Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Weathering the Storm: Mutual Aid Amidst the Emerging Climate Crisis

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February 20, 2024

In the early morning of January 8th, my mom warned me to be careful coming home from work that night. There was an 80% chance of severe thunderstorms and winds were expected to kick up to 25 MPH by the time my shift ended. Just over five minutes after I clocked in, I overheard my co-workers discussing how schools shut down in surrounding towns. I thought to myself that it must be serious, so work wouldn’t be too bad since people would be bunkering down at home. Eight hours later, it looked like the storm had literally and figuratively reached its hands through our back entrances and blew through our backroom as workers rushed to prepare over fifty last-minute orders for delivery and curbside pick-up. Everyone was yelling, everyone was confused, and the work phone rang every 20 seconds with a customer fuming that their groceries hadn’t arrived to their cars yet. It seemed like everyone was focused on their comparatively frivolous grocery haul, but all I could think about was whether my co-workers, the customers, and I would survive the storm unharmed.

Thankfully, the storms came and went. There were no major casualties, and the damage was minimal. But there is no guarantee the next storms will be as merciful. In fact, data shows it will only get worse. According to a 2017 study, the US South and Midwest will suffer the most from climate change. The article from Science.org  quantifies “suffering” in terms of county Gross Domestic Product (GDP) losses and heat-related deaths since climate change and global warming directly affect the severity of storms.  Brad Pulmer and Nada Popovich from the New York Times added that if communities don’t take preventative measures against these storms soon, the number of people dying from heat-related deaths will be roughly the same as automobile-related deaths by the end of this century. Not to mention increased heating also leads to higher sea levels which makes way for more disastrous flooding from hurricanes. Studies show that there’s about a 26% US flood risk increase by 2050 due to climate change alone, and it will disproportionately affect Black communities, predominantly along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  

In other words, these studies reinforce what working during that storm taught me; the South and Midwest have the most to lose if we do not adequately prepare for the climate crises to come. This matters not only from a climate justice perspective but from a reproductive justice (RJ) standpoint as well. SisterSong, a formative Black women-led organization defines RJ as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” If we believe we are entitled to these rights, we must strive for a different way of doing things. Mutual aid offers that alternative pathway.

Mutual aid, according to Dean Spade, Seattle-based law professor and author of Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And the Next), is “…collective coordination to meet each other’s needs, usually from an awareness that the systems we have in place are not going to meet them.” Mutual aid “directly meet[s] people’s survival needs, and are based on a shared understanding that the conditions in which in which we are made to live in are unjust.” In his book, Spade credits the Black Panther Party (BPP) as the most significant example of mutual aid in action in the United States. Not only did the collective pioneer the free breakfast program for students, but they also provided free health clinics, free rides for elders to run their errands, and a school that taught a liberation curriculum to their children. The BPP was so successful in large part because they invited people into the liberation struggle not by providing far-off promises, but by directly meeting their urgent, material needs and building a shared analysis about why it is difficult for Black people to meet those needs in the first place. 

Applying this framework to the contemporary moment, mutual aid can be enacted by picking up groceries and medicine for your immunocompromised neighbors, driving low-income folks without a car to their doctor’s appointments, or even checking on a neighbor you haven’t heard from in a while. This work is done in conjunction with a conceptual shift– realizing (or learning) that we need to help each other because the systems of capitalism, racism, xenophobia, queerphobia, etc. are actively invested in our demise. 

I think about the collectivist approach called for in mutual aid and how it differs from the individualistic ways people behaved during that storm. Even though the storms were so severe that schools were canceled for the next day, customers prioritized their weekly groceries over immediately getting home to their families.  When a customer called to check if there was more than one person bringing orders out, they didn’t seem concerned with the workers’ welfare, only interested in how quickly they would get their groceries. Instead of trying to preserve “business as usual,” a mutual-aid approach would place more emphasis on establishing a network of care to make sure everyone got what they needed and made it home safely. 

Mutual aid sounds promising to help each other survive the crises to come, but to be able to rely on our community we have to get to know each other first. We were never meant to be solitary people locked up in the constraints of the nuclear family model. We were meant to be there for one another. This doesn’t have to look like a big neighborhood open house where you do icebreakers with strangers you’ve never met before. It can be as simple as knocking on their door and introducing yourself while saying, if you need anything at all, I’m here.” It can even look like throwing block parties if that’s more your style. Whatever your contribution may be, we need to believe that loving our neighbors is the only way we can survive the storms to come. When we take the time to get to know each other and address each other’s needs out of the belief that all people deserve care and survival, we accomplish what capitalism tries so hard to prevent us from doing– investing in everyone’s needs not because of their utility, but because of our shared humanity. As Kelley Hayes and Mariame Kabe explain in Let This Radicalize You, “Our goal [for humanity] should be interdependence: to be part of a community where rescue is viewed not as exceptional but as something we owe each other.”

So as we continue to spread awareness of the human crises we’re experiencing in real time, may we remember that it doesn’t always have to be this way.  We deserve safe and sustainable communities to raise and build our families. Not only do we have the power to create these communities, but we must. As we’ve seen with the AIDS epidemic, Hurricane Katrina, the COVID-19 pandemic and so much more, the government will not save us.   When we internalize this truth we can survive and rebuild, again and again.