“The idea of mutual aid is being co-opted – I’ve seen that the city is now trying to support people in some way by creat[ing] neighbourhood pods and engag[ing] in mutual aid. At the same time as they’re evicting people from their homes and from encampments and ramping up policing and more.”
– Gita Madan, co-founder of Tkaronto/Toronto Mutual Aid
Toronto/Tkaronto Mutual Aid Panel
ES/ENVS5073 A – New Social Movements, Activism and Social Change
Names of Panelist: Gita Madan (she/her), Edward Hon-Sing Wong (he/him), Gunjan Chopra (she/they)
Moderator: Jin Haritaworn (they/them)
Panel Setting: Zoom Virtual
Date: Wednesday May 12th 2021
Transcription by: Debby Wong and Dulaa Osman
Jin Haritaworn (they/them): Thank you so much for coming and for sharing your important work with us and taking time out of your busy schedules amidst being star organizers, including writing up a PhD, dealing with burnout, and doing radically relational self-care and collective care in Ren-yo Hwang’s sense, to keep everyone, including yourselves, alive. I want to share our Community Agreement (CA) with you, so you get a bit of a sense of the space that you’re in – it’s always a bit awkward entering into an existing space, talking as someone who sometimes gives guest lectures myself. The CA should give you a bit of an idea of who’s in the space and what’s important to folks here. It’s something we came up with collectively in the first session of this course and have been reciting as a ritual ever since. This is week 2 of an intensive grad course called New Social Movements, Activism and Social Change. We are only meeting for altogether three weeks, but we do see each other almost every day and have kind of become pandemic buddies. [Reads out the community agreements.[See full transcript]]
Welcome to our three guest lecturers. I’ve learned so much from each of you: I met Gunjan as a community member a few years ago and was later on privileged to benefit from their healing work. She almost became part of the book Marvelous Grounds that a few folks in the room have read, that was edited by Syrus Marcus Ware, Ghaida Moussa and myself (Haritaworn, Moussa and Ware 2018). The roundtable on healing justice basically has Gunjan in it, even though she wasn’t able to make it that morning – the people in the chapter keep citing them. Gita, it’s so wonderful to have you here and to meet you. I’ve heard so much about your work in Education Not Incarceration. We had LeRoi Newbold here as a guest lecturer last year and he was talking about kicking police out of schools, as well as about Freedom School, of course. I’m sure there’s so many questions from people in the room. Edward, thank you so much for essentially co-organizing this panel with me. Last year, we had Sedina Fiati, who was also involved in Toronto/Tkaronto Mutual Aid, here as a guest lecturer, and I thought I’d invite you one by one. Then Edward extended his invitation to his fellow organizers, and made it happen that we basically have a whole panel on the project, which is even more exciting. To have everyone at the same time, as part of a conversation which, being a collaborative project, makes so much more sense, right. I’m excited to learn more about your work. I learn from you all the time, your Facebook posts in solidarity with folks in Hong Kong, and I’d also love to hear more about your PhD here at York in social work. There’s actually two social work students here in the room. I hope we can keep growing our little oddball community here, in and beyond against the institution.
So the three of you are founding members of the Toronto/Tkaronto Mutual Aid group. You were also involved in CareMongering Toronto [another Facebook-based mutual aid group] for a while. Which works very differently, so if someone has extra money, for example, and then other folks need it or vice versa, whereas Toronto Mutual Aid seems to be more about educating and sharing tools for organizing. You’ve organized some amazing teach-ins last year on harm reduction, surveilling and policing in Jane and Finch, food justice, and Indigenous street outreach, that will forever stay with me. They were amazing and crucial and just at the right time and have given many of us reality checks and tools to ground our own work during the pandemic with a better collective purpose, so thank you so much for that.
People have read your bios and educated themselves about your work, so instead of an introductory round I will ask you to talk about what mutual aid means to you and what it looks like in your own activism, as well as the activism that inspires you.
