“None of us know where this is going,” says author and activist Dean Spade. “It’s not looking good, but what do I want to spend the rest of my life doing? Being fully alive, being with other people, being in it together, taking risks, being really, really caring, [and] learning to love people even if they annoy me.” In the spring of 2020, the U.S. saw an unprecedented wave of mutual aid projects in response to the pandemic. What became of that energy, and what lessons have organizers learned from efforts that thrived and projects that collapsed? In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes and Dean Spade talk about mutual aid, overcoming burnout and demobilization and how we can support trans young people in the face of fascistic Republican attacks.
Music by Son Monarcas, Pulsed and Imprismed
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
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Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer Kelly Hayes. We talk a lot on this show about the work of organizing and what solidarity demands of us. Today, we are talking about mutual aid, including lessons from the ongoing pandemic. We will be hearing from Dean Spade, whose book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next) should be in every activists’ library, if not on their person. We’re also going to talk about what mutual aid looks like in the context of Republican attacks on trans youth, and how we can hold hope in these times.
As we have discussed previously on the show, mutual aid is a form of political participation that involves a sense of communal responsibility, from providing free meals or housing to rescuing or defending community members who are in danger. When we create mutual aid projects, we are not simply committing acts of goodwill, but rather, creating new ways of living in relation to each other. Through these efforts, we make the worlds we inhabit together more survivable.
Early in the pandemic, mutual aid became a hugely popular social response to a moment that created a shared sense of hardship. Even though we were not all experiencing the same level of risk or loss, a sense of solidarity emerged around care work, COVID safety and helping people survive the economic free fall we were experiencing. But a lot has changed since the spring of 2020. Participation in mutual aid efforts has waned, and that larger sense of shared hardship, that brought so many people together in shared struggle, has given way to a climate of angst and alienation. The ubiquity of mutual aid also led to confusion around the difference between mutual aid and more generic forms of volunteerism.
The words “mutual aid” describe a phenomenon that can be found across the course of human history, but the term has long been associated with anarchist traditions. Early in the pandemic, the words “mutual aid” caught on in the mainstream, as projects emerged around the country. I talked with Dean Spade recently about how things have changed since that moment of mass activation, and how we can hone the substance and culture of our mutual aid work to reflect the kind of world we want to live in — and to help each other survive the many disasters ahead.
As I mentioned, a lot of mutual aid organizers are struggling right now with a lack of participation. So I want to begin with some thoughts that Dean shared with me about demobilization, burnout, and where we’re at right now.
Dean Spade: I think there’s a really interesting pattern around kind of when people mobilize and also what demobilizes people and how lasting mobilization is. There’s a bunch of questions in there that I think are relevant to the pandemic and to the uprising of 2020 because both prompted big expansions in mutual aid. The uprising prompted tons of stuff around bail funds and tons of people doing kind of on the ground mutual aid at different kinds of occupation or encampments in their towns or more people having an awareness about police violence and then being more interested in helping defend against sweeps of homeless encampments or either there was a little … there was like, there’s a lot of bleed over between the kinds of vulnerability people that were expanded during COVID, the long-term vulnerability that’s existed in targeted ways and the ways people got politicized or wanted to do new things they hadn’t done before related to the uprising.
I feel like there’s many sort of avenues of mobilization happening. And so I see a number of things happening. One part of it is that moments of awakening like that, a lot of people will go back to their habits. So it still matters, I think a lot, if people went out and fought the cops in the street some, in June to 2020, even if they’re not still out doing that, or it matters if some people joined a mutual aid project for a while or something popped off for them, even if they stopped. Something I do see happening is that some mutual aid projects that are really necessary are down to a skeleton crew. In some places, I think one of the most important kinds of mutual aid that we’ve seen expanding in the U.S. in the last few years has been support for unhoused people, both people doing supporting encampments, bringing people water and charging stations for their devices and food and distributing tents.
And also people trying to support folks when the cops are going to sweep the encampment, help people move. And there’s been some moments where people have tried to stop the cops from actually doing a sweep like in Echo Park in March 2021. Thousands of people turned out to try to stop the cops from sweeping this really pretty developed encampment in Echo Park where people had solar showers and were doing gardening and where there was some really amazing mutual aid happening for the long term. And the sweeps had been held off for about a year and a half. And then, City of L.A. decided to go ahead and spend over a million dollars and sweep the park and put a fence all around the outside of the park. But that was where I was like, “Maybe people are going to stop this sweep,” kind of that level of bold mutual aid where it’s like we get between each other and the cops.
And so one of my questions of course, is like when there are a lot of people mobilized and then there’s less people mobilized or some people get exhausted or have to go back to different parts of their life and stop being part of mutual aid efforts they’re part of, like, how do we bring them back in? How can we take what they got to learn about what felt amazing about being part of collective action and keep going with it? I’m interested in what demobilizes us, not just burnout. I mean, I think we should talk about burnout, but also things like people being swept into electoral campaigns, people being like the next step of this, if I was engaged with mutual aid, the thing I should do now is I should focus on trying to get these progressive candidates in and the ways in which that can be like a redirection of people’s energies away from building autonomous power and survivability towards getting something out of the system.
