Mutual aid has been around for a long time, even before philosopher Peter Kropotkin coined the term in the late 19th century, but it has been increasing in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March of 2020, when Berkeley went into lockdown, people and businesses have struggled to make ends meet. If there is one thing that we have learned in this pandemic, it is that people have a natural tendency to want to help their neighbors during times of crisis, and the rise in mutual aid groups in Berkeley is a testament to this fact.
Mutual aid is, put simply, people helping people. Mallika Luthar is an undergraduate student at University of California (UC) Berkeley and one of the founders of Mutual Aid at Berkeley. Luthar said, “Mutual aid is the practice of a community banding together to support each other during times of adversity, especially [when] existing institutions are overstretched or unable to provide aid and assistance.”
When Luthar and fellow student Ava Taghizadeh founded Mutual Aid at Berkeley, they aimed to help students pay for rent, school supplies, and food by giving them small grants in response to their requests. The grants are capped at $250, and as Luthar explained, their goal is to “provide supplementary resources,” as well as help students with the complicated process of applying for financial aid through the university.
Because city and government aid groups have received overwhelming requests for help, mutual aid has been the net many Berkeley residents have fallen back on while waiting for larger donations. “Our fund is basically a [financial] band-aid [that] helps students figure out what they need in the long term. [The grants] really help make sure that [students] are not left in a void while waiting for larger grants or larger benefits,” Luthar said.
The most important part of mutual aid is the concept of “neighbors helping neighbors,” said David Peattie. Peattie is the board chair of Berkeley Disaster Preparedness Neighborhood Network (BDPNN), a 501c3 non-profit. BDPNN partners with Berkeley Mutual Aid (BMA) to provide it with the legal eligibility to give aid to people in Berkeley. Peattie discussed the concept BMA has been operating on since the beginning. “Radical trust,” he said, means that, “If someone comes to you saying, ‘I need help,’ you don’t question that.” Peattie added that mutual aid works because in times of disaster, people are eager to help others. Gradiva Couzin, an organizer of BMA and a volunteer for the group, echoed this statement. “When there are disasters, people really want to help each other. It’s really powerful, and this is seen in the [COVID-19] disaster,” she said.
Couzin told the Jacket that one part of BMA that made it particularly valuable during the pandemic was the system that matched volunteers with people in need of aid. This system was created to help ease feelings of isolation during shelter-in-place, and it made sure that people were getting consistent support from their buddies. Some of these relationships were maintained throughout the pandemic, with volunteers delivering groceries and running errands for their buddies since March of 2020.
Mutual aid is a growing movement that Berkeley High School (BHS) students can get involved with. BMA takes volunteers of any age, and when the Jacket talked to Couzin and Peattie about practicing mutual aid in the BHS community, they had many ideas. Peattie suggested that teenagers help spread the word about mutual aid on social media because adolescents can best reach their peers that way. Couzin added that BMA is always looking for more volunteers, and their “buddy” matching program will find a match that is right for each volunteer’s age and capabilities.
Sharing textbooks, organizing food drives, donating your old clothes, and giving a ride to a neighbor or friend to school are all ways to participate in mutual aid. Mutual aid is a community effort, and we at BHS can contribute to this growing movement.