Athens was not immune to that phenomenon.
In the early months of the pandemic, southeast Ohioans initiated several new initiatives to facilitate mutual aid, or a form of support in which communities unite against a common struggle, rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves. Mutual Aid Southeast Ohio began in March 2020 as a Facebook group where people could offer resources and request help. In July 2021, the Athens Healthcare Support Network was launched as a health-oriented mutual aid initiative.
Plans for mutual aid are still emerging too, as more needs of the community become recognized. Ohio University's Young Democratic Socialists of America have ideas to implement a food rescue program based on mutual aid philosophies in collaboration with OU dining halls and Athens residents.
“It is a community showing up to help each other out,” Emma Schultz, co-founder of AHSN, said. “It's different from charity because it's not a one-way relationship. With mutual aid, it's members of the community all showing up for each other; someone who is able to provide help for someone else one day, might need help the next day.”
The need for mutual aid is birthed from systemic failures to provide people with the resources they need to survive, according to a 2020 Huffington Post article.
“I think that is necessary in a world where the systems that are supposed to take care of us, do not take care of most of us,” Schultz said. “Coming together as a community is beneficial, not only for meeting each other's needs in a mutual aid kind of way, but also just to have human connections.”
Because of that, collective care has a deep history in marginalized communities. In the early 1920s, “sociedades mutualistas” flourished in Mexican American communities, emphasizing cooperation, education and economic protection. Later in the century, the Black Panther Party supported a number of “survival programs,” including the provision of free breakfast for schoolchildren and a protection network of seniors.
Mutual Aid Southeast Ohio: pandemic-prompted Facebook group sees continued use
Mutual aid seeks to fulfill specific needs with resources that other community members can offer them, making a centralized means of communication important in current efforts. That’s why Mutual Aid of Southeast Ohio launched its Facebook page first, inviting people to connect before collecting information from group members and establishing other avenues of support.
“We wanted to get a sense of: what are all the needs? And what are all the things that people can offer? And how do we try to close the gaps with those things?,” Will Myers, one of the initial organizers of Southeast Ohio Mutual Aid, said.
During the group’s infancy, members were eager to offer services like cooking meals and extending monetary support to people who indicated a need. During the months it was active, Mutual Aid Southeast Ohio’s financial solidarity project distributed $3,127 via person-to-person payments, Myers said.
Although hope for the pandemic’s end is ever-present, the needs and resources of community members have not disappeared over its course. The Mutual Aid Southeast Ohio Facebook group remains active today, with over 1,800 members having access to the page. Recent posts focus on sharing resources about getting the COVID-19 vaccination, requests for furniture and offers of baby goods.
Athens Healthcare Support Network: seeking to reduce healthcare access disparities in Appalachian Ohio
Organized mutual aid initiatives are also continuing to emerge in Athens. In July 2021, the Athens Healthcare Support Network launched, seeking to create a health-oriented mutual aid effort. AHSN offers three pathways for engagement: financial support, a resource list of healthcare providers in the area and a Facebook group to facilitate conversations about healthcare and healthcare providers.
Schultz felt compelled to help found AHSN after feeling “overwhelmed and disheartened” thinking about the slow pace of “systemic and structural” change in the American healthcare system.
“People are suffering every day from medical debt and just struggling to figure out where to go to the doctor and what doctors are going to treat them well,” Schultz said.
The lack of access to healthcare is pronounced in Appalachian Ohio, which includes 32 counties including Athens. The number of primary care physicians per 100,000 people in Appalachian Ohio is 25% lower than the national average, according to a 2017 study conducted by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
AHSN hopes to lessen that disparity by connecting people with resources that will allow them to get the care they need. The group’s Facebook page has nearly 90 members at the time of publication.
Future efforts: OU Young Democratic Socialists of America plans for food rescue program
Still in the brainstorming phase of organizing, the recently-founded OU Young Democratic Socialists of America organization envisions creating a food recovery resource that is based on a mutual aid framework. OU students have access to an excess amount of foods at the dining hall, while many southeast Ohioans experience food insecurity, Dylan Rainey, president of OUYDSA, said.
OUYDSA’s plan to connect those who are hungry with food from OU is multifaceted. To initiate the aid effort, the organization would need to register itself as a nonprofit, which would serve two purposes.
First, the nonprofit status would allow OUYDSA to be protected by the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act and serve as the receiver of food from OU and distributor of food to people who need it. Second, with the protection of the Food Donation Act, OU, acting as the donator of food, would not be held liable for any risks that come with consuming its food when it is distributed to those who need it by a third-party provider.
Although the student organization has not taken any steps to solidify its plan into action yet, the group remains guided by cooperative ideologies in its other undertakings.
“I think about it as it benefits society as a whole, to have everyone not be suffering,” Rainey said. “And that's where the ‘mutual’ comes in for me; we all are better off if we are not all suffering.”
The history of mutual aid in Appalachia
Like other marginalized groups, people from Appalachia have a long history of creating both formal and informal community support networks for survival.
Alison Stine, who grew up in Appalachian Ohio and raised her son there, recalled the occurrence of informal mutual aid efforts before the pandemic in a 2020 Bustle article. Stine wrote that “strangers cooked food for me when my son was a baby, and I was a new single mom. Neighbors still leave hand-me-downs and books on our porch.”
Because Appalachia consists of many small, rural towns, community members know who is in need and help them accordingly.
Additionally, a number of established nonprofits that serve southeast Ohio let mutual aid ideologies guide their work, rather than traditional charity models. Community Food Initiatives of Athens seeks to build community-specific conversations and plans to achieve sustainable access to food within the model of Food Justice.
CFI accepts both monetary and food donations. The financial gifts are utilized to purchase locally-grown produce and distribute it to people who need it, Maribeth Saleem-Tanner, executive director of CFI, said.
“I think our values are very informed by the idea of mutual aid,” Saleem-Tanner said. “CFI really started as a community-based, responsive organization, (asking) ‘How do we build on the strengths we have? How do we utilize relationships? How do we empower people?’ so that we're not in this charity cycle.”
How OU students can become involved in mutual aid efforts
As a part of the Athens community, OU students are able to participate in local mutual aid efforts. The Mutual Aid Southeast Ohio and Athens Healthcare Support Network Facebook groups are accessible to all after a request is sent and accepted. Anyone within either group has the ability to post requests for resources and offer services to people who need them.
Ohio University’s Young Democratic Socialists of America organization is also open to all interested students. The group meets Mondays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Bentley Hall, room 110.