And does it have to be that way? Is there a way that we could not lose so many people to that and to that promise that the answers will come from electeds, which I think it’s pretty clear they’re not going to. I mean, I think there can be reasons strategically to try to get certain people into certain offices, but we can’t stop doing the mutual aid work under these conditions. And so I get concerned about that to some degree. I think the burnout piece is really complex. I have a lot of conversations with people about this. I’ll just say a few pieces that I think are significant. One is I think it’s always useful to ask ourselves what do we mean by burnout? For some people, burnout is that I was in a mutual aid group or some kind of political group, and there was a lot of conflict and now I feel it was unresolved for me, or I felt loss of trust or loss of belonging, or I felt blamed or called out.
And the burnout can be like this unresolved stuff around conflict, or people use the word “toxic.” That can be one kind of burnout. That can be burnout that’s like literal exhaustion. But I think that it’s like, there’s usually something more to it. Being exhausted is something that you can rest from and recover from. Burnout usually means I went way past my boundaries or I deeply believed I wasn’t good enough unless I did more than I could do. There’s usually some deeper emotional dynamics that I think are worth all of us looking at so we can ask ourselves like, “Well, how do I recover from that? How do I prevent that next time? Why was I vulnerable to that? What would need to be different about conflicts in groups I’m in? What kind of values would I want groups I’m in to have about conflicts that would make that not happen next time? What would I need to believe about myself to be in this work and take better care of myself and find those moments of balance and rest?”
And I just speak about all these are kinds of burnouts I’ve experienced. Just how do I not just be like, I’m burnt out, end of story? But instead, what is there to be learned about how I want to participate in groups, what I’m bringing in from cultural programming or for programming my family and things like that that might make me vulnerable to being super overextended or getting hurt by doing this work? And what would I want the internal culture of groups I’m in to be to prevent some of those repeated patterns? So that’s sort of one whole piece of it for me, an inquiry we can have that’s not just like I throw up my hands, I’m burnt out, but instead kind of like, so what do we do with that?
This is something a lot of people are complaining of. This must be a collective problem we all have or a set of collective problems. And the next thing is, people often say like, because I’m encouraging people to do mutual aid, and that it is unpaid work. I’m like, yes, we all need to be doing unpaid mutual aid work to make the new world to have us — any of us — survive the conditions now to try to reduce suffering with what’s going on now. People are like, are you kidding me? I have to work two jobs. I’ve got kids. People have a lot going on. And so then that question is like, it can’t be that it’s just impossible because social movements have always been the work of people who were living in the worst conditions. That’s why they put it all on the line and took huge, bold risks.
It’s because they were living under the worst conditions. Social movement work is not something done by people who have a leisurely life. It’s always the most bold and risky and dangerous action is always done by those who are already in the worst conditions. And so it must be that it’s not impossible to be under really hard conditions and do social movement work. In fact, that’s what usually happens. So then I think the question becomes like, what are the ways the conditions that have been created for us right now make it so hard to do the work? And I think a lot of that is isolation. More people than ever live alone, more people than ever live in really small groups, have almost no support system. And this is even before COVID and it’s the nature of wage labor, long commutes, really expensive housing, lack of child care.
It’s the nature of I think the ways that the internet has isolated us in a lot of ways, so that a lot of us are taking care of all of our needs kind of by ourselves. People aren’t making meals for each other. People aren’t helping each other out with their childcare. People are even just not even living, if you live in a group of five, then you can pass around meal making or dish doing, or you can have a little less rent because there’s only one kitchen being shared, but people are living with incredibly high housing costs, incredibly high consumer needs and everybody having to do all social reproduction alone as opposed to like if childcare was more collectivized, and so that sometimes I got two days off a week, but I might care for someone else’s children or right now it’s like either I can pay for childcare or I can’t have it — that type of thing.
And then also the emotional conditions of isolation, I think, lead to burnout. When people talk about like doom scrolling or getting really lost in very exhausting entertainment technology that they’re spending all their time watching TV and playing video games and they feel really bad inside, but they’re like, I also just need to get away from it all. They’re not finding a way to have a resilience activity that makes them actually feel rested, but instead it’s kind of draining and numbing them.
That’s all to me about like, oh gosh, we all really need more friends to talk to about what we’re mad about, what hurts, we need more spaces to grieve together. Isolation is making the conditions more burn us out. So, I think there’s a lot of pieces to that and all of it, the solution is some kind of collective action or connection to others. And so to me, I’m like, yeah I think that and you think that joining that mutual aid group is going to be like a drain and feel like more work like another job? But if we build our groups in deep ways, it’ll actually be a space where you have friends, where you have someone to have your back when you need someone to pick you up at the hospital, or when you need someone to come over with food. Actually this work could be like supporting us preventing burnout and being less isolated.
But most of us don’t think of it that way because we’re used to thinking about “work,” as like what our jobs are like or what school feels like or whatever. So there’s a lot of pieces here. The answer to which, for me, for all of them, is doing work with other people who care about the same things as you in groups and having that be the basis of a new way of having a social life, having reproducing your basic needs, instead of it being like I’m out here all on my own, I’m exhausted. I work all the time to raise the rent. I entertain myself in ways that are draining. And then I’m like, how would I possibly have time to be part of a mutual aid group? I think that I just, everywhere I go and talk to people, I’m seeing that story. And I think we need collective action ways out of that.
