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“Solidarity, not charity”: mutual aid in Appalachia

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

COVID-19’s devastating effects on the economy has Appalachians like Caroline Rowcliffe chanting “solidarity, not charity.”

“We say solidarity, not charity, because charity creates this hierarchical framework through religious practices and through religious frameworks,” said Rowcliffe, an organizer of the harm reduction group First Aid Collective Knox.

FACK is a harm reduction group based in Knoxville, Tennessee. FACK works to help reduce the harm done by addiction to drugs and alcohol by offering needle exchanges and community support.

According to the group’s social media page, their mission is to meet people where they are at and not leave them there.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, FACK began to shift their efforts to try to meet community needs through mutual aid.

“With the pandemic, our efforts really took a huge jump because so many people were being impacted,” said Rowcliffe. “So many immunocompromised people were homebound and couldn’t get the groceries they needed, so we started really laying down the groundwork for mutual aid in that sense.”

Mutual aid is the sharing of resources within a community. Unlike charity, where an individual or organization with an abundance of a resource distributes it to those in need, people in the community work together to fill the needs of their neighbors.

“Mutual aid is, I think, specifically relying on each other and being able to give each other support,” said Rowcliffe. “Whether that’s material support, and also trying to resist the hierarchical control that white supremacy and capitalism create.”

Both Rowcliffe and Lou Murrey, the coordinator of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project, or The STAY Project, explained that mutual aid is a political term that stems from a dissatisfaction with capitalism.

“We can only save each other from this,” said Murrey. “Nobody's coming to save us except ourselves, so mutual aid acknowledges that and recognizes I am committed to your survival. I'm committed to you surviving, not because of the work you do, but just because you are another human being and you exist, and you are important because you are a human being and your life is valuable. And that's what mutual aid is, and that is deeply radical because everything in capitalism tells us that we are not valuable unless we are producing something.”

Murrey also explained the historical context of mutual aid.

“It really comes from the black radical tradition and enslaved people, because it was about using whatever resources you have available and sharing those rather than hoarding them because you recognize that your liberation is bound up in other people's liberation,” said Murrey.

Mutual aid groups began forming rapidly in response to the need created by the pandemic. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 49.8 million people were not working due to the pandemic during the month of May. In June, the number of unemployed people was down to 40.4 million, and in July 31.3 million people were still unemployed due to COVID-19.

FACK set up a system where individuals struggling during the pandemic can request anything from groceries and hygiene products to Narcan. FACK also gives monetary aid to help individuals struggling with bills. All the aid FACK provides is funded by the community.

“Immediately when we put that need out there like ‘Hey, COVID is coming, mutual aid groups are trying to get resources and get food supplied up for people, so many things supplied up for people,’” said Rowcliffe. “I think people really heard that calling and we started receiving mass amounts of money. I think the total we’ve raised since the beginning of the pandemic is $14,000.”

Rowcliffe says all the money FACK has received has gone to purchasing supplies to distribute or into direct payments to help individuals with rent and bills.

The STAY Project joined the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition to provide mutual aid in the form of direct payments to Appalachian youth who are struggling financially due to the pandemic.

“I actually would not call what STAY does mutual aid anymore,” said Murrey. “We did call it mutual aid, but we decided it was actually more of material aid.”

Through the mutual aid program sponsored by The STAY Project and KSEC, people under the age of 30 living in the state of Kentucky or the Appalachian counties of West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama could apply to receive financial support in the form of a direct payment.

Murrey said the idea began as a transportation fund for college students being forced to return home after the shutdown of campuses across the region but grew quickly as community needs began changing.

“Then it was like there was just such an incredible need,” said Murrey. “We were getting multiple requests a day from people, and it was everything from ‘Hey, I need to pay my internet bill since I'm now doing school from home’ or ‘I am caretaking for my grandma and I'm gonna have to quit my job’ or ‘We have no job anymore and I still got bills to pay.’”

Murrey says The STAY Project and KSEC raised over $50,000 over the course of four months.

The STAY Project is classified as a non-profit organization and can only give out so much to an individual without the requester being liable for taxes on it, which Murrey called “a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

Because of the mass number of requests, the STAY Project received and the limits on the amount of funding that they can give, they decided to close the application form, finish fulfilling the requests they already received and distribute the rest of the money they raised into different mutual aid groups throughout the region.

“We’re distributing the money to projects that are on the ground, mutual aid projects in people's communities so that we can refer people to those projects,” said Murrey.

According to Rowcliffe, people are struggling, and FACK is ready to help them.

“No matter your immigration status, your race, religion, gender identity expression, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, housing situation, you can always reach out for help from us,” said Rowcliffe. “We will never ever disclose any information to anyone without your consent or saying, and we're here for you.”


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