In retrospect, “Ida” seems too tame a name for the lethal storm that made landfall on Aug. 29 in Port Fourchon, Louisiana—on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. With wind speeds just short of 157 mph, Ida took 95 souls in the US, tracked across nine states. 11 New Yorkers drowned while trapped in flooded basement apartments. A nightmarish encounter landed one 71-year-old Louisiana man inside the gut of a 12-foot, 500-pound alligator. Following an almost parabolic path of destruction, Hurricane Ida couldn’t have made the point any more sharply that the wild beast of climate change is not lurking in some near or distant future—it’s here. A scientific fact, long predicted, repeatedly warned against, persistently and deliberately lied about by the fossil fuel industry, now mercilessly unleashed anew with each passing season. 

With the ever-quickening pace of the digital news cycle, stories about Ida and its destructive force hit hard, hit quickly, and then dissipated much like the hurricane itself. But for those who felt its wrath firsthand, the damage lingered long after most media left, and the struggle to rebuild is, for many, very much ongoing.  

As storm-impacted communities continue to right their upended realities and reestablish their lifelines, The Real News Network spoke with representatives from three organizations on the ground in Mississippi and Louisiana who, in Ida’s wake, brought immediate disaster relief to people in New Orleans, the river parishes, and down the bayou: Kali Akuno, executive director of Cooperation Jackson; Kendra Unique Wills, an organizer with Southern Solidarity; Loan Fund steering committee member Maya Pen, who is also an organizer and artist; and founding member and project loan officer Susan Sakash of Cooperation New Orleans. Each of these organizations has a mission-based commitment to participating in the solidarity economy, and all of them categorize their disaster relief efforts as mutual aid work. 

These organizations and these people share the view that mutual aid is a transformative economic practice that at once delivers needed support while dramatically shifting humans away from commodified relations toward productive (and ecologically sustainable) ones.

These organizations and these people share the view that mutual aid is a transformative economic practice that at once delivers needed support while dramatically shifting humans away from commodified relations toward productive (and ecologically sustainable) ones. Put another way, as climate chaos—and the accelerating political and economic turmoil that results from it—continues to inflict pain on vulnerable communities, mutual aid is a life-saving form of grassroots care for people in immediate need. But, as those who practice mutual aid will tell you, it is also a society-saving means of training ourselves to be and act differently together, to break ourselves out of the cages of helpless consumerism and competitive individualism. That is the radical and beautiful core of mutual aid. It’s not charity, not philanthropy, not a BandAid, not a substitute for public investment—it’s something deeper, stained in the fabric of who we are, like blood flowing to the atrophied muscles we need to work together as we face a future filled with successive, relentless catastrophes.

‘Green’ capitalism isn’t going to get us out of this mess

For Kali Akuno, the signs of Ida’s ferocity were etched into the once-familiar landscape he observed en route to Louisiana, like claw marks raked across someone’s back. Along with a crew, he traveled to New Orleans and south to Houma on the first of multiple supply runs as soon as the storm subsided and the roads were passable. What he saw along I-55 was “long-term chilling.”

“By the time we got to the causeway, some of the cypress trees, which have evolved over centuries to deal with hurricanes… seeing them totally uprooted and snapped—that let me know how powerful Hurricane Ida had been,” Akuno explained. “A slow-moving storm that turned and battered. You could see the curvature of the wind, where one of those whips of the arm just came through and wreaked havoc. You could see its clear trail. I did not see that 16 years ago. We are well beyond the climate models of the hundred-year projections. We are in some unknown territory.” 

“We are well beyond the climate models of the hundred-year projections. We are in some unknown territory.”

Kali Akuno, executive director of Cooperation Jackson

At the distribution points in two wards in New Orleans, Akuno and his crew were met with a combination of elation and somber surprise that anyone had shown up. “Ain’t nobody come to check with us—y’all the first people who came,” they were told as they freely handed out diapers, bottled water, and canned goods. Akuno wasn’t surprised they were among the first responders: he expected it. That’s why they’d made the trek in the first place, and it’s also a testament to the predominant political condition upon which their work is premised. 

“You have government institutions [that] have no will to serve certain communities,” he explained. “That does not mean that government is not functional; I want everyone to be clear about what I’m saying. Some folks are going to be alright, they’re going to get everything they want quickly—and some folks are going to be sacrificed.”

