Mutual Aid and the Law: The Rise and Necessity of Mutual Aid in Immigrant Communities

The concept of “mutual aid” is new to many, but the concept itself is arguably as old as human society.

Amid the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil uprisings against racial injustice that spread throughout the U.S. and world last summer, communal support systems have arisen to fill in where other systems have failed. Far more than a buzzword, mutual aid is part of a fundamental shift in the thinking behind structures like social services, nonprofit charities, and even the justice system.

The 2021 Access to Justice Conference—with this year’s theme of “Crisis and Reckoning: A Call to Dismantle Unjust Systems”—will highlight “the work of non-legal community-based organizations, and provides the opportunity for community advocates and legal professionals to build partnerships to advance justice.”

One of this year’s presenters, Lesley Hoare with el Comite de Derechos Humanos de Forks, will focus on mutual aid within immigrant communities. Recently, Hoare agreed to answer a few questions about mutual aid, what it is, how it’s different, and its significance to the legal profession.

What is important for lawyers and other legal professionals to know about mutual aid projects?

Mutual aid projects have developed to fill the glaring inequalities in our system. They are a testament to the community’s strength and resilience, but we must work to eliminate the need for mutual aid. We should look at how these networks are functioning and try to bring that structure into the larger system. Too often our community is asked to fit within the dominant community’s structure, and it doesn’t work. We need to meet the community where they are and let them be the experts. As we can see, they know how to do the work. We need to listen to their experience and figure out how to create a permanent space for their work, which is compensated. We need to value their work, provide them space and resources to be able to continue it, and learn from them.

How is mutual aid different from traditional charities or state-operated social services?

Mutual aid is operated from within the community, whereas traditional charities and state-operated social services have a top-down structure. Mutual aid involves the community gathering resources and redistributing them to fellow community members in need. We make sure that everyone who needs help, receives a part.

In charities and state agencies, aid is given until it runs out. They tend to decide a quantity that will be given to people, instead of dividing the total among everyone, which means that more people may be left out. Traditional charities and especially state agencies also have more barriers in their application process. The applications can be lengthy, require technology that people do not have access to, use difficult or confusing wording, and are often not translated into all needed languages. Furthermore, the schedules for accessing assistance with agencies is often limited to regular work hours, which can be a barrier as well. As a result, less people are able to access help through traditional charities and state-operated services—and communities have had to turn to mutual aid to meet their needs. Because mutual aid is run from within the community, there is a much better understanding of what is truly needed, and help is more accessible and trustworthy since it comes from peers.

Please describe some of the mutual aid work carried out by immigrant communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. What unmet need did it serve?

During the pandemic, immigrant communities have had to rely heavily on mutual aid because many were left out of benefits like unemployment, stimulus checks, etc. In addition, the aid that was offered through nonprofits and state agencies was often very hard to access and only reached a small part of the community. Our immigrant community was left with almost no help and no work at the start of the pandemic and we formed our mutual aid network to fill multiple needs. First, we started with raising funds to help pay bills. From there we formed relationships with farms and community organizations that donated food, which we distributed through despensas, or food pantries. We bought cleaning products and household supplies in bulk to supplement the food in our despensas.

Regarding the coronavirus, very little information was provided to our immigrant community in a meaning or relevant format. Many community members were hesitant to go to the local hospital because of limited interpretation services and the fear of possible bills. We developed a collaboration with the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) to bring door-to-door testing to our community. We also recorded a video with the DOH doctor in Spanish and Mam (a Mayan language spoken in parts of Mexico and Central and South America) with common questions on COVID to help distribute reliable information. We also held several vaccine clinics with DOH in trusted places in the community to increase access to the COVID vaccine. Although the local hospital was doing regular vaccine clinics, only some community members felt comfortable going because there were longer waiting lines and less help with forms and few interpreters and trusted faces to ask questions.

Are there any common pitfalls for lawyers and legal professionals who want to become involved in mutual aid?

I think one of the pitfalls is romanticizing mutual aid. We want to dismantle the system and create an equitable alternative, not create a second system. It is very tiring work because we all do this outside of our regular work and family responsibilities. We want to work to eliminate the need for this, not create a secondary system which depends on our unpaid work and resources. The more we focus on services, the less we are able to work toward change, which is the real goal.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to volunteer with a mutual aid project or start their own?

If you would like to volunteer with a mutual aid project, be ready to do whatever is asked of you. Remember that you are privileged to have the time and resources to be able to choose how to spend your time. Often the work that is most needed is not what is most interesting. If you want to start your own, go for it! We didn’t think we could do it, but we knew we had to try and it worked much better than we anticipated. But be careful to not get lost in solely providing services. At every step, push back and highlight why you are working. Tell organizations how they can change their application, processes, etc. to keep pushing for change so that our work gets us to the real goal instead of just providing free services and wearing us out.