Mutual aid at UConn then and now 

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Mutual aid, or aid in which people help each other out however they can, is an important part of fostering a community. At UConn, this includes being willing to help your fellow students how you can. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

“Mutual aid” is a fancy term for “helping one another out on equal terms.” It’s often described in contrast with traditional charity, an unequal model in which wealthy individuals donate portions of their wealth to organizations which use that wealth to assist the poor, usually with some strings attached. Mutual aid is both an everyday practice and a form of organized praxis, and our community at the University of Connecticut is no stranger to either. 

Day-to-day mutual aid consists of acts like giving your friend a ride to work when their car breaks down, or helping a roommate with their chores when they’re sick. These everyday acts are easily overlooked, but many people rely on day-to-day mutual aid for their very survival. As social beings, mutual aid comes naturally to us and whether we know it or not, we all depend on it. 

Mutual aid can also be a more structured effort to pool community resources for everyone’s benefit. Disability justice organizer and author Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes one such practice in their book “Care Work,” wherein disabled people come together to form structured “care collectives” to ensure their very survival and break from dependency on charities and the state. 

Another common practice is food distribution; organized efforts toward food distribution have a long and rich history on this continent. From the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast programs, to Food Not Bombs, to quarantine grocery collectives, organizers have made conscious efforts to ensure the survival of their own communities when businesses and the state fail to do so. Organized mutual aid is the lifeblood of countless marginalized communities worldwide, and gives many hope that a better world is possible. 

Here at UConn, this history likely began towards the end of 1969. On Sept. 25 of that year, several dozen Black students would come together to create the Black Student Union, or BSU. From their dedication to anti-capitalism and the self-sufficiency of the Black community, and in the footsteps of the Black Panther Party, the BSU would begin work at creating a “free breakfast program” for the schoolchildren of Willimantic. 

In a Feb. 12, 1970 issue of “UConn Free Press,” a radical “zine produced by UConn’s New Left” – and one that is still running today – the BSU called for donations. Then on Feb. 24, the Hartford Courant reported that the program began out of the First Congregational Church, with students from the BSU volunteering to serve Willimantic school children every morning Monday through Friday. 

a lot of mutual aid seen on a large scale at UConn is food aid. This started back in the 1970s with the Black Student Union, and continues in multiple forms to this day. Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash.

The program would eventually relocate to El Barrio, or “The People’s Place,” a community-run and financed Puerto Rican community center in Willimantic. In July of that year, the Hartford Courant reported that the program expanded to include free lunch for students. Unfortunately, it would seem that the program ran out of resources and was forced to cease in the fall of 1970.  

That winter, Puerto Rican organizations operating out of El Barrio would begin collecting donations to restart the free breakfast program. In the spring of 1971, the Courant reported that the program was off to a good start. This program again drew volunteers from UConn, including the Black Student Alliance – an organization which would pick up the BSU’s torch – and the Puerto Rican Student Alliance, alongside students from Eastern Connecticut State University. 

This program would come to a premature end too. In the summer of 1971, El Barrio ran out of funds and was no longer able to pay its rent. Despite the short existence of these programs, they were vital community building efforts and most importantly, ensured that dozens – if not hundreds – of children never went to school with an empty stomach. 50 years later, student organizers at UConn have revived the tradition – and to be transparent, I’ve been part of these efforts. 

In the spring of 2021, students in UConn UNCHAIN began a food distribution program called “Food Aid.” Every other Sunday, organizers carpool for the short journey to Memorial Park in Willimantic, where we set up tables and distribute food and other goods to community members. Despite many logistical challenges, food aid continues to serve the community in Willimantic over a year and a half after it began. 

Like the free breakfast programs from the BSU and El Barrio, food aid relies entirely on donations from members of UNCHAIN and the local community, and serves anyone with no strings attached. Unlike those programs, UNCHAIN takes a more sustainable approach by distributing bi-weekly rather than every weekday. Similar programs like Hartford Food Not Bombs also take this approach by distributing just once a week. Food Not Bombs has been a well-loved staple of community parks for decades, serving hot vegan meals to communities across the continent with no strings attached, no questions asked. 

Organized mutual aid is a delicate balance of sustainability and impact. At times these projects can also blur the line between mutual aid and charity, and a continued commitment to mutual aid as its own unique practice is the subject of repeated discussion among organizers. 

Despite the challenges, mutual aid programs continue to serve communities all over the world. Every program, no matter its size or its aims, depends on contributions from average people like you and me. As rich as its existing history is at UConn, we have our own histories to make. Organized mutual aid gives us a glimpse of a better world to come. By recognizing day-to-day mutual aid and by contributing to organized mutual aid, we can start to bring a better world into being. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Wish Uconn still worked with, Mansfield Depo Preschool, It was a great daycare center. Uconn had students helping, and they had a sliding pay scale /for a certain amount of local children. I don’t believe that’s available anymore. Too bad, we have 3 generations,of lil ones that all LOVED going ,everyday!
    It does take a village,

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