Cooperation Jackson’s Build and Fight program of self-rescue was born out of people’s horrific experiences of natural catastrophe and institutional abandonment during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (to say nothing of the “shock doctrine” policies that came after and that wholesale transformed New Orleans public schools into charters and required evacuees to return to Louisiana to vote, effectively disenfranchising them in the 2006 municipal elections). Akuno still laments that no governmental agency compiled a final death count. “It’s one of Katrina’s greatest crimes, and I will go to my grave wanting to know how many people died from weird cancers and infections in the years after,” he said. “Deaths [were] deliberately not tracked.” Over the last 20 months, slow, inadequate, or just plain nonexistent governmental action on providing basic COVID protections and pandemic relief for underserved communities, along with last year’s back-to-back winter freezes that left Akuno’s own city in a protracted water emergency for over a month, have only affirmed the correctness of the analysis and necessity of the principles undergirding the Build and Fight program. “Climate and mutual aid is forever now,” Akuno said matter-of-factly, “and it’s going to become more of our daily reality.” 

Since they started working in West Jackson seven years ago, Cooperation Jackson has been building its members’ capacity to help one another by, among other things: establishing cooperative businesses; planting community gardens to proliferate local growing and community food sovereignty; teaching apparel printing skills in its maker’s space; producing personal protective equipment (PPE) for distribution at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic; training community members for emergency preparedness; conducting regular political education sessions and teaching texts by Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, W.E.B DuBois and others in the Black radical tradition; and hosting people’s assemblies. Taken together, these practices comprise Cooperation Jackson’s multifaceted effort to build up the solidarity economy, which, as explained in the Jackson-Kush Plan (written by Akuno in 2013), draws from 1980s-’90s social movements in Latin America that emerged to fight neoliberal austerity policies, as well as the Mondragon Federation of Cooperative Enterprises based in the Basque region of Spain. Cooperation Jackson has also been organizing in adjacent neighborhoods with a clear goal: to draw the wider community in, to have folks see and feel the need to take care of one another, and to recognize that doing so is within their power. “Because that’s the foundation of building a new society—that recognition,” Akuno said.

On page 10 of the Jackson-Kush Plan, Akuno further explains the essence of this theory of change: 

What we believe will be needed are new political and social identities crafted on the transformation of consciousness produced in part by engaging in the practices associated with Solidarity Economy and radical participatory and horizontal democracy. Solidarity Economy when pushed to its limits as a means of heightening contradictions within the capitalist system we believe is a transitional strategy and praxis to build 21st century socialism and advance the abolition of capitalism and the poverty and oppressive social relations that it fosters.

The philosophy underwriting Cooperation Jackson’s efforts takes as a given that capitalism, as a voraciously self-perpetuating global economic system, has driven humanity to the edge of its own civilizational destruction, and that we will find no salvation whatsoever by working within the prescribed roles or following the approved “courses of action” that capitalism has set for us. Being an “eco-conscious consumer” is not going to cut it, nor will relying on corporate-serving politicians to solve the problem for us or waiting on Big Tech to “innovate” a solution. Instead, human beings must fashion alternative economies for ourselves, more sustainable ways of living together and providing for one another—and that takes a lot of work. It takes work to break ourselves out of those prescribed roles and to make such alternative economies viable. That is where mutual aid comes in—it is, at base, an essential means of building up the muscles we need to be and act differently. And the more people participate in it, the more effective it is, and the more possible another world becomes. 

“There’s a way out of this, but it will require millions of people to engage,” Akuno explained. “If our little outfit and other social movement organizations worked at maximum capacity, it would not be enough to meet the scale and scope that’s needed. We have to find the folks with the most alignment, and extend it outward. The point is to challenge the political order to reallocate the necessary resources. But ultimately the political fight is to transform all the processes of ownership; that will enable us to produce to our need within the constraints of a healthy eco-system, and not be subject to markets.”

Southern solidarity with unhoused New Orleanians 

Kendra Unique Wills, an organizer with Southern Solidarity, was among the approximately half of New Orleans’ residents who fortunately had the wherewithal to evacuate in advance of Ida. An estimated 200,000 households stayed behind. “I’m not a storm person,” she admitted, adding, “I did it for my own emotional safety.” But she rushed back three days later when she heard what was happening—and what was not.

