Politics / Mutual Aid

An Ode to the Wisdom Within

This is a story about everything. It’s about jumping timelines and the power of creative imagination. This is a story about vulnerability, healing, and collective action. It’s about mutual aid and the potential for abundance––not the kind of abundance James Bowdoin II envisioned 250 years ago as the justification for perpetrating war against the people of Pejepscot. This is a story about the kind of abundance that exists when we transcend what Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire calls “false generosity,” which is fueled by deprivation of its own creation. This is a story about energy, resources, and balance. It’s an attempt to encourage dialogue between subjective and objective realities, which, during his adult literacy programs that aimed to expand civic participation among marginalized rural classes, Freire observed to be the basis of education and our collective means of transformation. This is not a doom and gloom story, but it is not delusional, either. It seeks to meet reality where reality stands— bleak, with a healthy dose of hope and agency. 

In Freire’s theory of systems of oppression, false generosity is a tactic of the oppressors, who validate their interference in the affairs of the oppressed by providing them support so they might endure the circumstances of oppression more comfortably. There are many kinds of deprivation, though perhaps the most nonsensical and egregious that we are subject to is that of time. When we are deprived of time, we are deprived of many things, notably our most valuable skill for survival: sensitivity. Moving in step with the modern world and the constant stream of violence and brutality that it enables necessitates numbness. Whether it comes in the form of light, heat, movement, or feeling, we experience the world in frequencies. We are all here because we are searching for resonance; we yearn for harmony — a common good. Harmony, however, is seldom achieved in a rush, especially by a fledgling orchestra. In our current period of social and ecological collapse, it is critical that we reclaim our time and give ourselves a chance at embodying the full spectrum of our humanity. There is meaning in feeling, and power in healing.

As liberal arts students, we are the supposed beneficiaries of this particularly “elite” way of being in community, but how do our bodies respond to this way of life? In the so-called United States, academia is rooted in a long tradition of displacement, control, and imbalance. It’s convinced us that we are not ready until the institution tells us we’re ready, and in order to get ready, we must burn the candlestick at both ends, for years on end. It’s convinced us that to suffer is to put in effort, and to put in effort is to be entitled to the kind of resources that can only exist if someone else, somewhere else, is living in deprivation. A perfectly manicured and mono-cultured quad is the result of continued destruction and displacement of native species. A multi-billion-dollar endowment, held in trust to sustain generations to come, necessarily withholds resources from the only generations that we can say with any degree of certainty, exist. Without deprivation, Bowdoin’s “rigorous” model of education, which occupies stolen land and an untenable timetable, disintegrates. Its elements go on to nourish something fit for reality — the present moment — which is abundant with potential.

When it comes to energy, or “vibes,” as the youth are putting it, value judgments like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are useless and intangible. Authenticity is the sensible metric. Does the work we’re doing feel authentic to our intelligence? Does being a Bowdoin student nourish our sense of what it means to be human? In my experience, Bowdoin students feel forced into inauthentic and physically harmful ways of being for the sake of satisfying institutional demands and old socio-cultural paradigms. In other words, something about this place is dehumanizing, perpetuates self-neglect, and denies us the time and space to build a curriculum that fosters peaceful and sustainable learning. 

Physically speaking, power is work over time. The antiquated paradigm uses this equation to control and exploit. It finds comfort in the freedom to dictate what gets done and when. The current paradigm is asking us to take responsibility for our reality, which cannot exist in the kind of isolation that a place like Bowdoin feeds. This paradigm is asking for authenticity. It requires us to collapse the false timeline that a Bowdoin degree creates, to recognize that our power exists in the present, to identify our needs and natural abilities, and to stop holding back for the sake of moving “forward.” This paradigm is asking us to recognize the difference between embodying compassion, and compulsive people-pleasing; between mutual support and solidarity built through consistent dialogue, and paternalistic charity fueled by physical and emotional poverty.

This is a call for dialogue and action. It is a case for creating an academic curriculum oriented around mutual aid, a way of being that takes responsibility for meeting the needs of our community. It can and does look like sending spare cash to a mutual aid fund, but there are infinite ways to be part of a mutual aid network. Mutual aid is different from charity because it empowers everyone in the community to be part of the solution, deconstructs the savior complex, and subverts the structures that gate-keep our power. It teaches us how to integrate our needs into the systems and structures that exist to support us. Though you may know mutual aid as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this way of being has been around pretty much as long as humans have. It is the reason that evolutionarily, humans survive in collaborative groups. The Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program is one well-known example of this practice in action, where a collective organizes to overcome a lack of nutrition imposed by white supremacist policy. Depriving humans of physical nourishment is just one mechanism that U.S. institutions have used to maintain a violent hierarchy on this land. A livable future depends on our ability as “educated” folk to not only identify the other mechanisms, but to dissolve them and build new ones that are aligned with our current understanding of humanness; of what supports us, and what doesn’t.

There is consensus among students, faculty, and administrators alike: this way of life is not tenable. What happens next is up to us: we can either push forward, ignore our innate feelings, and pretend that the structures that exist are fit for our future, or we can reclaim our time to embody authentic ways of being that resonate with our humanity. A project like this doesn’t happen overnight, and it requires us to make space for each other in the curriculum. Because institutionalized time deprivation is our reality, and this work is only effective if it is accessible to everyone, we cannot assume that hosting a space for dialogue outside the academic agenda will generate comprehensive solutions.

The time to prioritize healing and humanization is now. This is real, intellectual work that takes time, energy, and dedicated collaboration. We know that nature is adaptable and our brains are wired to change as we develop new habits, so, we have the opportunity to create and inspire ripples of positive, holistic change. If we care about each other the way that we claim to, now is the time to transcend the institution’s fear of change and make the leap into the timeline that acknowledges our bodies as diverse, changing, and in need of robust social support and room to grow.