Volunteers Maddi Jonart and Carolyn Hooper prepare foods for quick delivery. Cars form two lines and receive items Monday 8:30-10:30 A.M. at the Butte Food Bank. As part of the Butte Mutual Aid Farm to Family program, recipients can claim boxes without having to preregister, Monday only, at the Food Bank. Credit: Josie Trudgeon / MTFP

MISSOULA — In late July, Mae Foresta pulled up in front of a Missoula house, her car stuffed with toys, clothing, food and a kiddie pool. Foresta had never met the residents of the home, but she’d spent the previous night collecting items she hoped might help them through a difficult time.

Foresta connected with the family through the Montana Black Indigenous and People of Color Mutual Aid Fund. She’s one of many Montana residents who have engaged with organizations that connect people with needs with others who can fill those needs. At least 15 similar networks have emerged in Montana since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents of five of the state’s six largest cities have established mutual aid networks since COVID-19 arrived in the state. Groups have also popped up in rural counties and on Indian reservations.  There’s no overarching network of Montana’s mutual aid groups, but some national organizations have compiled incomplete crowdsourced directories of mutual aid resources. 

People who volunteer through mutual aid networks deliver groceries, household supplies and hygiene items to people who are vulnerable to the virus or quarantined, pick up prescriptions and help pay rent. Mutual aid networks don’t work like other volunteer groups where people become members and contribute based on the organization’s priorities. Instead, the organizer spreads the word about a person in need and others volunteer to help out, often with a one-time donation.    

The organizations fill a significant need. According to United Way of Missoula CEO Susan Hay Patrick, the intensity of the need for support during the pandemic has overwhelmed existing charities across the state.

“People who were on the edge before the pandemic completely fell off the edge into hunger, into homelessness, into loss of savings,” Patrick said. “No social services agency that I know of is able to keep up with the demand.”

Foresta, who is white, found MT BIPOC Mutual Aid through Instagram, where she saw a call for toys and clothing for a 2-year-old girl. Foresta has a young daughter and had a collection of clothing she’d outgrown. 

“She happened to be the same size in the same season so it was a no-brainer,” Foresta said. 

Seattle University School of Law professor Dean Spade is a lead organizer for Big Door Brigade, an online resource for people coordinating mutual aid networks. Spade defines mutual aid as networks in which people take care of each other, and that results in new relationships, and they’ve been around for a long time.

Spade cites the Black Panther Party’s 1960s free breakfast programs for schoolchildren as one example of mutual aid. The group of Indigenous nations called the Haudenosaunee Confederacy developed a constitution establishing a government based on the principles of mutual aid hundreds of years ago. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a new variant of mutual aid into mainstream U.S. culture. 

Cars are backed up for blocks on E. Second Street in Butte while waiting in line at the Butte Food Bank. From 8:30-10:30 AM anyone can drive through the Butte Food Bank parking lot and receive a box of assorted items: dairy, meat, fruits and vegetables as part of the Butte Mutual Aid Farm to Family Program. Credit: Josie Trudgeon / MTFP

Most mutual aid networks have a few central organizers who spread the word on social media or distribute flyers. Many of Montana’s groups use Google Forms to gather information about needs and available resources, and then match the two parties so they can effect transactions directly. 

MT BIPOC Mutual Aid connected Foresta with the 2-year-old girl’s family so they could discuss what resources would be most helpful. Foresta said that personal interaction was part of why she decided to donate.

“I hate dropping stuff off at Goodwill and donating money to places where I don’t know where it goes or if it’s going to be directly beneficial,” Foresta said. 

Foresta said she saw her donation not as an act of charity, but as common courtesy. When her own family was struggling with medical issues and financial problems last year, people in her Ravalli County community extended similar support.

IB organizes the MT BIPOC Mutual Aid Fund. IB is Blackfeet and Red River Métis and uses they/them pronouns. They have faced threats resulting from community activism they’ve been involved with, and so asked to be identified by their initials due to safety concerns. 

IB said they chose to distribute funds and services only to people of color because those communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

More than 1,000 people have donated money or volunteered services and provided resources through the MT BIPOC mutual aid network, and the organization has distributed more than $50,000 in aid to people of color across the state. Dozens of people have provided materials and services.

IB said they think MT BIPOC Mutual Aid Fund has attracted attention because compared to more urban, populous states, there are fewer opportunities for people to directly support Black, Indigenous, and people of color. 

IB’s sister, Abaki Beck, organizes the STL Reentry Fund in St. Louis, Missouri, which provides mutual aid for formerly incarcerated people. Beck, who grew up in Missoula, agreed that urban areas where she works have a larger network of social services organizations than Montana.

IB and her sister both said they think intimate social networks in Montana have bolstered participation in the mutual aid network.   

“People see the need in the community more,” IB said. “They know the people who have benefitted from the fund because the state is smaller and there’s a stronger community.”

While IB credits the small population and social connectivity of Montana with the success of the network, not all mutual aid groups in the state have seen the same response. Ravalli County Mutual Aid Community has just five members in its Facebook group, while MT BIPOC Mutual Aid has more than 950 Instagram followers.

Mutual aid is different from most traditional charity support and government-funded assistance. For one thing, people don’t have to go through an application process to obtain resources through mutual aid networks. That’s intentional. 

“I feel like it’s violating for somebody to sit there and have to prove that they can’t provide for their families well enough,” said April Charlo, an organizer for Flathead Reservation Community Action. Organizers from across the state said they trust that those who ask for help truly need it. 

Mutual aid groups can also help people who need support but don’t qualify for formal assistance. For example, the Butte Mutual Aid Network worked with a mother who needed help buying food but didn’t qualify for government assistance due to financial complications related to a pending divorce. Others may not have access to a computer or the technology needed to complete applications for governmental assistance. And some individuals received the maximum allowed assistance from charities but still need help. 

“People who were on the edge before the pandemic completely fell off the edge into hunger, into homelessness, into loss of savings. No social services agency that I know of is able to keep up with the demand.”

— Susan Hay Patrick, CEO, United Way of Missoula

Another thing that sets mutual aid apart is that those in need have agency over the kind of support they receive. Toffer Lehnherr is an organizer for Franklin to the Fort Neighbors in southwest Missoula. He said that autonomy is a strength of the model. 

“Mutual aid is about not telling people what they need to have their basic needs met, but setting something up and asking, ‘What do you really need?’” Lehnherr said. 

The need for COVID-19-related mutual aid in Montana continues. The federal and state bans on evictions have expired. After they ended, MT BIPOC Mutual Aid saw an immediate surge in requests for housing assistance. People without jobs in Montana have not gotten supplemental unemployment insurance payments since the COVID-19 stimulus legislation expired July 25. Montana saw more new coronavirus cases in late July than ever before. Most mutual aid networks said they intend to continue their work through the pandemic and beyond. 

MT BIPOC Mutual Aid’s IB said it can be infuriating to see how many people in the state do not have their basic necessities met. Every day IB speaks with people who are desperate, unsure how they will care for themselves and their families. 

Mutual aid isn’t going to solve systemic economic and racial inequalities in the U.S., which have only become more stark since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s a stopgap measure to help people on the verge of crisis. 

Still, IB sees a potential for broad systemic change. They think participating in mutual aid has opened people’s eyes to the way existing systems fail to provide necessary support.

“People are recognizing that the government is not here to support our basic needs,” IB said. “The pandemic has shown us that all we have is each other.”


Mary Auld is a freelance journalist and master's student in environmental journalism at the University of Montana in Missoula. She regularly contributes to the Valley Journal in Ronan, and her work has aired on Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio.