The emerging Covid-19 public health crisis has triggered a prolonged economic crisis quite like no other, posing widespread threats and challenges to workers, carers and households throughout the UK. In order to explore various aspects of how this impacts different communities, Common Wealth has launched a series of interviews with activists and campaigners.
Spread through WhatsApp groups, email threads and community noticeboards, mutual aid groups emerged as a nimble, highly responsive way for communities to cope in the early days of the public health crisis. Even before a lockdown was announced, these self-organised groups helped vulnerable residents with errands and tasks that might put them at risk and continue to function as a non-commodified support service in communities throughout the UK. Anna Vickerstaff is an organiser with Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK, an early mutual aid response group that acted as a platform to support the formation of new groups. Common Wealth spoke with Vickerstaff about the organising principles behind mutual aid, and the long-term prospects for these groups after the crisis.
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COMMON WEALTH: I wanted to ask about the origins of mutual aid. What sort of origins and traditions was the group looking towards?
ANNA VICKERSTAFF: Mutual aid is rooted in anarchist history, radical black history and sex worker organising. Part of the reason we were leaning towards the mutual aid model rather than general community volunteer model is because mutual aid is horizontal in terms of the way it’s organised – in terms of the distribution of power but also the way help is given not just in one direction. It's not a helper-recipient model, but a flow of cooperative and collective resource, with a view to building cooperation and community solidarity, rather than handouts or charity in the way that people would normally interpret it.
COMMON WEALTH: What kind of people have been getting involved in the organising?
ANNA VICKERSTAFF: It's really hard to say because there are so many groups now. The last time I checked there were 4000 groups – yeah, I checked it yesterday and there were 4000 groups, now there are 4300 groups. Those groups often cover big areas, whole towns or whole boroughs. Each of those groups tends to split down into smaller groups to organise street by street, or smaller area because that's the most effective way to give support, both in terms of how the virus spreads and in terms of building genuine relationships between people. It also helps with safeguarding – people know the others in their area.
I've done a lot of community organising. My background is mostly in environmental work, climate campaigning and migrant rights. This, more than anything I've seen before, has a mix of everybody involved. There are definitely some groups that have been led by existing community groups, whether that's local political groups, or church groups, or campaign groups. There are definitely some groups that have sprung out of existing networks. But there's also a lot of new people just a lot of groups that are organising street by street, and organising cross-political affiliations. The demographics, experiences and skills people bring are really mixed. And they're all operating autonomously, which is the whole point of mutual aid - it's about organising in a way that works for your community.
COMMON WEALTH: How did it get up and running, did you put out resource packages?
ANNA VICKERSTAFF: I was in a group in Lewisham, and my understanding is that that was one of the first groups. It was a group of friends communicating through a Facebook group, some people with community organising experience, and their friends, who were interested in the model of mutual aid. At the same time a couple of groups set up in other boroughs in London. I did a media interview about the work in Lewisham and got asked "where do people go to set up this model and start their own groups?” and I thought, "do you know what, actually there isn't anywhere at the moment”. So I spoke to some people in the various groups and we asked whether it was worth starting a resource pack. We mocked up a very basic, embarrassingly basic, WordPress site with a local group on it, and then a Facebook and a Twitter to push them out. It took off from there. People were already starting to self-organise anyways, but the website provided a space to people get resources on things they were really concerned about: how to communicate effectively with each other and with vulnerable people, how to do safeguarding, how to do money-handling, how to physically limit the spread of the virus. It is also somewhere to register their groups. We have an interactive map with all of the groups that can be searched by postcode or town so that people can find a group they want to join or contribute to. Or people who are seeking help can get in touch with their group that way as well.
Essentially what that platform has become now is two things, one is a space for that map function, to find the nearest group to join or get support from. Two is a place for resources, which we're updating on principles of organising, what mutual aid is, responses to shifts in government policy and safeguarding, etc. etc. We've got people continuously getting in touch and offering stuff for that, which is great.
It's also worth saying we're not responsible for, and can’t take credit for, anything the individual groups do. They’re not “our groups”. The platform exists as a support collective more than a coordinating body because again, that would defeat the point of mutual aid, which is that it's non-hierarchical. As a platform we're trying to not be outwardly very political and create resources for whoever needs them, but mutual aid is by its very nature political because of the way it intersects with democracy, and because of the fact that we're having to rely on community care in the wake of complete failure of the government. While we're not making political demands, as a group of people coordinating this support, we recognise that this is a magnifying glass on existing injustice in the UK, and we are pointing people to other campaigns that other groups are running to try and undo some of that injustice. Whether that's stuff renters unions are doing, Migrants Organise, and JCWI are doing, some disability rights groups are doing - we're signposting that on the website, and sharing written resources for how to support vulnerable communities with mutual aid.