KH: Something I shared with Dean is that I have seen a number of projects collapse or downsize considerably, in part because they were built quickly, anchored mostly by the enthusiasm of the moment. Much like a physical structure, like a building, an organizing container that is constructed quickly to serve a functional purpose, as immediately as possible, with no regard for sustainability, is more collapsable than one that is built carefully, over time, to endure ongoing stress and changing conditions. I don’t say this as any kind of harsh criticism of people who hurriedly launched new projects at the start of the pandemic. In some cases we were filling voids that meant that people had food or medicine or life-giving transportation when they otherwise would not have. The work mattered and had to happen. But the problem comes when we create these sort of emergency structures and expect them to function as weather-proofed buildings with solid foundations. We cannot skip the work of determining shared values or decision-making practices, or how media or money gets handled — or how we ensure that people are having a meaningful experience in concert with other human beings — because that’s the part that’s actually going to bring them back when they’re tired and discouraged. And all of those things together help form the container that actually holds our work together.
Sometimes, when a group mobilizes quickly, and that group is doing a whole lot of amazing work right away, people decide they must have hit the right organizing formula. They think, “Look at all we’ve accomplished. This must be how it’s done.” But our output only proves that for right now, in this particular moment, resources, people and circumstances have aligned to create whatever we’re seeing. It does not prove that what we are doing is sustainable, or that we are building the kind of relationships and shared values we will need to maintain a community. When we talked, Dean stressed that fixating on output can cause a group or project to unravel.
DS: What you’re saying is exactly right. Obviously one of the hugest things I’ve seen during this since 2020 is that so many people start mutual aid groups. They’re really focused on what the group is putting out. Are we delivering the diapers, the food, how many people did we reach? It’s the external output, which is very beautiful and also very typical in a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal capitalist society, that we think about the outsides and we forget about the insides. And so then we’re not actually doing any of the work to be like, what is the culture of this group? How’s the distribution of work? How are we making decisions together? Is it easy for people to enter this group or is the group getting smaller and smaller and we have no really good way for people to enter and actually understand how it works and make decisions?
Are we starting to have kind of a boss? Or a couple bosses? Are some people starting to act burnt out and be really grumpy and resentful and blamey and how is that working out along race and class and gender and disability lines? And that, the work of group culture is like also in our society often considered women’s work or the work, especially of women of color, are pushed into. We just like, when it doesn’t happen, the group falls apart. People are like, oh, we don’t have time to talk about the group dynamics or to talk about our decision making structure. We’ve got to get these things delivered. And it’s like, nothing’s going to be delivered in about six months when everyone’s at each other’s throats. You know? So it’s like, I think that’s so much of what I’ve been … most of the work I’ve been doing during 2020, 2021, 2022 is just working with groups around building the insights of the group sufficient to sustain the work.
And I do think it’s a very big missing piece. And why would any of us think of it since none of us have been in … our jobs aren’t like that. Our families aren’t like that. There’s not feminist structures in place. It’s all super hierarchical, rough, sexist, racist, et cetera. So I think this is like a big learning curve about building the new world is actually the human relations piece of the big world, the human connection, the decision making, the conflict mediation and prevention, like that. That is definitely one of the big learnings of the mutual aid that has emerged from COVID and the uprising.
KH: One effect of the surge in mutual aid projects we saw toward the beginning of the pandemic was the mainstreaming, and in some cases, the mislabeling or depoliticizing of mutual aid. The fact that mutual aid appeals to people who might never otherwise connect is a strength, but cultivating a shared sense of purpose that actually challenges the status quo under those conditions requires a lot of intention.
DS: So I think that as the concept of mutual aid has kind of gone mainstream, particularly with COVID, there was a moment where the mainstream media discovered the term mutual aid and started talking about it a lot. And the narrative was one that was about evacuating the politics from mutual aid, right? Moving towards mutual aid is like when people help their neighbors. And there’s nothing about that that’s a contradiction to living in a police surveillance state, or extractive capitalism. It’s just like those things go together. And this happens a lot during disasters. They’ll be like people will be saving each other’s lives and they’ll be like, look how cool that is. And they almost like a narrative like private people can help. When the state can’t do it, don’t worry. We’ve got each other’s backs. All’s well.
But of course, to me, mutual aid is an indictment of the things that are causing the crises in our lives. You know? And I mean, increasingly because of the mainstream narrative about mutual aid, I think my definition of mutual aid has been getting sharper, even sharper than when I wrote that book about mutual aid. Now I would say, I think it’s mutual aid when we do the work to support each other’s survival with a shared analysis that the causes of the crisis are these bigger structures, not the people in crisis. So not doing the charity thing of being like, oh, you’re unhoused. It must be because you need to get sober or you need to take an anger management class or you need to take a budgeting class. But instead, oh, you’re unhoused, it’s because of like a capitalist white supremacist colonial housing market, you know?
And then the third piece is, with an invitation to collective action. So, oh, you’re unhoused or you’re facing eviction, we’re doing some kind of action around that where you can directly support you, we’ll go protest your landlord with you or we’ll go with you to housing court or whatever. And we’re inviting you. We’re saying, “Hey, we actually, we don’t think this is your fault. We think this is the fault of this messed up system. And we’d like to invite you, would you like to join our group? Would you like to be part of this action we’re planning that is about housing justice?” And you don’t have to, to get the help and support, but you’re invited to. And so this is part of how mutual aid, one of the big things does is it builds our movements.
