I have a lot of folks talking about mutual aid, ad thought I would share a little about a mutual aid network that I started a few years back for Herbalists Without Borders. Back in 2017 when I started volunteering for HWB, I noticed that when something happened people would make a callout and post their address and everyone in the whole community would ship things. Of course it might take 2 weeks. You wouldn't necessarily get what you needed. You would be overwhelmed with too much stuff (if you were popular) or wouldn't get any help (if you were not popular). The stuff you got might not be labeled properly (or only with a magic marker on a rusty old canning jar), which was not safe to distribute. And, right when you were busy trying to respond in YOUR OWN community to a disaster, you would have to wade through a garage full of random things that were shipped to you, sort through it, throw things away that were not safe/verifiable, make things (while you might not even have running water) following GMPs, label things (when you might not even have power) to the labeling laws, and then still manage your own safety and then also outreach to your community. Also, once the disaster response fizzled out, the person was inevitably left with a ton of unused supplies that would sit in the garage for a year until they thought - hmm, I don't want to waste this - but shipping all of their excess was too expensive and it wasn't stored in climate controlled area, it might be expired, and they had no idea where anything came from and couldn't track source, so it was often wasted. I heard at that time about how Standing Rock had issues with receiving tons (literally) of herbal supplies that they had to throw away because it was not safe to give people to ingest since it was not labeled, identified, in good containers, wasn't what they needed, etc.
So, I decided to coordinate the donation of supplies to one central spot for the US Groups. I would intake unexpired supplements, herbal supplies, containers, ingredients, salve, tinctures, etc. and track source, conduct inspections to ensure quality and safety, and store it in a climate controlled area of my farm. I use a master list of inventory and HWB groups can review the list and email me their wish lists. I gather all of the wishlists for that week and box everything from top priority to low priority until the box is full. Everyone who has extra chips back into the system via extra supplies they may have, dried herbs, or via helping chip in the shipping costs. This keeps the system running and allows me to ship boxes to those who most need them. The system also allows for people who have to chip back in to support those that do not have, and it helps redistribute resources in a more equitable way,
I of course am still volunteering as US Donation Distribution Coordinator and US Seed Grant Coordinator for HWB now in 2023. I ship well over $150K retail value of supplies from my house a year all from my farm (Any locals interested in volunteering? I could use a hand!). I have about 800 square feet of space dedicated for the HWB community apothecary and cold storage for seeds. I also grow medicinal herbs to donate into the system myself, since there were many things we were not getting donated and I have the privilege of land. I ship out dried herbs, supplements, disaster relief supplies, salve, chest rub, ointment, carrier oils, containers, tea blends, tinctures, and then also I make things from donated supplies. In the past few weeks I have made almost 200 inhalers, 150+ rollerballs, 60 muscle/joint lotion, 50 chest rubs, and bagged about 50-60 bags of dried individual herbs. I do it twice a month now, so on the first and third Mondays each month I box all day and then on Tuesday I label and package everything and then ship the boxes out. What goes out varies as different groups request supplies based on what is happening where, the season, and community needs and response. If there is a disaster, this system works really well because we already have things and I can literally mobilize overnight and ship supplies out for folks doing foot/bike/truck free clinics or first aid stations. I also can ship exactly what folks need so it minimizes waste. I can manage inventory, sourcing, donors, and track where everything goes. That means I do the grunt work and the people receiving the supplies have more time to serve their own communities. I use a dedicated room for HWB packing boxes that also has a small kitchen space. I have GMPs in place so that everything is managed and inventory expiration dates tracked.
I also started a seed grant program in 2017 where I intake donated seeds from seed companies and make seed grant boxes and distribute to HWB groups to grow food and medicine in communities around the US. Since I was getting mostly food seeds donated at first I started growing out medicinals to save seeds and then bagging them up and sharing them in the seed grants every spring. Of course food is medicine and communities without access to healthy food need food, not only herbs, so HWB groups are encouraged to grow food too. They can give the produce away at free clinics, donate to their local food pantry, use the gardens for educational community purposes, host events to help people learn how to make healthy food, and so many groups get food, knowledge, and empowerment to their local people. I have shipped probably something like 12,000 packets of seeds out over the past few years. Some groups host free community clinics or events and put bins of fresh produce out for folks to take. I have also helped people plan their gardens too, especially if they are a new grower, or review their plans to make sure it will work for them. I met an amazing medicinal seed grower last year who is donating into the system now so there is a lot more variety of seeds and I don't have to grow so many plants just for seeds myself. We also swap seeds within the network, so if there are seeds I cannot grow but need, folks will grow them and mail me seeds from their region so that I have them. Sacred plants that are culturally relevant and important to bipoc folks stay in those communities as well (like white sage).
