Abstract: Conceptualizations of Mutual Aid during Covid-19: A Critical Analysis (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Conceptualizations of Mutual Aid during Covid-19: A Critical Analysis

Friday, January 13, 2023
Laveen A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
C. Riley Hostetter, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Danielle Littman, A.M., LCSW, PhD Candidate, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Brendon Holloway, MSW, Social Worker, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Annie Zean Dunbar, A.M., Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO
Kimberly Bender, PhD, Professor, University of Denver, CO
Sophia P. Sarantakos, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, University of Denver
Background and Purpose:

While mutual aid has taken place throughout history, the term gained significant traction since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the convergence of several health and justice crises. For historically excluded individuals and communities, mutual aid has often been a necessary means of survival. Queer and trans communities, communities of color, and disabled communities have long been organizing to provide care for each other (Berne, 2015). With the widespread, prevailing needs brought on by the pandemic, mutual aid proliferated as a means to aid communities when government entities failed to keep up. Given the increasing needs during COVID-19, this study sought to understand how mutual aid participants and organizers conceptualized mutual aid during the early months of the pandemic and how social identities overlay with these conceptualizations.


A critical phenomenological approach was utilized to understand the experiences of those engaged in mutual aid practice during the COVID-19 pandemic. Semi-structured qualitative interviews (N=25) were conducted with individuals in mutual aid groups and intentional communities across the state of Colorado. All participants were recruited via online and word-of-mouth networking. Participants were asked about their definition of mutual aid, other terms they use to define their work, and how mutual aid differs from charity work. Thematic and inductive coding was conducted through an iterative process. Participants’ social identities were then plotted across excerpts to identify patterns in demographic associations with mutual aid conceptualizations.


Participants were predominantly white (80%), women (60%), and straight (50%). Our findings show that participants conceptualized mutual aid across a spectrum that spanned a view of mutual aid as a temporary, crisis response, to a conceptualization of mutual aid as an ongoing form of support. More participants endorsed mutual aid as being an ongoing form of support, and a necessary way of life, compared to those who viewed mutual aid as temporary. Participants who viewed mutual aid as a crisis response were more apt to believe the government would support them, and mutual aid was an acute intervention to mitigate heightened stressors. These participants held privileged identities, such as being white and straight. Participants who viewed mutual aid as ongoing support expressed more anti-government and anarchist ideals, viewing community assets as a means to support their communities. These participants frequently held at least one marginalized identity (e.g. Black, transgender, queer).

Conclusions and Implications:

During the early months of COVID-19, as mutual aid proliferated, there was not a singular way to define or conceptualize mutual aid. Conceptualizations appear tied to social identity, and potentially, experiences of privilege and oppression. Our participants’ conceptualizations of mutual aid hold implications for the sustainability of mutual aid praxis. Viewing mutual aid as a short, temporary fix will likely yield insufficient support for groups unserved and underserved by traditional structures. If folks move in and out of crisis-oriented mutual aid work, a smaller group is then left to pursue continuous mutual aid work, which may create and/or compound burnout and enhance inequities, leaving limited capacity for sustained collective care work.