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Mutual Aid Groups On The Rise In Idaho

As more people face financial insecurity, Idahoans are stepping up to help one another directly, sharing everything from money and groceries to skills and services. “Mutual aid” is on the rise.

When COVID-19 first hit, Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln knew she had to use her human rights group Add the Words to help people who were struggling.

“You could really just feel the urgency,” she said. “At that point in time, nobody in Idaho was doing anything.”

Gaona-Lincoln and Jennifer Martinez, the political director for Add the Words, used gofundme to set up the COVID-19 Idaho Relief Fund, raising money as a form of mutual aid.

Mutual aid groups often use the phrase “solidarity, not charity” to describe what they do: connecting people to share resources. And Martinez says that unlike charities, these groups have fewer conditions on who has access.

“If folks need support, then who are we to really judge how much support they need or their circumstance in life?” Martinez asked. “We don't believe that we need to justify people's stories in order for them to get help.”

The Idaho Relief Fund has raised more than $9,000 from hundreds of individual donors and a partnership with the Boise optometrist shop Lumos Optical. Gaona-Lincoln says that so far, the money has been given to 156 Idahoans and their families.

“Mutual aid is just a great way to show the interconnectedness of community … it's not a charity, it’s not a handout. It's just community,” Gaona-Lincoln said.

The concept of mutual aid didn’t start with COVID-19 — it’s been used for nearly 200 years and often springs up in response to natural disasters. Since the pandemic began, mutual aid groups have spread across the country, offering support to people in need.

And not all of it is financial support. Some groups provide goods and services, like Boise Mutual Aid. Members coordinate donations on Instagram each week. Then every Monday evening, they distribute food and supplies at Rhodes Skatepark to people experiencing homelessness.

Many mutual aid groups start organically on platforms like Facebook. Idaho Mutual Aid Group began that way in March and has been a place for people to donate and ask for whatever they need.

It’s grown to more than 21,000 members, but when Boise realtor Jill Giese first joined, there were only about 700. She says joining the group was eye opening.

“In my day-to-day life, I would never know so many people are struggling so much … if I were just to look around at my daily life, 'oh, everybody's good, the economy's great,'” Giese said.

Peggy Lynne, a retired nurse from the Boise VA Medical Center, said she had a similar experience after finding the group.

“People are suffering, just normal regular Idaho people just need a little bit of help,” Lynne said. “We just need to help each other and get through this crisis together.”

So far Lynne has picked up food boxes from the Idaho Food Bank for families who can’t make the trip themselves, while Giese has sent cash donations, a mattress and groceries to community members in need. Giese said the group has given her a sense of control in a trying time.

“Whenever I feel powerless about the world and the situation in politics and social unrest and whatever, I go on my group and ... I'm able to give directly to someone who's directly benefiting,” Giese said.

And Idahoans are donating more than money and food. When Natalie Garner moved to Boise, she reached out to Boise Mutual Aid and asked if they could use a yoga instructor. Since then, she has taught free classes to community members who might not have access to yoga otherwise.

“It very much has turned into something for people who have financial privilege,” she said. “That was sort of my intention with getting certified, was trying to be able to teach to everyone.”

And Garner said that’s not all yoga and mutual aid share. According to Garner, “a very big value of yoga is taking care of your community and also taking care of yourself so that you can take care of your community.”

Garner, Lynne, Giese and the organizers of Boise Mutual Aid and the Idaho Relief Fund all agreed on one thing: As long as there’s need, they will keep practicing mutual aid and bringing communities closer together.

CORRECTION: The spelling of Natalie Garner's name was incorrect in first version of this story. It has been corrected. 

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio