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Modelling for Mutual Aid: Maggie Kane on how DIY community organizations can survive during the pandemic

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Community organizer, creative technologist and owner of Streetcat Media, Maggie Kane, is interviewed by curator and critic Régine Debatty about systems of mutual aid, her work with Free99Fridge, and the upcoming class Modelling for Mutual Aid, hosted by School of Machines Making and Make Believe.

Modelling for Mutual Aid is an online class that teaches a a number of digital and hands-on DIY fablab skills needed to start and maintain grass-root community projects. The class is designed for artists, hackers, and anyone looking to reprogram and redistribute their creative output for collective good. Instructor is Maggie Kane, the owner of Streetcat.Media, which is a systems consulting and management company that focuses on creative digital entrepreneurial development.

Born and raised in the south of USA, Maggie Kane’s creative and professional practices have centered around southern culture and its intersection with technology accessibility. When not involved with a community group event or project for her business, Maggie is always scheming up new ways to create efficiency through personal use of technology in the digital age.

Maggie Kane.

Did you find that, with the pandemic, mutual aid has spontaneously developed more than ever? In Atlanta where you live (I think) and elsewhere?

Mutual aid has absolutely been essential for many people’s survival here in the US during this pandemic.

Our government (on both federal and state levels) has done a horrendous job taking care of people on two fronts: 1) the government has focused solely on the capital gain / survival of corporations and not working people by focusing on corporate funds disbursement programs over taking care of all its citizens essential needs. Many people are facing eviction, going hungry, and our government does nothing for these people! 2) and a number of government leaders have spread extremely harmful information about the pandemic claiming it’s a political attack(!) from the Chinese government instead of a global health crisis. I mean, with this kind of stupidity from our leadership, a lot of people have lost hope and a great deal of their livelihood due to the selfish political stance of a number of elected officials.

Here are two projects I made during the beginning of the pandemic that explore this theme of government inadequacy when it comes to focusing on the needs of the people during a scary event like this:

PANDEMANIA (my response/rant to how DIY/community organizations can survive during the pandemic.)

R.I.P (Revolution Is Possible) Ad  (a satirical commercial made by me and a group of friends that criticizes corporate marketing during the pandemic – I designed and fabricated the “product” in the video) :

But, alas, mutual aid is a primordial model that every living system has utilized since the beginning of time, so i think if people take a closer look at the historical struggles of people/animals/plants over time, you would be able to identify some kind of mutual aid system or network that was created to combat whatever struggle these things faced.

Maggie in community wood shop at The Bakery.

Are you involved in mutual aid projects yourself?

I’m involved in so many mutual aid projects – like too many! But I love everything I’m involved in because it has helped change my perspective for how people should interact with each other – we need to care for each other more! I’m a huge fan of alternative economies that center equitable access and work trade. Some projects I’m currently involved in are:

a) I’m the lead (volunteer) designer and fabricator for the free public food shelter project in Atlanta – Free99Fridge – and have built 6 shelters that are managed by a team of volunteers that clean / fill the shelters each day. each shelter feeds dozens of people / families in need each day.

Maggie with Free99Fridge founder Latisha Springer and public food shelter built by maggie and a team of volunteers.
Maggie leading the build of Free99Fridge shelter.

b) I’m a (volunteer) art and educational program manager for The Bakery Atlanta, which is a multi-use community space in Atlanta.

Maggie hosting public art class at The Bakery.

c) I’m the (volunteer) technical producer for Nourish Botanica (formerly Nourishinblack), which is a project that centers storytelling, healing, and land reparations for Black farmers in Atlanta.

Maggie teaching basic computer skills at a library in New Orleans.

There are many more projects that i’m involved in & will be happy to share with people who take my class! Notice how i noted all those roles I play are “(volunteer)”? I do a lot of work “for free”, but while I may not be making any money on these projects myself, the value of my efforts have created so many opportunities for growth and stability for many people and organizations, so I view that as the collective “payoff”.

Some might say that governments tend to welcome “mutual aid” initiatives because it means that the population takes care of its own needs and problems. This might also mean that governments take advantage of communities doing all the work and defund aid programs. Is this something that worries you?

Honestly, the way our federal and state (even city) governments function in the US, it is extremely inaccessible/difficult to start a mutual aid project and sustain its growth without compromising some of the core components of mutual aid networks – including: issues with hierarchical leadership, corporate “charitable” giving, and so many other things.

