Abstract: Building a Regenerative Future: Social and Solidarity Economies in Mutual Aid Networks (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Building a Regenerative Future: Social and Solidarity Economies in Mutual Aid Networks

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Camelback B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Colleen Cummings Melton, MSW, PhD Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
C. Riley Hostetter, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Brendon Holloway, MSW, Social Worker, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Danielle Littman, A.M., LCSW, PhD Candidate, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Kimberly Bender, PhD, Professor, University of Denver, CO
Background and Purpose:

Climate and ecological crises are on track to destabilize the ecosystems and social systems we rely on to meet our basic, daily needs (IPCC, 2021). Climate organizing and action often focuses on resistance or what we stand against. While resistance is critical, there is less focus on what we are building instead. Social and solidarity economies (SSE) are a concrete way communities can build capacity to meet their own needs and build resilience against inevitable system breakdown. SSEs are socioeconomic models that center care, equity, and a post-capitalist approach to productivity and collective relations (Ottenhoff, 2021). SSEs provide a framework for adaptation and mitigation strategies to build regenerative, just futures. This study analyzed SSEs implemented by mutual aid groups to examine SSEs role in building community capacity and offering alternatives to extractive, exploitative systems.


A phenomenological approach was used to explore how mutual aid participants created or engaged in SSEs. Semi-structured interviews (N = 25) were conducted with individuals engaging in mutual aid groups and intentional communities across the state of Colorado. Participants’ mutual aid experiences spanned rural and urban settings and ranged from a few months to 17 years. To identify alternative structures and systems created by community, an analysis was done using SSEs as a framework (Wahl, 2016). An a priori codebook was created using categories of SSEs: creation; production; exchange and transfer; consumption and use; and surplus allocation. Within these categories, sub-codes were created through an iterative process to identify the focus of the alternative system, or SSE (e.g. food, housing, labor, etc.).


All participants discussed alternate systems of exchange and transfer of goods or services, with the majority focused on clothing, home items, or food. Regenerative production of food was also a theme, especially through community gardens and localized food systems. Alternate currencies and time banking were discussed by multiple participants, and others spoke to mutual aid as an alternative economic structure for resource allocation. Alternate models of housing were mentioned by multiple participants, including co-housing and intentional communities. While none of the participants explicitly named their work as SSEs, almost all spoke to the principles of SSEs (cooperation, accountability/relationship, solidarity, equity, shared resources, and participatory democracy) and highlighted the creation of new systems and ways of being focused on transforming relationships with each other and the ecological world.

Conclusions & Implications:

Climate related mutual aid efforts often focus on adaptation—meeting direct needs such as food or disaster relief. This focus fails to place mutual aid in the larger context of building alternative systems based in collective care. Results illustrate the work mutual aid communities are doing to imagine and create alternative systems that divest from oppressive structures that create perpetuate the climate and ecological crisis. Findings provide a framework for communities to replicate and scale-out SSEs as adaptation and mitigation efforts, while creatively subverting oppressive systems and building new ones. Social work researchers may use findings as a template for world-building regenerative futures centering collective care and transformative solutions.