“FEMA and the National Guard are always going to be late,” Wills explained. “You’re on your own. The first week it’s the people who are going to be taking care of each other. It’s the people who wake up the next morning and say ‘It’s time to start grilling out!’ And mutual aid… Mutual aid was activating itself long before anyone from the National Guard was handing out a case of water.”

“Mutual aid was activating itself long before anyone from the National Guard was handing out a case of water.”

Kendra unique wills, organizer with Southern Solidarity

Her special concern was the unhoused community her group has been tending to for the last year and a half since the onset of the coronavirus. Unhoused people, Wills said, were already experiencing a crisis before the storm, they were in serious danger during the storm, and they remain vulnerable after.

“Chronically unhoused people are going to be staying that way,” Wills explained. “The shelters post-disaster have such a bad reputation for women and children—a lot of people don’t want to go.”

While the pandemic and storms brought serious new hazards for unhoused New Orleanians, the crises also provided respite from what had been regular tri-weekly sweeps by the New Orleans Police Department. During sweeps, officers seize and discard hard-won essential gear, small comforts, and personal treasures in the name of “cleanings.” While trashing their possessions is officially against city policy, it routinely happens.

The group’s successes set them up to provide logistical support in the post-Ida emergency. Seemingly overnight, partnering with the Greater New Orleans Caring Collective, Southern Solidarity helped establish a well-stocked distribution center at the Unitarian Universalist Church in New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood. Maya Pen, an organizer with Cooperation New Orleans, says the facility was a crucial linchpin in the region’s Ida disaster relief response. “I could walk in and request 10 trays of hot food for distribution in Wallace [Louisiana], and they’d be provided; or request imprint information in Spanish about de-molding homes, and pick the instructions up with the relevant cleaning supplies to deliver to Spanish-speaking families.”

Usually at Southern Solidarity, organizers focus their efforts on getting food, water, clothing and medical supplies out to people in need, mainly older Black men who never integrated into permanent housing after experiencing long-term incarceration. They also help them secure new IDs and get registered for housing support.

On its page regarding Interim Guidance on People Experiencing Unsheltered Homelessness, the CDC emphasized sanitization of homeless encampments over dispersal. On that basis, the raids that have regularly plagued unhoused people were paused in the midst of the pandemic. In the relative calm this “ceasefire” from the state provided, and with practical support from advocates, including the 30 or so Southern Solidarity volunteers who’d coalesced in March 2020 to protect unhoused folks from the threats posed by the virus, small wins like portable toilets and washing stations were gained. 

But the collective has admittedly struggled to address police sweeps of unhoused encampments, which have resumed in the city and are chaotic and dispiriting. 

“We asked our community members, ‘Do you want us to be out there and try to stop the sweeps? Do you want trucks coming by in advance to grab your things?’” Wills said. The answers were “No” and “Yes.” “Since then, we’ve been showing up in the way the unhoused people wanted us to show up. Not with bravado, but with usefulness.”

The core of Southern Solidarity’s work is to shift public consciousness toward accepting that safe housing is a human right. And the visible contrast in New Orleans proper makes the need for this shift bleakly and starkly apparent: on one side, there are well decorated second homes owned by rich people who have either turned them into short-term rentals or left them empty; on the other side, as Wills described, there are “pockets where there are still high piles of debris and horrible moldy meat smells; these places where there hasn’t been care, where our people who need care live.”

Moreover, based on Wills’ observations, members of the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe and the Houma Tribe, many of whom were displaced by storm devastation and mold, will be rebuilding for a very long time. Wills carries the heavy memory of the nine elders in New Orleans who died in their homes without air conditioning in an extended, though likely preventable, power outage in Ida’s wake. At 28, she’s turned to Mutual Aid both as a consoling philosophy and a source of stability and joy.

“Mutual Aid is my life,” she said. “I can’t imagine my future without it. It’s not only about me helping people survive this interesting world we have set up, but, selfishly, me making sure that I have a support system. That has helped me feel more secure in life. Because with storms like Hurricane Ida, you may get a couple of days to prepare, but the repercussions can last months, even years.”

