Community Care Systems in Boston Inspired by bell hooks
The Boston Ujima Project’s assembly All About Love: Community Care Systems asks: What would it take to love and care for the most marginalized people in the city?
“[O]ne of the most vital ways we sustain ourselves is by building communities of resistance, places where we know we are not alone,” wrote bell hooks in the 1994 book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom.
While her work builds on that of Black feminist scholars before her—like Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison—hooks’s “legacy is singular in the way she [centers the fight] against structural and institutional oppression” in the importance of community care, as notes Juliette Fekkar in a 2022 article published in Varsity, the independent student newspaper for the University of Cambridge.
All About Love
What would it take to love and care for the most marginalized people in a given community?
This is the question the Boston Ujima Project is asking. The group works to build cooperative economic infrastructure and return wealth to working-class communities of color.
Inspired by bell hooks’s work on “the power of love to reshape systems for the better,” as notes Paige Curtis, culture and communications manager for the Ujima Project, the member-run organization decided to host an assembly in April 2023 called “All About Love: Community Care Systems.” The event draws its name from hooks’s groundbreaking, iconic book.
“bell hooks understood that care is just one component of love,” says Curtis. “In her words, ‘Love is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust.’”
In Boston, as in cities across the U.S. and the world, there is a lack of overarching care for the most marginalized residents. Housing shortages, food insecurity, and the cost-of-living crisis were already significant issues prior to 2020, and many of those issues worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic. The need for better systems of care is likely to deepen in the next decade with the impacts of climate change. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 assessed a set of serious risks to humans now, as well as risks projected 10 years into the future. It found the most urgent current risk to be the cost-of-living crisis, and the most urgent in 10 years to be the climate crisis.
Curtis says while COVID-19 has exposed the financial hardships of residents and businesses in the city, even before the pandemic, the Ujima Project’s members and supporters put together a mutual aid fund to offer support to those in need, “governed by mutual respect for our collective well-being.”
What Does Care Look Like?
Community care systems can take many forms. They “might look like a time bank that allows people to value the resources they already have in their neighborhoods. Or a community-owned grocery store that caters to specific needs of its residents. Ujima’s own work culture is an act of community care. Everyone has a different definition of community care,” Curtis says.
The architects of the All About Love assembly—James Vamboi, Ujima’s chief of staff, community, and culture, and Cierra Peters, director of communications, culture, and enfranchisement—created the event to highlight community-led care systems through curated workshops, lectures, and discussions. The organization hosts two assemblies annually, and in April 2023 they chose to explore community care, “since it’s so central to our vision of a solidarity economy,” notes Curtis.
The assembly delves into a variety of ways care takes place in communities.
“Through the workshops, we touch on topics like queer joy, caring systems for emergency response, life and death, as well as how to support birthing people,” notes Curtis. “These are all important components of an inclusive care system.”
The assembly also looks into ways of caring for survivors of homicide, and building thriving queer communities. A discussion titled “Men’s Work: Practicing Communal Care” looks at ways men are working to dismantle sexism and gendered oppression.
“When we think about our personal lives and in the public realm, that caretaking often falls on women and femme-bodied people,” Curtis says. “But everyone has a role to play in community care. Men’s work can look like men loving and learning how to love themselves, despite deep-seated violence embedded into society and into masculinity itself. It can look like expressing emotions more freely, practicing consistency and accountability, being attuned with their bodies, men loving other men, and so much more.”
Several existing projects in Boston are centered around men doing feminist work to undo systems of oppression, two of which include the Black Men’s Collective and the Black Men’s Engagement Network, Curtis points out.
Cultivating Community Care
If you’re interested in supporting care in your community, Curtis says the first step is to “ask others what they need.”
“Too often outside actors come into communities of color to offer resources without asking them what they actually need and creating the space for communities to lead caring interventions themselves,” she says. “Don’t make assumptions. Be curious about how to care for each other.”
She says it’s inspiring to remember that community care has always been embedded in Black communities.
“Oftentimes our contributions to the history of philanthropy, mutual aid, medicine, and care work are left out of our nation’s grand narrative,” she says. “Care shows up in the long tradition of Black philanthropy in the U.S. Care shows up in the Black economic cooperative movement of the late 1960s and work done by the Black Panthers to offer public services to youth and those who need it. It’s inspiring to know that Black communities have always taken care of their own.”