Edward Hon-Sing Wong (he/him): Hello everyone. I’m so honoured to be here and to do a segue actually, I love the Agreement earlier, especially the point around acknowledging we’re not experts. I always introduce myself when I teach as not an expert. And partly it’s just my own anxieties, like I hate this part about academia, the pressures to present ourselves as experts, but it’s also really antithetical I think to ideas around mutual aid. You’ve read Dean Spade, you’ve read Ren-yo Hwang, central to that is this notion of horizontal being and moving away from saviours. We’re not talking about charity, we’re not talking about professionalized social work, fellow social workers in the room will know that’s why we need to abolish social work. The framing needs to move away from benevolent people that are going to help support others, in this kind of hierarchical way. Likewise, today we’re here to join the conversation, not necessarily to impart any specialized knowledge. A lot of this, what we share, is rooted in our own experiences. So we’re here in conversation, you might have seen on my bio, as a PhD student here at York, and as I already mentioned, as a social worker. A big part of my work is the idea of social work abolitionism, and recognizing what Hwang talks about, where care in itself might seem on the surface like something uplifting or helpful, when in reality, how it’s institutionalized by the state, it’s instead very much just another tool in the carceral system.
My background is actually in the mental health field, and how much the mental health field has helped expand policing. That’s why I burned out after five years doing the work, the amount of police violence I witnessed and became complicit in. The amount of times we had to call the police – “had to” – what are these situations? What situations are deemed as requiring that type of intervention is important to interrogate. I think it’s important to question if this is really what we want and what should be a model for care in society.
Mutual aid is about presenting an alternative and I’m really excited that later on we’re going to be able to share some alternatives to that. People who are curious about my research – I wrote a short Briar Patch piece a while back. It’s really an amazing moment right now, where abolitionism has become mainstream and in the forefront. But the danger of co-optation is always there and we’ve seen a lot of major mental health institutions, including CAMH (The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), to defund the police but not interrogating their own partnerships and connections. And so much that’s being presented, again, is about an expansion of the carceral state versus actually providing something outside of these violent practices.
Jin Haritaworn (they/them): Amazing, thanks for sharing that with us and for writing these pieces. I feel like even among abolitionists, there was this awkwardly long moment where abolitionists would argue things like, “Most incarcerated folks are just in the wrong institution. People should have access to mental health services.” In a context like the US, where there’s been these massive cut backs of all kinds of services, it might seem like a tempting argument. But I feel like the kinds of interventions that Ed talks about have really helped the prison abolition movement get more on track with disability and mental health, so thank you! Who wants to go next – Gita? Gunjan?
Gita Madan (she/her): So hey everyone, really nice to meet you all. Thank you so much for having me here. I’m really excited for this conversation, I have so much respect for Edward and Gunjan and the work that they do. Just happy to be here and meet all of you.
For me, mutual aid means: it comes from a place where the state has really failed in just providing basic needs for people. Beyond that the state actually enacts so much violence on people and on our communities. When I think about mutual aid, for me it’s about redefining what safety actually means, what people actually need to be truly safe, and certainly that’s not the police.
It’s about, for me, just fundamental questions about how we protect each other from violence that is enacted by the state. And how do we support each other in meeting even just our basic needs and more within a system that is so deeply unjust and violent and cruel, and causes so much pain and suffering. So it’s trying to find within those ways to actually create spaces of care and joy and mutual support – that’s sort of the driving force.
In the Dean Spade article I really liked the framing around changing material conditions beyond symbolism. There were three ways put forward – one was dismantling systems that are really harmful, but also, for people who are targeted by these systems and institutions, how can we actually fill in some of those gaps and provide for each other. And then also how do we build alternative infrastructure and frameworks. So within the course of my own activism I’ve sort of shifted from the first one into the third where I spent a lot of time actively really fighting against systems and I still do that and think it’s really critical. But I’m in a place right now where I’m really focused on “What does it look like to build alternatives in really material way?” On the ground, in the community, what does that look like?
A lot of us have been reading a lot about abolition, and so I think some of the work that the three of us have been trying to do in different ways – not to speak for others, but I know that work, we’ve been doing some of this together – is to think through and actually figure out what does this look like in practice, what does this look like in the day to day, how do we show up for people when they’re in crisis, if the cops are called on them they’re going to be in a way worse situation and at risk of so much more violence? So, those are the questions that I’ve really been thinking through and trying to put into practice over the past few years: what does this look like in our relationships, in our communities, on the ground, in the day to day.
And I know we’ll talk more about the actual project soon!
Jin Haritaworn (they/them): Awesome thank you!
Edward Hon-Sing Wong (he/him): I just want to also quickly amplify Gunjan’s earlier point about caring for one another by bringing up Mariame Kaba. I always love their response to a question about one thing that is often misunderstood in organizing. I think a lot of us here in this room have probably been burnt out at one point or another from organizing spaces. So now I’ll just quickly read it out. Mariame says that “That’s a really difficult question. Because I’m so uninterested in narratives. That word that gets used often. Narrative-building. People that want to be all about narrative-shifting, narrative-building. I believe that when we are in relationship with each other, we influence each other. What matters to me, as the unit of interest, is relationships.”
