Mutual Aid + Policy Advocacy
Food lines, PPE lines, supply lines. The lines for mutual aid and other critical services can feel endless, especially during a global pandemic. We’re in them or serving on them because we need resources or want to help our community members access them. But the question of this session, “Why Are We on the Line?” asks something more. Our panelists will ask us to think about the larger political and capitalist forces that create the need for these support lines in the first place. Without critically assessing and actively working to dismantle those systems of oppression, we risk burning out our most precious community leaders. The line is necessary, but the line shouldn’t be forever. What role does mutual aid serve? What is the role for policy change? Why do they need to work together to really get things done?
Trupti Patel is the District of Columbia’s first Indian-American woman Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner. She represents the Historic Foggy Bottom District and ran for office when her elected officials ignored her voice and vote and repealed One Fair Wage. Trupti is part of the national movement seeking to end the last vestige of Jim Crow- the subminimum wage-and pay all workers the full minimum wage plus tips on top. As a member leader of ROC-DC (Restaurant Opportunities Center), she focuses on issues such as wage theft and sexual harassment that impact tipped workers in the restaurant industry.
Diana Ramírez is the Fellow in Residence (Workplace Justice) at the National Women’s Law Center. Diana is focused on the intersection between wage equity and the food industry and the need to form direct links to racial, gender, and economic justice–especially in a post-COVID world– as a path to an equitable recovery. Diana helped to lead the 2018 ballot initiative in DC for One Fair Wage and will also share reflections about how that grassroots effort was undermined by the powerful restaurant association and how we can build back stronger going forward.
Reana Kovalcik is a food and farm lover, community organizer, and founder of the Share a Seed program. Reana is a policy and communications professional dedicated to making our food and farm system more equitable and sustainable. She has worked both in the local and federal policy spheres for roughly ten years and is an expert at bridging the gap between complex policy happenings and community action.
Kya Parker is a plant-based chef and founder of Kyanite Pantry and Kyanite Kitchen. When Kya lost her job during the pandemic, she saw an opportunity to serve as part of the DC Black Lives Matter movement. For the last year, Kya has been running the mutual aid organization Kyanite Pantry and working to build her professional business, Kyanite Kitchen. Kya is a cornerstone in the DC mutual aid movement and can share key insights about building community power, acquiring and sharing resources, and how we can leverage solidarity to build a lasting movement.
How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century by Erik Olin Wright
Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights
by Juno Mac and Molly Smith
How a Multi-Tendency Approach to Organizing Creates Movement Strength
The democratic socialist movement is full of many types of advocates: there are those who believe that mutual aid and on-the-ground work are the most important part of the movement, and those who believe that the only real, worthwhile goal of the movement should be policy change. But in reality, the movement needs both on-the-ground work and sustained policy advocacy in order to make a difference. We need to find ways to address the immediate needs of the day while also asking ourselves why we live under a system that creates and perpetuates such immediate needs. The goal, to use a phrase from the socialist scholar Erik Olin, should be to erode capitalism through a combination of many different approaches, all of which are aimed at dismantling the capitalist economy and rebuilding a solidarity economy in its place.
Initiative 77 and the Fight for a Just Pay for Restaurant Workers
A good example of the role that policy can play in ensuring that workers have their basic needs met comes from the recent fight for Initiative 77. In the United States, any worker who receives even just $30 per month in regular tips is subject to a lower minimum wage rate — currently only $2.13 per hour — than other workers. Only seven states currently require a single standard minimum wage for all workers, and recent attempts in 2021 to raise the minimum wage for servers were thwarted by the Senate parliamentarian on procedural grounds.
Back in 2018, DC residents launched a ballot campaign called Initiative 77 to raise the minimum wage for servers to the same level as all other workers. The ballot initiative passed with 56% of the vote, including over 70% of the vote in Wards 7 and 8. But three months later, the DC Council decided that the voters who approved the measure must not have known what they were voting for, and so they overturned the results of the ballot initiative. Coincidentally, Chairman Mendelssohn’s campaign finance reports revealed that he had received 30 times more money from the National Restaurant Association and their members than he had received the previous cycle.
How the Pandemic Has Changed Organizing
For many workers, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically upped the stakes. Instead of organizing just around the issues, organizers are needing to find ways to support workers who are often thrust into life-or-death situations. In this context, mutual aid becomes a huge resource to help people who have nowhere else to turn — especially undocumented or excluded workers. Street vendors have also become a resource for people in the hospitality industry, because street vendors often started in the restaurant business but left when they could no longer take the toxicity. The result of this is that both mutual aid and policy organizations are more intertwined than ever.
In Erik Olin’s framework, mutual aid is a form of escaping capitalism: it provides a way for people to step outside of the capitalist framework and survive with the help of others. But it needs to be complemented by actions that can help to dismantle capitalism. Bringing the two together can be particularly powerful: last year, Trupti had an experience where she was invited to give testimony for a hearing with the City Council, but when it was time for her to join, she brought in a member of her community who hadn’t been able to join the session in order to share her Zoom window. When local organizers have access to the policy process, they can gain the ability to provide platforms for workers to advocate for themselves directly.
Barriers to the Policy Process
Sometimes, it can feel like there is a disconnect between mutual aid work and policy work, especially when communities feel distrustful of the system that produces policy. Workers who do speak up and try to describe the toxicity of the system they’re working in can face backlash from other workers who, even though they might experience the same toxicity, feel panicked by any attempt to disrupt or shatter the system. Workers fear becoming targets of retaliation, either from current or potential employers, and the possibility of becoming doxxed looms large in some people’s minds. It takes a lot of courage for a worker to come forward and address the DC Council.
Another major barrier to earnest engagement from workers in the policy process is the constant sensation that lawmakers are deliberately ignoring their input. The $15 minimum wage has a nationwide approval rating of over 70%, and yet eight Democratic senators are blocking it. When lawmakers seem to flagrantly ignore the wishes of their constituents, it makes it hard for organizers to get enough buy-in from workers to convince them to engage in the policy process.
Finally, time creates a major constraint as well. If a worker has three jobs with just a 20-minute break between them, how can they be expected to go to their member meeting, instead of sleeping on the metro or visiting their kids?
How to Bring Workers into the Policy Making Process
The goal of mutual aid work is to work itself out of business: mutual aid should not have to exist, and it’s an indictment of our current system of governance that it exists on the scale it currently does. But mutual aid provides a way to start eroding capitalism — even when the policy process moves at much slower speeds — while giving workers enough of a basic sense of support that they can then manage to become more involved politically. Mutual aid in the District is also critically important for helping people navigate the opaque systems that exist for getting support and for setting timelines and managing expectations about what can be achieved through policy advocacy.
People become engaged with political movements because of personal relationships that they form with organizers, and these relationships must overcome the fear created by anti-organizing campaigns from restaurants and business. This means that it’s critically important for people to engage workers at every opportunity — even if it’s just asking your restaurant server if their employer pays them a full wage to let them know that you have their back.
By disrupting the status quo, the pandemic also created new opportunities for organizers to extract concessions from policymakers. Near the beginning of the pandemic, Trupti helped organize the Excluded Workers Campaign, which began by asking for $20 million in direct support for workers and which was eventually able to get $14 million in direct support between the DC Council and Events DC. This success took an extreme situation to galvanize people, but it can also motivate future wins by showing that it is possible for workers to push the system.