Mutual aid is essentially a straightforward idea, or at least, it’s straightforward enough as we apply it at Mutual Aid Alnwick. We run a Community Larder from a phone box and this is done in accordance with the basic principle of ‘take what you need, leave what you can’. We had aimed to expand our activities in the long term, inspired by the displays of solidarity seen across the country following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, we have found ourselves slipping through the cracks and battling for our survival.
Earlier this summer, several mutual aid groups who ran similar larders from similar phone boxes were faced with the same problem: BT had slapped a sticker on the phone boxes, targeting them for removal. Our phone box was no exception. It came as a surprise, since BT had granted us permission to use the kiosk in the first place when we opened in April 2020.
Talks were held with BT and these talks were circular in nature. We were referred to their Adopt-A-Kiosk scheme, whereby a phone box can be adopted by a registered charity or a town/parish council for £1, and they take on the responsibility for running it. Of course, as a mutual aid group, we are excluded from the scheme. We were also advised that the scheme applied to the red phone boxes only, for heritage reasons, whereas our Community Larder is unfortunately based inside a less photogenic 1980s-style kiosk. None of these fine traditional British red phone boxes exist in our town.
National pride is not a concept I, or many of my friends with similar leanings, have ever been familiar with, but I am a strong believer in kindness above all else. This is a concept our community can and should take pride in, perhaps to a greater extent than having our identity determined by jingoistic and abstract concepts such as pretty red phone boxes. Kindness is far more concrete. If there is something you can do in a difficult situation to make it less difficult, do that thing. If somebody’s cupboards are empty and there is a way of sparing them the anxiety and shame of having to approach strangers and sign the paperwork and share all their information simply to fill their cupboards again, choose that way. Of course issues such as food poverty are complex in nature, but our view has always been that those discussions can be had once those people are fed – then, of course, those directly affected by the issue in question can be involved in the discussion too.
In this case, we are also finding that we are doing all of the legwork while holding none of the power. We approached our town council when BT first advised us that the phone box was being removed, and asked them to adopt the kiosk on our behalf. The council were very enthusiastic about the idea, and contacted BT on our behalf, asking them to pause the removal while they sorted out the paperwork. Things ran as normal for the next four months, until one day, we noticed the phone box had been partially dismantled. The panelling was open, exposing the wires. The bike lock we’d used to attach the shelving to the kiosk had disappeared, and the door was hanging off. This made it unsafe for us to continue running. When asked, BT informed us that vandals had stolen the panel.
Luckily, these vandals had left the second, empty phone box attached to the one being used as a Community Larder entirely untouched, so as an interim solution, we simply moved everything over.
However, BT also placed considerable emphasis on their assertion that the paperwork had not been completed by the council, and that worse, they would be unable to postpone the planned removal of the phone box. The future of the Community Larder is now under discussion by the council; if, of course, the kiosk itself has not been removed by BT before they can reach a decision.
Like many grassroots groups, we find that we are spending all our time and energy on surviving and maintaining the status quo instead of growing and being able to help more people. This episode mirrors my own experience as a woman involved in activism, whereby you put so much energy into trying to make your voice heard by those who hold the power that you are too exhausted when the time comes to do anything else. Of course, our experience here is not unique and many minoritised groups and individual come up against the exact same barriers.
We are fighting on multiple fronts, and one of these is the outlook that some people have on food poverty. We saw instances on social media where people, believing they were doing the right thing, reported that they had seen children taking sweets from the Community Larder, and as happens all too often on social media, things deteriorated rapidly from there. People started advocating police involvement. Some people bemoaned the way that young people were these days and referred to the children in question as ‘feral rats’. Others advocated photographing the children without their knowledge or consent and posting the images online. This meant that we had to fight to establish principles that we had previously believed were self-evident, i.e. not treating children in that way even if they had done something wrong, and also underlining the fact that these particular children had done absolutely nothing wrong anyway. The food, sweets and all, is there for anyone who wants it.
More recently, somebody wrote on our requests board (a whiteboard given to us by a group member that gives people idea of what to donate) that the Community Larder should stop running, it is not needed, it is ridiculous, and worst of all, it is blocking access to the phone.
This last assertion is objectively untrue and, in our judgement, so are all these assertions. We receive a fantastic amount of positive feedback and practical assistance, and the idea of helping people, no questions asked, is not a ridiculous one. It is straightforward kindness beyond any one political ideology, and this kindness helps bring us together after so many of us have felt isolated and atomised during this pandemic.
If you’d like to sign our petition, it is here. We accept monetary donations on Open Collective (a transparent way of fundraising that allows you to see how the money is spent). Our Open Collective page is here.
Katie Roskams (@CaitRoisc), Mutual Aid Alnwick
All pictures by Mutual Aid Alnwick.