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  • Isabella Cusack

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you:” The Past and Present of Mutual Aid

Mutual Aid by Alex Galván

“Urge and urge and urge,

Always the procreant urge of the world.”

These are the words of Walt Whitman, from his famous poem "Song of Myself". Although written in 1855, the sentiment still stands. Urge and urge and urge. America as a nation was built on the capitalist mindset, valuing profit over people, and it’s clear that we are feeling the effects; increasing reports of burnout, rising profits for the one percent while the lower classes continue to lose ownership over the wealth, and increasing environmental destruction due to climate change. These can seem like modern day worries, something that only the newer generations are experiencing, but that is far from the truth. We can see these same problems and calls for their solutions in Walt Whitman’s poem from ages ago. Whitman was a man of the people, and saw what could happen if community and love were replaced by capitalist consumption. It is clear he wants humanity to live in peace and kindness, but he grows frustrated reflecting on what is actually happening.

“I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,

I stand and look at them long and long.

Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”

It’s clear that Walt Whitman felt deeply about the socioeconomic issues America was and still is facing. A mindset of love and compassion leap forward off the page. Whether Whitman was aware of it or not, “Song of Myself” can be read as one long call for socialism. As opposed to capitalism, Socialism encourages public ownership of property and resources instead of private, more communal than privatized. However, switching from capitalism to socialism is an enormous task, one that would not come without a lot of pushback and protest. This can lead to hopelessness, and feeling as if there is no way to find community and support under capitalism.

But there is a way out, and that comes in the form of mutual aid. When asking what mutual aid is exactly, people tend to think of charity, but this is a misrepresentation of the concept, and can actually hold them back from receiving the aid they may need at any given moment. Mutual aid is instead a community-wide agreement to meet each other's needs as best as possible by donating time, money, or resources to others in crisis with the understanding that they will do the same for you. Coincidentally, the main point of socialism, and in turn mutual aid, can also be found in “Song of Myself”.

“Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,

I exist as I am, that is enough,

Whoever degrades another degrades me,

And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.

By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.”

“Song of Myself” illustrated by Allen Crawford

Whitman knew that being alive is the only thing we have to do in order to be worthy of basic food, water, and shelter. Everyone deserves to feel secure, and demanding these things for others will open up avenues for them to support you as well. This may seem daunting, or extremely idealistic, but mutual aid is not a new concept. Historically, the practice has been vital in providing support for minorities, especially African American and indigenous populations. In fact, the Black Panther party is an example of a group that provided mutual aid during the Civil Rights era. They delivered breakfast to tens of thousands of school children every day, as well as providing medical clinics and education using money donated from within their community.

The Black Panther Party was a huge operation with many resources coming from many different people. However, you don’t have to have a ton of resources to start a mutual aid project and it does not have to be on such a big scale. In fact, you can start a mutual aid organization right in your neighborhood. All you need to do is identify a need, something that would benefit your community and those around you. Things like picking up groceries for elderly neighbors, or babysitting the kids of working parents. You can also just ask others what you can do for them, and what they could realistically do for others. You can post fliers or start an online group where people can sign up to donate money, time or resources. After that you can come up with a plan, a way to take collective action.

Mutual aid is a lifesaving concept. When tragedy strikes, whether that be pandemics, natural disasters, or something more personal, having a community behind you makes all the difference. Offering the time and resources you can spare to those in need will make their lives easier, and when the time comes that you need extra help, you know you have people behind you.

As Whitman once said:

“And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,

And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,

And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.”


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