Mutual Aid and Trust

Three weeks ago I went out to grab some groceries. It was 95 degrees and humid. I became a sweaty mess in the time it took me to get from the car to the air conditioned building. My hair frizzled and my natural deodorant failed. I was exhausted, and ambivalent about dinner. I grabbed a premade lasagna — $15.99. I picked up a cheapish bottle of wine, maybe $10, and saw my partner’s favorite coconut sake was on sale for $17. I snagged the fancy root beer that my son loves, $5.99 for four bottles. I bought salad fixings too — or maybe I’m just telling you that because I’d be embarrassed for you to think I fed my family lasagna, wine, sake, and root beer for dinner. I’m health conscious! We eat vegetables with every meal! We all tell white lies sometimes, don’t we?

Yeah, I could have grabbed a $2 box of pasta, $2 bottle of sauce, and a $2 pack of frozen veggies for a meal almost ten times cheaper, but there are like three extra steps to cooking that meal. I wanted to pour a glass of wine and shove a premade lasagne in the oven. Oh, and salad. Dump that in a bowl. The salad I may or may not have actually bought, but you’ll never know. Because I don’t owe you my truth! Anyway, this rushed, tired, sweaty mom spent maybe $50 to feed myself, my partner, and my son an easy dinner with some extra goodies for each of us. It had been a long day, and I deserved to spoil myself a little, didn’t I?

Encounter with a pregnant mama

As I drove out of the parking lot, I saw a very pregnant mama on the corner. She had a chubby toddler in a stroller, sticky with juice and fiddling with his toes in boredom. The mama was sweaty and her hair was frizzled. Her clothes didn’t quite fit — her shirt was stretched to the max across her round belly and it was tearing in the middle. She held a sign that read, “Single mom needs motel for the night. Anything helps. God bless.” Well goddamnit, if I could afford to waste $50 on a very questionable meal because I was tired after a long day and “deserved” a treat, didn’t this family deserve some air conditioning? How tired was she, standing on a corner in 95 degree heat? How long was her day?

As an organizer with Central Florida Mutual Aid, I’ve been working to practice financial solidarity with passion and love. I live in a beautiful house with a partner whose contributions to our household have raised my economic status from struggling to bougie and stable. I am safe. I am loved. My community has been a safety net when I could not lift myself out of poverty. And now I stand in solidarity with those who have not yet been lifted. In mutual aid, solidarity means accepting that your struggle is my struggle — and our struggle is a shared struggle for survival under exploitative systems that push people into desperate situations. The kind of situations where you’re pregnant and sweating on a corner with your toddler asking for money.

I drove back to the grocery store and hit up the ATM. I gave that mama enough money for a motel room. She didn’t leave the corner as I pulled away, she stood there with her sign asking for money for a motel room. But you know, she was going to need one tomorrow, and the next night. And the next.

What is a real job?

A lot of people look at this situation and wonder, “why doesn’t she get a real job?” Me, I wonder what a real job even means. How different is panhandling from fundraising? From running Google Ads for a charity? If a nonprofit development director can ask strangers for money to help people, if that’s a real job, why can’t a mama ask strangers for money to help herself? Isn’t that a real job? And anyway, how do you even get a job when you’re 9 months pregnant with a toddler, no car, and living in a motel? How do you even … anything?

Yesterday I was at the store again. I saw that mama. She had her newborn baby now, along with her sticky toddler. There was a man with her this time. He had a sign. “New baby, lost my job. Anything helps. God bless.” This time it was only 92 degrees. The mama’s clothes fit better, but her hair was still frizzled and she was still sweaty. Panhandling in Florida is the worst job. It’s grueling. No one wants it.

Okay so if you’re a bit of a skeptic, at this point in the story you might be saying to yourself, “Wait a minute!!! They’re hustlers! Her sign said she was a single mom! Now she’s with the baby’s dad?! Why would you give money to a liar?” And I’ve seen this very response in our mutual aid Facebook group. “These panhandlers are hustling.” “They’re liars.” “They’re scammers.” “They’re taking advantage of us.” Well.

In mutual aid, we choose to trust each other.

We understand that under our current systems of exploitation, the bosses and the landlords and the political elites who profit off of other people’s labor — they’re the scammers. They are hustling. They are taking advantage of us. And sometimes the things people do to survive under these systems of exploitation would be considered unethical in other circumstances. But in these circumstances, we choose to trust the instincts of families struggling to survive in impossible conditions. In these circumstances, sometimes a lie can save your life.

What stories most inspire you to give? Would you give to an alcoholic with a gambling addiction? Would you feel like they “deserve” help — that they have earned the right to treat themselves to air conditioning? To have a safe place to sleep? Would you give to a 40-something man who is trying to pay his cell phone bill? Are you more likely to give to a 40-something man who needs to pay that bill, or to a young single mom who needs to feed her two babies? Who can’t afford formula? Which story would you tell if you were desperate to survive? We all tell white lies sometimes, don’t we?

When I was 19, I lied on my résumé about having a high school diploma in order to get a job. I had dropped out of high school to work and to avoid homelessness. I was supporting my little brother and sister. I needed a higher paying job. I was smart. I would be successful in the position. I needed to survive. When I finally was able to take my GED a few years later, I scored in the highest 1% in the state. I was as knowledgable as any high-school graduate and perhaps more accomplished. Was the lie unethical — or was the system unethical? What should I have done instead? Should we have starved? Should I have become homeless and had my brother and sister put in foster care?

I worked in that job for four years and received a rave recommendation letter for my next one. After three years, I had confessed to my boss about the lie. He told me he definitely would not have hired me. But he was glad he did.

In the mutual aid model, we give because we are asked.

We trust that people living in the struggle know better than you or I what they need. And it’s absurd to suggest there is an objective truth to what any of us deserve based on what we have earned in this system of exploitation.

My local humanist community and GO Team, Orlando Oasis, is working to expand our relationship with mutual aid. We do this because it is the model of giving we feel most aligns with humanist values: humans helping humans; shared power, local power; and radical inclusion. We participate in mutual aid because your struggle is my struggle. Because we have been lifted by our community and there are people who have not yet been lifted.

I don’t know the truth of that mama’s circumstance.

I know that whatever her truth is, it is ugly enough to put her in a parking lot in excessive heat for hours begging strangers for money. And I know she doesn’t owe me anything. She doesn’t owe me her truth. She is telling me the story she thinks will inspire me to give. She is creative. She is resourceful. She is a survivor doing a difficult job. The hardest job. No one wants it. No one deserves it. And so I went back to the ATM and brought the family a little more money. I got to peek at their beautiful new baby and wave to their toddler. I got to go home to my wine and my charcuterie and my air conditioning. And no, I didn’t buy the salad.

Donations below will support mutual initiatives providing relief to communities impacted by Hurricane Ian.