For me, this is not to say that building narratives isn’t important at all. It’s just that so many organizing spaces forget that we can’t sustain each other and sustain these spaces if we don’t actually focus on taking care of one another. And movements grow with the people in it. Just wanted to bring that in.
Jin Haritaworn (they/them): Thank you. Gita, I think you had something to say as well.
Gita Madan (she/her): I was just gonna add on to something Gunjan was saying, which is that, there’s this really long history – and it sounds like you already had a conversation about this this morning – but a really long history of people practicing mutual aid for survival, and there’s so much to learn from folks from so many communities that have been doing this for so long. But I think there’s also this interesting moment right now, where the idea of mutual aid is being co-opted – I’ve seen that the city is now trying to support people in some way by create[ing] neighbourhood pods and engag[ing] in mutual aid. At the same time as they’re evicting people from their homes and from encampments and ramping up policing and more. So that is something that I’m seeing happen right now, this real swallowing and co-opting of mutual aid. Gunjan sort of mentioned it and I just wanted to build on it a little bit.
Jin Haritaworn (they/them): Yeah, thanks for adding that. I think there’s often a misunderstanding of what mutual aid is as well and in a way that ties in with neoliberalism – let’s slash back all the services and exempt the state from its responsibility. I love that in the ASA teach-in, the American Studies Association teach-in, with several folks including Mariame Kaba and Dean Spade and Dylan Rodriguez, who’s a colleague of mine. Mariame Kaba discusses the question of working with the state – she works with AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] who’s basically part of the state – and how you can basically abolish the state at the same time as holding it accountable.
So, let’s move on to our next question. How does COVID impact your communities and the communities that you’re allied to? Gita, do you want to go first since you’re already unmuted?
Gita Madan (she/her): So, we’re all part of lots of communities in different ways. But what felt the most important to me at the beginning of COVID was that I’m a high school teacher. I was also an elementary school teacher before that. The school closures, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, were really disproportionately impacting working class families and racialized families due to things like job loss, lack of child care, income insecurity, food insecurity, all of these things that were converging at the same time on families that really, in a lot of ways, actually rely on schools for some of that support. In particular, I was really concerned about all my students and all of the young people who rely on school nutrition programs throughout the city, and the way that schools were closed all of a sudden, but with no real plan for that kind of support to continue was leaving a lot of people extremely food insecure. I see the ways that my students come to school without having eaten and I was really really concerned about what was going to happen with the school closures. That was a huge concern at the beginning of the pandemic and led to myself and some colleagues creating an emergency relief program that we called Food for Thought. Do you want me to talk a bit about that now or get into it afterwards?
Jin Haritaworn (they/them): Go ahead, yes please.
Gita Madan (she/her): Okay. So we basically needed to figure out a way to fill this gap right now because this is actually really about survival for a lot of our students and their families, it’s really urgent. So we just started reaching out to other education workers and collecting some money and we partnered with FoodShare, which is a food justice organization in the city, to start getting some food boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables out to our students and their families. It kind of just spilled into this much bigger thing where we had around 150 education workers delivering food boxes all over the city. We were very clear that the program was for racialized working class and low income families and we ended up spending like $150,000 on food over the course of 6 months.
Dean Spade and many people talk about the difference between charity and solidarity. We were really aware of that and really working to frame the program and to understand what we were doing in terms of solidarity and mutual aid. Some of the ways we did that was in the political framing of the program. It wasn’t just about teachers doing nice things for students, which is certainly how the media was trying to frame it. All of the media that I did was like, “Oh, tell us all about these really nice teachers volunteering”, and we always had to bring it back to, “No, this isn’t about teachers doing a nice thing. This is about the failures of the school system, the failures of the government, to offer basics to support families. This is about families who are falling through the cracks, families who are being evicted from their homes, who don’t have safe and affordable shelter, who might not have status and be targeted because of that. Families who are over policed, families who are not able to feed their children and dealing with extreme poverty as a result, not of their own failures, but of the failures of the state.” And so we really had to make sure that our messaging was not one of charity, as the media was trying to frame it, and bring it back to the systemic and structural issues.
