COVID-19 Pandemic / Current Events and Philanthropy

Mutual aid and physical distancing are not new for Black and racialized minorities in the Americas

Editors’ Note: Caroline Shenaz Hossein responds to Lucy Bernholz’s recent blog post predicting shifting philanthropic trends– a “rebirth of mutual aid”– during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hossein argues that “any general trends towards mutual aid in the U.S. should be understood, not simply or principally as a return to earlier giving habits, but also as an echo of ongoing giving practices among the Global majority around the world.”

Reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic and coming trends in philanthropy, Lucy Bernholz, senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, predicted in a recent March 20th  blog post that there will be a “rebirth of mutual aid,” further noting: “Many things that defined philanthropy before it became a formalized, industry unto itself (early 1900s in the U.S.A.) are coming back to fashion.”

To the extent that it views and predicts shifting patterns in white Anglo-American giving in the United States, Bernholz’s narrative about a return to earlier forms of philanthropy might make sense. I do think it is worth noting that white folks do have a history of cooperation and self-help.

However, this narrative about a return to the past fails to acknowledge ongoing trends in collective and community economies among minorities—or rather, the Global majority—in the Americas. This is to say that any general trends towards mutual aid in the U.S. should be understood, not simply or principally as a return to earlier giving habits, but also as an echo of ongoing giving practices among the Global majority around the world. Because “minorities” in the Americas–Black and Brown people–have always had to practice some form of mutual aid, and adding yet another current trend in COVID-19 times, physical distancing.

To this second point, Brookings Fellow Andre M. Perry reminds us that Black people have always had to practice some form of physical distancing. While it seems strange to speak about distancing ourselves from others, and coming together through mutual aid, these two concepts are in some ways one and the same. We move away from people who may harm us and tap into our groups who we know and trust for support. This is what living looks like for the African diaspora in the Americas.

In Toronto, Canada growing up in the 1970s, for example, my sister and I were called racial epithets. The way we managed racism as children was to hide, to stay at home to be safe. I recall going to a nearby park and a grown man cussed me out: “go away little N-word.” When I ran home to tell my grannie, she scolded that I should know better and to stop gallivanting (read: stay home). I learned at an early age how to physically isolate and how to engage in groups that I love, trust, and know.

To be fair, it is human nature to gravitate towards groups we know and trust. Russian anarchist and philosopher Petr Kropotkin (1976 [1902]) was one of the first scholars to document mutual aid and the ways in which living creatures of Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria would group together to survive and to thrive. Most of us live in association–as opposed to individually—as a way to manage and deal with the difficulties of life. In an edited collection The Black Social Economy (2018), scholars and activists documented the ways in which the Black diaspora as minorities have had to self-exclude from events and physically isolate because being in social contact with white(ened) people long has been unhealthy and harmful to one’s mental health. This would match Kropotkin’s work, further reinforcing his finding that species gravitate toward mutual aid to depend on others for love, sympathy, and trust. But what happens when that love is not there? Black people will make self-sacrifices: to first physically isolate and then to reach out to community for mutual aid and support.

This is a well-known fact. Economist Jessica Gordon Nembhard wrote Collective Courage (2014) a few years back where she outed–yes, made a truth known that was buried–that Black people’s expertise in collectives and cooperatives under very troubled times is remarkable. It took her a decade to get this truth out; because for far too long, it was “overlooked” that Black people were experts in economic cooperation. She busted up this myth making by showing that African Americans would hide first to be safe and stay away from society to do the work in cooperation that needed to be done.

In my own work on mutual aid, specifically on rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCAs), the women who run them are known as the “Banker Ladies”–African Canadian and Caribbean women who create community-driven financial cooperatives–and they are collectively organizing in constant crisis. To boot, they have centuries of doing mutual aid. Such “Banker Ladies” have mastered how to pool resources to help each other in safe ways that often needs minimal contact, but people are comforted knowing they have support when they need it. African, Caribbean and the Black diaspora people know how to create community-based inclusive cooperatives such as Susu, Partnerhand, Sandooq, Box-hand, Hagbad, Equub, Osusu, Ajo to help people in desperate times.

For eleven years, I have witnessed hundreds of Black women in the Caribbean and Canada carry out such money cooperatives in times that are difficult. Because in precarious economies coupled with racism and sexism, Black women including Canadian women are more likely to be under- and unemployed than men and white counterparts in their societies. The jobs Black women do have been and are generally devalued; and during the times of COVID-19, it is these frontline service jobs we depend on. Many Black women are used to being in an economy that is exclusionary, and it is for this reason that many choose to organize ROSCAs. Black women engage in self-help and mutual aid groups because of what this sense of coming together brings them: a sense of duty to their social group, compassion, and love. And in their interviews with me they revealed to me that, not only do they do this collective work to meet their own needs, but organizing it is a way to press against exclusion, and to beat that system by showing kindness, care, and love to alienated people. Banker Ladies create a space for people to connect to one another and to make sure that the pooled funds can be given to the members. In the giving of resources to one another when business and society fail some groups, these ROSCAs are an important lifeline existing in our towns and cities.

