There are only two: people and trust!
Q: How can people decide if they should work with an existing mutual aid network or start their own?
A: I always tell people to see what they need first and then work from there. Most people look at this work and think, what can I get out of it? Brave Space Alliance is a collective view, it’s a selfless and a beneficial type of work. An amazing mutual aid network is a collective of people coming together who know that if I feed people, there will be harm reduction of people stealing and dying in the streets of hunger.
Q: How do you think community-led responses to the pandemic compare to the response from centralized areas of power?
A: Poor people know what they need. We don’t need to tell them what they need. So the difference is in power and how the system doesn’t work. Power itself tells and doesn’t listen most of the time, so what people are seeing now is what the system is afraid of: when people get together to fight. We can change things for the better for all people, not a select few.
Q: The pandemic has sharpened many community members' awareness of issues that existed well before COVID-19. How can we support our communities not just during this crisis, but well into the future?
A: You have to continue to do what you’ve been doing. As soon as we feel a little safety, people like to run from the problem. If we ain’t learn anything, being relaxed brings more issues than just trying to heal or solve it.
Q: When we featured your work during Pride month back in June, you said that it’s great that folks are featuring you and Brave Space Alliance, but trans and LGBTQ+ Chicagoans need help and support year-round. Could you speak more to that?
A: To me, it’s all about the continued support through donating Opens in a new tab , giving time, or providing a skill to an organization to support the work they’re doing. To stop tokenizing us means putting us in leadership and in positions of power, not the first desk with a cute title.
Q: What’s next for Brave Space Alliance? What are you looking forward to in 2021?
A: There are a few things I’m looking forward to, which will hopefully prove to the city and state that they should fund us. We started our own housing program to house homeless transgender/gender non-conforming folks. We are also building out our programming. Hopefully one day we will have our own clinic. Not today, but one day!
Q: 2020 has been an incredibly difficult year, but there have been tiny glimmers of hope. Could you share any personal glimmers of hope for you?
A: This year I became a mother and that is the light of my life right now. People tell me this is just the beginning, but I want five kids and the craziness and waking up to fights and fussing (laughter). Call me crazy, but I was raised in a big household, and I just want to have a family of my own.