It may seem like a lot, but it is just me doing this and it is manageable. People always seem to think they need a lot of money and a lot of time, but I do a whole lot primarily working with a mutual aid/reciprocity based system and almost no money coming in but for shipping costs. We do have a tiny budget for supplies (I usually have to buy the containers to put the donated supplies into). The budget is so low for how much is shipped out, it is amazing. Seriously. While we could always use more funds for shipping or containers or carrier oils or supplies to make items for free clinics and disaster relief, we get a LOT done with almost no money.
I also do webinars and knowledge sharing when I can and have written several eGuides that HWB members can download to help them get started growing, harvesting, and using their herbs. I co-presented an herbal preparedness webinar as well with 3 hours of video content plus a whole workbook. Community models are not hard, they just require thinking outside the box, organization skills, and awareness of the power dynamics and historic oppressive policies that impact communities, to help brainstorm solutions to the problems in a way that is equitable and flexible. Knowledge sharing is an important part of mutual aid - and education is empowering and helps folks feel that they have some control in often uncontrollable situations.
I don't often talk about this work as I don't do this for attention, I am not a fan of white saviorism when there are people on the street working in their communities making things happen - and it isn't about me - but so many people have asked lately how I started and how I set it up, it was time to share. The equitable redistribution of resources is important, and it helps get supplies to historically excluded communities. It also allows people to continuously feed into the system and share their excess while those that need it get just what they need. Charity is the idea of only getting, whereas reciprocity is about creating a system of GIVING AND RECEIVING (not only stuff, but knowledge, time, information, support, etc.) as any system where people only give or get tends to break down over time. When there is some kind of mutual aid/reciprocity, it creates a stronger foundation of respect and support, and also doesn't only burnout the givers, as there is always something being contributed back in and there is appreciation and support. I find that is the hardest thing for people to get in mutual aid, and often in group dynamics the givers burn out (crash and burn) and the takers get upset. While equitable access is important as well - giving more to marginalized or historically excluded communities who often don't have access to the same resources - equity can also accompany reciprocity in that giving doesn't only have to be things with monetary value, but knowledge, information, time, skills, and can be shared in a manner that is reciprocity based while acknowledging history.
I also used to volunteer as clinical herbalist for free clinics via zoom (2017-2022), but I stepped back from that for family health needs, but I am always happy to help folks figure out how to host free clinics as I have experience with it myself. I stepped down from the Executive Director role of HWB at the same time I stepped away from the free clinics, for family needs - but I am still happy to engage and manage the networks.
So, if I can do this on a national scale, it can definitely be done on a local scale. All of this also ties back in with permaculture - social permaculture - and the 3 tenets of people care, earth care, and fair share. Permaculture is systems design to create sustainable systems that work and provide abundance, but not only in your garden. It is also about creating social systems that work to meet needs, reduce waste, increase yield, and so on. Systems design works, and mutual aid is a social permaculture part of design.
This is a lot of talk about me, which is not the point, but I think it does help to know where people are and where they are coming from when we start talking about community models, mutual aid, and all of that. I'll share more soon with some tips and ideas of how to start the conversation in your community to build local networks, how to start seed libraries or host community seed events and activities, how to do community assessments to determine needs and support.
What interests YOU the most about mutual aid or community work? Where do you hope to learn more or explore options and ways to engage more in your own community? Let me know if you are interested in the comments!
Read more about the HWB US Donation Distribution Network:
I am a certified aromatherapist, clinical herbalist, permaculture designer, organic gardener, plant conservationist, photographer, writer, designer, artist, nature lover, health justice activist, whole foods maker, and mother of two young adults in south central Wisconsin.
©2007-23 Denise Cusack, all photos and text. Feel free to share my posts on FB or Twitter or online media or pin on Pinterest (thank you!), but please keep the links back to my website intact (meaning please do not take or copy my images off of this website and share them unattributed or without linking back here or use them without permission). Thank you! :)
Work With Denise
Who We Are