For scholars and practitioners of philanthropy today eager to predict and guide philanthropic practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, I thus urge them to take note of Black women’s organizing. Because during this COVID-19 pandemic people of colour need systems and groups we can trust. Black women have lived experience of how to organize in inclusive ways to help an array of people. We should be tapping into and funding this expertise.

The reality, though, is that the structural inequalities that exist for the African diaspora have been known before this pandemic. And white people continue to hold control of the majority of financial resources. Given that financial resources are necessary to fight a pandemic, this means that Black and racialized lives are most vulnerable and at a greater risk of not recovering from COVID-19.

Even more, and even if white folks do lean resources toward saving Black and racialized lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is yet another challenge for this form of mutual aid to work successfully: Trust is the very essence of what it means to do mutual aid correctly, and the African diaspora does not trust white folks enough to rely on their ‘humanitarianism.’ This is because many white activists and ‘experts’ leading this fight—and most visible to this fight—work for organizations and in professional fields that long have proven harmful to racialized people. For example, donors allocate funding to non-profits which are mostly white-led and oftentimes limited in terms of equity, and what we see are non-profits funded by Black leaders having a hard time accessing monies that matter for people of colour (Hossein 2017).

And what is more, most nonprofits just do not bring in the required expertise to help them do their work nor do they choose experts reflective of the people who need reaching. If there is no shared humanity on a daily basis, then why would there be any during the COVID-19 pandemic? For COVID-19 outreach to work effectively, mutual aid groups that are active in racialized communities may be able to show the way. In focus groups with Banker Ladies in Toronto and Montreal, hundreds of women testify that they admire, respect, and trust these groups because it is the members who decide from the ground up on how to manage the pooled resources. This work is not directed top-down by ‘experts,’ but rather by everyday women who know that their locality will come together to have discussions and decide how to build inclusive mutual aid systems. This practice of ROSCAs has been carrying on for centuries across the Americas including in the U.S and Canada.

If we are to widen our knowledge of how and why trends shift in philanthropic giving, then we should value the work of informal cooperatives and the long tradition of mutual aid by minorities. Lean on the work and expertise of past and present scholars in the fields of alternative economics, such as W.E.B Du Bois, Curtis Haynes, Shirley Ardener, Nina Banks, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Marcus Garvey, Renee Hatcher and Mary Njeri Kinyanjui. And seek out the knowledge of Black women leaders who practice mutual aid regularly and ask them on how to best do this work. Because mutual aid—and self-isolation in the process of providing mutual aid—has never been “out of fashion” among minority groups. Mutual aid is a way of life.

To turn again to Bernholz’s essay, “Many things old are new again,” I would say this: Many things constant among the Global majority across the Americas are newly relevant to white folks. If the past and present in the Global North are any indication, though, white privileged scholars and activists will make this an opportune time to make these current economic and public health crises about them—perhaps go further into navel-gazing their own trends and analyses in addressing and funding solutions to crises—and do little to lean on the work and experience of Black and racialized people. But in the hope that perhaps some white folks reading this post do care to listen, here is some advice: Black people know first-hand what it means to physically isolate and then to tap into friends and family for mutual aid, and for survival. We have much to learn from the concept of mutual aid from the millions of Black women who remain steadfast in their commitment to mutual aid. We just need to follow their lead on what to do next.

-Caroline Shenaz Hossein

Caroline Shenaz Hossein is Associate Professor of Business & Society in the Department of Social Science at York University in Toronto, Canada. She is the Founder of the Diverse Solidarity Economies (DiSE) Collective. You can find more about the DiSE Collective and her work at www.Caroline-Shenaz-Hossein.com. Twitter, @carolinehossein. 

Cited Works:

Gordon Nembhard, Jessica. 2014. Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice. PA: Penn State University Press.

Hossein, Caroline Shenaz. 2018. The Black Social Economy in the Americas: Exploring Diverse Community-Based Alternative Markets. Edited collection. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

_________. 2017. “A Black Perspective on Canada’s Third Sector: Case studies on Women Leaders in the Social Economy.” Journal of Canadian Studies. Volume 51(3): 749-781.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1976 [1902]. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. Manchester, New Hampshire: Extending Horizons Books.

Perry, Andre M. 2020. “Black Americans forced in ‘social distancing’ long before conronavirus.” The Avenue, Bookings, March 20.  Link: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/03/20/black-americans-were-forced-into-social-distancing-long-before-the-coronavirus/

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