Beauty in Our Community: Youth-Led Mutual Aid in South Seattle
by Jackie Le
Mutual aid is fundamentally rooted in social solidarity, as opposed to systems of charity. What does that mean? It means that instead of relying on the state or hierarchical structures to provide top-down services it will ultimately not provide, it is up to us as a community to gather together. We have the power to care for each other through sharing and using our collective resources. This can mean sharing material essentials like food or funds, and forming relationships of trust and emotional support. But what has been young people’s role in mutual aid?
Layla Ismail, a 15-year-old sophomore at Cleveland High School, helped create the youth-centered mutual aid group Beauty in Our Community (BIOC). She got her start in organizing through her interest in climate change and other issues, advocating against environmental racism and wealth disparities. The community organizer is grounded in her lived experiences of being a Black girl who grew up low income in South Seattle with communities like her that grew up on reduced cost school lunch and in Section 8 housing that assists low-income families with living costs. “I just automatically feel a sense of trust and camaraderie with other Somalis, and that extends to other Black people, femmes, and POC because of the shared experience and oppression that connects us,” Ismail says.
Ismail moved to South Seattle from Ohio, a state with one of the highest Somali populations in the country. She tells me about an experience with the hijab. When Ismail was in first grade, she wanted to be like her mother who wears the hijab, and she started wearing it to school. When the white kids saw her, they laughed and stared.
She sees this as an example of what so many people and young girls continue to face now. It was that experience, in combination with other experiences, that led her to create BIOC with other youth organizers who were driven to build community power. Ismail has seen firsthand how much activism in Seattle is performative and centered around wealthy white people. Some “activists” have proved that they are not actually meeting the needs of the communities they’re supposed to be helping. Ismail sees people’s perception and media coverage of Seattle being dominated by the wealthy parts of Seattle, whereas the aspects she holds close to her identity - like the Boys and Girls club, the Columbia City station, Somali moms gossiping, and little kids learning in the library - are not being amplified. This type of narrative that is pushed out into the world is not representative of Seattle’s entirety.
BIOC is working to change that narrative, by making sure Black and Brown youth and people who lead movements in South Seattle are centered, credited for their work, and have the resources they need to thrive, something Ismail and other members of BIOC have fought to gain in their own lives. BIOC is grounded by their shared experiences and how they’ve navigated oppression, and never forget who they are or where they come from.
“It’s powerful for youth to stand up and say we see the gentrification happening, that we notice we don’t get the food in our Safeway, and our schools are underfunded. We’re being stereotyped as ‘dangerous’ and ‘ghetto’, when we are just existing and are lacking the resources that we need to thrive.”
“Creating change in the community is vital from the inside,” Ismail says, “No one else is going to do this for us.” Building community power is fundamental to BIOC. A goal she has for the group is to help the community grow. To see their impact materialize in helping immigrant, Black, low-income families, and the South End prosper.
From hosting a Black youth centered mutual aid event held at the Rainier Beach Community Center to collaborating with Nikkita4Nine’s campaign listening post, the work BIOC has been doing has truly reached the community far and wide. The Rainier Beach event happened in late August. Members of BIOC originally planned the event to give out masks because of the pandemic, which disproportionately affects the Black community. “Us as a community not having these resources made BIOC take a step back and realize that we need to do something about this.” Ismail says. They collected N95 masks, hygiene kits, and children’s clothing, which they then distributed to the community. Much of the organizing for these events took place virtually because of the pandemic.
Layla spoke about how she felt during the mutual aid event. When they were giving out materials, she realized the people she saw were her communities, the same ones being impacted by BIOC’s mutual aid work that she organizes for. In particular, seeing a mother with her young daughter reminded her of her own mother working late nights. “I can’t even explain it; it was mind blowing - I couldn’t put it into words,” she tells me.
The group reached out to community organizer Nikkita Oliver’s campaign for the Seattle City Council, but they were busy at the time. Some time after that, Nikkita4Nine connected with BIOC to collaborate on a Youth Power Community Listening Post to listen to what youth were saying and how campaigns could shift to better include youth. Youth were “invited to analyze the 9 Nikkita4Nine policy priorities and share their lived experiences through art.” The event also included a poetry workshop with artist Rell Be Free and a mutual aid exchange of youth friendly hygiene kits, school supplies, gender affirming clothing, and binders with BIOC. It was a big success. Beauty in Our Community hopes to collaborate with Nikkita’s campaign further in the future, and see how Southend youth can help them make waves in office.
But why is mutual aid important?
As Ismail puts it, mutual aid is important because if we aren’t being cared for by those in power, we need to huddle together and create this space for ourselves. A space where as a community, if anyone needs help, we will provide help, and vice versa. Care is reciprocated; what is needed is given, and we do that ourselves. What BIOC is doing is trying to aim for a future where Southend kids have the opportunity to succeed in their classes and careers. “It’s possible not just for little white boys and girls, but for little Black boys and girls to have the resources to succeed,” Ismail explains.
I asked Layla what advice she has for other young organizers. She said “Don’t sacrifice identity for anything. Don’t let people profit off of you because of your skin color, immigration status, or how you navigate through the system. Don’t let people tokenize you. To youth of color: protect your sanity and mental health, take care of yourself always. You can’t help others effectively until you help yourself, are taken care of, and have good mental health. Self-care, always.”
If you’re interested in joining BIOC, they’re prioritizing Black youth and youth of color from the Southend. Their Instagram is @beautyinourcommunity. If you are unable to access Instagram, you can also email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you’re someone who’d like to collaborate with BIOC, please reach out to them through their email above.