Getting Started With Mutual Aid
Perhaps the best way that I have seen the concept of mutual aid summed up is with the phrase “Solidarity, not charity.” In an interview with Ron Placone, Red of the Community Relief Corps described it like this:
“Mutual aid is neighbors helping neighbors, and we often explain mutual aid in contrast to charity. Whereas charity is money that comes from someone that’s usually rich, or a slightly better status than you, mutual aid is a horizontal act. Mutual aid comes from neighbors, to neighbors.”
Perhaps you’re thinking this sounds like a great idea, but you don’t know how to get started. While it may not be easy, and I do strongly recommend doing more research than just reading this article, it may be at least slightly easier than many people think. I recently spoke with local organizer Jon Christiansen about this subject, the interview follows:
Kevin: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in organizing?
Jon: All right. So, I am one of the board members and executive members of the Chinook Center, which is an organizing space for social movements and community organizations. I’m also the chair of the [Colorado Springs] DSA labor committee. I’ve been doing this a long time, I started probably back in 2000 or so.
What got me interested in organizing? I don’t know, just living life freely is lot of it. One of the first things that I organized, or tried to organize, was — I worked at Starbucks in about 2000 or so. And that was during the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, and I was watching those protests. I’d always been sort of political before that, you know, but wasn’t doing a lot of activism or organizing and I was watching the protests like, “Oh, man!” They’re smashing the windows of Starbucks and stuff, and I was like, “That’s awesome man. I should organize our Starbucks,” and so I asked all my co-workers if they’d join the union there and I got like 13 out of 14, or something, people to say they would join the union. But then my boss was like, “You’re going to stop organizing your union, right?” when she was, like, signing my raise and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just like, “yeah, sure.”
And then I moved back to Colorado after that. That [the Starbucks incident] was in Austin. Moved back to Colorado within that year and that was around the presidential election of 2000, the presidential election and September 11. So I got kind of involved in anti-globalization stuff, and then September 11th happened, and a bunch of us are just like, “This is gonna be ugly, the U.S. is just gonna go to war with everybody.” We got together at this old Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission place and a bunch of us community members were like, “What are we going to do about this?” And then we’re like, “Let’s just organize an anti-war demonstration.” And so me and my wife and a few other people, we formed a little committee out of that, organized an anti-war demonstration like a week and a half after September 11th, and it was ugly. People were not happy about that back then you know, yelling all kinds of things at us, but that’s kind of how I got my start, and I was doing Critical Mass bike rides before that. It was sort of getting people out on their bikes to block traffic and things like that. So those are my sort of early forays in organizing ,and then once I started college and everything, I just started a student group, and started organizing around different issues.
Tell me a little bit about what you’re involved with now, if you’d like.
Well, so like I said, I’ve got the Chinook Center, which keeps me plenty busy. Like I said, it’s an organizing space. So we’re always constantly scheduling people to use the space, and that kind of gets my fingers and toes dipped into every little thing that’s happening in the city, I feel, because everybody sort of comes through here. But my other big thing that I do is the Democratic Socialists of America, Colorado Springs branch. Like I said, I’m the chair of the labor committee, called WSUP, we’ve been trying to organize a lot of food and restaurant workers in Colorado Springs with that. It’s been slow moving, but it’s starting to catch on, and the reason I was interested in that is because, growing up, that’s what I worked in, the food service industry, and it’s bullshit. Anybody who works in it knows that it’s bullshit. It’s hard to get consistent hours, you know, one week you’ll work 35 hours and the next week you’ll work 15, you and you can’t really rely on a consistent wage that way. And you know, people get favoritism, and most benefits are expensive and all of those things like that come from working. So I always thought it’d be great to just organize a section of town, like all the the workers, and so that’s kind of what we’re trying to do right now.
And you know, like I said, it’s been slow going, but it’s starting to catch on. Somebody said “Yeah. well, the material conditions are really making it like necessary to organize it this point.” You know people are not doing well, you know we have ten percent unemployment, and nobody seems to acknowledge that that really seems to be the case, right? We’re just acting as if life is going on like normal. So I’m working on that and also just being on the DSA steering committee keeps me busy just with little details and things like that.
