Where can you get a primer in ASL, brake-pad changing, and how to make laundry soap—and maybe pick up some free shirts and shoes while you’re at it—all in one go?

In Durham, that answer lies in North Durham Mutual Aid’s Really Really Free Market (RRFM), an annual event where neighbors come together to exchange clothes, skills, and ideas.

Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. in the spring of 2020, a surge of mutual aid groups sparked up around the country, as an already thin social safety net became more threadbare. Initial tasks, like getting groceries for people who couldn’t leave home, in those scary first few weeks, or checking in on neighbors, intensified as the country reared toward an eviction crisis and efforts to mobilize vaccination became more urgent.

Years later, that initial wave of communal neighborhood efforts has rolled back. But some groups have hung on and formalized into more serious long-term efforts, locally, like Katina Parker’s work with Feed Durham, and the community fridges you may see around the Triangle. And several years later, North Durham Mutual Aid—a group, per its website, that is coordinating efforts across “the neighborhoods of Northgate Park, Colonial Village, Braggtown, and surrounding areas”—has also kept up momentum and neighborhood relationships. (There is also a longstanding RRFM event in Carrboro.)

This year, the group celebrates its fourth annual Really Really Free Market on Saturday, October 28, at 305 E. Main Street from 1-4 p.m. Ahead of the event, the INDY emailed with Caroline Stayer-Brewington, a coordinator for the organization, to learn more about the ethos behind Really Really Free Markets and the work that the group does in Durham. 

Tell me about this upcoming Really Really Free Market (RRFM)—what can people expect? 

They can expect a great time! It’s hard to leave an RRFM without feeling inspired and connected. Anyone who comes will have the opportunity to share and receive items (like clothing, house supplies, art, etc), to share and learn new skills, and to make friends. Everything at the market is entirely free with no profits or trades. 

At this market, we will have folks teaching guitar, car maintenance, massage, embodiment and grounding skills, growing food, sign language, crocheting, and more! 

What’s the history of RRFM’s? 

The first known RRFM of this kind is credited to an event at a Food Not Bombs meal in Christchurch, NZ. The markets gained popularity in the US in the early 2000s. This is our fourth market as NDMA and we hope to make NDMA’s free markets a seasonal institution in Durham. 

What’s the most surprising item that’s been donated to or exchanged at a RRFM, that you’ve seen? 

Oh man, maybe less than surprising is just the overwhelmingly heartwarming stuff people give to each other. One time someone set up a griddle and made happy face pancakes for everyone, another person set up a station to write and receive anonymous love letters, I’ve seen someone give away their deceased father’s extensive funky tie collection. It’s really beautiful what people offer to one another when given the chance to share instead of “donate”.

The North Durham Mutual Aid group is hosting this event. Can you tell me a bit about the concept of mutual aid? 

Mutual aid basically means helping each other out. It’s a response to the shortcomings of government and non-profit programs to meet people’s needs. Our anchoring phrases in our group are “we already have everything we need” and “we take care of each other.” We highly recommend Dean Spade’s book Mutual Aid for anyone wanting to learn more about the practice.

What kinds of local things is your group involved in? 

Our specific mutual aid group was born in March 2020 as a response to the skyrocketing social and economic inequalities that were quickly exacerbated by the onset of the pandemic. At that time, we organized to pool resources for our neighbors’ unmet basic needs like safely obtaining food and having money to cover bills and medicines. 

We have continued our essential work without lapse since then and are still providing consistent monthly financial support and biweekly grocery deliveries to neighbors in need. This work is currently sustainable for us but the need is far greater and if anyone is interested in helping expand our capacity in these areas we welcome you to join us! We have also broadened the scope of our work beyond pure crisis response to provide the city with seasonal really, really free markets and have fostered off-shoot projects that are now self-sustaining like reading groups and a community garden in Colonial Village. 

I imagine it’s been hard to sustain momentum since the early days of the pandemic—how has that been for y’all? Are there other efforts that have evolved into long-term actions? 

Sustaining momentum has definitely been hard at times. I think what really keeps us going is our collective emphasis on making sure we’re having a good time. In the face of such dire suffering, it can feel like radical work to insist on joy and laughter. While we do all of the other necessary things like ensuring consent and balance for tasks we take on and caring for each other emotionally, I keep showing up to NDMA meetings and events because they’re always fun.

How can folks get involved? 

We would love to help everyone in Durham to get plugged into mutual aid work! You can reach out to us on Instagram (@northdurhammutualaid) or via email at northgateresponse@gmail.com or sign up in person at the Really, Really Free Market.

You can join the work we’re already doing or present ideas for new projects! We want everyone to enjoy mutual aid in a way that is sustainable and life-giving for them. There’s plenty that needs doing! 

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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