Mutual Aid Groups: Five reflections for ‘Activists’ going local for the first time

Inspired by Anna Kleist‘s hot takes on an initial few weeks of local mutual aid organising in the UK, I was inspired to throw in a few (slightly longer!) additional reflections, building on some of the points in Anna’s list, and bringing a few more to the surface. They come from some early experiences of mutual aid organising in recent weeks, as well as several years of community-based organising and several years before that involved in less-local forms of campaigning and activism. It’s particularly aimed at folks that the current crisis has swept up from Capital A Activist spaces, and dropped into neighbourhood-based groups for the first time. These are folks who have often brought with them assumptions about what organising means, based on groups with more connection to shared ideology, than shared place.

  1. Our street is not an Activist group

Unlike climate activist groups, identity-led campaigns or those that come together to challenge broad injustices, people join local mutual aid groups with only two points of common ground: 1) the place they live, and 2) some sense that we need each other in the current mess. If we make any assumptions beyond these points of agreement, we are doing something different to mutual aid – we are building local activist groups. That might not sound like a bad thing, but if local organising work has taught me anything, it’s that most people don’t agree with enough of our beliefs to make that a viable local organising strategy. (Why do we think every street doesn’t already have its own anarchist action hub?). If we try to organise our local mutual aid groups along the same lines we might organise a protest camp, we’ll end up talking to ourselves. We – especially those of us who are less-impacted by the various toxic and oppressive ideas that are floating out there in our neighbourhoods – are going to need to find ways to be patient and to talk through some pretty major differences, rather than immediately banning or excluding folks cause they think we need the police to protect us from irresponsible neighbours, or because they think 5G causes COVID19. (There is definitely a longer essay on the contradictions between values and community, but I’ll leave it at that for now).

  1. Keeping our inner charity workers at bay

Whatever more radical beliefs we espouse, for those of us privileged enough to not rely on others for our immediate needs, it takes active work to avoid replicating the power dynamics of a ‘giver and receiver’ charity model. This one isn’t easy, but if we believe in mutual aid, we need to believe two things: 1) other people need us, and 2) we need other people. The specific forms that those needs take will always vary between people and time and context, but if we’re not willing to make our needs known, be vulnerable, ask for help and give others the chance to support us, we aren’t actually doing mutual aid. Sometimes privilege can let us forget all the ways we do actually need others. We have to work from the assumption that any of us are just as entitled to ask our groups for support, even when our needs might not seem as urgent as the older person who can’t get their prescription or the family trying to keep kids fed when their incomes have disappeared. Sometimes seeing others ask for help can also make it easier for someone else to do so.

  1. The people who join us first are often not those most impacted

The friendly text we put on our flyers might not seem friendly to everyone. Those who face the most bullshit in the racist capitalist world we live in often have a lot more reasons not to trust strangers as a default. Finding the ways to build that trust and those relationships is not easy at the best of times, but it’s that much harder in lockdown. Knocking on doors (and standing at a safe distance) to explain the group a bit more might be a good follow-on to a leaflet drop. Starting chats when we see folks who live on the street walking by might be another. Translating leaflets or having folks who speak common languages reach out to one another sometimes works. Encouraging folks already in the group to tell their immediate neighbours about it, so the invite is coming from a more familiar source, can also help. All of this is to create the connections that will support our communities to live and work together through this crisis and beyond. If we don’t make active efforts to build trust across privilege differences, these groups could end up reinforcing the power of those who already have more of it and further isolating those with less.

  1. More local = less coordination = greater distribution of power

My street group has one document it occasionally shares – it’s a spreadsheet with all the house numbers on the street on it and a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ beside each number, to record whether someone from that address is in the WhatsApp group. Sometimes people write a small note in the next column if there is someone at the address who is not on WhatsApp, or should have neighbours checking in by other means. In contrast, the ward level WhatsApp is flooded with GoogleDocs, sorting and organising all manner of things. Trouble is, most people don’t engage with them. And those that do, end up with a lot more knowledge and power in the groups than those who don’t. At the street level, a few of us do more updating of that one spreadsheet than others, which inevitably gives us a little more oversight than those in the group that haven’t looked at it or filled it in. But with each additional document, proportionally fewer people are as involved in the nuts and bolts of what the group does. When this is the case, things tend to default to ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ – while most people who don’t feel as comfortable in the world of online documents, simply leave. If we keep the scale small, we can keep the admin minimal, visible and accessible and keep a space where more people can get on with the mutual aid they came to the group to be part of.

  1. We can do more radical food distribution that keeps more people fed

Anna’s article makes a really important point about how a neighbour collecting their neighbour’s groceries from Asda may help keep that neighbour alive, but doesn’t do so in a way that challenges capitalism or unequal food distribution. It also doesn’t help those who have lost work and simply don’t have money to give to Asda. Not to downplay the importance of these simple acts as a starting point, but we can do food in very different ways, besides shifting who is and isn’t going to the big supermarket chains. This could be growing and sharing food on the street, reducing the costs and travel impacts of our diets. It could be skipping (safer than all the potential contagion vectors inside a supermarket!) and redistributing food from the bins, addressing both food waste and cost at the same time. It could be doing bulk street orders to urban farms and independent fresh food wholesalers, to bring down costs and/or ensure fresh food is available to neighbours feeling the economic hit of the pandemic. There are so many ways to be doing food-based mutual aid that don’t just let the big supermarket chains further consolidate their control over our lives!
Not sure if this offers any helpful direction, or simply adds to the link traffic that will clutter more ward, borough and regional-level mutual aid WhatsApps, but I’m on twitter (@hackofalltrades) if you make your own list of reflections and wanna compare notes.

Ross Chrisdale

Photo Credit: Wikicommons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.