When Corporations Attempt Mutual Aid

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he social contract behind mutual aid is simple and elegant. It’s a system of engaging with one another rooted in the belief that survival is a communal project as opposed to an individual one. Six months deep into a pandemic, this is the value proliferating impactful reciprocal networks that match exigent needs with specific and timely responses. There’s very likely a network operating in your neighborhood, offering grocery and pharmacy runs and deliveries, mental health check-ins and other forms of support. Before COVID-19, the term might’ve only rung a bell in anti-capitalist circles, but these days, news outlets round up mutual aid projects as glimmers of positivity and ask if this mode of organizing will outlast the pandemic.

As both the term “mutual aid” and its mode of community engagement become mainstream, there’s the creeping risk of co-optation or rather, a corrosion to its meaning. Mutual aid is not a corporate medium nor can it live inside the charitable non-profit model. It’s not scalable or “productivizeable” by the tech economy. Mutual aid’s values live in a specific, non-hierarchical and symbiotic exchange of care for which capitalism makes no space.

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n the realm of food, the most recent and visible mutual aid efforts come in the form of free community fridges maintained and stocked by volunteers in various cities across the country. These fridges showcase a different sort of social concern for others compared to the world of food-centered charity, where even giving away your leftovers could count as a gracious act. These fridges emphasize both quality and cultural specificity of the food stocked and offered by and for the community. 

The first occasion I came across one was in early June when Zenat Begum, owner of Playground Coffee in Brooklyn, put out a free fridge in front of her coffee shop filled with colorful fruits and vegetables after downsizing her shop’s operations. A more recent effort in the Bay Area comes from Cheetah, a San Francisco based wholesale food supplier which exclusively supplied restaurants but has pivoted to include a direct-to-consumer grocery service since the pandemic. The company has put up several fridges across the region that are stocked from inventory it wasn't able to sell to restaurants and customers and that food pantries wouldn't take due to their own demands and restrictions. It reminds me of the Whitney Museum’s now-cancelled show wherein the museum planned to exhibit works by Black artists who sold their prints for $100 towards mutual aid funds. Cheetah rerouting its self-created food waste through a mutual aid model feels just as flagrant. When well-monied organizations like the Whitney or Cheetah, the latter which raised $36 million this spring rounding out its total investments to nearly $68 million, interact with mutual aid projects, they distort them. The mutuality is lopsided. It reads like publicity strategy rather than honest participation.

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Before Cheetah’s fridges went up in the East and South Bay, the Bay Area had a few existing community-led free fridge projects. In late June, a growing collective of volunteers called Town Fridge placed a fridge in West Oakland. Since their first location, the project has expanded to ten fridges across different corners of the town. Along with guidelines on how to label and stock food, Town Fridges bears the following: “This isn’t charity. This is mutual aid.” That distinction is important to consider. Charity, with its sympathetic ambitions and a disturbing attachment to the virtue of that sympathy, is entirely oppositional to mutual aid.  In the case of charity, the power dynamics that lend to disparity are maintained—some people have enough to give abundantly to charity and for that, they are rewarded through tax breaks and commemorative artifacts of gratitude. And the deservedness of those in need is evaluated, their progress documented and often paraded as a signal of virtue for donors. The two groups, the donors and those in need of what’s being given, rarely if ever share communal space. This physical segregation is integral to the structure of charity.

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he power of mutual aid is the intimacy of its participants with the disparity that requires their work. The Black Panther Party had an exemplary list of mutual aid programs they termed Survival Programs. Free breakfast for school-aged children, commissary for those incarcerated, distribution of free clothes and shoes, free medical services and safety programs from armed patrols of police and transportation to assure the safety of senior citizens, just to name a few. Responding to specific needs by directing specific capacity is the organizing mode of mutual aid, and the Panthers met these needs to ensure the survival of Black life which continues to be left out of the design of social and legislative care. 

If there are gaps between the community’s needs and the capacity of volunteers, mutual aid efforts tend to build bridges. This was the case with SF Community Fridge, a free fridge effort that launched in the Mission in July whose founding volunteers felt it best to partner with existing local organizations who worked in food equity. They found exactly that in Mission Meals Coalition, itself a mutual aid network that connects members of the community to essential resources. Through this collaboration, SF Community Fridge moved locations of its fridge some blocks to better meet the need and included a shopping list that assures that the food stocked in the fridge is culturally relevant to the community it seeks to serve.

However clear the contours of present and past mutual aid efforts and its methods, corporate creep into that domain has arrived. Cheetah states that it was inspired by free fridges run by mutual aid models in Los Angeles and Oakland to start its own version. “We wanted to figure out some sort of way to get [food waste] down to zero, and that's how we thought of the fridge campaign,” explained Alexa Weiser, a program manager at the company. Weiser said the company donates to food pantries regularly and for its fridges, it partners with organizations and families who host the fridges. While encouraging others to do the same, Cheetah stocks and maintains the fridge once a week with its surplus food. The company does not cover electricity costs. Weiser also explained that  Cheetah paid local artists to paint these fridges, which also sport a Cheetah logo. “The intent of [the logo] is to let people know about another resource where they can get wholesale prices,” Weiser said.

Late last month, Governor Gavin Newsom thanked a group of Israeli firefighters who came to California to tame August’s wildfires. “Mutual aid is a beautiful example of people from all backgrounds and communities coming together to help one another,” his post reads. This diplomatic relationship between Israel and California is not mutual aid. And though I’m not convinced there’s any use in policing the vocabularies of political leaders and corporations, it’s grating to be witness to this appropriation. What, for example, would it look like for Cheetah to give what they can and take what they need? Certainly not four fridges across the Bay Area. 

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Adapting the values of mutual aid, instead of the terminology, would require so much more undoing of power and demystifying lores of individualism and exceptionalism—the beliefs that some of us have and others have not by the grace of work, or chance, but instead because of disparities maintained by economic, political and cultural institutions. Mutual aid efforts like community fridges live in the margins of these institutions' myths, sowing their own tale. Theirs is a story whose moral is that the distribution of resources across the world is imbalanced and one way to dissolve that disparity is by truly giving what you can and taking whatever it is you need.