Dear Mutual Aid groups...
Let me start by saying thank you for all that you have done. We’ve seen local residents helping each other with shopping, with prescriptions, with staying safe and connected during these strangest of times. And this outpouring of generosity has been reflected in the local charitable organisations too, who are sharing resources and support across organisational boundaries in ways I have never seen before.
Like many you, I became a member of my local group (two in fact) in the week before the lockdown, completing the volunteer form, looking for a way to help others through this mess. In my home borough of Gateshead, the various local groups have a combined total of more than 8000 members. More than 1000 people have completed the Volunteer Registration Form, offering to help others in their local community. We’ve seen the same happening all around the country. Each group was set up by local residents and grew organically to match the needs of that particular locality. This is amazing.
I was speaking with a friend of mine recently, and I found myself describing the COVID-19 Mutual Aid groups as “communities expressing themselves.” I was surprised by this description, but I liked it, so I ran with it. I’ve heard a number of people speak of these groups like they would normally speak of people volunteering to help out a charity. But I think there are important differences.
One of the wonderful things about these groups is it is the same body of people who are volunteering as are needing help. Anyone of us might need help one week and be able to offer our help to others the next. As a society, as a planet, we’re dealing with a life-changing crisis. Life as we knew it has been put on hold. We’re confined to our own homes. We’re not able to do many of the things we used to do. We’re trying to keep 2m away from each other at all times. And we’re all struggling to deal with and make sense of this. I certainly know I am.
When I volunteered within my local Mutual Aid group, I did it to help others of course, but I also did it because I wanted to feel useful. I wanted to feel I was doing something positive to respond to this crisis. I felt so powerless – what can I do against an invisible virus? – and I wanted to change this feeling. I was expressing my need to be useful. As I was becoming increasingly cut off from people, I was expressing my need for connection. As I joined these newly-emergent local groups, I was expressing my need to belong.
And you know what? I have found a renewed sense of belonging, connection and usefulness in these groups. As I write, I am just about to leave the house to pick up a supply of gloves and hand sanitiser to take to a local charity who is about to deliver plants to local families who are stuck at home. I wouldn’t be connected to this local charity if it wasn’t for the Mutual Aid groups. Nor would I be able to source gloves and hand sanitiser. (And I still have spare gloves and sanitiser in the boot of my car if anyone’s looking for some…)
This COVID-19 crisis has shown us something that we always knew but had somehow forgotten how to make it happen: the importance of community. The stories of the various ways in which local residents are supporting each are just phenomenal – whether it’s ‘Stay Strong Singalongs’ from doorways, or digital sewing groups creating protective equipment for health and social care workers, or sharing creative resources to help keep kids occupied, or putting rainbows in windows to lift each other’s spirits.
I’m like so many of you – I haven’t known my neighbours since I was a child playing in the street. But, all of a sudden, I have found and forged new connections locally and discovered many wonderful people living right around the corner. This resurgence of community is a wonderful thing. We need to not let this stop. The coronavirus will go away sooner or later (probably later, given we appear to be nowhere near a vaccine yet), but the range and complexity of needs in our local communities will not. Nor will any of our needs to feel a sense of belonging, connection and usefulness.
The organic nature of these groups points the way to a different and hopefully less bureaucratic future. These new social relationships expressed through the Mutual Aid groups are changing political conditions. We haven’t waited to be told what support was going to be provided locally – we got out and provided support. I’ve had a go at describing what I think the Mutual Aid groups are fundamentally trying to do. My two best efforts are “make sure no-one struggles alone” and “make sure everyone gets the support they need.” With a purpose like this, there is so much more we could do together, once the lockdown ends and once the coronavirus is behind us.
So the two questions I guess I want to ask all of you who make up the Mutual Aid groups are:
What else do you want to do to support your local community into the future?
What can we do to make sure all this good stuff stays once the lockdown and physical distancing are over?
Either leave a comment below or email me at email@example.com