It brings people who are seeing, or having the crisis and are angry and scared and says, “You’re not alone in it. You can get help with it and join the fight against it.” So it’s this root causes analysis and this invitation. And I think that what the mainstream media would like us to think of mutual aid as is just people being nice, like Christian charity or some kind of like this very bland, like not … like taking the fangs out of it, right? Mutual aid is like an indictment of these systems. And I think one question for mutual aid groups that I’ve really seen on the surface was how to make that true. I worked with one group that was doing a lot of direct support for unhoused people in an encampment. And they were like, well, should we have our big anti-capitalist and anti-racist messages on the surface? We don’t want to alienate any of the unhoused people. What if they don’t believe that? And I was like, no, yes, have your message.
We are recruiting to those messages. We are like … and people will still come, get the stuff you are giving out, even if they don’t agree with it. And they might have a conversation with you. And that would be amazing. The whole point of this, right, is to bring lots of people into conversation about these conditions, including the people who are living through the conditions who may themselves have all kinds of different beliefs about things for all the different reasons that we all do. And I’ve also had this conversation with people, one kind of mutual aid that’s been really big during this period has been online fundraising, where people are giving a bunch of money and it’s going to somebody’s rent or somebody’s medical expenses. And there’s I think one of the dilemmas of it is like, how is this an organization organizing or mobilizing strategy?
If I just am doing Venmo to the group and I’m learning it all through Instagram, is it bringing me further into movement? And I think this is a really beautiful question. So the groups that are doing that kind of work, obviously, that work is great. People absolutely need help with their rent. They absolutely need help with their medical expenses or other necessities. And we are never going to be able to donate our way out of this. Our opponents have all the money and the guns. They’re extracting everything they can from us. We cannot give each other enough small gifts of five to $50 to deal with the kinds of crises people are living in. Absolutely not. And so, we need this to be building some towards other tactics and strategies too, right? So how can groups that are just solely doing online fundraising be helping people who donate through that or who receive funds through that plug into other kinds of action for justice?
So it’s not just replicating that kind of charity model of like, oh yeah because I feel guilty today, I’m going to go and click online and give 20 bucks. That, it’s not meaningless. We need that money to change hands, that might do some harm reduction, but it’s not going to get us where we’re going. And what we want is for mutual aid projects to be things that bring people into new radical ideas, to bring people into community with others who share what they believe in and take direct immediate action of multiple kinds. So not just donating, but also now I’m also going to go and try to help stop the next sweep that’s happening in my town. Or I’m also going to be writing letters with prisoners, or I’m also going to be trying to stop them from building that next new jail in my town. Or just how do keep people get an inroad from their first engagement with a mutual aid project and then actually find out about more ways to become bolder and bolder and have a bigger part of their lives be a space of participation, saving each other’s lives, pushing back, dismantling systems that we are trying to get rid of, building the things we need?
And I think that, that’s not a given. We actually have to, like, design that into mutual aid projects or we can actually kind of make things that honestly have somewhat of a limited reach and then if they’re not building the broader mobilization, that’s it. And that feels like that’s the invitation from the mainstream media narrative. It’s just like, oh, how cute. You guys gave each other some canned goods. No, we’re like, oh no, we’re breaking people out of prison. That’s where this is going. We’re breaking down the border. That’s where this is going. We are taking back the energy system from the fossil fuel companies. We are ending big pharma and having people actually have access to healthcare. That is where this is going. And so how does what I’m doing today with the food project in my neighborhood or childcare project, how does it connect and make pathways for that, for everybody who gets in contact with this project?
KH: Another subject I discussed with Dean was some of the terrifying attacks we are seeing against trans youth at the state level. Chase Strangio recently joined us on the show to discuss some of these disturbing new bills and laws, and I highly recommend circling back to that episode if you missed it, for a larger discussion of those attacks and their fascistic context. Things have only escalated since then, with proposed laws threatening parents who attempt to move out of state so that their trans children can access medical care.
Dean has described his work as “working to build queer and trans liberation based in racial and economic justice.” Dean has often highlighted the limits of the law in affording that justice, exposing how the system routinely abuses trans youth, even in the absence of a fascistic crusade.
DS: I mean, one thing that I think is really important to remember — I mean, this is terrifying and horrible and will materially hurt people and it is materially hurting people — and I think it’s useful to remember sometimes when things like this happen, people narrate it as if like trans people had what they needed before, or weren’t already being criminalized for being trans or parents weren’t already having their kids taken away from them for supporting their gender or trans parents weren’t already having their kids taken away from them. This stuff has always been going on and has continued even if you live in a jurisdiction that has some law against discrimination against trans people.
I just can’t tell you how many times I’ve lived in jurisdictions that supposedly had “better laws on the books about trans people.” And then I’m still talking to a trans woman who’s in a men’s prison facing extremely brutal harm. Or I’m talking to a person who could be released to drug treatment, but the drug treatment center won’t take them because they’re trans or, I mean, just the number, it’s like … or I’m talking to a person who’s a young person in the juvenile punishment system who’s being written up because they are growing their nails and hair and that’s considered … I mean, just like the brutal harm and criminalization of trans people, especially if people are also people with disabilities or Black, Indigenous or other people of color, or have all of these things that make you more and more of a target, it’s just, it’s ongoing.
