How Mutual Aid Connects Us to Our History (And Why I’m Feeling Hopeful)

photo collage by Jordan Westlake

From the Progressive Era to 2020, mutual aid has played a central role in Boston Workers Circle.



By Jordan Westlake

Jordan Westlake is a communications intern at BWC and a rising junior at Connecticut College studying history and Global Islamic Studies. She was moved and inspired by her time working with our community, making many membership phone calls and working on important communication guides and analysis behind-the-scenes. This blog post shares some of what she's learned as she wraps up her summer with us.


My sophomore year of high school, I studied the Progressive Era in the U.S. from the 1890s to the 1920s. I learned about reformers such as Jane Addams and Lillian Wald who rallied in support of impoverished immigrant communities. I learned about the foundation of labor unions in response to exploitative conditions in factories, and even about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. However, I did not learn about the major impact that the Jewish community had on this era of political reform and social activism, as well as Workmen’s Circle’s integral role, until my internship this summer at Boston Workers Circle.


Jewish immigration to the U.S. is long and complicated, beginning with Sephardic Jews arriving from Brazil in the 1600s. Eastern European Jews immigrated to the U.S. in large numbers after 1880, settling in tenements of major cities, such as New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Baltimore. 


By 1897, approximately 60% of New York City’s Jewish workforce was in the garment industry – and 75% of workers in that field were Jewish. By 1910, 70% of women’s clothing and 40% of men’s clothing in the entire U.S. was being produced in NYC. Despite the fact that this provided job opportunities for Jewish immigrants, they worked in exploitative conditions, pulling long hours in cramped spaces for very little pay.


As a result, Jewish immigrant workers supported labor movements for better working conditions long-term, and recognized the immediate need for community support. In 1892, Jewish sweatshop workers founded a mutual aid society called Workingmen’s Circle in which they provided benefits that immigrants would not have had access to otherwise. These included sick, health, funeral, and death benefits, and even a home for the elderly.


By 1940, there were 100 community centers, known as Labor Lyceums, across the U.S. The labor movement in Boston was in full swing; strikes were happening everywhere. BWC was a large source of such activity.


BWC’s connection to the labor movement, social justice, and mutual aid runs deep. The history is evident in this excerpt from the 1901 Workmen’s Circle Declaration of Principles:


"The constant want and frequent illness which particularly afflict the workers have led us to band together in the Workmen’s Circle, so that by united effort we may help one another. The Workmen’s Circle knows that the aid which it can bring to the worker today is no more than a drop on a hot stone. It will do in time of need. But that there shall be no need—this is the true ideal. The Workmen’s Circle desires to be one more link in the workers’ bond of solidarity, ultimately bringing on the day of complete emancipation from exploitation and oppression."


These words ring true today as BWC continues to live into these mutual aid values. As the descendant of Eastern European Jewish immigrants of this era, I am proud that I have roots in a community with these ideals and that their legacy continues through mutual aid. 


In 1901, the government clearly did not care for the working class and instead allowed monopolies and robber barons to exploit them. The poor and immigrant working class had to take it upon themselves to help their communities through mutual aid networks, such as the Workmen’s Circle.


I was implicitly taught in school that those days were over, that the Progressive Era had succeeded and fulfilled its goals. Education on the Civil Rights Movement is even worse. The public school system often teaches that Martin Luther King Jr. brought the country together and ended racism. However, I know now that is not the case at all. Until we dismantle the systems of institutionalized racism and capitalism that exploit the working class and especially people of color, the American people must take matters into their own hands to fight for equity and inclusion, and to support one another.


In 2020, the U.S. faces not only the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of over 170,000 people in the U.S (at the time of writing), but also police brutality, white supremacy, systemic racism, climate change, the list goes on. Perhaps the Workmen’s Circle’s 1905 principles foreshadows our current situation: “We fight sickness, premature death, and capitalism.”


BWC’s mutual aid work continues to stay as relevant as ever. Since the pandemic hit, our community has connected to our mutual aid roots in several new ways. The Immigrant Justice Committee has raised over $28,000 for immigrant neighbors, giving out multiple rounds of grants to families and individuals, and they’re continuing to collect donations. Back in March, four BWC members took it upon themselves to start their own mutual aid network serving the Medford and Somerville area. A group of BWC members formed to assess the needs of our BWC community, and the best ways to meet them.


Susan Werbe, a new BWC member who has put a great deal of time and heart into our COVID-19 community response, shared, “[My mother’s] philosophy, which she passed onto me, was, ‘You are only as strong as the least strong member of your community. You’re only as healthy, in all meanings of that word, as the least healthy person in your community, and that we’re put on this earth to make a difference one to the other.’... It is so representative of what BWC stands for.”


In addition, a group of Boston Workers Circle members has been working hard to create a BWC Mutual Aid Network, an open resource to connect BWC community members. This High Holiday season, they are launching a Mutual Aid Network listserv that allows people to offer and request services, skills, and free goods between each other. Members of this ad hoc “care team” made hundreds of phone calls this spring to BWC members to check-in, listen to what people needed, and have warm conversations. They plan to make calls again once the BWC Mutual Aid Network officially launches. 


As Susan told me, “One thing that’s come out of these horrible four years and the pandemic is that [more & more] people understand the necessity not only of the role that the wider society plays, but also the role that each of us plays one to the other. And I think that’s a very hopeful thing.”


It is mutual aid networks and community members like these that give me some much needed renewed faith in the good of humanity.