Issue #22: Belonging and Mutualism

"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” — Martin Luther King

I want to give a warm welcome to new subscribers! Thank you so much for joining this little community. This Tuesday, I hosted the first ever virtual meetup for subscribers and had a delightful conversation that encompassed wide ranging topics like the design of communities for fostering more shared experiences and creating emotional and intellectual space for all to imagine futures with greater belonging. Looking forward to hosting more events for us to connect and learn from each other. After all, belonging does not happen by accident, but rather by design.

Which brings me to exploring today’s topic: mutualism. This article from the Nonprofit Quarterly does an excellent job of illustrating mutualism in the present:

Nature offers an excellent model to understand this principle. Organisms have three primary ways of interacting. Parasitism benefits one organism at the expense of another, such as a flea feeding off a dog. Commensalism benefits one organism with neutral outcomes to the other, such as a bird nesting in a tree. Mutualism benefits both organisms, and their exchange produces larger systemic benefits. An example is a bee gathering pollen from a flower, which enriches both. Repeated interactions among different bees and flowers lead to cross-pollination, in turn increasing biodiversity and ecosystem resilience.

At once a principle that encapsulates social interaction and a means of production, mutualism makes a strong case for building for belonging. If each individual can be mutually beneficially to each other in service of personal benefit and overall resilience, it makes our human interconnectedness an asset rather than a liability. Mutualism is a rational choice in our chaotic world, making it a shame we are not wholly rational beings.

The narrative of the American Dream demands the upholding of values that run counter to mutualism: individualism, ownership, competition, winners and losers. This zero-sum narrative sustains systems that are antagonistic to belonging, placing all of the credit as well as all of the blame on the individual for the outcomes that result from interacting with others. Its economic counterpart, laissez faire capitalism, reward winners with more financial assets and punishes losers with poverty.

The work of belonging gets left behind when centering capitalist-preferred productivity. Belonging springs from other types of labor: care work to tend to interpersonal relationships, creative pursuits that shape the narratives that sustain our systems, and the civic and community engagement that ensures we have places and networks that bring people together.

There are many critiques of mutualism. The tragedy of the commons is meant to undermine the trust required for mutualism to function, asserting that humans are inherently and inevitability selfish so shared resources would eventually be degraded past the point of utility. As it turns out, the architect of this theory, Garrett Hardin was a white nationalist and xenophobe and his theory wrong, not accounting for how commons were managed in the past. So it’s exciting to see the emergence of new commons in the landscape driven by needs for resources in the pandemic and economic recession. Community fridges popping up in cities including New York and Oakland are community owned and operated entities for people to donate and get fresh food.

Another critique examines the sustainability of bottoms-up efforts often seen from mutual aid in the aftermath of catastrophic events like Hurricane Harvey hitting Houston. Groups like the Cajun Navy have institutionalized their volunteer efforts over the last few years to shift from short-term relief to preparedness. Hallmarks of legitimacy like non-profit tax status can help mutual aid seem legitimate in the eyes of larger organizations, giving their volunteers more leeway to deliver material support with social connection and empathy. And in one example of topdown mutualism, Harris County has embarked on an experiment that shifts the criteria for flood control and prevention spending away from prioritizing the “winners,” those with high property values, to the most vulnerable, those with the fewest resources to recover from displacement. By centering equity, the county hopes that everyone will benefit with greater resilience to climate disruption and “Houston Strong” will grow to mean more than a rallying cry, but also a sign of the community’s endorsement of building belonging.

Mutual aid is one example of mutualism in action and an investment in future belonging. Mutual aid did not arise with the coronavirus pandemic; there are decades of mutualism in action throughout American history. In the 1800s, African Americans organized mutual aid efforts to supplement the resources that were needed but cuold nto be obtained from the government due to institutionalized racism.

“Part of the importance of mutual aid is also a critique of neglect of certain communities,” said Paula Austin, assistant professor of history and African American studies at Boston University. “I think that’s why mutual aid is happening now, during the pandemic. Because it’s clear that there are communities that have historically been neglected and we see that neglect brought into relief.”

Our views of mutualism have fallen out of vogue in many ways. As we are all living through this historic experience of a global pandemic, unable to pry our eyes from and auto-refreshing feed of horrors, we turn our attention to moments of past shared sacrifice and prioritizing collaboation over competition. We talk about the victory gardens and commitment to repairing rather than replacing items after World War II. The nostalgia does little to distract from our national demise of mutualism in our systems as well as the narrative and culture today. It’s likely not a coincidence that a society that thinks of man as an island and the individual as king also embraces the isolation of single family homes in suburbs and shuns communal or public gathering places like social clubs and houses of worship. While it may not be causal, it appears that there is a positive correlation between mutualism, belonging, and happiness.

Two more recent versions of happiness put forward by American sociologist Sam Binkley are linked to systems of governance. He argues that after the second world war, the prevalent social or “welfarist” understanding of happiness posed that our mutual interdependence on each other and strong bonds within society led to wellbeing. …

A new individualist version of happiness has emerged, seen as something that can be augmented through adjusting attitudes and behaviours and strategically cultivating relationships. The recent interest in promoting and measuring citizens’ happiness in many Western countries marks an important shift from policies that advance structural means to ensure collective wellbeing, to policies that focus on the personal. …

As philosopher Hannah Arendt argued, it isn’t possible to be happy or free “without participating, and having a share in, public power”. In trying to understand the paradox between our focus on happiness and personal wellbeing and the simultaneous rise in depression and anxiety, the socialist feminist writer and academic Lynne Segal in her book Radical Happiness argues instead for seeking fulfilment in other people, and proposes communal activism as a powerful antidote to the individualised techniques of happiness that cut people off from their social worlds.


We are all in this community, society, country, and planet together. For any one of us to be free, we needs to endeavor continuously to work for us all to be free. Our separateness is a bit of an illusion as this pandemic continues to show us how mutualism can carve a path to freedom through rather than in spite of our connectedness. Designing for belonging is a way to reinforce this connectedness and move toward resilience.

A few key areas to invest in for a more virtuous cycle of mutualism and belonging:

  1. Community-powered resilience to address challenges like racial inequality

  2. Lifelong learning to power innovation

  3. Sustainability and adaptation to mitigate climate disruption

  4. Economies of care and creativity that prioritize well-being and expression

  5. Participatory civics to build supportive systems and networks

Comment below with innovations or disruption that you’ve seen in any of these spaces!

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