The only other thing to know in terms of how we’re organising is that we have a Facebook group for admins of mutual aid groups, a space for them to ask questions, and that's one of the most active communication we're having, through the email, Facebook chat, and admin Facebook group. The emails are mostly coming from vulnerable people who can't find a local group, usually because they don't use Facebook, so they email us, and we put them in touch with their nearest local group.
COMMON WEALTH: When people think about mutual aid they are mainly thinking about food and medication delivery, but what other initiatives have you seen from these mutual aid groups?
ANNA VICKERSTAFF: The groups are figuring out what they are comfortable with doing and what works for their communities. It’s not for us to define, but we are encouraging people not to do anything that would be a breach of safeguarding – i.e encouraging people to not look after someone's kids if they don't already know them.
Food deliveries and collecting medication is key, but some of the best support has been over the phone. This is a public health crisis not just because of the impacts of the virus, but because of the mental health impacts people are suffering. And there's not a lot of conversations happening around the mental health conditions that are going to spike during this period. I think that phone support is actually really helping to combat that in this period of extended isolation. It’s another example of a community solution filling a gap that the government has left gaping open.
There's a real mixture of other things happening across the groups. We've seen some examples of children who are at home from school spending their time drawing pictures which are then sent to elderly neighbourhoods to show them that there are people thinking of them. Some local restaurants who aren't serving now have helped create meals for vulnerable people. There was a woman who was expressing extra breast milk for women who couldn't get milk in the shops because of bulk buying. There's been a lot of unbelievable acts of generosity. But it's generosity and also common sense. It shouldn't be a radical act to care for your community in a time of crisis. I think this has shown that people do actually have the appetite, goodwill, and energy to build community solidarity that is cross-political. The organising that's happening now will outlast the virus, in that sense.
COMMON WEALTH: What kind of challenges have you run into? What are groups struggling with?
ANNA VICKERSTAFF: To be honest one of the biggest challenges is the misunderstanding of what mutual aid is. Some people are used to a more hierarchical helper-and-vulnerable-person dynamic which isn't the same sense of community building defined by mutual aid. It might not seem like a huge problem in terms of getting practical things done like delivering food etc, but it has created some strange power dynamics in some community groups. People with more privileges are taking up what they perceive to be “lead” roles in their groups and not creating space for people who are repeatedly marginalised in organising spaces. This is an issue not only because those people and voices usually hold perspectives and knowledge of the experiences of vulnerable people to corona virus and existing economic injustice, but also because marginalised communities have been self organising with principles of mutual aid for decades, and their learning is being sidelined. It’s worth saying that I don’t think any of that is malicious. Everyone organising in mutual aid is doing so from a position of wanting to provide support and care and that core intention shouldn’t be knocked even if its manifestations are clunky. But good intentions are not an excuse to abdicate responsibility and what we do need to recognise is that a product of organising in a white supremacist society is uneven power dynamics. There is a responsibility for those people with more societal privilege and organising privilege to pause, look around and recognise the existing experiences and knowledge in their community and centering that wisdom to ensure the organising we’re doing doesn’t leave anyone behind. This stuff is hard, and I have definitely got it wrong in the past and will continue to get it wrong in the future, but it is essential to building genuine solidarity networks. Even though the concept might feel overwhelming, luckily the work starts with a very simple step: listening.
Another issue from our side as a support collective, is that there are now more than 4000 groups so it's impossible to know what they're all doing. So, it's challenging but it's also great because I think it's how community organising should be done in my opinion. As soon as there's too much centrally held knowledge or power it stops being effective. It's a challenge from our side not to know what's going on and figuring out how to disseminate the most up-to-date information and resources, but I think the fact that these groups are organising at the most local level in a way that works for them is ultimately more important.
The other challenge I have experienced is trying to disarm the media's general perception of the role of the page me and some volunteers are managing. It’s this expectation we're a coordinating body/founders of the mutual aid network or even ideas of mutual aid all together. That’s not true at all, but it’s probably easier for the media to say “look what these nice young people from London are doing” rather than credit the historic examples of migrants and sex workers organising in this way. Some of these mutual aid groups responding to corona virus might have come out of reading a local group guide that we wrote, but we're not NGO with a local group network. They're completely autonomous groups and we're just trying to provide local resources for those groups to work effectively. I think some of the framings around how the work's been done by the media has been unhelpful, in undoing the principles of mutual aid but also capitalising the narrative of white saviour-ism.
COMMON WEALTH: What's next for mutual aid groups, as the quarantine is extended?
AV: There are a few questions around that. In terms of practically, in terms of government guidelines, mutual aid is allowed to happen during the lockdown. A lot of groups have taken the government advice and cracked on with it.
