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Opinion Columns

Opinion: In a crisis, mutual aid steps in when governments fall short

We can start by creating systems of collective care that make the sharing of social capital and resources the norm.

We saw in Texas in February what incredible systemic failures can occur when unregulated capitalism prioritizes competition, profit, and efficiency over human well being. 

As many of the wealthy and powerful escaped the crisis for better conditions, millions of Texans were left freezing in their homes, hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning, boiling water for survival, and, for some of those with the least resources, left to die. 

As extreme-weather events are only likely to become more common, one can easily forecast a future with more failures of existing systems. Every person will be out for themselves

Kimberly Bender, Danielle Littman, Annie Zean Dunbar

Many folks who have largely and historically had their needs met will experience unprecedented and unplanned-for distress; as crises compound, needs for adequate medical care, health insurance, utilities, and funds grow exponentially.

Oppressed and marginalized groups, particularly those with the least social capital and power, are likely to be most impacted by continuing complex crises. There won’t be enough support to go around. 

Yet, what we have witnessed in Texas, and around the globe over the past year, suggests another signal: one of hope and connection.

During the winter storms in Texas, local organizers used Twitter, Google Forms, and Venmo to track their neighbors’ needs and fulfill requests; they connected people with warm meals, water, groceries, and places to stay. Volunteers in Austin even collected funds to coordinate hotel rooms for their unhoused neighbors during the frigid cold. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Amidst (another) unprecedented crisis, there is care. These signals echo what Rebecca Solnit calls a “paradise built in hell,” wherein, across history, even if in fleeting moments, communities have come together around a shared purpose in the midst of crisis. 

Over the past year, we have repeatedly seen how mutual-aid practices step in when our government has fallen short. Indeed, mutual aid has been practiced in moments of crisis and among groups whose needs have been not been met by government systems for centuries; these mutual-aid approaches recognize that everyone has needs, and that we can depend on each other to meet these needs when systems  – like governments – fall short.  

In our study of mutual aid in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, our research team at the University of Denver conducted interviews with mutual-aid organizers and participants across Colorado. We found that mutual aid was able to flexibly respond to needs as they shifted across the phases of the pandemic, while simultaneously allowing for deeper relationships and solidarity to be built within communities. 

We spoke to organizers who began a mutual-aid network to respond to the pandemic, then carried that work on to respond to other events, like the racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd and the Colorado wildfires. 

These signals reverberated in Texas, where mutual-aid organizations that had been organized in response to the COVID-19 pandemic or Hurricane Harvey shifted focus to support community needs during the winter storms

Based on these signals, one could forecast a future where people all live on one connected proverbial “power grid, recognizing that the desire to belong and be in community aligns with a sense of shared responsibility to care for one another. 

Such beliefs may lead to efforts to build a more sustainable and well-resourced system of collective care, meeting the needs of all of us as we face complex future crises. In this future, support is abundant – there is always enough to go around.  

For those who want to invest in a more collective future, how might we begin? To start, we can create systems of collective care that make the sharing of social capital and resources the norm. 

Mutual aid and collective care can take many forms. We can advocate for policies that meet everyone’s basic needs. We can offer grassroots mutual-aid organizing in our communities, coordinating a network to connect resources to needs. We might build a neighborhood pod or join an intentional living or  co-housing community. We can share our resources by launching sharing sheds or tool-lending libraries, or share time and talents through TimeBanks and bartering systems. Those with shared needs could create cooperatives around child care and homeschooling.

No matter how you plug into this ecosystem, it reverberates through our shared power grid. Collectively caring for one another benefits us all. The future is unknown; for now, we can collectively decide to invest in the possibility of a more connected, just, and equitable future


Kimberly Bender is a professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. Danielle Littman and Annie Zean Dunbar are doctoral students pursuing their PhDs.


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