So it’s important to know both when people are trying to pass “good laws,” that they probably won’t work. And when they’re trying to pass bad laws, that the bad thing is already happening. For me, that’s helpful because then we can say, “Well, how have people been surviving this? And can we get more of that?” And that is where mutual aid comes in. It’s like trans people, parents of trans people or people with trans people, have always been surviving through mutual aid. We’ve always been sharing our meds with each other. We’ve always been … there’s those few nurses or doctors at that place who will get you the thing the sideways way. There’s people who will help hide you from your parents because it’s not safe to be with them. There’s people who will help you fake like you’re 18 and get some kind of I.D. and stuff so you can try to start your own life and get away from some situation that’s dangerous for you, whether it’s foster care or juvenile punishment or your parents.
The actual networks of survival are there. And I think some of the questions are, well, what would it look like to expand that kind of mutual aid? I think people I know who are trying to work to find ways to house young people coming out of, aging out of foster care or coming out youth prisons and jails. Those projects, having more of that, having more people who are like, “Yes, we will let this person sleep in our living room.” That kind of stuff, that is life saving for trans people. That’s something everyone can be involved in now. Everyone can be starting a project like that that’s trying to coordinate that in their community or helping people who are coming out of adult prisons. All of that, trans people and people generally, but all of that kind of work or just supporting young people who are struggling in school. A lot of people who are …
Like a lot of trans youths I’ve worked with who are experiencing so much harm at school didn’t have parents who could advocate for them for one reason or another, either because their parents didn’t want to, or they didn’t speak English or they were mystified by the system or their parents are people with disabilities that had obstacles to try and do the advocacy in the school because the school doesn’t make it accessible or any number of reasons. So just figuring, I think the mutual aid work in this can look like a lot of things. It can look like trying to actually give people housing, trying to not just be ringing our hands about it, but being like, well, what are people who are most impacted by this likely to be needing? And it’s not easy stuff to provide and we’re going to do it. We’re going to figure out a way.
And it also is like, and I think about people I know who’ve done deep work like inside middle schools and high schools, doing maybe they’re naming it like an anti-violence project, but what they’re actually doing in there is teaching people conflict mediation, and other transformative justice skills or they’re teaching people deep stuff about consent and healthy relationships. All of that kind of stuff is going to help those same trans youth survive. Teaching people skills around what’s complicated and hard about making friendships that last and how do we do it? I think this is this thing about mutual aid people think about, just like, okay, can I find the person whose family is being criminalized for their trans healthcare?
Well, we might not meet them in time, but what could we have in place like inside all the middle schools and high schools where you live or just one that’s closer to your house that would make some level of harm reduction for anyone who goes through that? Or what kinds of funds for trans health care would we want to raise and have available for people so that if you can figure out how to get it, you at least aren’t stopped by the fact that you can’t afford it, don’t have insurance or can’t get it through the kinds of methods of insurance that you have? I think it’s like, how can we think about mutual aid as general conditions that inevitably lead … because the same people who are going to be hurt the worst by any of these new laws and policies are already vulnerable because they’re also in families that are criminalized or they’re also in living in the worst housing or they’re also in families that have inadequate access to childcare or income support.
So anything we do to support those parts of our community and put that in place is going to make the added trauma and harm of whatever the latest attack is less hurtful to people if they’re not also going through housing insecurity, also going through criminalization of youth of color, et cetera. So I think that that’s one of the questions is people go to this kind of responsive place around these moments of right-wing backlash. And I think the ultimate, in the same way that when we talk about in the abolition and when we talk about like, oh, if we really wanted to abolish harm, we would start by making sure everyone had housing. That would make so many people safe from the harm that could happen on the street.
And it would make a lot of people not be in the crisis that causes them to do harm. It’s like go to conditions that we could actually make a difference on. And so if people are wringing their hands, like I’m so worried about trans youth, it’s like, what are you doing for people aging out of foster care right now in your town? That is a way. That’s how to get into thinking about really vulnerable people and ways to prevent some of the most life shortening conditions that can happen. And I think that it’s like, then we’re not only in the drama of whatever the right wing is stirring up. We’re like, yes, the right wing is horrible. We need to fight them on every front. And we need to support the people who their existing policies have already shortened the lives of and who their new policies are aimed to further shorten the lives of right now.
KH: I deeply appreciate Dean’s take on how we can support trans young people. As we know, trans young people are at high risk of experiencing suicidality, due to the hateful and violent conditions that so many trans youth experience. In a society that defaults to flashes of crisis hotline numbers to address issues like suicide, we have to do the work of countering deathmaking conditions with life-giving energy, comradery and assistance. This is true for trans youth, and it’s true for all of us. We don’t just need support or encouragement in what others can easily recognize as our darkest hours. We need a larger fabric of support, so we’re not hanging by a thread when our enemies tear at us.
With everything that’s happening in the world right now, including Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, and projected wheat and oil shortages that could prove catastrophic for many people, I asked Dean for his thoughts about what should be done right now, in our communities, as we prepare for the many crises ahead.
DS: People have been asking me whether we should be trying to elect more lefty people into our local or state or federal governments, what about those kinds of solutions? Are those more kind of pragmatic than this kind of stuff about building autonomous food systems or building abolitionist ways of seeking safety? And I think for me, the conditions we’re living under, like the ones you named and the ones you’ve named in all your work, are evidence that we need the pragmatism of immediate participatory action. We need so many of us to be immediately doing work that’s about the conditions we’re living under. And that work inevitably is very threatening to the system and does cause various kinds of sometimes systemic response, usually concessions that don’t make very significant change, but regardless, people in our communities are housing insecure, are food insecure.
