The Radical Past and Present of Mutual Aid


In the past couple months, you may have noticed an explosion of mutual aid societies responding to the COVID-19 pandemic—groups which share housing, food, health care, goods, or transportation while drawing attention to the politics of inequity.

The idea is nothing new. Frequently-cited historical examples of mutual aid organizations include unions, 19th century Friendly Societies, medieval craft guilds, and pre-New Deal American fraternities that provided members health, life, and funeral benefits.

More notably, though, mutual aid has also been a mainstay in communities that have often been abandoned or marginalized by government institutions.

For some of these groups, mutual aid means survival, especially in times when they are disproportionately impacted by disaster. This concept has a deep history in communities where language barriers or skepticism of government fuel a push toward self-sufficiency.

As we continue Secular Week of Action and encourage secular communities to engage in forming mutual aid groups in response to COVID-19, we’ve rounded up a few inspiring historical examples of mutual aid at work for marginalized communities.

African-American mutual aid

The inspiration for black mutual aid societies is often chalked up to the European Friendly Societies and fraternities, but others argue their roots can be traced to the West African concept of Sou-Sou: a cooperative arrangement that cares for sick members and serves as a bank. (Banks modeled on Sou-Sou still exist. Our Humanist Action: Ghana volunteers became familiar with a similar program while working in the Kukuo camp for alleged witches.)

By 1857, black mutual aid societies in the US—driven by the failure of white government to provide reciprocal value for their taxes—organized free black populations in cities across numerous states. Societies used membership dues to provide benefits for sickness and death, served as an employment network, and gave support for members’ widows and orphans.

Black panther fistBy the 1960s, mutual aid had become a key component of social movements resisting capitalist and colonialist supremacy. This is most famously embodied by the Black Panther Party’s survival programs, which included:

  • A free ambulance program
  • Medical clinics
  • Drug and alcohol awareness programs
  • Errand rides for seniors
  • A socially-conscious school for youth
  • Free clothing and shoes
  • Legal aid education
  • Early childhood education programs (thought to be the first in the nation)

Most famously, by the end of the 1960s, the Black Panthers were serving high-quality, nutritious free breakfasts to 20,000 children in 19 cities every school day. Funding came largely from donations from within the community, such as stores, churches, and individuals. Organizers were careful to consult with nutritionists and get fully permitted by local health and fire agencies.

The breakfast program gave the Black Panthers a jumping-off point to amplify the unpopular topics of hunger and poverty. While the Panthers’ self-sufficiency drew resentment, scrutiny, and eventual crackdown by government authorities, it also partly inspired the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s School Breakfast Program which now feeds nearly 13 million students daily (and continues to be a vital source of nutrition in communities most impacted by COVID-19).

Today, some of the Panthers’ legacy also lives on in the form of groups like NYC Shut It Down. Born from Black Lives Matter, Shut It Down is now playing a huge role in the pandemic by expanding its street corner cookout program into a home-cooked meal delivery service for families experiencing food insecurity. They’ve delivered thousands of meals across four boroughs with a mere team of 20-30 volunteers.

Latinx Mutual Aid

Sociedades mutualistas (mutual societies) for Latin Americans flourished in the Southwestern United States at the turn of the 20th century, serving as vehicles for community self-sufficiency and social support. Some societies still survive today, stressing their original values of Unity, Work, Protection, Education, Faith, and Brotherhood. These groups borrowed concepts from medieval guilds, 1900s friendly societies, rural cooperatives, and charitable lay brotherhoods of the Catholic Church.

Like their African American counterparts, duties of these societies historically included caring for the sick, making funeral arrangements, assisting widows and orphaned children, and settling disputes. During the colonial period, they formed local ditch associations to take charge of developing and maintaining irrigation waters essential to agricultural villages. Work tasks were performed collectively by all members (a practice which continued into the modern era).

