You can come to a seat on the Chapel Hill Town Council with lots of new ideas, but you soon realize that you have big responsibilities for some pretty basic obligations: public safety being the most basic. And in that regard, it’s not long before you start to appreciate the concept of the mutual aid agreement.
Last summer, for example, after Hurricane Harvey dumped massive amounts of water on southern Texas, the Chapel Hill Fire Department dispatched personnel and equipment to help with the search and rescue. And while they were away, standing agreements ensured that neighboring jurisdictions would lend their aid if such “swiftwater assets” were needed to rescue us from peril.
Help after a disaster—this is what mutual aid agreements are for. North Carolinians can sleep well, knowing that the state has a well-defined system of mutual aid for disaster recovery (though incredibly, it didn’t exist as a formal system until after Hurricane Fran–thank you, Gov. Hunt).
The concept of mutual aid has a longer and richer history than this. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, in New Orleans, which puts on the Zulu Parade on Mardi Gras, is a well-known example. Once common in the South, these types of clubs were a version of the benevolent societies that, early in the last century, provided critical support for working people—including immigrants and union workers. These private associations gave people the tools of their own advancement in a time when they could expect little from their government.
African American benevolent societies came specifically out of a long tradition going back to the Revolutionary era. These self-help organizations provided funeral benefits, medical coverage, insurance, even education and job training, again because these folks had no one to turn to but each other. These societies thrived under slavery and continued to do so long after emancipation.
And there’s an even deeper understanding of the concept of mutual aid. This is the topic of Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating book A Paradise Built in Hell. She recovers a forgotten history of the way people of all kinds, not just emergency responders, behave in response to an emergency. It turns out that we tend to act with compassion and generosity. We give of ourselves, with no expectation of return.
This is not the story we’re used to hearing after a disaster. We’re more used to the narrative of the top-down response from a government that wants to lock everything down to prevent looting, bodily harm, and other kinds of mischief. But that’s not really how people behave, Solnit observes. The real story of “disaster recovery” is a story of “resourcefulness, altruism, improvisational ability, and kindness.” Her account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake offers an early example. The immediate effect is chaos, “but the people hit by that chaos usually improvise a fleeting order” more like a mutual-aid society, in fact, than the world as it existed before the disaster.
In a way, Solnit points out, “mutual aid” is an imprecise term for the post-disaster moment—because often it’s not just fellow victims helping each other. Often the aid comes from faraway places, from people unaffected, who are simply moved by their sympathetic imaginations. And yet these people acting from a safe distance are affected: “Those who give receive a sense of themselves as members of a civilized world in which they will receive aid when the need arises,” she writes. Broadly defined in this way, mutual aid is a function of human evolution.
“The history of disaster demonstrates that most of us are social animals, hungry for connection,” she continues, “as well as for purpose and meaning. It also suggests that if this is who we are, then everyday life in most places is a disaster.” But here’s the key: everyday life in most places is a disaster, to which by nature we are well equipped to respond.
And indeed, new terms have cropped up, like “complex emergency,” to describe slow-moving economic and political disasters, for example the housing crisis; and “humanitarian emergency,” to describe ongoing crises in immigration, food security, or homelessness. These are problems far beyond the scope of what local government was designed to solve. But what government alone is not equipped to do, ordinary people, over and over, step up and take on themselves.
Over the course of my tenure on the Town Council, I’ve seen ordinary people become more willing to step up to such complex emergencies. Sometimes they’re acting through nonprofits, sometimes without even that. And time after time, I’ve seen the Town respond in kind. This is mutual aid.
Think of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, the Community Empowerment Fund, the Jackson Center. Think of the penny for housing and the other ways in which the Town supports the nonprofit housing sector. Think of community art projects like Floraffiti. Mayor Hemminger’s Food for the Summer program is an inspired example of mutual aid. The Orange County Food Council is another recent one. We see more instances in every budget cycle, in the modest contributions that the Town makes to organizations engaged in a whole host of what could easily be called emergency relief activities.
In this respect, then, the line between the work of the Town and the work of the town is remarkably porous. When every day seems to bring fresh news of another emergency, it’s good to know that we’ve got each other. It’s good to know that we’re committed to helping our neighbors, even as we hunger for connection, purpose, and meaning in our own lives.
I feel like it’s a hurricane, and we’re in the swift-running waters, steering our makeshift boats with one hand and reaching out with the other–a whole flotilla of strength and goodwill. We’re all pulling as hard as we can, and I can’t thank you enough for the privilege of sharing this extraordinary journey with you.