Organizers Are Building Solidarity Through Holiday Mutual Aid Work

The holiday season is a particularly difficult time for many people. For those who are facing eviction, are isolated from loved ones, or are unable to afford gifts, there might not seem like a whole lot to toast to. And when you throw in the fact that we’re still wholly in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic, it’s clear that a lot people are experiencing feelings of despair and hopelessness this time of the year.

With this in mind, it’s especially heartening to know that organizers across the country are working to bring a little holiday cheer to those who might need it the most. Holiday-themed mutual aid efforts are popping up in cities and towns all across the United States to help fill in some of the gaps of the official pandemic response and to spread some joy ­and warmth at the end a particularly tragic year.

The Winter Warmth Fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, is just one of many efforts across the country focused on providing warmth — literally to those who need it. The goal of the fundraiser is to raise $20,000 which will help housed residents pay their utility bills as well as provide propane to heat the tents of unhoused residents in the city.

The fundraiser is being organized by Des Moines Black Liberation Movement Rent Relief Fund and Des Moines Mutual Aid, which is part of the broader Iowa Mutual Aid Network.

Similar mutual aid networks have sprung up across the country, multiplying and growing during the pandemic. For example, the Queens Mutual Aid Network in New York City is raising funds to provide rent relief to undocumented Queens residents who have received little or no financial help during the pandemic.

Other efforts are focused on providing warm clothes for people experiencing houselessness or who are otherwise experiencing housing insecurity. The #Warm4Holidays campaign, which is put together by abolitionist organizer and educator Mariame Kaba, encourages people to knit or crochet winter clothing items, such as hats, scarves, socks or mittens, which will then be donated to groups that work with unhoused people.

Another organization working to spread some holiday spirit is Neighbors Helping Neighbors, based in San Mateo, California. The project originated at the start of the pandemic as a form of mutual aid specifically aimed toward grocery deliveries to seniors and immunocompromised people. Now, Neighbors Helping Neighbors is in the middle of its “Buy a Tree, Gift a Tree” program, where individuals or families buying a Christmas tree for themselves are given the opportunity to buy a second tree to donate to someone who can’t afford to buy one.

“We started the program because, personally, I love Christmas, and I love Christmas trees. I collect ornaments. And so I was like, it would really be a drag if you can’t have a tree, especially if you have little kids,” said Neighbors Helping Neighbors Founder Sandy Kraft in an interview with Truthout. “I think it just appeals to certain people because it’s a magical thing, right? I mean, having a tree, being with your family — kids get excited by having the presents underneath.”

For the program, Neighbors Helping Neighbors partnered with a local, family-owned business called Honey Bear Trees which has agreed to support Buy a Tree, Gift a Tree by spreading the word on social media and putting up flyers at its tree lot. Through this partnership Neighbors Helping Neighbors has been able to reach a lot of people who it might not have otherwise.

“There’s all kinds of stories,” Kraft said. “One family reached out to us who were actually living in a family shelter in San Mateo. They had a 9-year-old daughter whose grandfather had died recently from COVID. They asked us for a tree because they didn’t have money for the holidays, and their daughter was really upset. So we got them a tree.”

Although many holiday mutual aid efforts are aimed toward people experiencing houselessness or housing insecurity, there are also a number of mutual aid efforts across the country specifically focusing on bringing some holiday cheer to other communities in need, such as people who are incarcerated.

Moms United Against Violence is an abolitionist organization based in Chicago, Illinois, that has been putting together mutual support drives since 2014. The organization has compiled an online registry where people can purchase toys which are donated to incarcerated mothers to give to their children when they visit them in prison.

“We didn’t want to do a toy drive that was focused exclusively on the children,” Moms United Against Violence co-founder Holly Krig told Truthout. “We wanted it to be an opportunity for people to think about the incarceration of mothers, the relationship of mothers to their children, and not only how deeply it affects children to have their mothers incarcerated, but how much that harms their mothers and harms their relationships and how that reverberates throughout families and communities.”

What distinguishes mutual aid or mutual support efforts from more traditional forms of charity is that mutual aid puts an emphasis on empowering and uplifting the communities being supported, and building solidarity. They do this through projects like toy drives and rent relief, but also through focusing their efforts on organizing communities and raising awareness around specific struggles. Moms United Against Violence, for instance, often invites people who have donated gifts to join them at teach-ins and letter-writing events, which can in some cases build up to court support and participation in freedom campaigns for people who are incarcerated.

“Mutual support is really about us coming together to support each other, to survive these violent systems so that we can resist and organize against them — as opposed to figuring out a way to survive them individually,” Krig tells Truthout. “The support drives have been an opportunity to invite people to think more critically about the carceral system — to draw people into a deeper conversation.”

In a typical year, Mom’s United Against Violence usually generates about 1,400 individual gift donations, and it usually raises around $5,000 during the holiday season to send to incarcerated mothers to put on commissary. These types of donations are incredibly important in and of themselves, but each donation is also an opportunity to draw in new organizers into the abolition movement.

“We’re trying to reclaim a sense of solidarity with one another, and to build that out in concrete ways, first and foremost, by meeting needs and inviting people who have experienced those systems to really take on roles in this work and to be able to contribute and support in a way that feels empowering to them,” Krig said.

Moms United Against Violence is one of a number of mutual aid groups focused on abolition. For example, the Survived and Punished NY Mutual Aid Group is part of Survived and Punished NY — a grassroots prison abolition organization that aims to end the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The group is currently working to raise $40,000 to provide commissary, packages and other material support to help criminalized survivors stay warm with winter clothing.

Mutual aid efforts led by the organizers at Survived and Punished NY and Moms United Against Violence are driven by an understanding that only through working with communities in mutualistic, solidaristic and nonhierarchical ways will they bring about the better world they know is possible.

“Ultimately, our mutual support drives are really about a political understanding of our circumstances and learning together what we need to know and develop tactics and strategies,” Krig said. “As the wonderful Mariame Kaba always says, ‘You have to prefigure the world that you want to live in.’ And in some ways, I think we’re putting glimpses of that out into the world as we do these drives and show each other what’s possible when we’re in solidarity with one another.”