Like many others, I was surprised at a sudden blow-up on UChicago social media recently involving the USSR, COVID-19, and disagreements on how to create a supportive community during this difficult time. UChicago Mutual Aid (UCMA) was started in the wake of the increasing needs of UChicago students needing support amidst the pandemic. Students could ask for help and post about resources they could offer to community members. On July 19, the page adopted a new header that had unintentionally evoked symbols associated with the USSR. In particular, the image incorporated a red star commonly associated with workers’ liberation movements across the globe, but especially with the Soviet Union. Soon, the page was flooded with discourse on the new header, with some community members advocating for its removal based on persecution conducted by the USSR and others maintaining that the red star is a universal symbol of working-class hope. Both sides had legitimate points to make, but the correct path forward seemed clear: Take down the banner and create one that did not evoke the imagery members found offensive so UCMA could continue doing its job to support the community. And that’s exactly what the creator did.
While the imagery of the banner that evoked Soviet imagery was unintentional, the choice to utilize red in the graphic as a nod to anarcho-communism (ancom) was intentional. And that’s where the problem lies. The pivot to utilizing ancom colors and invoking political symbols resulted in a pivot away from UCMA’s role as a mutually supportive network for its members. The second a mutual-aid organization goes from working exclusively to meet the needs of its community members, it does not follow the true tradition of the goals of mutual aid, regardless of the political labels it adopts. Again, if the community wants to pivot UCMA into an activist group while also working on mutual aid, that’s great. But for group administrators to make judgments, even about color schemes or graphics, without discussing this choice with the community is antithetical to one of the crucial tenets of mutual aid: consensus-building. And that was abandoned in this decision. It led to the divisiveness that did not further the immediate mission of uplifting and helping all members of the community.
What has made UCMA effective is that it has been focused on collectively working to support the needs of people in Hyde Park, whether they be students or residents. The group has morphed into a powerful place for people to find aid and people to help their community. Through UCMA, people can reach out for financial support, organize food drives, seek passed-down furniture, and so much more. It’s a productive way to connect to others in the community and to give and receive support. What makes mutual aid so powerful is that it is centered around people and their survival, so it can thus function without figureheads.
It’s naive and ludicrous to say that mutual aid in itself is not political because it is. It’s about providing for the needs of citizens in a community to which the government cannot or will not offer support. That is political. That is a strategy that finds its origin in anarchist political theory with thinkers like Kropotkin, who popularized the term “mutual aid.” In America, mutual aid is built on abolitionist and collectivist frameworks where Black people most prominently sought to support their own communities when the government failed to support them. It’s not only disingenuous but impossible for mutual aid to be apolitical because it is formed as a solution to a political and societal concern held by people in a community.
I have my own political opinions and vision on how to achieve an equitable, just world. But I never deny that my lived experience is not the same as the people I want to fight with and be in solidarity with every single day. I let the stories and the missions of movement leaders take center stage. UCMA addressed the concerns about the logo and made changes. I hope they continue to listen to community members and focus on consensus-building when making decisions. Let’s use this moment as a reminder to evaluate how we can best support each other. It starts with one simple step: listening. Plug into grassroots organizations, practice political education by reading books that you don’t encounter in Sosc or Hum. Consistently donate and support mutual-aid groups. Have personal conversations with friends—not on UChicago Secrets. But always, always, always center everything you’re doing around the people you want to work with.
Noah Tesfaye is a second-year in the College.