I think we were also trying to do some movement building with education workers. Many of us have been in a very privileged place to continue to have an income throughout most of this pandemic, where many people have not, so we framed this as a project of income redistribution. What can you actually give in order to redistribute what has been a very unfair spread? Of the ways that capitalism has functioned through the pandemic to increase income disparities, even more than they already were before. So we’re trying to frame it as a project of income redistribution. There were also no eligibility requirements and we were working to do this in as relational a way as possible and through building trust on the ground. Some of the folks who were recipients of the boxes ended up becoming volunteers, so we were trying to really have it be sort of cyclical and mutual in all of the ways that we could. We also understood that as education workers, we receive a lot of support from the public as well. A year and a half ago, when there were walkouts and strike actions, our students and a lot of their families really supported us. So we didn’t see this necessarily as a one way giving – the way that young people and their families support education workers is really critical for us as well.
Those are some of the ways that we understood it as a project that was framed by the principles of mutual aid. At the same time, it was still an emergency relief project that was relying on donations and a small number of people volunteering to keep it going so it was really not something that is feasible in the long term. But I think it was really helpful at the beginning of the pandemic when everything was so chaotic. I mean it still is, but it was a particular kind of chaos.
Jin Haritaworn (they/them): Amazing. Thank you so much for letting us be part of that interdependence, witnessing the kind of teachers-and-parents-for-teachers organizing that’s been happening in Ontario has been pretty amazing.
So who wants to go next? So the question was how does COVID impact marginalized communities?
Gunjan (she/they): I can go, yeah. I don’t want to necessarily repeat what folks know or are experiencing themselves, but we know that COVID has disproportionately impacted marginalized folks. I think the question was framed as “my communities or communities like we’re allies to.” It’s a great question because this term “community” is something I’m trying to make sense of constantly, being a queer person in Toronto. We talk about queer community a lot, but what’s been really interesting about the pandemic is, it’s really kind of shown what are the actual communities, what are the formations, who are the people who are disproportionately impacted. Even when we see where the hotspots are. It’s very easy, to think about us being something like queer community, or even like BIPOC queer community. But then really thinking through how class really impacted and is impacting how people are experiencing this. It’s not easy for anybody, except you know the Westins and whoever’s making millions off of this. But it has been really different – sorry that’s not your question – but I think that’s been a really interesting and useful clarifying sort of moment here in this pandemic. So part of my community is other politicized healers in the General Toronto Area, such as therapists, acupuncturists, herbalists, folks who’ve been supporting movements, supporting folks on the front lines for some time now.
And it’s with them that we really started The People’s Healing Fund which we launched a month before the pandemic hit. So obviously this was already an ongoing issue. And I can talk a bit more about it, maybe in the next section, the impacts on politicized healers. So depending on whether our work is in person, whether it’s regulated, whether it’s not – some people have been out of work, some people are working, some people are overworking. And another community that I support is my clients, which are primarily outsiders of some sort – whether they’re queer and trans folks, BIPOC, frontline workers, harm reduction workers, midwives, politicized folks. And I’m sure people are experiencing this in their own lives too. The mental health crises that have been happening through this are profound. And the starkly different realities that people are living. Like some people who have entire families who have been impacted by COVID, who have lost people, or are losing people across the world. And then others for whom it hasn’t been as in their face, but it’s more about the stresses of having kids at home and no childcare, or taking care of elderly folks, or just the burnout and profound collective grief that we’re all experiencing. And very few have had a chance to really tune in, because the crisis is still ongoing and the nature of it is that we’ve lost many of the community supports that we would otherwise turn to. So I’m really glad that spaces like this, classes like this, are really prioritizing this kind of work and these conversations, because it’s so important and so lacking in a lot of people’s lives.
And then I also was participating in some rent strike actions when the pandemic first hit. Because I was out of work [and] I didn’t know when I would be working again. I ended up getting evicted. So that sucks but it’s okay. I mean it’s personally okay for me, but continues for lots of people. So [I started to organize] with another community of folks in my neighborhood who were rent striking or at risk of eviction. The pandemic also allowed me to have a different sort of sense of place. I was rarely leaving my neighborhood for a long period of time and actually starting to organize in the neighborhood. What Gita and I have been doing with the Bloordale Community Defense Group has been really incredible, to sort of situate us. Because even though I had been there for seven years I had very few ties to the neighborhood as such. It’s sort of a place that people pass through. So we can talk a bit more about that project too. And then my parents are in Mississauga, so sort of seeing what’s happening in Peel, that’s another thing. I have family in India. So that’s another community I am connected to, where a lot of my relatives are sick. [COVID] has impacted all of us in various ways. I’ll leave it at that for now.
