We’re excited to see the birth of numerous new community led mutual aid groups eager to help their neighbours. Every neighbourhood has tremendous people with untapped skills and experience.
When we join together we become a vital lifeline for those who are bearing the brunt of Covid-19, whether those physically distancing themselves or those who might not have access to the support they need during this crisis.
Getting and keeping people together is however sometimes easier said than done. At Shared Future our experience of community development and community organising suggests that there are certain things to be thinking about when undertaking a much needed community-led response.
Here are some of our own thoughts.
We are not speaking on behalf of COVID-19 MUTUAL AID UK.
If you feel any of this is useful, we are very happy to talk to you more, organise webinars or facilitate online discussions, for free of course.
In this blog we are asking you to stop for a minute to think about organising and sustaining your effort. When important issues are not taken into account you may run into some familiar pitfalls to successful community organising. We have put together our own top 10 questions of what to think about:
1. Are we valuing what already exists?
Make sure you collaborate with other local organisations. For example, Residents Associations are made up of highly knowledgeable local people that are trusted by many. Find out if they exist and work through them or you risk undermining the work of others. If you don’t live on the street that you are worried about, find someone who does. Your local Council for Voluntary Services, Community Centre or Council Offices should be able to advise. There may also be people providing mutual support locally. Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK is an umbrella organisation co-ordinating the groups, and they have an online list of local groups . Its important we don’t reinvent the wheel leading to duplication and tension between people.
2. Are we forgetting about the resources of our local council and councillors?
This crisis has underlined the vital role of public services. Trust between politicians and citizens has not been at its best recently. However, for many in our communities, their local council and local politicians perform a vital leadership role. Work with the police, the NHS and social care organisations if you can. Use your links with them to strongly advocate for better support for those in your community, or in neighbouring communities, who might be missing out. It’s important to put your skills and your new local links to make public services work better for everyone, now, and in the future. Remember, build on what exists, don’t just try to replace it. Find out who your local councillors are, and make sure you connect as closely to your local council and other public services, who will be providing crucial information and resources, especially once they have dealt with the most urgent situations.
3. Can we avoid increasing people’s anxieties?
Scammers are already exploiting the situation, so you need to ensure that your approach to neighbours explains who you are, what you are trying to do and how to reply to you. The covidmutaulaid.org website offers very useful guidance on protocols for setting up a mutual support group and making contact with vulnerable people.
4. What assumptions are we making?
Many people are going to be scared and others might feel embarrassed or even dislike being asked if they are in need. Try to find out what the people you want to support actually want. Try to start with simple conversations, and remember that everyone needs to feel and be safe. Remember that listening is often the most powerful thing we can do. Find out more about listening skills for community organising.
5. What do we need to communicate first?
Most people, especially the most vulnerable will naturally want to know who you are and why you are doing this. Don’t assume they will automatically trust you. Trust takes time and requires building relationships. How would you feel about being called high risk or needy? Perhaps some people in the community will want to know how they can help, whilst actually needing help themselves. Try to use as many means of communication as you can to connect and to spread the word about what you are trying to achieve; whether that is Facebook, Twitter, a dedicated website, local papers, local radio or public banners. Everyone has their favourite way of getting news, so use a variety. Don’t assume everyone uses social media. Its a long read, yet take time to think about how you are building a network of support.
6. Are we recognising the strengths of others?
Our strength is our diversity. Our neighbourhoods are made up of a wonderful mix of people, each with unique skills, knowledge and experience. The more we use all our skills the better and the more long-lasting and successful we will be. Try finding out from members of your community what skills or knowledge they have and want to share and what skills or knowledge they need. With that understanding we can help people to support each other better. Survey Monkey or Google forms are one of many useful tools for putting together an online community skills audit. Find out more about this topic here.
7. How do make sure we are open about how we organise?
Trust is based upon openness and being transparent about who you are and what you are doing. Try as much as you can to make sure your organising efforts are as transparent as possible. Think about and communicate who is making decisions. Stop to reflect how decisions are being made. Consider ways for everyone to contribute into the decision-making process. Then think about making this information available for everyone to see. Tell people how you are organised and put any notes from meetings online for all to see. You may find this actually saves you time in the long run as you don’t need to then waste time explaining and justifying past decisions.
8. How do we cope with feeling isolated when we aren’t together?
We are so used to organising our efforts through face to face meetings, but this needs to change to prevent spreading the virus. Experiment with the use of online communication with those in your neighbourhood who may need support. Now is the time to help them and all your supporters connect through free tools such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. You may already be confident of using such tools. But don’t assume everyone else can and help them grasp the basics. Look at things like WhatsApp’s guide to staying connected during the Coronavirus pandemic here. But don’t ignore other means like letter drops and telephone trees.
9. Are we acting in an inclusive way?
Sometimes it feels easier just to make the decisions yourself, especially if you or your friends set up your group. It’s a crisis after all. But that can lead to burn-out and frustration. Good leadership is not being a hero, it is about building strong teams and communicating. Within your group try using online tools like Zoom or Slack for communicating with each other in your organising team and Trello for keeping track of what needs to be done and who is doing it. These tools are simple once you get your head round them, many are free and they all mean you don’t need to meet face to face. In coming days we will add more resources about this so come back to this page again soon.
10. Are we unintentionally reinforcing discrimination?
Inevitably those most adversely affected by the Coronavirus may have the least resources to lead community responses in terms of their connections, money or confidence. However, efforts must be made to make sure that the needs of those bearing the brunt are at the centre of our response. This means recognising whose voices are making decisions and also whose are excluded. Consider how and why we need to address this. We need to make sure we are listening and taking advice from everyone and aware of the discrimination that can otherwise result. The following equality and diversity statement may help you to consider how to ensure everyone is included. Maybe adopt something similar for your group?
“We aim to create a safe and welcoming atmosphere for everyone. We want to challenge all forms of oppression including those based on race, ethnicity, nationality, creed, gender, sex, class, sexuality, gender reassignment, learning ability, physical impairment, mental illness, HIV status, age, occupation, income, wealth and unrelated criminal conviction. We aim to design our activities, services and decision-making processes specifically to encourage and support participation from people who face disadvantage in society, including women, BME people, disabled people, LGBTQ people, and people on low incomes.”
From Bexley Council for Voluntary Service’s equality and diversity policy template
This last point is we feel vital – only by always organising inclusively, with no-one left out, will our response to Covid-19 be strong.
Who wrote this blog?
We hope it contributes to the tremendous work of all the Covid-19 Mutual Aid Groups springing up in the UK.
Image credit: A window in South Manchester, copied from The Levy Corona Helpers Facebook Group