Many people find the holiday season difficult. There might not be much to toast to for those who are facing eviction or are separated from loved ones. And when you throw in the fact that we’re still wholly in the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic, it’s clear that a lot people are experiencing feelings of despair and hopelessness this time of the year.
With this in mind, it’s especially heartening to know that organizers across the country are working to bring a little holiday cheer to those who might need it the most. Holiday-themed mutual aid efforts are popping up in cities and towns all across the United States to help fill in some of the gaps of the official pandemic response and to spread some joy and warmth at the end a particularly tragic year.
The Winter Warmth Fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, is just one of many efforts across the country focused on providing warmth — literally to those who need it. The fundraiser aims to raise $20,000 to help residents who are housed pay their utility bills and provide propane to heat the tents for those who are not.
Des Moines Black Liberation Movement Rent Relief Fund and Des Moines Mutual Aid are organizing the fundraiser, which is part broader Iowa Mutual Aid Network.
Similar mutual aid networks sprung up all over the country, and they grew during the pandemic. The example of the Queens Mutual Aid NetworkNew York City is raising funds for rent relief for undocumented Queens residents who received little or no financial assistance during the pandemic.
Other efforts are focused upon providing warm clothes to those experiencing homelessness or other forms of housing insecurity. The #Warm4HolidaysCampaignMariame Kaba, an educator and abolitionist, has created a group called ‘Knit or Crochet Winter Clothing’. These items will be donated to groups that help homeless people.
Neighbors helping neighbors, based in San Mateo (California), is another organization that works to spread holiday spirit. The project was created at the beginning of the pandemic to provide mutual aid and grocery delivery services for seniors and those with immunocompromised. Now, Neighbors Helping Neighbors is in the middle of its “Buy a Tree, Gift a Tree” program, where individuals or families buying a Christmas tree for themselves are given the opportunity to buy a second tree to donate to someone who can’t afford to buy one.
“We started the program because, personally, I love Christmas, and I love Christmas trees. I collect ornaments. And so I was like, it would really be a drag if you can’t have a tree, especially if you have little kids,” said Neighbors Helping Neighbors Founder Sandy Kraft in an interview with Truthout. “I think it just appeals to certain people because it’s a magical thing, right? I mean, having a tree, being with your family — kids get excited by having the presents underneath.”
Neighbors helping neighbors partnered with Honey Bear Trees, a local family business. Honey Bear Trees has agreed to support Buy a Tree, gift a Tree through social media and putting up flyers at the tree lot. Neighbors Helping Neighbors was able to reach many people through this partnership.
“There’s all kinds of stories,” Kraft said. “One family reached out to us who were actually living in a family shelter in San Mateo. Their 9-year old daughter was the granddaughter of a grandfather who had recently died from COVID. They asked us for a tree because they didn’t have money for the holidays, and their daughter was really upset. So we got them a tree.”
Many holiday mutual aid efforts are directed at people experiencing homelessness or insecurity of housing. However, there are many mutual aid efforts that are specifically focused on helping people in prison.
Moms United Against Violence (based in Chicago) is an abolitionist organisation that has been putting on mutual support drives ever since 2014. The organization has created an online registry that allows people to purchase toys to donate to incarcerated mothers so they can give them to their children while they are in prison.
“We didn’t want to do a toy drive that was focused exclusively on the children,” Moms United Against Violence co-founder Holly Krig told Truthout. “We wanted it to be an opportunity for people to think about the incarceration of mothers, the relationship of mothers to their children, and not only how deeply it affects children to have their mothers incarcerated, but how much that harms their mothers and harms their relationships and how that reverberates throughout families and communities.”
Mutual aid, also known as mutual support, is different from traditional charity in that it focuses on building solidarity and empowerment of the communities being supported. They do this through projects such as rent relief and toys drives, but also by focusing their efforts on organizing communities or raising awareness about specific struggles. Moms United Against Violence invites people who have donated gift to join them at teach ins and letter-writing events. This can, in some cases, lead to court support and participation on freedom campaigns for prisoners.
“Mutual support is really about us coming together to support each other, to survive these violent systems so that we can resist and organize against them — as opposed to figuring out a way to survive them individually,” Krig tells Truthout. “The support drives have been an opportunity to invite people to think more critically about the carceral system — to draw people into a deeper conversation.”
In a typical year, Mom’s United Against Violence usually generates about 1,400 individual gift donations, and it usually raises around $5,000 during the holiday season to send to incarcerated mothers to put on commissary. These donations are important, but each donation can also be a way to attract new organizers to the abolition movement.
“We’re trying to reclaim a sense of solidarity with one another, and to build that out in concrete ways, first and foremost, by meeting needs and inviting people who have experienced those systems to really take on roles in this work and to be able to contribute and support in a way that feels empowering to them,” Krig said.
Moms United Against Violence is just one of many mutual aid organizations that are focused on abolition. The Survived and Punished NY Mutual aid Group is one example. Survived and Punished NY — a grassroots prison abolition organization that aims to end the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The group is currently raising $40,000 to provide material support, including packages, commissary and other material support to criminalized survivors to keep them warm with winter clothing.
Survived & Punished New York and Moms United Against Violence organizers have a common goal: to create a better world by working with communities in mutualistic and solidaristic ways.
“Ultimately, our mutual support drives are really about a political understanding of our circumstances and learning together what we need to know and develop tactics and strategies,” Krig said. “As the wonderful Mariame Kaba always says, ‘You have to prefigure the world that you want to live in.’ And in some ways, I think we’re putting glimpses of that out into the world as we do these drives and show each other what’s possible when we’re in solidarity with one another.”