A year of the COVID-19 pandemic has left millions jobless, hundreds of thousands dead, and many turning to neighbors and mutual aid groups, instead of the government, to make ends meet.
When Chicago Public Schools suspended its meal distribution program in late May, Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Dominique James formed what would eventually become the People’s Grab-N-Go, a weekly program that by the beginning of September had given food and supplies to 3,700 families in need.
Robust mutual aid programs, like the one run by the Black and trans-led Brave Space Alliance, kept people connected to health care, stable housing, and harm reduction services. BSA’s makeup room and den also help connect trans and gender-nonconforming people to important gender-affirming products like packing underwear, binders, and cosmetics.
Food banks like Greater Chicago Food Depository are helping feed just a fraction of the roughly 42 million people—13 million of whom are children—in the United States that nonprofit and national food bank network Feeding America says may experience food insecurity this year.
These hyperlocal organizations have had to step up their operations exponentially in part thanks to the government’s shoddy response to the pandemic. And activists say it shows the need for what many are calling the “solidarity economy,” an economic system based on equity, justice, and democracy.
Michelle Morales, president of the social justice-focused Woods Fund Chicago, like others, says she was motivated to act by the compounding crises. “We spent some time during the early days of the pandemic, really trying to think of new ways to support the organizing ecosystem in Chicago,” Morales says.
Last year, Woods Fund awarded $500,000 to Just Chicago, a group of more than a dozen organizations that includes Black Lives Matter Chicago, Brave Space Alliance, and Black Youth Project 100. Out of 11 proposals, the Just Chicago coalition was selected to receive funding over two years through Woods Fund’s Movement Building for Racial Justice Fund.
Morales tells the Reader that it was particularly attractive to Woods Fund that Just Chicago was made up of a number of organizations with their own particular focuses, instead of one unified goal. Drawing on her own experience organizing in Humboldt Park, Morales recalls how hard it could be to build relationships with other organizations.
“We decided to jump in feet first and see what it would be like to fund the process and to help incentivize movement building,” she says.
And with the diverse goals also comes diverse expertise—police abolition, food equity, and on-the-ground organizing to name a few. And Just Chicago activists hope that such a stocked tool belt will help them make lasting and dramatic change.
For Mike Strode of the Kola Nut Collaborative, a member of Just Chicago, his experience lies in alternative economies. Fiscally sponsored by the Open Collective Foundation, the Kola Nut Collaborative is a mutual exchange group that uses an hour of an individual’s time as currency in what is known as a “timebank.” He says this experience is vital to moving away from predatory capitalism and toward the solidarity economy.
Renee Hatcher of R3, a member of the Just Chicago coalition, also directs the Community Enterprise & Solidarity Economy Clinic at University of Illinois Chicago’s John Marshall Law School. Also an assistant UIC law professor, Hatcher brings her experience as a community development and human rights attorney to the group.
“So much of this is really grounded in self-determination and giving agency to folks, and that in large part is what’s typically missing from a lot of the policy work, the community economic development initiatives that have come from the federal government and local government,” Hatcher says. “So the solidarity economy, I think is transformational because it gives ownership and agency to actual people and communities.”
Agency in movement building is of particular importance to BYP100. The organization’s Christopher “ThoughtPoet” Brown says the skills of Gen Z and young millennials have been largely ignored or minimized during movement building work; but after TikTok users helped sink a rally for former President Donald Trump and police beat and arrested young people during protests, Brown—who was one of those arrested last May during protests in Hyde Park—says organizers are finally waking up to their power.
The Woods Fund grant also comes at a particularly historic time for organizing and movement work in the country: unprecedented crises have left millions on the brink of financial ruin, racist police violence spurred historic protests, our government barely survived an attempted coup. Additionally, federal and state responses to the pandemic have been harshly criticized, particularly when compared to other nations that have provided significantly more relief to citizens.
“The difference is that [the solidarity economy] actually gives people the power to determine their own futures, to determine the things that they need in their community,” Hatcher says.
Daniel Ash of the Chicago Community Trust says hyperlocal organizations, along with the already growing solidarity economy, are able to provide more effective, particularized relief at least in part because of the freedom from bureaucratic rigmarole that lets the groups act more quickly and pivot when needed. (The Chicago Community Trust also funds or provides grant funding to the Reader.) Though government does have a role to play in providing resources and relief, Ash says, its distance to on-the-ground issues oftentimes hampers its response.
“These formal and informal networks that are centered around mutual aid are almost, by definition, more nimble because of their size and scale,” Ash says. “And when you’re close to an issue, when you see people in need, there is a sort of innate response to act now.”
And it’s that innate response that Woods Fund is hoping for. As Morales says, the terms of the grant are simple. Woods Fund isn’t looking for usual deliverables or progress updates or any of those aforementioned bureaucratic hurdles. It just wants the coalition and its members to do the work. “At the very basic level,” Morales says, “success is that the coalition is not only still standing after this two-year experiment, but they’ve begun to include other organizations and begun to seed the values of a solidarity economy beyond the 12 that are involved in the collective.” v