Interview With the Founder of Imagine Mutual Aid New Orleans

Mutual aid are two words that go well together. To find out what they mean, Big Easy Magazine (BEM) spoke with Imagine Water Works’ Klie Kliebert (they/them) the Founder and Executive Co-Director for Imagine Water Works and the creator of Imagine Mutual Aid. This interview is abridged.

BEM: What can you tell me about Imagine Waterworks?

Kliebert: The quick summary is Imagine Water Works is a trans-led organization that has focused on disaster preparedness, climate justice, water management, and community organizing here in New Orleans since 2012.

Our mission is to reimagine the future through art, science, and human connection. We’ve also been working in partnership with Project South and the Southern Movement Assembly on developing a Mutual Aid Liberation Center since early 2019. Much of our work in 2020 was possible because we were preparing for it long before COVID hit.

This is a decision that we made together as a team. It was important to us that our leadership be reflective of where we work. As a Creole, Indigenous, native New Orleanian, I help to bring both current and historical context to our work.

BEM: And what is mutual aid?

Kliebert: Mutual aid is a guiding principle for practicing reciprocal and collective care — and it works toward long-term change. It’s not charity simply for charity’s sake. Instead, mutual aid aims to build community so that we can create a world that is more free for all of us.

BEM: How did this come about as it connects to Imagine Water Works?

Kliebert: So, in early 2019 we joined Project South’s “Building A Movement Institute for Disaster Preparedness and Response” and started creating a network of mutual aid organizers across seven Southern states. The idea is that, if we work together to create a strong network across the South, we can be better prepared to support each other through both natural and manmade disasters.

We’re committed to the values of mutual aid organizing and had been doing local disaster preparedness work formally for seven years (and informally for much longer!), so it was a perfect fit.

BEM: How has organizing changed because of COVID?

Kliebert: In the age of COVID, we had to quickly move our work into the digital space. We launched a Facebook group during “early COVID” that has since grown to nearly 4800 members who have helped each other find housing, mobility devices, food, financial resources, and importantly: joy and connection.

BEM: With Imagine Mutual Aid, can you point to any success stories you’re particularly proud of?

Kliebert: An upside to moving the work into a digital space is that we’ve been able to connect with folks across the world, too. For example, we launched the Trans Clippers Project in our mutual aid group, in response to transgender folks needing haircuts to help with dysphoria and mental health. Within weeks, that was expanded to three countries and 18 U.S. cities. When George Floyd was killed, we already had a presence in Minneapolis because of the Trans Clippers Project. We lost a large order of hair clippers to a fire during the protests — so we reconnected with everyone who had requested a set, and asked if they were organizing in support of Black Lives Matter. We were able to resend the clippers, along with monetary support to help a dozen transgender and nonbinary medics on the front line. All of that was made possible because of the combo of both digital and in-person organizing.

We didn’t have supplies or a ton of money. We had a completely volunteer team, and we work out of our homes. It started with New Orleanians and was genuinely made possible by donations from across the world. This is truly the power of mutual aid that is responsive to community needs in the moment, and connected to folks who know what it’s like to survive and imagine a future in a world that doesn’t always want us to have one. Full circle: That applies locally in the context of hurricanes, floods, and climate change, too.

BEM: When you say your group is organized around black and indigenous principles, what does that mean?

Klibert: We say that because we want to give credit where credit is due, and we want folks to know that this is not a new concept. In New Orleans especially, we’ve had formal mutual aid societies for hundreds of years. And informal ones for longer than that. New Orleans is a hub of resistance and always has been. The principles of mutual aid — connectivity, solidarity, resistance to oppression — have been taught to us by our Black and Indigenous ancestors. Acknowledging that also helps us feel less alone. No one person has the solution to everything. We are part of a long lineage of mutual aid organizers who came before us, and there will be many who come after us. There is joy and power in knowing that.

BEM: How can people become involved with Imagine Mutual Aid and Imagine Water Works?

Kliebert: Thanks for asking — there are several ways to connect with us! We know this year is difficult and unpredictable, so we try to make it as easy as possible to plug in and to also take breaks. Our website has a newsletter signup, contact information, and links to our different projects. For people who use Facebook, we have an “Imagine Mutual Aid” group for both New Orleans and Houma; in those groups, people can join the conversation and directly connect with others who need support or are offering support. Those Facebook groups also serve as an “incubator” of sorts for other mutual aid projects that were formed in and supported by our group. To name a few that have grown into more formal projects: Southern Solidarity, the Trans Clippers Project, the Community Power Map (in response to Hurricane Zeta), and a Holiday Program that is delivering food, decorations, and specific presents to nearly 200 individuals across the state. We’re also on Twitter and Instagram, where we put out calls for specific actions that people can respond to. Lastly, we welcome emails!

BEM: Is there anything else that you’d like to discuss?

Kliebert: I’d just like to stress the importance of having mutual aid and disaster response — again, both natural and manmade disasters — rooted in community and long-term care and responsibility. Especially in New Orleans, where we’re on the frontlines of the climate crisis. What we saw during Katrina was a lot of folks came in, bought up land, started nonprofits, and then made policy decisions…without the leadership of native New Orleanians. In particular, without the leadership of Black and Indigenous New Orleanians who are most impacted by and have the most knowledge of what the climate crisis looks like here. That pattern, along with other factors, has accelerated gentrification and makes all of us more vulnerable to storms, flooding, and increasingly greater health and wealth disparities. We now have a chance to do it differently this time, in the face of COVID and a historically difficult hurricane season. We can choose to move forward with intention, with local BIPOC and LGBTQ people leading the way. We can truly support and lean on the knowledge of those who have been here “fighting the good fight” for decades — and then learn and build together. This year has given us an opportunity to renew our commitment to the land we’re on, the neighborhoods we live in, and the future that we share.

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