Building a new world in the shell of the old  

After a brief evacuation, Maya Pen was back in southern Louisiana on the ground matching needs with resources, intently surveying with her poet’s eye the distance from crisis to comfort—and doing everything in her power to shorten it. In the aftermath of the storm, Pen’s head was sometimes turned by random, melancholic signs of political expression, like a big American flag ratcheted to a lone upright utility pole that a determined someone had waded into the swamp to mount. As she made her rounds, questions of sustainability, but also of ascendance, were on her mind. What, she wondered, is our “shock doctrine”? What is our plan for opening “this portal of imagination … when people are left with nothing and realize there’s energy and capacity to build a new world?” 

15 hours away in Illinois, where she’d evacuated with her family, Susan Sakash decided to stay put for a while in order to facilitate Cooperation New Orleans’ digital communications while much of the city was plunged into blackout and internet connectivity was still sketchy. The clicks of her mouse alternated between securing resources for mutual aid efforts and propelling forward the group’s everyday work. The urgency of that work, according to Sakash, was made palpable by “what we know is coming—the future serial disruptions” to society’s basic functions and amenities, to say nothing of the reality that disaster capitalists were already moving in, plotting to cash in on the trauma of the storm.

“In some of the river parishes where the petrochemical industry has devastated communities and has very real plans for expansion,” Sakash explained, “there’s a very real concern that government leaders are going to be using how heavily impacted the historically and majority Black communities were hit by Hurricane Ida to not bring resources into those communities. [Instead, they’ll use it as an excuse to] further disinvest, to drive people out as a way of showing ‘this is why we need petrochemicals here, because there’s nothing else here.’”

In response, Cooperation New Orleans invited some other groups that had engaged in strong Ida relief efforts to put their heads together at a general meeting. “We wanted to know what people had in place, what they wished they’d had in place and how to share across learnings,” Sakash further explained. “At the same time, we wanted to look at how we can fight back against the policies [that aim] to break up our communities’ abilities to come back.”

Cooperation New Orleans is currently shepherding three interrelated initiatives. As part of the national Seed Commons Network, which practices non-extractive finance, it anchors a “Peer Loan Fund” that will get business loans into the hands of local workers who want to own and manage their own cooperative businesses, if it’s a business the community says they need. The model is designed to overcome structural hurdles to cooperative business ownership built into commercial lending protocols.

Keen to learn which businesses could best serve communities that have been blighted by decades of disinvestment, especially in the post-Katrina epoch, they’ve launched a 10-session Black Liberation Coop Academy to “lift up Black cooperative history, create our own economic opportunities, meet collective needs, and develop successful collaborative economic practices.” They aim to attract more Black native New Orleanians to join with them and help anchor and guide them.

The last initiative, which can serve as a pipeline to the first, involves counseling people about developing their business ideas or transitioning their existing businesses to cooperative ownership. One example already underway is the Pagoda Cafe, whose owner decided during the shutdown to talk to her employees about becoming a worker-owned cooperative—a proposal they agreed to. They’ve learned that the turn from worker to worker-owner requires a change of mindset that Sakash says has been “a process of discovery.”

“It can’t just happen overnight because we’ve been conditioned to view ourselves in certain lights, entitled or not entitled,” she said. “One of the things we get the privilege of doing in Cooperation New Orleans is meeting with those people and working with them to identify what their longer term vision for their own lives is, and how their work fits in.” 

The poet in Pen knows that people “who really want the same thing” are too often pitted against one another by polarizing language, so she avoids it. Instead, she’s inspired by metaphor. 

“You can continue to trim the rotten leaves off of a plant, but if it’s rotten at its core you have to plant a new one,” She said. “And it’s okay if that plant has to be in the same garden, but that plant does not have to live perpetually in the shadow of this rotten one. That’s the solidarity economy’s relationship to this capitalist economy… we are making actionable plans to build from there.”

Editor’s Note: Kate Khatib, co-founder and co-director of Seed Commons, is the spouse of TRNN Executive Director John Duda.

Correction 11/13/2021: This article has been updated since its original publication. The hyperlink to the Cooperation New Orleans’ Loan Fund has been replaced. Details about the Black Liberation Coop Academy’s program have been updated to reflect that said program is 10 sessions, not 10 weeks.

Frances Madeson

Frances Madeson writes about liberation struggles and the arts that inspire them. She is the author of the comic political novel Cooperative Village. Follow her on Twitter @FrancesMadeson.