Neighbors helping neighbors: During the pandemic, mutual aid groups proliferated throughout SLO County to help community members who fell through the cracks


REACH OUT Community groups formed during the pandemic to help people get food, prescriptions, garden, and more. - COVER IMAGE FROM ADOBE STOCK; COVER DESIGN BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • Cover Image From Adobe Stock; Cover Design By Alex Zuniga
  • REACH OUT Community groups formed during the pandemic to help people get food, prescriptions, garden, and more.

As a high school student, Carmen Bouquin wanted nothing to do with the agricultural industry or food production.

Now they (Bouquin uses they/them pronouns) help others grow food in the name of mutual aid.

Bouquin grew up gardening in New Mexico but when they moved to northern San Luis Obispo County as a teen, they found that most Templeton High School students who had grown up on farms or were involved in Future Farmers of America were white and straight. As a young queer person, Bouquin didn't feel welcomed or accepted by that community.

"So it was a really hard environment to be around," they said, adding that many of their classmates often made comments that were obviously racist or homophobic. "There was no protection or safety there."

But later as a student at Cuesta College, where Bouquin was exposed to organic and sustainable farms throughout the county, they rediscovered their interest in agriculture. Bouquin realized that agriculture could be more than just a way to mass produce food for profit. It could be used, they thought, as a way to connect to the land and build community.

Now, at 21, Bouquin helps run The People's Revolutionary Garden Network, a group that uses gardening "as a tool to fight oppressive systems," according to its website. The People's Revolutionary Garden Network accepts donations of land, tools, plants, and time, and distributes them to anyone who wants to grow their own fresh food but might not have access to adequate space or knowledge to do so. Bouquin said it gives people who might normally feel excluded from the world of agriculture—like Bouquin once did—a chance to learn about food production in a culturally and environmentally sensitive way, while also providing the tools to create a lasting and healthy food source.

GROWING COMMUNITY The People's Revolutionary Garden Network gives people the tools and space they need to garden and also donates fresh produce to other mutual aid programs. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CARMEN BOUQUIN
  • Photo Courtesy Of Carmen Bouquin
  • GROWING COMMUNITY The People's Revolutionary Garden Network gives people the tools and space they need to garden and also donates fresh produce to other mutual aid programs.

The People's Revolutionary Garden Network is just one of several mutual aid projects that popped up locally during and after the pandemic in an effort to respond to the many needs that COVID-19 created and exposed. A group called HelpSLO formed on Facebook in early 2020 as a way to get groceries and prescriptions to those at risk of contracting COVID-19. Paso People's Action formed later that year during protests over police brutality with the aim of supporting people of color and the LGBTQ-plus community in Paso. A group called A-Town Action recently started filling potholes on streets like Azucena Avenue in Atascadero and hosting food distributions to anyone in need.

"Mutual aid is a radical act of solidarity," Bouquin said. "It's a way that we can reject white supremacy and our culture of charity and saviorism and care for each other neighbor-to-neighbor like we originally did."

In mutual aid groups, people work together to meet the needs of everyone in their community under the notion that everyone has something to give and everyone has something they need.

Mutual aid systems have existed for centuries, and the term "mutual aid" dates back to 19th century anarchist Peter Kropotkin, according to The Cut, who theorized in an essay collection that solidarity against a common struggle would be more advantageous to the survival of a species than competition.

But mutual aid networks became increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, which Bouquin said put SLO County's inequities and lacking services on full display.

Local organizers say those efforts are here to stay.

"We can't depend on nonprofits, we can't depend on the government to save us," Bouquin said. "We have to focus on community and neighbor-to-neighbor relationships.

South County resident Flor Hernandez has noticed the same trend. Hernandez is one of the founding members of The Central Coast Organization on Racial Injustice, which formed in June 2020 amid the protests over George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis. Hernandez said it started as a way for local youth to address the racism, sexual harassment, and microaggressions they face in school. The organization's first efforts included protests and a petition pushing for inclusivity in the Lucia Mar Unified School District, and its actions quickly started to include mutual aid efforts as the group matured.

Hernandez said mutual aid is often associated with anti-racism efforts partly because people of color have long felt ignored by the government and oppressed by capitalism. As The Central Coast Organization on Racial Injustice wrote in a post on its Instagram page: "We take care of each other because the state won't."

At the core of mutual aid is a "solidarity not charity" attitude, Hernandez said.

While nonprofit-run charities and government assistance programs often require their beneficiaries to meet certain eligibility standards—sobriety, immigration status, criminal record, etc.—Hernandez said mutual aid groups give help without conditions or expectations. Charities follow government regulations and employ paid professionals who might not live or work in the areas they serve, while mutual aid groups run somewhat informally and use volunteers who are passionate about their communities. Charities sometimes frame their efforts as helping the needy and underprivileged in response to inequities that exist, but Hernandez said mutual aid networks build systems of reciprocity aimed at addressing the root causes of those inequities.

The specifics of mutual aid efforts run the gamut. Since its founding last summer, The Central Coast Organization on Racial Injustice has raised money for individuals in need of emergency help, it's collected hygiene supplies and clothing and distributed those donations to farmworkers, and it recently secured a location for a food pantry that it hopes to have set up and fully stocked by the end of this summer.

There's always a lot of interest in the organization's mutual aid efforts, Hernandez said. She assumes it's because a lot of people know what it's like to be in a tough spot after this past year.

"I think it's due to the pandemic really bringing out a lot of the cracks that were already in the foundation and just the timing of anti-racism being brought up as a topic," she said. "That all really helped to push people to get involved in mutual aid efforts."

That's true for Michelle Mansker, who launched a mutual aid group called SLO Street Medics in July 2020 to provide protesters with water and first aid. While Mansker and other volunteers were out on the streets, they noticed how many unhoused people were outside suffering through the extreme heat with nowhere to go amid COVID-19 lockdowns. Shelters had limited capacity, and most of the usual public spaces with air conditioning were closed entirely.

"So they were really just out in the elements," Mansker said.

Now Mansker and around 15 other volunteers provide first aid, clothing, hygeine supplies, and food to the homeless community in San Luis Obispo once a week. Mansker, who lives in Los Osos, said SLO Street Medics doesn't abide by any strict rules or hold people to any set of expectations.

If someone needs something, Mansker said SLO Street Medics volunteers will try to get it. Recipients don't have to be sober, they don't have to agree to join a housing program, they don't have to pray with volunteers or donate something in return. No strings attached.

"For me personally, it's like the best analogy is: Today you, tomorrow me," she said. "So I'm helping you today and tomorrow I might need your help." Δ

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at [email protected].


Add a comment