Let's #GetReal about Community Care This Mental Health Week
Updated: May 18
Photo by CMHA
May 3rd marks the beginning of Mental Health Week here in Canada, and this year’s theme is #GetReal, calling on everyone to get real and embrace all their emotions. In the environmental movement, there is often lots of discussion around the mental toll of the climate crisis, a conversation we have also discussed in a past blog. And with the beginning of Mental Health Week, it’s important to further this conversation and look at the importance of community care within the environmental movement.
Why not just Self-Care?
Today’s ideas of self-care first began with Audre Lorde, an acclaimed civil rights activist, feminist, and writer. She first described self-care as a radical political act and a way of preserving self, and identity in a world that seeks to do them harm, and see them erased.
However, nowadays, Audre Lorde’s call for this form of political action has been co-opted and capitalized on by the very systems which created the need for self-care in the first place. Self-care seen in the mainstream has been stripped of its political roots, making it much more palatable to the mainstream audience, that it was not designed for. And with it, many faults such as its focus on capitalistic means of self-care, individualistic ideas, and exclusion of marginalized groups.
Through self-care, conversations about one’s mental and physical needs have become a focus. However, most often not enough attention is given to a large component of caring for self—and that is community care.
What is Community Care?
Community care comes from the thought that we are all interdependent and therefore need an interdependent way of care, opposed to an individual one. Nakita Valerio, an Edmonton-based community organizer, defines community care as “showing up; it means that when you find yourself in the position of being able to give more than you need to receive, you do so.” She further describes it as being “a recognition of the undeniable cooperative and social nature of human beings and involves a commitment to reduce harm simply through being together.”
Community care is about expanding one’s compassion from themselves to their communities, and everyone within them. It’s about taking a collective approach to caring for your whole community as a way to care for yourself. Community care also recognizes that the harm that people face most often comes from systemic issues and that because of this we have a collective social responsibility to support each other while working towards solutions. Where self-care focuses on feeling better in the face of different issues, community care calls us to “[heal] wounds together and [eliminate] the hazards that caused them together, too” as Nakita Valerio describes.
Community care in all is the next step to self-care. Where instead of individual actions of taking care of self—one relies on their community for support. This topic has often been left out of conversations of self-care because of its anti-capitalist nature which cannot so easily be co-opted and commodified the way that self-care has been. Community care also creates a way in which care is accessible to everyone, while self-care seeks to push out people from marginalized communities through the solutions it offers, which are usually expensive and time-consuming. That being said, community care is not something that is effortless—it takes work to build and maintain communities of compassion and care but we are social beings, so it’s work we were designed to do.
How is Community Care Practised?
There is no one way to commit to community care because it’s about accepting the strengths and capabilities of each member of the community and allowing them to use their own strengths to provide care to one another. Community care can be network building—where each person does what they can to uphold community wellness. Community care could include explicitly and regularly checking in with someone and being specific in your asks if you know they are feeling overwhelmed. It could be emphasizing and validating the issues of those struggling, and allowing each other to experience ups and downs. Where self-care tells people to disengage to take care of themselves, community care seeks to consistently involve all individuals and looks to create solutions that address the reasons someone may need to disengage instead of letting people struggle alone.
Community care is about being intentional in your support to those in your community and readily offering all support you are able to give to others, with the knowledge that your relationship is reciprocal. A foremost example of this is mutual aid.
What is Mutual Aid?
Mutual aid is acts of solidarity and reciprocity meant to create communities that mutually benefit and fill the needs of all individuals in them. This aid can be gifted in many ways, from childcare to community fridges, as long as the aid is continual and reciprocal among the community. Mutual aid networks create ongoing communities of care.
The goal of mutual aid is to create “bottom-up” structures of care, instead of “top-down” ones. This means that those within the community are the ones providing support and needed materials to each other instead of governments, charities, or paid individuals going to those places as outsiders. This is important as it recognizes the ways in which those on the top fail to provide proper supports to those who need it—especially failing those a part of marginalized communities. Most of these benefactors reinforce the systems which create a need for mutual aid in the first place, all while continuing to try to be saviours to these communities.
Mutual aid comes from the understanding that outside groups that created these issues cannot also be the ones to solve them. It decentralizes care and removes the hierarchy that is commonly seen within western structures, by creating support that is a community of individuals who are both leaders and recipients of the supports.
History of Mutual Aid
Mutual aid’s history is the history of beings interacting with one another. However, the term itself first arouse in the 19th century as a theory formed by Peter Kropotkin. During the times of Darwin, his birds, and natural selection, Kropotkin observed animals in the wild expecting to find competition and instead found animals uniting for their survival. In his research, Peter Kropotkin states, "I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution."
While this term was coined by Kropotkin, mutual aid had been around long before and can be found amongst many cultures and people. Throughout history, as long as systems have been built of the oppression and inequality of marginalized peoples, mutual aid has been found as a way of life and given an abundance of names.
Mutual aid has grown in popularity exponentially throughout 2020 and 2021, and with it, mutual aid networks have grown. Connecting with these networks in your communities is the best way to become involved in mutual aid. And for those communities that may not have such networks, beginning your own is also an option.
And some mutual aid accounts to follow on Instagram can be found below!
Mutual aid has long been a tool of anarchy—a tool for dismantling oppressive systems and allowing communities to thrive. As the grassroots network, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief says,
“When we engage in mutual aid, we are gifting each other the beginnings of a new world, premised on reciprocal, voluntaristic, and egalitarian social relations. We are collectively self-determining, self-organizing, and starting to self-govern how to supply each other with what we need as well as desire, all the while cultivating beloved communities of care.”
How Can Community Care be Practised in Environmentalism?
Movements are a form of community, so we all need to take care of one another in the environmental movement to continue this work. Community care has also been seen within communities affected by the environment for a long time. Think of how people come together during natural disasters or the efforts of urban farming in racialized and poor communities experiencing environmental racism. Other ways in which community care can be an organizing principle within our movements is something we’ve touched on in a previous blog.
The work that the environmental movement should be doing is dismantling capitalistic, individualist, and exploitative practices that continue people’s separation from land, self, and community. Modern-day notions of self-care removed from its political and important beginnings have become a tool of these systems to further people’s separation from one another. And so, finding ways to dismantle these notions, while also balancing our own needs is where community care becomes important. It gives communities a way in which they can rely on one another for the support they need, and by doing that they are fighting against this capitalistic notion.
Community care has long been a way of living for many peoples. During Mental Health Week as we think of our needs and embrace mental health, imagine ways of healing, and doing work that creates, maintains and improves a community that’s built to support each individual’s needs.
About the Author
T Schwab (they/them) is currently majoring in Psychology and Environmental Studies. They currently live on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Lkwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples. Their passions lie in holistic care and sustainability.