This is really happening. And there’s many reasons to believe that’s going to worsen with different features of climate change and warfare and other things that are ramping up so overtly. And so the work we do now to build out autonomous alternatives to the ways we’re supposed to get our needs met right now that just fail so many people and are about to fail so many more people is so vital. And I think part of it is that mutual aid work is kind of discounted or ignored. And then most mainstream narratives about social change, it’s like social change will happen when we pass a really amazing law or when someone makes a really amazing speech or when the court says this or when these heroes get elected. And I think what is really clear is that that change kind of doesn’t ever arrive, that piece of it.
Right? A lot of us are like, hmm. It’s interesting. Even when you supposedly win at the polls, you still get a growing immigration enforcement system or you still get expanding warfare or military spending, or you still don’t see the police stop being on the street even though everyone’s like the police racism is bad. We still see the budgets of almost every city’s police force growing from between 2021, 2022. So I think that there’s this kind of that there’s the kind of common phrase in our movements, “We’re all we have, we’re all we need.” It’s like, we are all we have. We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to figure out what to do about the fact there are people on our block who if the lights go out, their medical device is not going to work or they’re going to be trapped on a high floor in a building and the water’s not coming up there and they don’t have way down.
We need to figure out who they are. We need to figure out what to do about the fact that someone on our block is in a really violent relationship and we are all seeing this, but no one’s doing anything and no one’s supporting that family or those people. We need to think about the fact that the lights are going to go out, that the food is going to get more expensive or not arrive, that these supply chain issues we’ve seen during COVID, I hope, are very clear warning signs to people about how fragile it is to have a fossil fuel dependent global trade economy based on tons and tons of exploitation and how fragile such systems are and how badly we need alternatives.
So to me, all of this is inspiration about why mutual aid work, which is kind of like really ordinary work, like changing diapers, stocking a fridge, making a big pot of soup. It’s you know what in our culture is considered women’s work or often the work of people of color. It’s like ordinary care work, which is so discounted, is where it’s at. And that’s also why historically governments have criminalized mutual aid. That’s why the police would attack the Black Panther party’s breakfast sites and destroy all the food and criminalize. That’s why it’s worth it to them. Because if we actually had the means to survive without their systems, they would lose all of their grip on us. Right? So if we’re trying to imagine a world in which I don’t need to go to work at this wage job and spend all of my time there making somebody else rich, who I’ll never meet, but instead I’m like, “Oh, I need money for childcare, well, I’m part of a childcare collective. And so, I do the childcare one day a week and these other people do these other days a week. So then I don’t need money for childcare. And then actually there’s food being grown in my community. And so I actually don’t need all this money for this food. And then actually we built up, we took over a space and we built our own housing in it. And so none of us are paying rent.”
These are all just things people already do. Child care collectives, growing food, occupying space for housing, doing squats. All of that stuff that could actually get us out of a system, or having ways of doing energy that aren’t fossil fuel dependent, this is the world we have to build because I mean, and lots and lots of people have already been living in a world that’s not provided what they needed forever and have had to get by on this kind of creativity and mutuality.
That is the history of resistance in all targeted communities and populations. And it’s also, I think, the nature of humans that this is how we all got by before capitalism broke in and said like, “No, we’re going to mediate everything you need through a profit motive and make you, conquer you in that way.” And that’s what we have to rebuild. And it’s hard because people don’t have a lot of faith in that, but it’s kind of just like, it’s what’s practical. I think about like when Hurricane Maria came through Puerto Rico, it was like, it was community centers that had solar panels that could charge anything for anybody because the rest of the power grid went out and the food, which almost all of it comes from offshore because of messed up colonial relationship and what the U.S. forces on Puerto Rico, the food wasn’t coming. And it was people who were growing food that had food to share and offer.
It’s like, this is what’s there when the things fall apart and the things already don’t work for lots and lots and lots and lots of people and they’re working for less and less people. And so potentially in an ideal world, there would be more and more people ready to mobilize to build systems that can work more. Except for the fact that I think we’re all pacified, a lot, by the messages we’ve received in our culture and ways we’ve been trained to wait for somebody to save us and to think that voting is the way out of it or a court case or whatever. So I think for me, the real clarity now as crises mount and I think they will continue to mount for the rest of my life is how do we help people take immediate participatory action?
How do we clear up the mythologies that get in the way of that? How do we learn to become people who can work well together in groups when we’ve been trained in a society that’s made us distrust each other and treat each other pretty bad? How do we learn to solve problems together? How do we learn to share? How do we learn to get pleasure out of things that aren’t consumption? Because that’s not really… like, that moves us more towards the world we live in instead of the world that we’re trying to build. How do we build care-based connection? And also how much happier are we all when we have that? When we have those relationships, when we feel people have our backs, when we get the pleasure of having people’s backs? I think it’s something people want so badly, but we’re also living in a moment where people are like, I don’t like people or I don’t like to leave my house. There’s a real training towards isolation and like, people I know say, “I hate people.”
And I’m like, “Really? Is that true? What’s going on there?” How we’ve been de-skilled from being with each other and tolerating difference and conflict, which are part of all kinds of collaboration and connection. So yeah, I feel like it’s the worsening conditions to me, just again, point out the necessity and centrality of mutual aid to our movements.
