Women’s Center focuses on mutual aid education in Women’s History Symposium


Illustration by Meher Yeda

As the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the struggles of people of marginalized identities, the term mutual aid has become more popular, and the Women’s Center worked on this theme over the past year.

Katrina Pham, Assistant Copy Editor

This year’s Women’s History Symposium emphasized mutual aid in light of the growing need for community support to address the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on marginalized communities.

The March 9 event, hosted by the Women’s Center, was the capstone to a programming series on mutual aid. When it came to selecting this year’s theme, mutual aid was an easy choice, Women’s Center program coordinator melisa stephen (Weinberg ‘15) said. 

“A basic definition of mutual aid is people showing up for each other for the common good,” stephen said. “It’s also done in tandem with social movements, so there’s open critique of the systems that are failing us.”

Prior to the symposium, stephen, along with other students, faculty and staff, participated in a reading group for the book “Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next)” by author and activist Dean Spade, one of the speakers at the symposium.

Sarah Brown, the Women’s Center’s program manager and a panel moderator, said reading the book as a group allowed for more complex conversations about mutual aid. To Brown, mutual aid recognizes that there is not a separation between “deserving” and “undeserving” people. 

“One of the most radical interventions of mutual aid groups is to get away from this model that you have to prove that you should receive support,” Brown said.

Brown added that this distinction changes the way people think about help. Existing systems demonstrate they need reform, she said, because they require members of the community to come together to support one another. 

Weinberg junior Aaliyah Berryman conducted two of the Facebook livestream interviews leading up to the symposium. Berryman said hosting these interviews allowed her to learn more about mutual aid work already being done in the surrounding community. 

Berryman said mutual aid is “pending revolution.” Although mutual aid works to make up for deficiencies in surrounding institutions, Berryman said working in mutual aid means to work to create a society that no longer needs it.

“We do the work to not have to do the work eventually,” Berryman said. 

SESP senior and panel moderator Eliza Gonring said dismantling systems of oppression is central to the practice of mutual aid.

Those who identify outside of the gender binary, Gonring said, still experience gender violence that stems from the patriarchy. Gonring added that she appreciates how the Women’s Center is inclusive to all groups who experience gender-based violence. 

“If you’re just limiting the groups you’re supporting to women, you’re leaving out so many people that are suffering from the effects of the patriarchy,” Gonring said. “By being inclusive, (the Women’s Center is) allowing themselves to better support the communities that they’re serving.”

Brown said the idea of mutual aid is “inherently feminist,” and the idea that someone is not doing well because they are undeserving is patriarchal, and denies the existence of systemic racism and of gender oppression.

Ideas of scarcity and competition push people to “vie against” one another for basic necessities, Brown said. She said believing that the world is a meritocracy invalidates the role of the systems of inequality in society.

“Mutual aid rejects the notion that everyone who isn’t doing well, isn’t doing well because they don’t deserve it,” Brown said. “It doesn’t have the word women or women’s history in the name, but it hits some of the core principles of what feminist change really means right now.”


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Twitter: @KatrinaPham_

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