Legacies of Mutual Aid in the Rising Tide

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In June 2021, tens of thousands of homes were flooded as massive and unprecedented rainfall in Detroit met inadequate and disinvested water and energy infrastructure. The highways filled to the brim as pumping stations failed. Stalled cars lined Grand River Blvd., their owners having failed at trying to get through deep puddles. Flooded railway viaducts boxed in entire neighborhoods, making throughways impassable. The combined sewage overflows backed-up into people’s basements flooding their homes with dark, untreated waters. The city struggled under the weight of what some named “a thousand-year flood”. 

Neighbors and families scrambled to figure out how to clean up their homes. And, environmental justice leaders and activists from across the city were ready to help. But, this network of helpers didn’t just appear out of thin air. They are a part of an intentional and dedicated community of people who are keenly aware of the dangers and potential disasters our cities will face in light of unchecked environmental pollution. They are also part of a community who is keenly aware that when disaster does strike, there is nothing at all as strong as love to help us overcome whatever we may face. 

This particular coalition was established during the summer of 2020 when a group of us involved in community work set up a mutual aid network during the pandemic. The group dubbed itself SW Detroit Community Cares and reached hundreds of families with emergency food, diapers, and cash when the state went into lockdown. Though social service agencies were unable to quickly pivot, within weeks we had raised tens of thousands of dollars through crowd-sourcing, set up a mobile food station, and begun helping families. Old school phone banks, social media channels, and WhatsApp groups all went into action to assist residents of SW Detroit with translators ready in English, Spanish, and Arabic. 

We had drivers deliver food, which was picked up at a pop-up food hub. We ordered groceries because InstaCart was just inaccessible; some food distributors donated produce that would have otherwise gone bad. A team of folks was calling members of the community who signed up for assistance, many it turns out just wanted a compassionate ear. One team of suburban GenZ kids, who stepped up to help, were phone-banking their wealth-stable friends and parents to generate donations. This enabled us to issue checks to people cut off from their jobs, some just one paycheck away from nothing, some taking care of families both here in the US, and in their native homelands—a devastating quandary across the board.  

That mutual aid labor we did during the lock-down in 2020, established the rapid response communication network that would help us during the 2021 flood. In just 24 hours we had teams of people cleaning out the basements of elders, the disabled, and those who are undocumented. While our assistance may have been just a small part of what many of our community members needed to get their homes and lives back on track, this kind of outreach during a crisis often can’t be quantified. And, for quite a few of the people we helped, it was critical. 

When your home floods, you can lose everything. Water heaters, washers, dryers, boilers, furniture, wedding dresses, photos, memories. Streets were littered with people’s entire lives, their savings, their hopes. People were grieving, and in shock, some angry, or just at a loss.

It is important to note that EPA Administrator Michael Regan came to town and highlighted the need to replace and repair infrastructure and that Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib toured flooded areas to raise awareness. Yet, the approximately 30,000 people who applied for flood aid were denied by the Great Lakes Water Authority. Despite the electrical failures on the part of DTE Energy, who is ultimately responsible for pumping water, and clearing backlogged catchments at critical water exchanges, GLWA contended no amount of preparedness could have prevented this magnitude of flood. Since it was “Mother Nature’s” fault, she became the perfect silent scapegoat. GLWA was not legally beholden to provide assistance.  So who do we hold responsible if not the nation and its institutions? 

Community, the will to help one another– not politics– is the social technology that will bring stability to our lives. Candidates on the mayoral election trail blamed climate change – but climate change doesn’t have a bank account, and can’t be fined for malfeasance, and climate also can’t simply be voted out. And while certainly we must be able to hold our elected leaders and state institutions to account, it is also important that we all take seriously our own collective responsibility to stop consuming fossil fuels, to pay attention to the ways in which our lifestyles directly contribute to climate change, and so directly contribute to the increase in the occurrence and severity of natural disasters in our communities. 

We must redefine the collective responsibility that will be needed to combat the crises of climate change, racial injustice, and inequality. We must use every tool we have, as these disasters grow stronger and come faster. Our visions for the future have to include the care for Earth and each other as we redesign social and political systems,and institutions. For example one of our anchors and leaders, Gabriela Santiago Romero is now seated in City Council due in part to her ability to mobilize and provide aid to her community during this last crisis. It’s not a call for a dependency upon institutionalized care, rather an understanding that we need to align our governance with a spirit of  mutuality through crises. 

Mutual aid is beyond just today or yesterday.  It is the time-honored practice of self-emancipation through periods of hardship. There is nothing special or sensational about these actions – many people picked up brooms, and bleach. Let’s name that mutual aid is the legacy given to us by our ancestors who fought for freedom from bondage, borders, and bosses. Whether it’s water and food, money and banking, a bed, a safe place away from harm, or taking care of the children and elders—these are the practices of care for the commons. 

What’s new is the unknown and increasingly calamitous nature of climate disaster. How will Detroiters respond to multiple compounding threats to our survival? What kinds of practices will we embrace? What types of relationships must we create for safety and trust, with each other, regardless of where one comes from, who they love or what they look like? Who must we hold accountable for this level of destruction?

Mutual aid is the reclaiming of the spiritual ties that bind us, to actively remake ourselves beyond the victimhood rendered through the ruptures of perpetual removal. Detroit is the confluence, the cross-roads, of multitudes of histories of mutual aid. Mutual aid is people helping one another and reclaiming the power to demand dignity in our lives.

Michelle Martinez is a 4th generation Detroiter and Latina who has been practicing environmental justice in the city since 2006. She now lives on the west side with her family where she’s working on restoring Earth with native flowers and vegetable gardening. She is a frequent contributor to Planet Detroit and loves fishing with her mom and kids.

Gabriela Santiago-Romero is an immigrant from Mexico and a Southwest Detroit native. She is the current Detroit City councilmember for District 6. She made history by becoming the first out female LGBTQ person to serve in this capacity. She’s a community activist and organizer who has extensive experience working for Detroit nonprofits and local government. Love and food fuel her work.