KH: With everything we are up against, I asked Dean what gives him hope in these times, and his response resonated deeply with me.
DS: I mean, I really believe Mariame Kaba and others who talk about hope being a practice or hope being a discipline. It’s like, what we don’t want is the kind of classic, kind of culturally U.S. hope thing where it’s like, have good self-esteem. Say, “I love myself,” and be like, “Things are going to be great.” And there’s kind of progress narratives. Things are much better than they used to be.
And it’s like, that’s always a narrative to hide the realities of climate change, white supremacy, colonialism. We want to get out of that thin, that very thin, shallow, emotional space of “feel better in the today. Girl power,” or whatever. And towards a very deep: What’s it like when I live in sober reality about how things are actually quite bleak and I choose to connect with others about what we care about and move together towards that? Like that. So it’s like that satisfaction, that’s pleasure. That’s in some ways I think of it as like, how do I restore a full emotional range? I think that the hope and self-esteem industry is like, “Don’t feel bad.” So you cut off any grief and devastation and despair and fear and anger that we might rightfully feel in these conditions. And you also lose the other end of the range. It’s hard to feel authentic joy, connection, pleasure, because we’re living in this kind of like numbed out, chipper, fake smile, go to the entertainment technologies to feel good kind of vibe.
So, I want to feel the whole thing. I watched the Democracy Now! headlines this morning and saw the people who are experiencing such severe bombing in Ukraine. And I tried to feel it. I felt for all the people who’ve been bombed there now, and people who’ve been bombed elsewhere and people in my family who’ve been bombed. And just people in communities I care about who’ve lived through. But I just was like, “Dean, be in this reality. Do not turn away.” People in my community are living in cages within miles of my home. Feel that. Live that. People are living, sleeping outside and then being swept away again out of the park. Feel that, so that I can also feel deep appreciation for how beautiful it is when I get to be with people who want to fight this or a deep connection to when I’m writing letters with somebody who’s locked behind bars and we’re finding humor together or pleasure. I’m having this one pen pal relationship where we talk about ducks all the time.
Just like, feel the pleasure of the resistance work. And for me, a lot of that kind of hope and inspiration comes from obviously like studying historical and contemporary examples of people resisting in bold ways. People sabotaging pipelines, people breaking each other out of prison. People rioting in the streets, burning cop cars, burning police stations. I’m just like, I’m moved by people’s bravery, by their boldness, by their spirit of resistance. People trying so hard and beautifully to give out a lot of stuff to people in crisis. Stories of the ways we’re all rescuing each other in ordinary and big, bold ways. I need those stories to remind me to be brave when I feel scared and to remind me that is worth it.
I don’t know where this is going. None of us know where this is going. It’s not looking good, but what do I want to spend the rest of my life doing? Being fully alive, being with other people, being in it together, taking risks, being really, really caring, [and] learning to love people even if they annoy me. Learning deeper love. Having that move me more, feeling the pain and grief of loss with others instead of just being alone in my kitchen with the headlines, feeling like I need to numb out and turn away towards celebrity gossip or something. It’s like how do I just be deeper in this life, despite the conditions? And because of the conditions. I think that’s how I’m trying to navigate it.
And for me definitely. Studying resistance — contemporary, historical, is a huge resource for that. Look, they did that. They risked that. They did that. What a relief to see that human capacity and then believe in it again, because of course we can’t have the kind of hope that’s like, it’s all going to work out. No idea. I mean, it’s not working out. A bunch of people, like millions of people have died of COVID, it didn’t work out for them the way that I lived through this crisis. And there was this utter abandonment of, and I would say murder of everybody who is most vulnerable. I need to grieve that. I can’t pretend things are working out. That feels… I feel like I want to be in sober reality with how bad it is and how beautiful human resistance is and how the choices we make right now actually matter a lot about that suffering.
KH: I sometimes close conversations with activists and organizers by inviting them to extend an ask to the audience. People sometimes have resources, events or petitions that they want people to know about, or immediate actions that they want people to take. Dean had a different kind of ask, and it was one I really appreciated.
DS: I guess we started with this conversation about burnout and I feel like I want people to test out having more faith in themselves.
I feel like I have a lot of conversations, literally every day, [with] people who are like, they’ve given up on some level, but it’s often that they’ve given up on themselves. I’m like, how much bolder could you be? People who are like, I’m afraid of getting in trouble, I’m afraid of taking more bold action. And it’s like, we all are instilled with those kinds of fears by living in a society, going to schools, being in families. Is that the end of the story? Or does anything make you feel braver? When was the time when you were courageous? So thinking about how could we all be more bold in our actions? How can we be more bold than what we could imagine? If we’re in pain about something, how could we go from that pain to also being like, what do I wish was in place?
Today, we had this conversation in my class about the pain some of my students who have loved ones in prisons are feeling when we study climate change. And then think about how people in prisons are always abandoned in moments of the storm comes through or whatever, how deep that abandonment is, how heartbreaking and wrong that is. And I was like, what if we just sat down and just imagined in the most complex way we can, detailed way, a plan for breaking people out of prison? If the lights go out, if the earthquake comes, if the fire comes, just a couple different scenarios, what would we have to research that we don’t know now? What kind of skills would we have to have that we don’t have now? How many people do we think we would need? What are the conditions like at different prisons?
