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We Are All That We Have: An Introduction To Mutual Aid At Dartmouth

Sept 5, 2021

By Rebecca Nicol

INTERVIEW: DSA's Internationalist Experiment: News Articles

This piece seeks to introduce incoming ‘25s and others to the concept of mutual aid and how it is practiced at Dartmouth. It cannot go without saying that this piece, this Dis-Orientation guide, and the work of the radical student organizations that have created this guide are indebted to our community elders. Our work stands on the shoulders of a rich history of radical activism and care among generations of Dartmouth students. We are also indebted to the community organizers and radical professors who have nurtured us, as well as the generations of marginalized folks who have developed and practiced mutual aid networks before us. To all that have lost their lives to the pandemics of COVID-19 and state violence, may you rest in peace.

Mutual aid at Dartmouth restarted at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, a collective of undergraduate women and non-binary individuals that would come to be known as the Dartmouth Student Union wrote a letter of demands to the Dartmouth administration in the wake of the crisis. Recognizing that the pandemic was already disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable members of our community, the collective demanded safe housing, continued compensation for student workers, and an opt-in credit/no-credit grading system during the Spring 2020 term. In light of the increasing gravity of the pandemic and the failure of Dartmouth College administration to provide assistance to students facing precarity (definition: lacking in predictability, job security, material, or psychological welfare), the collective opened a mutual aid fund for Dartmouth undergraduate students and created the Dartmouth Student Union. The fund operates through a Paypal account, raising money entirely through crowdfunding, and distributes stipends to students who request them. The fund has remained in use since April 2020 and as of this publishing has distributed $66,659.42 through 172 stipends to first-generation, low-income, international, and disabled students, as well other students in need. These funds have been primarily used by students for housing, groceries, medical expenses, and travel to and from campus, among other necessities. The mutual aid fund often experiences many more urgent requests than we have supplies to distribute, with funds often running out in mere minutes after it opens.


You may now be wondering what exactly mutual aid means and why it differs from charity. Mutual aid is the gathering together of communities to take care of each other’s needs, rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves. It is an inherently political practice built on the understanding that the systems in place do not meet our needs for survival. Generations of marginalized communities have practiced mutual aid to care for each other. Some examples include the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program and the psychological care and support of people affected by AIDS in the 1980s. As you may be beginning to notice, mutual aid can take many forms: financially contributing to individuals or mutual aid organizations in need, building a garden with equal community access to the soil, driving a community elder to get prescription medication, or bringing groceries to a neighbor who is sick. Mutual aid is solidarity, not charity. The key difference between the two is that mutual aid creates permanent systems of support, care, and self-determination. On the other hand, charity relies on the state and wealthy philanthropists for funding. Charity will never truly meet the material needs of the people because it will always uphold the structural issues that produce inequality. More specifically, charities and social-service programs are organized hierarchically, led by a board of directors, staffed by professionals, and are often dependent on volunteers. The nature of this hierarchy divorces the charity from the community and creates an environment in which people may participate in charity for employment opportunities, rather than voluntarily out of their own desire to end injustice. Charity can foster rescue fantasies and saviorism by allowing the privileged to feel good about their contributions without actually interacting with the communities in need or seriously confronting the social inequities from which they benefit. Furthermore, charities are often dependent on funding by large corporations, and are thus financialized structures. Often, people in need must meet certain criteria or complete an application process to receive aid through charity and social service programs. This often discourages people in need from applying and forces them to wait for approval to receive funds. When one is facing houselessness, hunger, or lack of medical services, every day and hour spent waiting for these bureaucratic processes makes an incredible difference—one even between life and death. 

As the antithesis to charity and social services, mutual aid operates through horizontal organization. This means that mutual aid operations do not have presidents or paid staff; leadership is equally shared among the community. They also distribute resources immediately and non-judgmentally. As an example, the DSU does not require students to submit an application. Students request funds through a Google form that is intentionally designed to facilitate accessibility, with a very limited number of questions that collect information on the kinds of needs that students are facing. These questions are used as a mechanism for data collection and improvement of the fund’s effectiveness, and not as a method of granting or denying funds. Additionally, based on my personal work on the DSU’s mutual aid fund and conversations that I have had with community members, a large portion of the donations that the fund receives are from low-income folks and others from marginalized backgrounds. There are also a number of individuals who have both contributed money to the fund and requested stipends. This demonstrates the communal, reciprocal nature of mutual aid. By giving what we can and taking when we need to, we are fostering communities of care that are built on the understanding that we will provide for each other’s needs. 

Mutual aid is the people’s answer to institutional failure. It has become painfully obvious that Dartmouth will never truly care for its students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dartmouth administration could have taken a meager share of its $6 billion endowment to provide secure housing, secure food, and secure medical services for students in need for the entire duration of the pandemic. Instead, the only help Dartmouth offered to a fraction of students was a one-time Barrier Removal Fund during April 2020 that ran out in a month. We cannot expect institutions like Dartmouth to care for us. By practicing mutual aid, we expose Dartmouth’s atrocities: its historical violence and its continual unwillingness to care for its students. This arms and unites us together in our struggle against the institution. It has built unbreakable networks of students who struggle together, united in the understanding that we will care for each other. 


Our ask to you 25s is this: if you have money to spare, please contribute to mutual aid efforts. Wealth redistribution is necessary for the survival and equitable existence of every community, including the one that you are entering. To help contextualize this request: your $10 Uber ride could pay for someone’s lunch, your $60 concert ticket could pay for a week’s worth of groceries, or your $800 spring break vacation could provide a month’s worth of rent for a houseless person. Take care of each other in community and do the same for those who come after you. We are all that we have.  


Suggested Donation Links (these are only a few of many, many mutual aid opportunities):

The Dartmouth Student Union mutual aid fund:


Hurricane Ida Relief:

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