MUTUAL AID ISN’T a new idea — far from it.

“It’s an ancient practice of looking out for one another,” says JM Wong, a member of the Seattle-based COVID-19 Mutual Aid network since its inception in early 2020. Through mutual aid networks loose or official, folks have been giving each other help in times of need. In the United States, this has long involved immigrant communities helping new arrivals or folks in their countries of origin.

Needs are greater than ever, especially for people most affected by health issues, job loss or lack of a safety net — from seniors afraid to leave their houses to buy groceries to recent immigrants not connected to more traditional services.

Mutual aid is there to help them all, with grocery deliveries, pop-up food pantries (often sourced from local growers, many of them people of color), help with rent and sometimes direct cash aid.

Advocating on behalf of incarcerated people, who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19, and their families brought Cassandra Butler into the larger mutual aid community.

The pandemic created more need and more opportunity to combine efforts, she says. “People from all over the place that are aligned with our values are able to jump in and join us.”

Mutual aid differs from more top-down forms of philanthropy: The networks are made up of people from the communities they serve, many of them members of traditionally marginalized groups. The organizers are unpaid. Help goes from one person to another with very little bureaucracy in between.

People with needs request help, and they receive it in the form they request, no strings attached. “It is nice to be part of an organization where that’s the first question they ask: ‘What do you need?’ ” Butler says.

All you have to do to get involved is email,
or fill out an online volunteer sign-up form (if you’re outside Seattle, an online search of your city or county and the words “mutual aid” might turn up results closer to you). Mutual aid organizers send information about ways to help. (You also can find information about ongoing events on Instagram: @covid19mutualaid.)

I signed up to buy and deliver groceries, which I’ve now done a few times through a couple of mutual aid branches.

We have only a small opportunity to interact — a wave and greeting from afar, a text-message exchange in Spanish. Forming relationships is traditionally a part of mutual aid. But a longer in-person conversation isn’t safe for now — mutual aid volunteers follow safety protocols, including mask-wearing and physical distancing.

Still, I’ve felt a sense of solidarity every time I’ve volunteered — a reminder that we’re in this together. That’s part of the point, Wong says.

Mutual aid is not just about redistributing resources; it’s about forming bonds and working for the good of all. That means not just financial assistance but also learning about and addressing the roots of inequality, whether by assisting protesters, helping essential workers get masks or hazard pay, or pushing government officials for new policies.

“It’s not just a feel-good experience. It’s about being in solidarity and struggle with folks who are fighting for their lives,” Wong says. “It’s moving to see that people do care about each other, and this is a platform to express their love.”