Mutual Aid in Omaha: Feed the People


Hannah Michelle Bussa

Feed the People (FTP) has served families in Omaha since 2016. Photo courtesy of Taylor Thornburg.

Omaha has various mutual aid organizations across the city working on different projects and issues. This is an ongoing column featuring some of these organizations and the work they do.

Feed the People (FTP) began in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and continues to do work in the community.

FTP education officer Taylor Thornburg explained how FTP got started.

“After a number of protests [following the 2016 presidential election], many activists found themselves feeling even more defeated and isolated than before,” Thornburg said. “Despite all of the energy spent on plans, marches, protests and arrests, nothing seemed to change. Nothing seemed to get done.”

He said the reason nothing changed and that they still felt alone was that they were speaking on behalf of themselves.

“We changed our tactics,” he said. “We turned from the streets to the people. We served the people, and as a matter of course, we studied the people. We listened to what our broader Omaha community had to say about their needs, wants and desires.”

Thornburg said after changing tactics, activists split into different groups to meet those needs and organize their communities. That group grew into organizations, including Omaha Tenants United, the Nebraska Left Coalition and FTP. FTP has since grown from four or five people to two dozen well-organized activists at peak membership.

Communications officer Sophie said FTP was founded because local communists saw the contradictions of capitalism being realized in their communities.

“We saw that people were unable to get the food they needed to feed themselves and their families,” she said.

Sophie said FTP was heavily inspired by the Black Panther’s breakfast program.

“We want to be able to provide working class families with a week’s worth of groceries once a month,” she said. “This way, working class people can get some relief from worrying about food for part of the month.”

FTP does grocery distributions on the first Saturday of every month in the Gifford Park and Park Ave neighborhoods. Sophie said they depend on donations from the community to sustain these distributions, as a typical distribution can cost from $150 to $400.

FTP works to provide food and other household essentials to those who need them. Photo courtesy of Taylor Thornburg.

“Along with food items, we also have started supplying other household goods and hygiene products,” she said. “We supply community members with diapers, baby wipes, toilet paper, paper towels, deodorant, toothpaste, laundry detergent, dish soap and bar soap.”

FTP’s quarterly zine, ‘Sowing Community,’ features interviews, articles and recipes from community members. Sophie said they also provide political education, like education about the mass line and organizer burnout.

“We are happy to say that we also periodically produce a community newsletter called ‘Sowing Community’ and are producing a short series of educational materials for new activists interested in ‘breaking in’ to mutual aid/mass work,” Thornburg said.

As education officer for FTP, Thornburg administers the organizational onboarding program and researches and writes community education materials. As a member, he also helps promote and facilitate monthly food distributions. He has been involved with FTP since 2017.

Thornburg said he defines mutual aid as a broad category of community cooperation, usually with reciprocated benefits between individual community members.

“That being said, I believe that mutual aid can be subdivided into more specific species of terms that I think are more descriptive,” he said.

He said in the 21st century, mutual aid looks a lot like the Black Panther Party’s survival programs. Huey Newton defined these as programs that “satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems … we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation.”

Thornburg said some organizations may practice organization in this way, which solely sustains their communities. FTP does not practice this species of mutual aid.

“The species of mutual aid we practice is called ‘mass work,’ and it is a species modeled after the mutual aid that Mao Zedong administered during the long Chinese Revolution between 1927-1949 that not only helped the people of China survive the inhospitable conditions of their time but freed them from those conditions as well,” he said.

In this context of a broader revolutionary strategy, in the context of mass work, Thornburg said mutual aid collectivizes community members, amplifies individual voices, enhances individual strengths and synthesizes individual grievances.

“On its own, mutual aid means less than a feather — there is no hope or purpose in it,” he said. “In the context of a revolutionary situation, mutual aid weighs more than a mountain.”

Community members are encouraged to donate to support FTP’s monthly distributions. Photo courtesy of Taylor Thornburg.

Sophie said mutual aid is when community members care for each other.

