What’s Better Than Charity?

This article is part of Times Opinion’s Holiday Giving Guide 2021. For other ideas on where to donate this year, please see the rest of our guide here.

This holiday season, I am thinking a lot about the difference between charity and mutual aid. Perhaps it’s something about the pandemic that has made me crave social connection. Or perhaps I am returning to my roots. My family was not wealthy, or even solidly middle class, for most of my childhood. But we had a big appetite for giving to people.

My great-great-grandfather offered small loans to his rural Black community long before banks would lend to Black people. For my parents and their siblings, it looked like taking people into our homes when they needed it, feeding people when we noticed someone skipping meals and giving away a car when someone was struggling to get to work. My great-grandmother was fond of reminding all of her children and their children of the two rules of giving: Always give better than you would buy for yourself, and never call attention to your giving. It was implied that doing so for others — giving your best and affording people their dignity — would mean that when our time came to be on the receiving end of someone’s giving, they would afford us the same. This reciprocity is what distinguishes mutual aid from other types of giving.

I now know that my family’s culture of mutual aid was very much in keeping with our social class. We believe that rich people give away money, when it is more true that rich people like to raise money. Whether you call it a benefit or a charity or a fund-raiser, philanthropy is a highly organized affair for the wealthiest Americans. With some qualifications about what counts as charity, study after study shows that lower-income people are more generous than higher-income people.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but I believe there is one in particular on which we should meditate this year: Lower-income people give more because the giving establishes a culture of reciprocity, one that not only meets material needs but also builds the political power and social connections that makes them more resilient.

When your economic circumstances make you sensitive to the fickle nature of good fortune, you learn that being resilient is just as important as receiving a holiday bonus. As I look across my various communities this year, I see that resilience is low, and that is true among both my highly educated, well-off friends and my working-class friends and family. If we want to inspire the kind of giving that generates social connection, maybe we should give as poor people do.

Matthew Whitley, writing for Open Democracy, distinguishes between mutual aid and charity by calling to the former’s appeal to collectivity: It “emphasizes horizontal networks of solidarity rather than ‘top down’ solutions, networks that flow in both directions and sustain the life of a community.” In concrete terms, mutual aid looks like members of a community sussing out what another member needs — through conversations held over a text or email chain, in an online social media group, during a kaffeeklatsch in the park — and then learning how best to meet that need by collaborating with that community member.

So perhaps a group of neighbors, for instance, coordinates buying the sleeping bags or patching the roof or delivering the meals to the person in need — the aid is bidirectional, or relational. Mutual aid encourages relationships among people, whereas philanthropy builds ties between people and organizations. They may both be useful amid a patchwork of care. But mutual aid has the added benefit of expanding a community’s capacity to build more ways to give. That is the part that most resonates with me during this holiday in particular.

It has been a brutal two years for us collectively, and we experience much of that brutality individually. Covid broke families and friend networks and associations into the smallest possible constituent parts and banished us to our homes. Even when we entered public spaces, we sprung webs of social norms that prohibited public life. That is why so many of us are lonely. Researchers found that 40 percent of people felt more socially isolated at the height of the pandemic than they had previously. Some of us are both isolated and terrorized: White racial violence, police brutality and even just the coarseness of routine interactions affect some groups more than others. We are stressed out and angry with one another, rationally afraid of real monsters and irrationally afraid of phantoms. Against a backdrop of muted celebrations and abortive attempts for us to relaunch a “new normal,” giving as part of a collective feels especially good.

Mutual aid reflects one of my most deeply held beliefs: that every big political problem is rooted in our everyday lives. When our nation-states fail us, it is because we have already failed one another. Mutual aid is a corrective for our culture’s competitive individualization, which has isolated us from one another. Connecting with your neighbors to solve a real, immediate problem for someone you might bump into while you’re out walking the dog or doing errands is ultimately a gift to yourself.

Finding a local mutual aid organization or cause might take a bit more effort than finding a charitable organization, but it is worth it. It develops the muscle memory for giving in a way that stretches our empathy as well as our social ties. If you need help figuring out a way to give money and time directly to people who need it, you can check out the Mutual Aid 101 guide by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Mariame Kaba. Another good way to start is by searching “mutual aid” and your city on your search engine of choice. In my area of North Carolina, for instance, Mutual Aid Carrboro keeps a collective ear to the ground for unmet needs and then meets them.

I would also like to tell you about three organizations that would be great stewards of your donation. Each of them has some personal significance for me. As a researcher and an educator, I believe in the liberatory potential of accessible humanities and social-science education. Having access to stimulating literature and social science because of libraries and a well-read family absolutely set the course of my life. I want that opportunity for everyone, yet we generally reserve it for those fortunate enough to make it to college.

I obviously believe in higher education. I have staked my entire professional identity on it. But higher education is not a panacea for social conflict and greed. We have seen what happens when the public does not share an ability to evaluate different kinds of evidence and truth claims, and a basic orientation toward intellectual curiosity. Misinformation and disinformation have become a political strategy. One need look no further than the rancid, politically motivated attacks on teaching culturally responsive history, literature, STEM and current events. The attack on what is mislabeled “critical race theory” is an attack on the very idea of humanistic inquiry.

No single intellectual tradition has reason cornered, and that is why humanities education is so vital to public life. Unfortunately, wealth inequality and financial pressures threaten to make humanistic learning in a group an elite privilege. The Night School Bar in Durham, N.C., is one organization trying to make social inquiry available through pay-as-you-can classes.

Most of my research advocacy has been for higher education, but education is a continuum. The inequalities that show up in college begin much earlier in the pipeline. The Carter G. Woodson School in Winston-Salem, N.C., is continuing a 25-year mission to serve the area’s Black and Latino students. The school involves families in a comprehensive curriculum that includes a school farm program, a robotics program and a very competitive soccer team. It also has a balanced approach to comprehensive K-12 education that de-emphasizes testing and emphasizes caring for the whole child. Because the school offers so many comprehensive services to students and to families of modest means, it has a lot of financial needs.

Finally, on a larger scale, Mother Health International (MHI) offers a way to give that is very personal to me. One of the essays in my book “Thick” describes my experience of going into preterm labor — it was the most traumatic health experience of my life. However, what I don’t detail in that essay is the fact that it was far from the only traumatic or negative interaction I have had with U.S. health care. Our health care system is no picnic for most people, but it’s even worse if you’re a woman. Caroline Criado Perez, the writer and feminist economist, is good on this. Her book “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” is an infuriating survey of how data across many domains — from seatbelt measurements to pharmaceutical testing — fail to account for women’s health.

And those failures are compounded by race and class and sexual identity and ability. The most glaring consequence of these systematic health inequalities is the domestic and international mortality rates for Black children and Black pregnant people. MHI trains midwives in the United States and in Uganda who are culturally responsive advocates for vulnerable women and babies.

A mutual aid community will make your corner of the world better this holiday season. Giving to the Night School Bar, the Carter G. Woodson School or Mother Health International will increase their capacity to provide vital services to others. Happy holidays and conscientious giving to you all.

This article is part of Times Opinion’s Holiday Giving Guide 2021. The author has no direct connection to the organizations mentioned. If you are interested in any organization mentioned in the Times Opinion’s Giving Guide 2021, please go directly to its website. Neither the authors nor The Times will be able to address queries about the groups or facilitate donations.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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