What do we think is going to happen with the staffing if those things happen? Just like letting ourselves be bold in our imaginations. How else would that plan ever happen if we didn’t … if a lot of people didn’t take time to try to dream it and try to imagine it? Which is true of every bold plan. So that kind of bravery and having faith in ourselves instead of like, oh gosh, that’s so overwhelming. I’m just going to stop thinking about it. Or I’m just going to get stuck in the kind of overwhelm, numb, sad. And then the third piece is like, how bold can I be in what I can share? There was a young person in my community coming out of juvenile prison, a person from the LGBT community and needing a place to stay. And it’s like, why is it so hard for anyone to imagine they could let this person into their house?
What have we been told about the kinds of control we need to have about our housing space? It’s not like it’s easy to have a stranger come live with you and a teenager and all those things, of course, but people do it. So how bold can I be in how I can imagine being a more flexible person or being more able? And not all of these things are for everybody, but just like, where am I giving up on myself too soon? That is I think a question that these times require of us. Where would I take more risk or where would I be more loving or compassionate or where could I be more willing to share or where could I be more imaginative? And there’s no right, correct single path of action for any of us to be doing in this.
But there’s just a lot that needs to get done. We need a lot more people to join our movements and to be doing mutual aid with each other. And what’s stopping each of us from finding our place in that or from taking that next move? And I think some of it is these messages we’ve been given to give up on ourselves and to give up on imagining things being different and what it would take, what’s between here and there, or maybe to even do the research or investigate like, well, how did anybody ever solve that problem? Or what happened with those people when the lights went out or what did they do when the government was like this or like that? So I guess that’s, I think, some of the internal work that’s related to dealing with burnout, preventing it, recovering from it, dealing with different ways we just get immobilized.
That, of course, is what the system wants. They want us to not participate because the only thing we have on our side is people power. They’ve got everything else and we’ve got the most people who are being screwed over. And as long as most of us don’t get together about it, they’re good to go. And what does it take? And people, I think, in the U.S., are very demobilized. We’re more mobilized than we’ve been at some moments. There’s some really beautiful stuff happening, but not anywhere near where you need to be to stop the war machine, to stop the prison policing immigration enforcement systems, you know? So what would it take? And I think that it’s like a deep dig in each of us. Where did their programming get inside me and make me think I come to a screeching halt when I’m overwhelmed by how bad things are? Instead of, oh, I look for support. I break my isolation. I connect to others. We get wiser together. We can find ways to move again together when we’ve been kind of gotten stuck.
So I think that there’s a lot of that needed. And then maybe it’s like, oh, I create a group for people talk about that together on my campus or at my workplace or in my church or in my neighborhood and you’re like what’s the way to invite more people to test those waters, to change that story inside themselves, that might be preventing them from doing what they care about? Taking action on things that they are really upset, scared, angry, grieving about. Yeah. And during crisis and disaster, people shockingly become capable of more than they thought, and they collaborate with people they didn’t think they wanted to collaborate with and they take risks they would never have guessed they would take to share and save each other.
And so I feel like it’s like, this is our nature, I think, and there’s some really bad programming in the way of it, but we can do it. We would do it. If the more you felt that house was on fire, the more you would do it. Let’s just do it now. You know what I mean? It’s on fire. There’s some mystification of it or there’s some progress narratives or there’s some ways some of us are slightly buffered from some parts of that fire, but the time is now to skill up about how to love people we don’t like, how to work across difference, how to be flexible, how to be principled, how to … and all of those pieces. And it’s like, they’re not going to be better conditions for doing it, you know?
KH: If you want to learn more from Dean, I highly encourage you all to check out his website at deanspade.net, as well as his book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). We will also be including some other resources and readings in the show notes, as usual, for folks who feel moved to act or learn more about what we have discussed today. You can find those in the transcript of this episode on our website at truthout.org. This has really been one of my favorite conversations that I have had for this show and I am so grateful to Dean Spade for sharing his wisdom and perspective with us. I think there’s a lot here for all of us to think about and work with and build from. And I hope we do, because while we are living through an utterly exhausting moment, the only real relief we are going to find is going to come from what we build together. That’s where hope is, and that’s where our creativity, fellowship and power can grow in ways we can’t even envision right now, if we create the right conditions for that growth.
I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- Don’t forget to check out Dean’s book Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next). (You can check out an excerpt here.)
- You can also learn more from Dean by watching these four workshops he recently facilitated about how to meet common obstacles facing mutual aid groups. For each of the posted workshops, you can find slides, links to resources, templates of proposals, and other tools in the links below each video.
- Interrupting Criminalization’s In It Together toolkit “provides a step-by-step diagnostic tool to assess conflict in movement-building organizations and groups and provides strategies, tools, and resources to transform that conflict.”
- Turning Towards Each Other is a conflict workbook for groups working towards a shared purpose.
- This organizational chart Dean created can help activists examine the organizational cultures they are building and participating in.
- Burnout: What It Is and Some Ways to Address It In Ourselves and In Organizations by Dean Spade
- Mutual Aid — Not Police — Helped New Yorkers in the Wake of Hurricane Ida by Mike Ludwig
- Abortion Rights Activists Fight Back With Mutual Aid and Direct Action in 2022 by Michelle Farber