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Reese Baloutine woke early to sounds of crashing. Text messages pinged her phone as neighbors shared pictures of trees that fell on their houses and limbs that cluttered their yards after this month’s ice storm swept over Austin.
Every so often, the ripping of another branch split the air.
Baloutine, owner and founder of Seedlings Gardening, decided to help whomever she could as downed trees sat on roofs, blocked sidewalks and disrupted electricity.
“I was like, ‘I’m sure there’s people that, for whatever reason, just need help. And we have the ability to go out and help people. So let’s just see how we can,’” Baloutine said.
Baloutine was one of many people across the state this month who sprung into action to help their neighbors as roads became impassable and hundreds of thousands of people lost power. It’s a practice called mutual aid and can come in the form of individuals quickly jumping in to meet the needs of others — and asking for help in return.
Beyond this spontaneous collective action, there are also organized, longer-lasting mutual aid groups that aim to fill the gaps in people’s needs with “solidarity, not charity” when government agencies are overwhelmed or underprepared. Mutual aid projects have a deep history in the U.S., particularly serving as a tool for Black communities, Indigenous people and other marginalized people to protect and care for each other.
The long-standing practice gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic as people increasingly used social media and online donation platforms to circulate aid requests in the wake of business shutdowns. Mutual aid became especially visible after hurricanes, tornadoes and the 2021 Texas power grid collapse. But it’s also something people practice between crises.
The acts of service can be rewarding. But as Texas governments repeatedly bungle communications and support during crises, folks who maintain cohesive mutual aid groups are running into funding problems and burnout.
“We get less volunteers every time,” said Sasha Rose, an organizer for Austin Mutual Aid. “So many of us feel like we are trying so hard to make a difference. … We just feel exhausted. It feels like we’re fighting an uphill battle.”
In Baloutine’s case this month, what started as an Instagram post asking who needed trees cleared for free turned into a dayslong operation where neighbors worked together to provide relief.
At first, only a couple of people reached out for help — but then things snowballed. Neighbors walked out of their homes as the crew traveled up and down an Austin street to help chop up large fallen branches and limbs. They pitched in to provide the chainsaws that Seedlings Gardening lacked. One elderly lady whose trees were cleared brought the team homemade chocolate chip cookies and coffee.
“It’s super helpful in situations like this, that you know your neighbors and you’ve already established some sort of connection,” Baloutine said. “That way when something happens, you know who needs help and who’s gonna help you.”
Many Texas organizers who have kept up this work for years say they’re tired. As participation dips from its sudden boom in 2020 and burnout weighs heavy, these networks say tapping into new sources of support and building community is essential to having groups ready to go for the next crisis.
With $500 from previous donations to carry them through last week’s freeze, organizers from Fort Worth’s Funky Town Fridge pulled together 200 warming bags to distribute to neighbors. Many of the hats, gloves, blankets and other cold weather essentials were left over from the group’s response to the 2021 freeze, said Funky Town Fridge founder Kendra Richardson.
“Now, we’re totally depleted,” Richardson said. “I don’t know how we’re gonna recoup and regroup, but we’re gonna push.”
Organizers across Texas say they’re also hampered by a current U.S. culture of individualism. Rose said weak relationships between neighbors limits what the practice of mutual aid can do. Without existing relationships and familiarity, it’s more difficult to create the kind of communication infrastructure necessary to connect people who need help with folks who can provide it. The most recent freeze has prompted Rose to dream of new ways to pull people together.
“Maybe we need to go back to neighborhood parties and block parties and getting our community members to get to know each other,” she said. “So that when these types of crises come, we can band together — literally — with the people closest to us.”
The 2021 winter storm and power grid catastrophe skyrocketed Austin Mutual Aid into the national spotlight. With new visibility came new hurdles for the group, which formed in 2020 to support marginalized Texans through the COVID-19 pandemic. The group placed hundreds of unhoused Austinites in hotel rooms during the 2021 storm.
The group entered 2021 with just over $5,000 in funds. When the 2021 storm hit and Austin Mutual Aid’s GoFundMe circulated the nation, the group found itself with nearly $3 million in contributions, according to its report.
“We broke Venmo, to a certain extent,” Rose said. “It took them a long time to get us full records.”
Growing pains ensued and leadership changed. Other Texas organizers began calling on Austin Mutual Aid to show receipts of funds raised and distributed, saying that a lack of transparency undermined community trust, according to a VICE report.
Ultimately, the organization hired people to compile and publish a comprehensive 2021 financial report and statement, Rose said. The group held community meetings to determine how it would reallocate the rest of the funding it received that winter. Grassroots organizations proposed and voted on community projects for Austin Mutual Aid to fund.
The organization is currently filing for nonprofit status, Rose said. It hopes to secure more municipal funding and a brick-and-mortar location in the city. Over the past three years, its Facebook group, which serves as a forum for community members to post and respond to aid requests, has grown to more than 9,000 members.
Austin Mutual Aid has built relationships with people experiencing homelessness for years, Rose said. Its team is often on the ground delivering food, clothing and other essentials to homeless encampments. Because a visible buildup of trash can pull police attention to public camps, which Austinites recently voted to ban, Austin Mutual Aid is coordinating waste removal services. The group just started taking members on laundry trips.
Money gets tight, but communities pull together
Some other organizations haven’t seen the same momentum.
Fort Worth organizers often have to fight to get out of Dallas’ shadow, said Richardson. That can mean fewer resources. When celebrities and other high-profile figures share Dallas-Fort Worth mutual aid requests on social media, she’s noticed the bulk of funding and attention often funnels to Dallas.
As a main mutual aid group in Fort Worth, Funky Town Fridge gets a lot of requests. But when visibility is low and money is tight, needs go unmet, she said.
“People just get burned out, or people just get tired. I have tried my best to stay in it for these past three years, which is hard,” Richardson said.
Funky Town Fridge is among mutual aid groups that rely on volunteers to stock fridges so folks have a place to get food. That’s especially helpful in power outages when food spoils. The fridges run on a leave-what-you-can, take-what-you-need basis.
Earlier this month in Austin, a small crowd gathered just off Dittmar Road in South Austin, sharing breakfast tacos, coffee and stories with each other on the first beautiful day after the freeze. Passing drivers honked their horns and waved.
The ATX Free Fridge Project was launching its fifth community refrigerator outside of a member’s house. Neighbors stocked the fridge with meals they had prepared for neighbors.
Some residents had been following the fridge’s installation as it was constructed, and some saw it for the first time that day. One bus passenger noticed the fridge as she rode by and immediately caught a different bus back to pick up food. She was one of the tens of thousands of Austinites who still didn’t have power that weekend.
“It was a moment that you read about — the golden years of community. I feel like we live in a time when we’re very disconnected, communally,” said Nitza Cuevas, a food justice activist with ATX Free Fridge. “This was so not that. This felt like a time warp, in some ways.”
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