“It can be anything from cooking for your neighbors, helping with yard work or ride sharing with your neighbor,” she said.

Sophie said she views mutual aid as a form of protest.

“Capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy and patriarchy want community members to view each other as the enemy and rely on the ruling class for their needs,” she said. “Mutual aid shows that communities and working-class people are capable of caring for each other in much more meaningful ways than capitalism ever could.”

Sophie said mutual aid is important because many community members can’t or don’t qualify for government assistance programs but are still struggling to make ends meet. These government assistance programs leave gaps, and even those who can pay bills on time might not have time to perform tasks to maintain their households.

“Capitalism breeds individualism and alienation from the community, because the ruling class knows if we discover we can care for ourselves and each other without them, their whole system would fall apart,” she said.

Sophie said she also participates in political education, helping people learn about history, how the government functions and the immoral actions they participate in.

“For example, many people do not know that prominent historical figures like Rosa Parks were communists, or that the forty-hour week and weekends off was won by strikers who were brutalized and even murdered by KKKops,” she said. “Education empowers the masses to critically think and realize their power when they are united.”

Thornburg said mutual aid is important now because it centers communities in a historical moment when social forces are tearing centered communities apart. Mutual aid collectivizes the powers of individual community members.

“We believe the old adage that the people united will never be defeated, and this is how we unite our people against what would divide us and destroy us,” he said.

Thornburg said he engages with mutual aid because he needs the organized and united community it creates, just as everyone does or will at some point. Mutual aid is quickly becoming the sole source of accessible power for all people.

Thornburg also engages in the community by voting, contacting elected officials and donating to local nonprofits. When certain tools work for certain jobs, he feels obliged to use them.

“That being said, mutual aid — mass work more specifically — is not only an essential tool in this particular historical moment but it is becoming more useful by the day where others become less so,” he said.

FTP has faced some changes this year. Their primary distribution location in Gifford Park was Media Corp., which provided an all-weather, year-round distribution space, as well as storage and preparation space. Sophie said Media Corp unfortunately was evicted by their landlord, who hopes to renovate the building and create a retail space. Currently, FTP needs a place for distributions when the weather is bad.

In addition to their Gifford Park distributions, FTP also visits Park Ave neighborhoods — no matter the weather condition. Photo courtesy of Taylor Thornburg.

“We have started canvassing in Gifford Park to gauge community members’ interest in creating a permanent community building in their neighborhood,” Sophie said. “Not only could FTP use a space like this for distribution, but community members could create classes or after school programs for each other, hold community events and other activities that foster community connections.”

Thornburg said canvassing is an exciting new project for FTP.

“Media Corp. was an asset to the Gifford Park neighborhood where it was located,” he said. “In defense of this asset, we planned and implemented a community survey to gather information about the neighborhood, our neighbors’ needs, wants, wishes and desires, and begin the process of planning a community center to replace Media Corp.”

He said so far, they have found their neighbors shared the same affinity they felt for Media Corp.

“The reception for this canvassing effort and the vision it supports has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “Following this project, we will compile a report on Gifford Park to share with other activist organizations and community partners. The plan is to then begin planning and fundraising for a new community center to restore the displaced community center Media Corp. once provided.”

Thornburg said FTP works alongside Omaha’s other mutual aid organizations as comrades. They circulate members, information, funds and resources.

“We all may have different visions for the future, but we share an immediate goal: community,” he said.

Thornburg said Big Muddy and Free Farm Syndicate also help them provide fresh vegetables in the summer.

“If you have considered joining FTP or another organization but worry about time and availability, we highly encourage community members to get involved by donating periodically or regularly to our respective causes,” he said.

To become a PayPal subscriber to FTP, visit this link.

FTP will also be at a free spaghetti lunch with several social organizations in Omaha on Saturday, Oct. 9 at 2 p.m. at Miller Park. Sophie said they are going to feature material about worker’s rights and history.

“We would love to see any community members there,” she said.