For me, there are two questions that are unanswered. The first is: the UK is currently experiencing mass disruption, we know that, but we're also on the edge of a period of sustained trauma and grief. It's going to get worse from here. People respond to that in different ways. For some people, including me, the response to fear and trauma and grief is to just get on with stuff and feel useful. I think there's a real risk of burnout with the groups who channel their emotional trauma into organising without making space for processing. We're working with some really experienced people with training in trauma-informed activism and activist burnout to generate some resources for local groups moving forward. I'm talking about it in jargon, but essentially I think there is a role of experienced activists with an understanding of the impacts of intense organising and burn out to support people who are doing this for the first time. A lot of the people in these groups wouldn’t self-define as activists, they're people that are scared and want to help their community. And I think we need to think about how to support them because if we can’t rely on the government to provide PPE and basic safe working conditions for NHS staff I’m not holding my breath for them rolling out support for people processing grief and trauma.
The second thing is thinking about what comes after. What happens when we’re allowed back outside? Are we looking to go back to normal? At the moment, people are just filling in the immediate need and urgency in their community. But I feel like there's some potential that as the economy is crashing, and when the initial wave of physical health impacts have slowed or halted, community organising will turn to support people who have been most affected by economic collapse. With the virus, everyone is going to be affected by it, but not everyone is going to experience it in the same way. The same is true of the economic crash. Coronavirus is a magnifying glass and it's just exposing existing injustice in the UK.
A question people are already asking is “why are our public services and workers so chronically underfunded and undervalued?” People are seeing firsthand how essential our public services are, how essential key workers are – cashiers, nurses, cleaners, people that are dramatically undervalued are being hailed as heroes. The hero narrative can be really unhelpful and a tokenistic celebration when what these people actually need and deserve is better treatment and deserve better pay. Right now, some people are experiencing hardship for the first time, for many people this is the first instance when they’re being told they can’t just do whatever they want. I think coronavirus has exposed some people who were previously blissfully ignorant to the realities of what is happening in our society and as a result we could see that a much bigger appetite around organising for better public services, better renter’s rights, migrant rights etc. I hope that when lockdown ends, people will ask questions like “If we can put homeless people in hotels for the duration of the pandemic, why do we consistently fail at providing secure accommodation the rest of the time?”, “We’re seeing growing numbers of people going hungry which people are outraged by, but what about the hunger that existed before the coronavirus hit?” “Public health crisis or not, how do we ensure people never have to choose between eating and paying rent?”. Hopefully, the community solidarity networks that are being built now will be able to recognise that even when people are allowed to leave their houses and the hospital is less full, the economic impacts are going to be deadly and there needs to be organising around that. I have strong hopes that the community networks being built now will have a strong role in that.
COMMON WEALTH: What sort of longer-term transferences in ownership would you like to see, particularly when it comes to the development of solidarity networks?
ANNA VICKERSTAFF: I'm answering this as me, and not the network or even Mutual Aid UK, but for me I think it comes first in terms of immediate economic support in the form of bailouts. The government needs to be bailing out people and not companies. Bailing out affected workers and conditions in bailouts to redistribute ownership of that company to the workers in it, for example. There’s a real risk that as a result of the economic crash, some of the biggest corporations in the world will gain even more power and any bailouts need to work in a way that mitigates that. I think that more long term there are lots of questions around ownership more broadly, especially of land. Access to land but also housing, and how that's affected. The housing rights organising that's going on at the moment has the potential to be some of the most lasting. I think also people are realising how essential public services are: things that they previously had not seen as public services are actually essential. Things like Wi-Fi, public transport – which has the word public in it but realistically is not public transport right now because it’s often owned by a few big companies – these are the questions people will start asking about ownership.
COMMON WEALTH: When it comes to community organising, has there been something that surprised you during your work on Covid-19 mutual aid?
ANNA VICKERSTAFF: The scale of organising is unlike anything I've seen or done before, and I think that's because health is something that affects everybody. Coronavirus is not a great leveler, and the systemic racism and inequality in society is causing it to affect everyone differently, but I do think it's an overwhelming reality check on the fragility of life. And that is a catalyst that often does not exist in community organising. One thing I've reflected on is that quite often community organising stems from a pre-existing agenda: with distributed organising, you have people developing a model or an idea that's distributed out widely, and then you bring people in. That's how a lot of campaigning organising is done, especially on the left. What we've seen in this instance is a much more decentralised approach, where groups are just organising from the ground-up in a way where it’s really hard to know what everyone in the groups is doing but they are building their own power and building their own agendas. And that's partially why it's growing the way it is. People feel like they have ownership over it, and it's not just a spoon-fed campaign strategy from an NGO or a political party, it's a model people can adapt to their own needs that works for their community. It's an unprecedented situation so it's hard to compare it to a political fight or an environmental campaign, but I think we can learn from this level of ownership that the groups feel and the commitment to their community and their cause. This is especially important for me as a climate campaigner. We’re staring down the barrel of an even bigger crisis in the form of climate breakdown. Our attention might be averted but cyclones haven’t stopped ravaging the South Pacific, fossil fuel companies haven’t stopped invading indigenous territories. People are still displaced; people are still dying, and they will continue to do so. The biggest learning I’m taking is thinking about how to truly build power in communities organising and provide frameworks that centre on genuine solidarity.