Jin Haritaworn (they/them): Thank you so much for sharing. I just remembered that we completely forgot to do the guided meditation. Because you mentioned nerves earlier, and I’m a nervous public speaker. I mean you probably don’t know, because I do it a lot, and I’m just kind of dealing with the nerves. It’s just part of it at this stage: getting the adrenaline going and using it to enhance the performance. But actually Snjezana [a student in the room] had offered to do a guided meditation with us. Would it be totally weird to do that now, in the middle of the panel? Okay, great. Snjezana, are you still willing to do it?
[Guided meditation 45:40-52:20]
Jin Haritaworn (they/them): Thank you so much Snjezana. That was the perfect timing for it. Edward, whenever you’re ready.
Edward Hon-Sing Wong (he/him): Thank you so much for that. I’m also a really anxious speaker and one thing I won’t miss about going back after is not having my dog on my lap while I teach. I’m also reminded, of course, that mindfulness has its roots in collective practice, especially in the Buddhist tradition. And how that’s been so criminalized under colonialism. So again, it’s important that we take these steps, so thanks for that.
Okay, so I think we were talking about the impact on communities, and these past couple years I’ve been doing work in Chinese communities around the country. A lot of the processes that Gita and Gunjan had mentioned are also very apparent in the communities I work with. The diaspora has been hit by a double whammy of certainly, the health implications of COVID, but also the social and economic consequences. We have to remember that Chinese and Asian identities in Canada in general have been so intertwined with the notion of being carriers of disease, and lacking in hygiene, and being inherently sick and diseased. We can always think of the term “sick man of East Asia,” I think it was originally applied to the Ottoman Empire and then it got spread to China, the country itself, and then its people. I remember first coming across, as a child, watching Bruce Lee films, and I think he sees a giant sign with that, and he cracks it over his knee. And that was a great little moment I remember growing up.
And by the way, if people are interested in that history and want to know more, there’s something I wrote at the start of the pandemic. So we can see the impact of COVID by how Chinese restaurants and businesses were some of the first to be impacted. It happened during SARS, and is happening again now with COVID. And the most impacted were of course the workers who saw shift cancellations, job losses. At Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, we had people pulling in Chinese workers working at other businesses that were asked really early on the pandemic not to come in. Live-in caregivers and cleaners especially were impacted, presuming again that “You know, well, they’re Asian, they’re a vector of disease, we don’t want that risk.” And I also worked a lot with grocery store workers. So essential workers that, on the one hand, you see marketing campaigns with government statements heralding them as important workers and yet not receiving any proper remuneration, consideration of the risk. It still continues, the issue about poor sanitation and safety equipment at grocery stores, it’s a little better now, but still the problems persist. We all know about the issues around sick days and the government’s continued negligence around refusing to institute that. There’s also been, of course, a very visible uptake in anti-Asian violence, along with whorephobia, antisex worker violence, [and] the tragedy in Atlanta. People might not know as well that, even in Toronto, we’ve actually had a number of cases again sex workers in midst of the pandemic, especially with bylaw officers who targeted massage parlours. That’s been an ongoing issue.
I’m going to talk briefly about Hong Kong. We were in such a unique position in relation to the pandemic, how we’re still dealing with the collective trauma of SARS. We used to always share an anecdote growing up. I grew up in Hong Kong and everyone was quarantined at home and it was really scary, the news every day, watching this kind of death ticker, the number of people who’d passed. And it’s really sad, I never thought this anecdote would stop being shocking in this world, but here we are. I think there’s issues around the proximity and the collective trauma with SARS that made Hong Kongers hyper aware of COVID. And again feeling really odd, because my family’s everything when the pandemic first hit, there was a huge panic around that. And then, well, here in Canada people weren’t concerned at the time. It was “So, who cares?” And then it happened, and it felt like a déjà vu when the pandemic hit here.
And just very briefly, there’s also the backdrop of the protests in Hong Kong against the Extradition Bill, around activists and labour organizers being extradited to China. It led to large-scale protests and that was exacerbated further by the police violence. It led to even greater numbers. And there’s huge issues with economic inequality in Hong Kong, fostered by an electoral system that, for example, grants corporations half the seats in the legislature. It’s a little more subtle here, but over there it’s pretty in your face, where the banking sector will have a seat in the legislature, textile, and so forth. So when the pandemic hit, that context of the crackdown against those protests, mixed in with the pandemic. I’ll talk more about it in the next question, about the role of state and creating safety. But just to say that the pandemic has really been used as a pretext to further crackdown on people’s autonomy and people’s organizing efforts.
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