Getting Through: Finding joy and whimsy through mutual aid
It’s been a hard year and we want to switch gears a little. This is Getting Through, a series where we bring you the stories and sounds of how we’re staying grounded during this chaos.
Today we’re featuring Zoe Villegas. She’s a lifelong Detroiter and tarot card reader.
Up in Smoke
A couple weeks back, the Ford-Wyoming Drive-in was playing Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke.
The drive-in parking lot was about halfway full, and people kept bouncing from car to car. Puffs of smoke wafted from windows.
By the way, it was April 20: 4/20.
Sure people were celebrating, but the night was also a fundraiser. All proceeds went to the Southwest Detroit Community Justice Center.
The whole evening was part of a mutual aid project run by Zoe Villegas and this informal group of organizers called 304 Army. It took months to put together. Organizing projects like this is a big way Zoe’s been getting through this pandemic.
“I read once that psychologically the anticipation was the key to happiness,” said Zoe Villegas. “That anticipation gives you so much of a reason to survive.”
Coming up with project ideas and the anticipation of seeing the final product helps Zoe stay grounded.
By this point you’ve probably heard about mutual aid. The idea is actually attributed to Russian anarcho-communist, Peter Kropotkin, who wrote about it in 1902.
At its essence, mutual aid is about supporting each other instead of fending for ourselves. It’s not just money. Sometimes it’s food, healthcare, or housing. It could be emotional support. It’s about filling the gap where our needs aren’t being met.
On top of the fundraisers with 304 Army, Zoe has other mutual aid projects, too.
“I don't have insurance for therapy,” Zoe said. “So that was one of the reasons why I was especially moved to start a sort of peer emotional support group.”
It’s called the Lonely Hearts Club. A loose collective of people who are experiencing grief. Zoe lost her father to COVID-19.
“There is a sense of community among people who have no fear in approaching someone who is experiencing something very dark and inserting themselves and saying, I'll be there with you at the bottom,” Zoe said.
Humor at the bottom
But the bottom isn’t always desolate. There’s joy, too. The group cooks for each other. They have these long phone calls. It’s not always heavy.
Like, there was one phone call where everyone geeked out about their VHS collections. They started trading tapes.
“I mean, you get into these kind of like quirky territory sometimes,” Zoe said. “Like you don't know what people are going to connect over, but sometimes that's just enough just to have a distraction.”
304 Army organizes a lot of mutual aid projects that are whimsical. There was the bikini car wash for Rapid Response Detroit, which is a group that aids undocumented folks.
Just type “304” into a calculator and flip it upside down. Even their name’s tongue in cheek.
There may be some people who don’t get that what look like campy antics are actually expressions of love and care. For Zoe, there’s no disconnect.
“We have a way of compartmentalizing our life and our beliefs and our ideology,” Zoe said. “I don't think that's human.... So I don't find that there's a place and a time for this discussion or for supporting this or that. I think that we should be doing it all day long, every day.”
For Zoe, a fundraiser for a serious need doesn’t need to be serious. Just like a grieving circle doesn’t need to be about grief.
“I find that people who struggle really hard have a sense of humor,” Zoe said. “I find that that is where I that is where my identity as a Detroiter and my connection to other Detroiters is always through humor.”
Zoe talks about how mutual aid skips the red tape, the bureaucracy of nonprofits and government programs that can be so dehumanizing.
That’s the thing that sets mutual aid projects apart. There’s no “system.” No hoops. Just people, helping each other out.