The Power of Mutual Aid Groups in the Age of COVID-19

An interview with Dr. Daniela Domínguez on building communities of resilience.

Posted Oct 25, 2020

Daniela Domínguez, used with permission
Source: Daniela Domínguez, used with permission

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected populations around the world, and in the US, the situation is no different. In this interview, Dr. Daniela Domínguez shares how mutual aid groups have been at work in this time, and what you can do to contribute to community resilience.

Dr. Daniela Domínguez is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Francisco and the Chief Executive Officer at On the Margins, LLC. She is a licensed psychologist and professional clinical counselor with a special interest in liberation psychology, anti-racism, migrant justice, and gender and sexuality matters. Her program of research has focused on understanding how Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) cope with stress and use specific strategies to draw upon resiliencies to achieve positive health. In 2019, the Society of Counseling Psychology honored her with the “Early Career Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Counseling Psychology.”

Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?

Daniela Domínguez: In the early 2000s, I learned from mentors and activists (e.g., Angela Davis, Dolores Huerta) about the power of mutual aid groups. I was moved by stories about the Black Panthers’ survival programs (e.g., free breakfast for children) and the ways in which people took responsibility and care for one another. However, my understanding of mutual aid was purely theoretical and not based on lived experience. This changed in 2018 when I joined mutual aid groups to exchange support with immigrants, mixed-immigration status families, and asylum seekers who were impacted by aggressive immigration enforcement practices and anti-immigrant sentiments. 

My interest and exposure to mutual aid groups grew in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. I saw mutual aid groups stepping-in to provide support to agricultural workers, undocumented individuals, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), and low-income families at a time when the federal government’s aid was delayed, insufficient, or unavailable. I witnessed how mutual aid volunteers provided care in the form of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), meals for families, and financial assistance. Inspired by these efforts, I felt a strong desire to co-author a manuscript on the power of community and grassroots work; work that is separate from the “state” and that strives to be decolonial in nature. I have partnered with Dra. Dellanira García, Dra. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, and Dr. David Martinez in these efforts.

JA: What are some ways leveraging the power of mutual aid, coalitions, leadership, and advocacy can help us live more resiliently?

DD: A multi-level bottom-up approach that prioritizes the physical, psychological health, and resilience of the communities whose lives are most endangered by COVID-19 is necessary. For such an approach to be successful, community members have to commit to bold acts of solidarity, social transformation, and action. Bold action starts with you, the individual. Below are five recommendations that may help you live more resiliently:

  1. Increase your awareness of the structural and institutional barriers that have resulted in health inequities and the marginalization and exclusion of BIPOC in your community. It is important to understand the power systems that privilege certain groups of people over others. Remember that we are all interconnected. As a society, we can only be healthy until the most vulnerable members of our society are. Your resilience is tied to everyone else’s resilience.
  2. Work to reduce inequities and injustices in your family and community. If you are in good health, you can volunteer to deliver masks and groceries to vulnerable communities, engage in fundraising efforts, and participate in other survival programs. You can visit the Town Hall Project’s “mutual aid hub” to find, learn more about, and contact mutual aid organizations where you can volunteer and support local community efforts.
  3. To contribute during this unprecedented time, it may be especially helpful to break down traditional silos that limit interdisciplinary partnerships and collaborations. Inequities and injustices are too complex for you to tackle alone. Consider cross-pollinating strengths and resources by forging sustainable long-term rooted partnerships with other community members. For example, I am a licensed psychologist who is partnering with social workers, attorneys, and health policy experts to support migrant families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  4. In collaboration with others, hold local, state, and federal governments accountable and advocate for the implementation of “healthy public policies” that address the underlying socioeconomic, physical, and health problems that disproportionately impact BIPOC, individuals with disabilities, undocumented folx, the homeless population, and people in front-line and precarious jobs who are susceptible to viral transmission. If the needs and concerns of these populations are not centered, this and future pandemics will increase the demands on scarce resources and exacerbate existing inequities.
  5. Ensure that there is significant BIPOC leadership representation when you or others discuss justice initiatives (e.g., safe housing, economic security, adequate nutrition and education, affordable health care, and quality childcare). The success of justice initiatives relies on multigenerational and multiracial groups joining in solidarity and building coalitions that are based on trust and integrity.

JA: Any advice for how we might use this knowledge to support a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?

DD: It may be helpful for you to reflect on the socio-cultural and political context in which your friend is struggling. By attending to systemic injustices, you may be in a better position to understand whether your friend may be impacted by particular systems of exploitation and whether you can provide care or should refer your friend to another source. Listen actively to your friend, be present, stay curious, and try accessing the collective strengths that your relationship already possesses. Remember that positive health can often be rooted in support from family and community members as well as cultural traditions. If your friend is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a national network of local crisis centers that offers crisis support to individuals in emotional distress.

JA: How might readers apply what you describe to their lives during COVID-19?

DD: Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has negatively impacted and caused pain, suffering, and fatalities on a global scale. COVID-19, however, has also offered opportunities for social transformation and the creation of communities of resistance.

In their 2008 book, Towards Psychologies of Liberation, Watkins and Shulman emphasize the transformational power of building communities of resistance. They describe communities of resistance as healing spaces where individuals come together for empowerment, conversation, and social and cultural interconnection.

During the pandemic, we have seen the emergence of larger social movements and new community groups who are demanding justice for BIPOC and underprivileged communities. If you already belong to such groups or other communities of resistance, you may already be thinking about yourself from a sociopolitical standpoint, which could consequently increase your awareness of the strengths, resilience, and skills that your community possesses and how to use these resources to support communal survival and resilience. If you haven’t yet found such communities, know that there are local networks that are available and ready to exchange support. Contact your local mutual aid groups to exchange ideas and support.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

DD: I am currently working with Dra. Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, an Assistant Professor at the University of San Francisco, to capture the experiences, stories, narratives, and first-person accounts of asylum seekers who are forced to live in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (i.e., next to the Gateway International Bridge).

We believe that capturing their experiences is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic because the crowded and unsanitary conditions at tent encampments make asylum seekers susceptible to respiratory diseases such as COVID-19. We also believe that all individuals, including psychologists, must boldly protest the ways in which existing immigration policies harm their physical and psychological health.

You can learn more about this work in our most recent article, “Dibujando en Tent City: Art by Asylum Seeking Children in the U.S.-Mexico Border.” This article is available in the National Latinx Psychological Association’s Newsletter, Latinx Psychology Today

References

Domínguez, D. G., García, D., Martínez, D. A., & Hernandez-Arriaga, B. (2020). Leveraging the power of mutual aid, coalitions, leadership, and advocacy during COVID-19. American Psychologist, 75(7), 909-918. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000693