Virus in Vermont: In mutual aid groups, people help one another


March 10, 2021

By Nora Peachin

Tara O’Brien of The Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro, center, stands with Root members, from left, Liliana Vandertuin, Ocean Ricardo, Vanessa Santana and Shela Linton on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

For Shela Linton, the transition from racial justice activism to mutual aid work was obvious — both are founded on building community, meeting the needs of marginalized people and being accountable to people of color.

The Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro, where Linton is the program director, has worked toward these goals since its founding in 2013. To address increasing mutual aid needs in the Black, Indigenous and people of color community, Linton and communications director Tara O’Brien teamed up last July to create The Root Social Justice Center — Mutual Aid Support Network to help Vermonters share resources and build connections with their neighbors.

Specifically, the network aims to meet the needs of Black, Indigenous and people of color and members of The Root community in the Brattleboro area. An extensive, collaborative spreadsheet lists requests and offers for help, initiatives that could use support, and links to other local resources. Listings range widely in topic — child care, transportation, food access, housing, academic assistance, financial support, companionship.

Mutual aid and charity projects sprang up all over Vermont last spring and summer in response to the pandemic. Still, Linton saw communities of color falling through the cracks. She was not surprised; the disparity mirrored inequities that already existed.

“In our society, people of color are invisibilized,” Linton said. “Living in Vermont in predominantly white communities, specifically, BIPOC trying to access certain resources are not able to have choice or voice.”

Linton and O’Brien collaborated with Lost River Racial Justice, a majority-white anti-racism group, and Out In The Open, a queer and trans organization, to tackle those issues. Linton emphasized that each person’s needs and abilities can differ greatly, and The Root’s mutual aid network strives to give each a choice on what they receive and give.

“What we practice at The Root is about equity. We’re not making assumptions about what people need,” she said.

The Root’s work is part of a long tradition of community organizing — mutual aid has been around for centuries and has historically been led by oppressed groups. In the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of fraternal societies across the United States helped workers obtain health care, paid leaves and life insurance.

Mutual aid: what’s old is new again

“In a way, [creating a mutual aid organization] was really old-fashioned,” said Amy Mason, county coordinator for Addison County Mutual Aid. “But it was also really new and modern because it was new technologies allowing us to do all of this.”

Historically, mutual aid work has been radical and anti-capitalist work, intended to undo the idea that people are rivals in competition for a limited amount of goods. At its core, mutual aid is intended to eliminate the roots of inequality and strengthen communities in the long term.

Michael Wood-Lewis, co-founder of Front Porch Forum, says local communities have been weakened as life has moved online, a trend he has been trying to reverse with Front Porch Forum — a community bulletin board — since its founding in 2006.

“It would be my fondest wish that the social capital, those connections created in [mutual aid] work, don’t dissipate with the crisis,” Wood-Lewis said. “I hope all those mutual aid groups continue to live on, even if only as a social entity so that people can keep those connections in this time of political divisiveness and with all that big tech has foisted on us.”

Wood-Lewis noted a dramatic increase in almost all of Front Porch Forum’s metrics — new members, postings, advertisers, clicks on ads — during the pandemic. Wood-Lewis’ team set up a special category for mutual aid groups in the online directory and a list of ways to help during Covid.

Beyond strengthening neighbor relationships and bringing the struggles of people of color to the forefront, Linton hopes The Root’s mutual aid work will take the stigma out of asking for help.

“Asking for support is really hard. You get criticized, stigmatized, blamed, othered, put into a box, you feel less worthy, you go through a lot of paperwork, a lot of rigmarole. We wanted to take that out. We wanted to change the culture of what was actually happening,” Linton said.

Tara O’Brien, right and Shela Linton of The Root Social Justice Center in Brattleboro hug at O’Brien’s home on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

For Linton, mutual aid is most importantly about a culture of community support, and dispelling the American myth of individualism.

“We’re about community at The Root. We believe that we meet our needs together. That there’s no individual that can solely, truly meet their needs alone and be able to thrive,” she said.

Initially, the mutual aid network was intended as a response to the pandemic. But, after eight months of this work, Linton believes it may continue well after the crisis subsides.

She hopes that relationships fostered by the network will continue and grow, and one day people won’t need a pandemic to be able to reach out to their neighbor and ask: “Is there something I can do for you today?”

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