We’re also doing a people’s budget. We’re trying to defund the Colorado Springs Police Department, and do anti-repression work and stuff with the many people who have been arrested in Colorado Springs lately. I’ve been trying to help with that. Geez, I’m involved in too much, actually. [laughs]
That’s awesome, it sounds like you’ve got a lot going on down here. So yeah, what advice would you give to people looking to start up a project like you have down here for the People’s Grocery?
So like you said, we have a People’s Grocery here at the Chinook Center that we do once a week. We give out groceries on Sunday. I mean, just do it. The reason we started it was because, when COVID hit, I was like, “Man, I know people aren’t going to have their free lunches from school, kids aren’t going to get their free school lunches, so let’s organize at least one day like where people can come get a grocery bag to last like a week.” So I mean, I can’t put this all on me, it was mostly my wife and another person. They’re like, let’s just see if we can get donations online to go buy groceries and pass it out. So really, that’s what it was, just asking. “Hey, we’re going to do this, we need donations,” and people gave donations, because that’s a great idea, you know, it was a clear need that happened, and people gave. I think the first day the first time we did it we gave out like 75 bags, or something like that, in an hour. And you know, just spreading the word, like we just spread it through social media basically, and once somebody picked it up, they spread it out through their networks and it got spread pretty far. So I was surprised, I mean, it was plenty of work, but it was sort of just, once people saw that we were doing that, and there was a need, people jumped on board right away. So really, it was just being like, “let’s do this,” that’s the best way to do it.
That kind of leads into my next question, because I think that’s maybe one of the misconceptions people have, is that they need a lot of money to start something like that. Would you say that’s the case?
No, not at all. I mean, we’ve operated off of very little actual operating cost. You know, people give you donations of food, or they give you donations of money, or you know, you could just go hustle hard enough, you can get all kinds of stuff. Like last fall, we had a community barbecue to raise money for De’Von Bailey’s family, and we needed food for that. So I just called all the grocery stores and was like, “Hey, do you guys do donations?” Not all of them did, but enough of them. We got donations from Mountain Mama, like, a lot. Their 50-pound bags of rice and beans, and King Soopers, Natural Grocers gave us donations, someplace else. I can’t remember now, but just call them up and ask them. Oh, Costco. 25 bucks here, 25 bucks there, it starts to add up, right? All I’m saying is, I mean, just like everything, you just gotta hustle.
All right, I guess that leads right into the next question which is how do you get people involved with that kind of thing?
Ask them to hustle for you. Just be like, “Hey, here’s what we need to do. Can you call these people? Here’s here a need that we have. So can you get brown paper bags for us? Can you go to the grocery store and ask for brown paper bags? Can you go to this grocery store and ask for donations? Can you post on social media?” Once people have a clearly defined goal, they’re way more likely to participate.
Is there any specific challenges that you think people starting out should be aware of?
You’re not always gonna be successful. You’re going to do something, and the first time you do it, it might suck horribly. I’m reminded of the first rally I really tried to organize myself for May Day. You know, I’d done some of those anti-war things and well, I think I can do this, but May Day is a way more radical thing, and like six or seven people showed up. And so, you know, I was like, “garbage.” So, it might suck the first time right now, and it might be hard, but if you stick with it, things will start to get put into place. So I think that’s the biggest challenge. [Also] doing organizing, working with people. Working with people is always difficult, you know, if you’re just sitting at home on your computer, filling in cells in a spreadsheet that’s not really hard as not that emotionally or mentally taxing, but when you’re having to coordinate with other people, and deal with other people’s wants and needs and desires it’s hard. Just be willing to accept that not everybody wants to do things the exact same way that you want to, so on and so forth, be willing to learn from other people. Be willing to lead something. Steward people you know need it, right? Sometimes they just need a little, not leading like I’m telling you what to do, but just like, look, I’m gonna lead by just sort of showing what needs to be done.
Thanks to Jon for taking the time to do this interview. Below are links to some of the projects he’s involved with:
Chinook Center: https://chinookcenter.org/
Colorado Springs DSA: http://cos-dsa.org/
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