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Dissent - Fall 2021

Last spring, within hours of the University of Chicago’s announcement that classes would be held online, students created a Facebook group to coordinate mutual aid efforts. Even with finals right around the corner, UChicago Mutual Aid came alive with activity. Students eagerly offered and accepted support in the form of advice, essential supplies like food and moving boxes, and spreadsheets listing leads on resources like housing.

What I witnessed at my college was just one example of the many mutual aid networks, both college-based and non-college-based, that sprung up across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mutual aid, a radical practice that has been undertaken by marginalized groups for decades, became a mainstream buzzword almost overnight.

Mutual aid efforts often arise during moments of crisis when those in positions of authority fail to help people, and when the importance of grassroots efforts comes into full focus. When the immediate crisis passes, groups may either fizzle out or choose to adapt to a new context.

Today, the UChicago group is still active and boasts a membership of nearly 6,000 on Facebook, but the pace of its posts has slowed down. Scrolling through the public group, you might see questions or requests for help receive just a few responses or none at all, especially if the poster is not a UChicago student.

As the new school year begins, however, there’s still a need for mutual aid. The pandemic revealed inequalities between students on campus that have not gone away. COVID-19 continues to take a toll on many college students, both physically and psychologically. What’s more, temporary measures that were intended to relieve stress—such as colleges choosing to adopt a universal pass/fail grading system—have all but faded away. Though students may no longer be scrambling in the same way they were last spring, many are now struggling to meet a new series of challenges.

To learn how mutual aid groups are approaching their activities as students return to campuses, I spoke to organizers at six different universities. I found that even as donations slow down, many groups are eager to experiment with their structure and broaden the scope of the work they do. Students have found that mutual aid provides a unique way to build solidarity with others both on and off campus. ...
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