In the 19th and 20th century, sociedades mutualistas filled a gap left by commercial life insurance companies which were disinterested in selling to minorities due to stereotypes and desire to maximize profits. (Companies refused to sell policies to Mexican Americans, for example, because it was believed that they all had tuberculosis).

The sociedades also played a prominent role in labor and civil rights issues. In its first decade, one of the most successful of these organizations—The Alianza Hispano-Americana—successfully negotiated concessions for higher wages on behalf of 1,200 to 1,500 striking mine workers in Arizona.  By the early 1920s, Alianza chapters provided legal assistance through a defense fund to victims of injustice based on their national origin or economic status. Alianza fought to change legal procedures on behalf of the poor, and offered its lawyers whenever possible to any Mexican American without proper representation.

By the 1950s, Alianza was running numerous civil rights programs relating to desegregation, criminal justice, citizenship, and immigration.

Young Lords party logo by QzonkosA decade or so later, burgeoning human rights leader Jose Cha Cha Jimenez would be inspired by these sociedades (as well as the Black Panthers and student movements in Puerto Rico) to reform Chicago street gang The Young Lords into one of the most influential and radical mutual aid movements in modern history.

The Young Lords created community projects similar to those of the Black Panthers including free breakfasts, health and dental clinics, clothing drives, Puerto Rican history classes, and testing for tuberculosis and lead poisoning. They also worked in solidarity for incarcerated Puerto Ricans and the rights of Vietnam veterans.

The Young Lords carried out many direct-action occupations of vacant land, hospitals, churches and other institutions to demand programs for the poor. Most famously, they are known for their 1970 occupation of the Lincoln Hospital in New York City.

Early morning July 15th that year, about 100 young people belonging to a patient-worker group (the Think Lincoln Committee) entered through the windows and doors of Lincoln Hospital to uplift it from neglect by the city government. Welcomed by patients (and finding no resistance from staff), the Young Lords ran health programs in an unused hospital building. They performed lead poisoning screenings and founded a day care center that would later be put to official service.

Eventually, the police surrounded the hospital and the Young Lords left peacefully, but the offensive exposed the depressing conditions seen in inner-city hospitals—so well in fact that then-Mayor John Lindsay conceded to construct a new hospital.

Chinese American Mutual Aid

Immigrant mutual aid organizations have played an important role in helping immigrants find their footing in the U.S. by offering financial assistance to low-wage families and a sense of home through social activities.

Immigrants from the same lineage or region of China formed mutual aid associations, which offered resources the U.S. denied them at the time. One such resource was medicine.

group-of-men-standing-on-a-street-chinatown-san-francisco-5b3c15During the numerous epidemics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, local health officials in San Francisco often scapegoated the Chinatown community for epidemics, blaming cultural vices, living conditions, and Chinese sex workers for some of the worst outbreaks of the time. (Sound familiar?) Meanwhile, rampant discrimination prevented Chinese immigrants from receiving treatment.

In 1900, Chinese merchants connected to mutual aid associations responded by starting the Tung Wah Dispensary—the first Chinese-American hospital in the continental U.S. Originally offering traditional Chinese medicine (with mixed results), it later evolved into the Bay Area’s Chinese Hospital— an institution vital to coordinating one of the most successful regional responses to COVID-19 in the U.S. so far.

Today, benevolent organizations in Chinese communities represent a tie to the political, entrepreneurial, and social history of Chinatowns and the Chinese American communities at large.


Interested in starting a mutual aid group of your own? Check out our COVID-19 information page for some starter information, as well as our recent webinar with American Humanist Association, How to Engage in Mutual Aid:

Current mutual aid groups

For further inspiration and education, we’ve rounded up some examples of current mutual aid groups started recently, with emphasis on minority communities. (Note: these pages are linked for educational and example purposes only. These organizations have not been vetted by GO Humanity.)

Further reading:

Did we miss anything? Want to share what your group is up to? Drop us a line to let us know!

Photo credit for Young Lords logo: Qzonkos.