The Anatomy of Mutual Aid

Tsega Tamene

Tsega Tamene was born to Ethiopian immigrants in Germany, was raised in Minnesota, and graduated from Harvard University with degrees in history, global health policy, and premedicine. She has lived in India, Vietnam, South Africa, and Tanzania, developed a global and local commitment to healing and justice, and returned to Minnesota in 2018 to “reconnect with some of the people and places I call home.”

As the Senior Director of Population Health at Pillsbury United Communities (PUC), based in Minneapolis, Tamene and her team focus on uprooting health inequities. She urges a movement away from healthcare as a commodity to health as a right.

PUC has been developing trusting relationships in the community since 1879. It was a natural step for it to be part of the extensive mutual aid networks that stepped in around the state, and in particular the Twin Cities, after the uprising resulting from the police murder of George Floyd.

Social Justice in the Blood

Mixed Blood Theatre was founded by a 22-year-old in 1976 with a focus on justice, as a program of the Center for Community Action in Minneapolis. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, it seemed natural to activate another layer in its engagement with the community.

The food drives at Mixed Blood Theater
were led by Somali youth. Photo by Rich Ryan

Many stores in the theater’s neighborhood were looted, damaged, and closed for business after the uprising. A group of Somali youth asked a production manager at Mixed Blood Theatre if they could use the neighborhood space to collect food donations for the community. Nearby Augsburg University students, community members, and mutual aid sites “started dropping off bags upon bags of stuff,” says Catherine Campbell, production manager with Mixed Blood Theatre. “It was an array of items, and I was really inspired by the Somali youth who wanted to help their community.”

Staff and volunteers filled two floors with the quantity of donated goods: food, diapers, cleaning supplies, and more.

The food pantry provided a window into practical life: what the nearby community uses, what they need, and how they communicate. Campbell and the team explored ways to meet needs and distribute items in an equitable manner. Over time, she says they were able to make more specific requests of donors. “It is great that you want to donate Kraft macaroni and cheese, but this community does not eat it.” Or, “Please do not bring detergent pods. We really need essentials and staples, such as sugar and flour.”

Campbell says the learning curve for the team was: “Be the helping hands and not the saviors, with Somali youth driving the efforts.”

Managing crowds and organizing production details and items is not new to Mixed Blood Theatre, but arranging boxes of Fruit Loops and bags of celery led to a consideration of what they could reasonably handle distributing each day. Other elements of the campaign: Crowd management in a COVID-19 landscape, having community members onsite for translation, and using their building to advertise what was available on any given day of the week.

“Our biggest challenge was maintaining a balanced and equitable distribution. We continued to explore ways to redistribute dollars to support local and BIPOC businesses,” Campbell says.

It was also a matter of being culturally conscious, Campbell says, like “giving out pads instead of tampons, and seeking out culturally inclusive toiletries that meet the needs of the community.”

Within four weeks, after serving hundreds of families, the donations and work was moved to the nearby Brian Coyle Neighborhood Center, a neighborhood alliance in the Somali community led by PUC.

Transforming Purpose

Campbell believes the murder of George Floyd has transformed the city and shifted people’s viewpoints. “It was truly fascinating to see how mutual aid altered what people thought the Mixed Blood building was and who we are, which ties back to our mission of making things accessible, taking down barriers. There have been [leadership] conversations about when theater comes back and how we will keep this [mutual aid] work activated. Access to basic food items has been and still is shifting, due to the pandemic. How can we make other pillars of our institution stand tall? If this is an engagement pillar, how do we keep it consistent?


“With recent events in [politics], we are seeing a lot of privilege show up, and that has opened an array of conversations about how our country and our industry must respond differently and change our systems,” Campbell says. “There is a lot of overdue pressure on the arts to see how and what we produce when we come back. I am excited to see where our industry is headed.”

Trust During a Crisis

“Our public institutions have failed us because they were designed to fail us.” Tamene says, “Indigenous wisdom teaches that when we see a need, we create the resources or capacity to meet that need. The problem is that our society’s approach to care is fundamentally at odds with Indigenous knowledge that is beautiful, resilient, and embodied wisdom.”

PUC has a long history of centering impacted communities. “Our public institutions expect [to receive] trust that hasn’t been earned, and where, in fact, relationship has been exploitative, genocidal, and extractive for generations.”

Tamene can list the many ways that undocumented neighbors, youth who work to contribute to their family’s income, and others at the margins were ineligible for government pandemic assistance. “Our programs work because underlying trust and relationship [can accomplish] a lot in a moment of crisis.”