I would go as far to say that the US federal (state and cities included) government actively sabotages mutual aid projects as an insidious form of social control that maintains the inequitable class systems that we are forced to live in. For example, in the city of Atlanta, it is illegal to hand out free food to homeless (unhoused) people. You will be issued a citation if you are caught doing this! It’s so ridiculous! We are able to get around this issue with Free99Fridge because all of our food shelters are located on private properties outside of restaurants / bars that want to support our project.

In the past 3 years, I’ve actively started traveling to other countries (mostly EU countries) and have been astonished at the level of basic care that these governments provide their people compared to the US.

The class will critically analyze a lot of these inequalities & systems of social control as a way to help students understand & give direction to how they can efficiently tackle problems in contemporary society.

And lastly, has your mutual aid work connected with European Maker Communities much in the past?

The first maker experience that I had outside of the United States was at the 2018 DiNaCon conference in Thailand (read Makery’s report here). In Atlanta, there aren’t too many creative maker people or communities that aren’t boring and/or capitalist-oriented here, so I decided in late 2017 to start exploring other maker communities outside my city that focus on accessible knowledge and tool sharing. Around that time, my friend, Andy Quitmeyer, posted online about an inaugural jungle maker conference that he was hosting in Thailand, and I enthusiastically applied to participate in DiNaCon to see what else was happening out in the maker world.

My project for the conference – the Recycloom – was a inkle loom that I pre-fabricated in Atlanta out of recycled materials, disassembled it for travel, and rebuilt it in Thailand as a weaving tool that conference participants could use to make woven items with recycled yarn and plarn (yarn made from plastic shopping bags). During my many interactions with other participants from all over the world, I learned about PIFcamp, which was happening a few months after DiNaCon in Slovenia. I quickly applied to participate at PIFcamp, and my project – a wearable MIDI controller – got accepted into the camp.

My excitement to travel around the world twice in one summer to participate in super cool temporary maker communities overcame me, so I decided to head over to Europe once my time at DiNaCon was finished. I wanted to travel around Europe before PIFcamp started, so I spent 4 weeks before the camp exploring localized hacker and creative maker spaces around the region. I spent most of my time in Berlin, visiting the School of MA and c-base for the first time.

I was in awe with how cool all of these communities and spaces were that I saw! In Atlanta, we don’t have spaces that focus on tool-sharing with anti-capitalist educational programs that aren’t operated by boring or crazy people, but in Europe – I noticed such a renaissance of amazing projects run by amazing people that I felt like a moth to a flame. I was very attracted to how well each space was cooperatively organized and focused on providing the necessary resources for their members to thrive in open-source and other personal projects.

Since 2018, I try to connect with hacker and maker communities in different parts of Europe and frequently travel from Atlanta in the US to these spaces, camps, and conferences (before COVID time) when I am able to. My travels are self-funded, and I strive to learn from these creative European resource community models and bring back my notes to implement some of these cool methods in projects that I’m involved in here in Atlanta.

I believe education in the form of accessible classes and workshops is an important mutual aid tool when provided in spaces where anyone can take them. For university classes, there is an insane amount of bureaucracy that prevents most people benefiting from its academic curriculum, and I don’t like that. If I want to learn about how the internal electronics work for fabricating synthesizers, I think it is absurd to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of learning in an academic space. That’s why I try to implement advanced technical learning classes and projects for anyone in my community that wants to learn new things.

Most recently, I’m collaborating with the School of MA (the same place I discovered back in 2018 wandering through the streets of Berlin) on an educational course that teaches people about mutual aid. The course focuses on the importance of fostering and fighting for these types of super cool community resource projects because without them, our options become limited in terms of accessible creative resources that are available for our community. It’s important for creative leaders to step up and take action in this regard, otherwise, if we leave the development of resource systems up to our actual governing leadership (politicians, business owners, etc.) we are left with little hope for an inspiring and equitable future.

For more information about Maggie’s upcoming class ‘modelling for mutual aid’ at School of Machines, please visit http://schoolofma.org/modelling-for-mutual-aid.html

More on Maggie Kane: www.streetcat.media/

Read Regine Debatty’s We Make Money Not Art blog on art, science and social issues.

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