Mutual Aid in Higher Ed

Karen Costa
5 min readNov 4, 2022


Thoughts and feels on how we might work, teach, and live in this volatile era

I’ve taught and worked in higher education for eighteen years. This, this era, feels different.

Despair feels like the sentence and hope some weaker form of punctuation we only see occasionally. A comma perhaps, which no one knows how to use anyway.

How do we work through this? How do we teach in this? How do we live? These are not rhetorical questions. I want guidance! I want specifics!

Here’s where I’ve landed lately, via the work of adrienne maree brown: into the model of mutual aid.

cover of Mutual Aid book by Dean Spade

Dean Spade, in his book Mutual Aid, describes how the model works:

“First, we need to organize to help people survive the devastating conditions unfolding every day. Second, we need to mobilize hundreds of millions of people for resistance so we can tackle the underlying causes of these crises.”

When I read this over the spring, it felt a touchstone amidst the chaos. Take care of each other. Imagine and create positive change. Repeat.

This week, I attended a webinar hosted by ACE on the topic of faculty and staff burnout. I want to take a minute here to connect this conversation to the mutual aid model, because I think it’s a chance for me (and us) to practice this work.

First, let me say that y’all know I’m picky about virtual presentation skills and webinars and…okay about many things…and this was a great session. I learned something from all of the presenters. The facilitator asked smart questions, kept us on track, and did a nice job making those of us in the chat feel like we were a super important part of this learning experience. And an active chat it was. Y’all know how much I love an active chat.

What came up in the webinar was the question of how to get executive leadership and administrators to meaningfully address faculty and staff burnout, which is very clearly harming not only faculty and staff but also students and institutions. The problem is not debatable (you can read the full report the webinar was based on; that’s not really what I’m here to write about). The question is, what are we going to do about it?

In this webinar and in countless other spaces, I keep hearing higher educators say things like, “Leadership needs to start taking care of people,” or “Leadership needs to recognize that this is a systems problem, not an individual problem.”

The thing is, no they don’t.

What people in positions of power need to do is protect the status quo. Their job is to keep power concentrated in the hands of the few instead of the many.

I am a little surprised at how many folks seem to avoid that reality. Some of y’all did not choose the major of champions, sociology, and it shows. I kid. Sort of.

I have written before that burnout amongst faculty and staff is not a bug; it’s a feature. The constant antagonism between faculty and staff is not a bug; it’s a feature. Our collective exhaustion is not a bug; it’s a feature.

Imagine the power of a faculty and staff who are well-cared for, fairly compensated, and truly supported. Imagine the power of a united faculty and staff. Imagine the power of a rested faculty and staff.

Imagine that power, and then ask yourself if executive leadership is properly motivated to address burnout, or any of the other countless challenges we’re facing.

(I hope it goes without saying that there are many caring leaders. There are many leaders who are themselves experiencing burnout and who are in need of rest and care. We’re not blaming individuals. We’re talking about systems that treat all of us as a means to an end.)

I’m tired of hearing that people in positions of power “need” to do things that would result in them willingly giving up their power. Why would I invest another cent of my time and energy in that false hope? Instead, I’m leaning into the model of mutual aid. I’m actively working toward divesting from people and places who aren’t invested in imagining a more inclusive world where everyone has enough. I’m done banging on those doors, pleading for them to answer. Instead, I am working to invest in community, in the power of what adrienne maree brown calls “critical connections.”

A critical connection can be an email, a DM, a text, or a walk down the hall to their office. It can be reading Mutual Aid. It is finding the people who tell the truth about the hard stuff and want to make it better, and investing your time in supporting them and connecting your vision of a brighter future to theirs. It is seeing through the lie that these connections are too small, or in higher ed lingo, that they aren’t scalable, so why bother. Lies. Those critical connections, I believe, are how we survive this.

Imagine the power of a faculty and staff who invest in each other.

Sage Crump, via brown, again, says that emergent strategy is “amplifying the importance of the incremental to impact the monumental.” This is what we can do through learning and practicing emergent strategy and mutual aid. We elevate the importance of the small. We elevate the importance of care. We use our energy where it has the power to make a difference.

We stop going to empty wells when we’re thirsty.

point of view, looking up from the bottom of a well

What is your vision of creating change in higher education? Does this land? What am I missing? What success have you had in shaping change on your campus? Tell me all the things!



Karen Costa

I write about higher education. Here for my work through 100 Faculty, LLC, supporting faculty, staff, and student success.