Abstract: Socially Re-Organizing the Way We Relate to One Another: Values and Beliefs Underlying Mutual Aid during the COVID-19 Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Socially Re-Organizing the Way We Relate to One Another: Values and Beliefs Underlying Mutual Aid during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Independence BR A, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Danielle Littman, A.M., PhD Candidate, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Madi Boyett, MSW, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Kimberly Bender, PhD, Professor, University of Denver, CO
Annie Zean Dunbar, A.M., Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Colin Bogle, BA, Research Assistant, University of Denver, CO
Background and Purpose: The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed conventional care systems and safety nets while broadening the scope of who needs support. Mutual aid has been a longstanding practice among communities post disaster as well as communities experiencing systemic marginalization, and has proliferated as a widespread practice during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to share resources when government and non-governmental services have fallen short. Our study aimed to understand: what values and beliefs underly mutual aid practices in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic? In doing so, we aimed to build deeper understanding of mutual aid as a response to crises when formal government systems are unable to meet widespread needs.

Methods: Our qualitative study used phenomenological methods to interview mutual aid organizers and participants (N=25) across the state of Colorado in the first six months of the pandemic. We conducted hourlong semi-structured interviews in which we asked participants about the values and beliefs guiding their mutual aid work and what, if any ways, values have shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic. We used thematic analysis to analyze our data, resulting in two theme clusters: values and qualities necessary to actualize values.

Results: Our sample (N=25) was composed of individuals who identify as facilitators of mutual aid (n=10), participants of mutual aid (n=7), and members of intentional communities (n=8). Examples of mutual aid practiced by participants during this time included organizing meal and grocery deliveries, facilitating cash transfers to pay for basic needs, and caretaking for neighbors in intentional communities.

For our first theme cluster, focused on values underlying mutual aid during this time, participants described a web of mutual and reciprocal care that breaks free from the giver/receiver binary; this care happened through a sense of shared humanity that emphasized the innate respect, dignity and worth of all people. Mutual aid was described as community-driven care, responsive to local needs, through the intentional redistribution of resources. A second theme cluster described qualities necessary to actualize those values in practice. Yet, participants recognized that values only go so far; to realize these values required a generative and active community, involving collaboration, creativity, cooperation, and connection, which was responsive to needs by loosely holding structure and allowing for nimble adaptation to needs.

Conclusions and Implications: These findings may inform how mutual aid, as an (old yet) emerging practice, may uniquely respond to the ongoing pandemic and compounding crises-- like economic distress and climate change -- as conventional care systems and safety nets fail to keep up with surmounting needs. While all mutual aid efforts are uniquely bound to communities needs and contextual realities, the values which emerged from our study may serve as a guide for mutual aid organizers to stay true to the work while remaining nimbly responsive. Lastly, if social work practitioners and scholars believe that mutual aid may be an important part of present and future social support systems, we need to critically (re)consider the role of social workers within or alongside mutual aid networks.