It might be easier to explain mutual aid by saying what it isn’t. Mutual aid isn’t the same thing as charity. It’s not about doing things for people or to people, but rather doing things with people. It’s about building networks of redundancy and resilience where everyone exchanges care and resources in a way that ensures that everyone has their needs met. Organising along the principles of mutual aid means that, in the difficult weeks and months to come, should the state fail to ensure that peoples’ needs are met, we can turn to each other. In times like these, any of us can fall on hard times and you’re just as likely to need help as you are to give it.
This document aims to give readers a picture of what this might look like in practice and hopefully help them to realise that we aren’t any more special than they are – some of us have useful connections or a bit of campaigning experience, but actually everyone has their own experiences and resources they can bring to the table, and at any rate you won’t be doing this alone.
Check to see if there are any groups already helping in your area here: https://www.wolverhampton-covid-19-mutual-aid.org/find-a-local-group
Also, read our guide!
Find local people who want to help their neighbours. These can be:
Through your contacts
Through our group (this poll might be a good place to start, or make your own)
We think the best way to organise a small group of volunteers (30 or fewer) is through Whatsapp. For anything else, consider making a Facebook Group.
Think about what kind of help you can commit to. Consider the range of skills within your group, and your other commitments. See below for ideas.
You can do this through:
Leafletting your neighbours
Asking local organisations to send out emails about your group
Working with faith groups
Contacting the WVSC http://bit.ly/wvsc-covid-orgs
Groups are all autonomous and organising a broad range of activities, but most groups are currently organising activities including:
- Creating leaflets and flyering to let people know about the group. Advice on creating leaflets is below. (if you are going to flyer, please make sure you’re considering hygiene. Avoid door knocking/unnecessary face to face interactions).
- Providing a number for local vulnerable people to call if they need support.
- Running errands/shopping for vulnerable people/self isolating people
- Providing a friendly ear and some emotional support to community members who are self isolating or finding the pandemic overwhelming.
This is up to your group, but this is the model we suggest based on what seems to be working across the country.
We need to cover every street in Wolverhampton. If we can’t do that, we need to simply cover as many streets as we can, and if possible work to recruit others to do their streets. It is clear that this will just not be possible to coordinate centrally from a city-wide Facebook Group. That is why we are looking for volunteers to start more local groups, on a council ward level or perhaps even smaller.
If you are aware of a group that already exists for your area, please let us know and we will promote them, rather than encouraging members of the Facebook Group to set up their own group. We don’t want to step on toes or needlessly duplicate their efforts. We are happy to work with existing groups to share best practice and make sure that everywhere is covered.
On our Facebook Group there will be a directory of groups doing mutual aid work. If one doesn’t exist for your area, create one! A map of the wards of Wolverhampton can be found here: Wards of Wolverhampton
The tool you use to organise is up to you. A lot of mutual aid groups around the country are organising on a city-wide level using Facebook, and on a ward level using WhatsApp.
If your group tries to coordinate volunteers on a ward level (wards usually contain several thousand people), you will find it a full time job, if it is even possible at all. You also need to consider what would happen if you are incapacitated by the virus, or needing to care for a loved one who has caught the virus – the whole thing would fall down.
It is for this reason, and a number of others (data protection, safeguarding, safety, health), we suggest devolving even further to street-level groups. The role of the ward or neighbourhood-level group is then to support the street level groups and to know whether there are any gaps.
One way to structure this would be a Ward-level Facebook group, which has links to street-level whatsapp groups. When people offer or request help on the Ward level, they can be directed to their nearest team.
It’s not going to be possible to reach everyone without leaving the house. For one, some people aren’t going to be on social media or may not even have a smart phone or internet access – and these people are likely to be among the most vulnerable and isolated.
If you can delegate down to street level, then you can have someone on each street (or a small collection of streets) responsible for reaching everyone else and linking them up. The way to do this that minimises social contact (so absolutely no going into peoples’ homes!) is by putting a leaflet through their door. Early on in the campaign, there were these “#ViralKindness” postcards going around on social media. What we’re talking about is a slightly more formalised version of this that makes people aware of your group and gives them the option to join it if they want.
It’s important not to take the whole responsibility onto yourself. It’s a nice gesture to give everyone your phone number and say that you can help them if they need it, but actually what we need to build are networks, where everyone is interconnected and interdependent. We should never promise what we can’t deliver, and if you try to do everything yourself you find that you suddenly might not have the capacity to deliver, for example if you have to self-isolate. Building a network of mutual aid also means that should you find yourself in that position and you need help, you can get it.
Going down to street level also means that you aren’t going to run out of printer ink (although some printer companies have said that they’re willing to print these for free – take advantage of this!). There’s a very nice template you could use as a starting point at the following link: Template Mutual Aid Leaflet
Nothing worth doing comes without risk. This includes giving and receiving help, and in times such as these, these risks will be heightened. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help each other – it may be that trying to avoid risk completely leaves us less safe than reaching out to one another. This section aims to give readers a systematic way of thinking about risk so that they can make and record sensible decisions about actions that carry any level of risk.
National Food Service: Safeguarding Training Notes
National Food Service: Safeguarding Training Slideshow
National Food Service: Risk Assessment Template
This is probably the most important point. If, for example, we don’t follow sensible hygiene precautions while distributing leaflets to potentially vulnerable people, we may as well be posting live grenades through their doors.
Some ideas to limit exposure:
Wash hands before and after any activities.
Leave items on the doorstep and don’t enter people’s homes. Avoid all contact with anyone who might be sick.
Use trusted payment services like Apple Pay or PayPal instead of cash, and bring back a receipt for purchases.
Queercare has a set of good resources for doing care safely at the following link: https://wiki.queercare.network/index.php?title=Category:Covid
When managing cash, if possible, have people front costs and be paid back.
Make sure volunteers get receipts and only charge cost-price.
Be very careful about collecting prescriptions. Many have a high street value, making this a high risk activity.
Data protection won't stop you from helping people, but there are certain things you need to take into account when handling people's information. The Information Commissioner’s Office has published a blog for community groups on what they need to know about data protection.
Data protection is another reason why it is a good idea to keep mutual aid activities as local as possible. On a street level, you’re not an organisation building a database of vulnerable people or of volunteers, you’re just a network of concerned neighbours pulling together.
If you do for whatever reason decide to hold personal data on a larger scale than street-level, you need to be very careful with all personal data, and in particular sensitive (“special-category”) personal data, which includes any of the following (for volunteers and service users):
|Personal data||Special category data|
Racial or ethnic origin
Religious or philosophical beliefs
Trade Union membership/affiliation
ID card numbers (driving license, passport, etc.)
Sex life and sexual orientation
Physical and mental health
Some things to consider:
Only share data on a street wide level, in a group where members know each other. The Information Commissioning Office has said rules around Data Protection will not be enforced on a very local level.
Don’t encourage people to indicate whether they need assistance with a physical display outside their house. Some neighbourhoods have suggested people tie ribbons to their doors to show they need help, but this could make them potential targets.
Write down all Mutual Aid that is being carried out by your group (again, this will only be possible on a very local level): what was offered, when it was completed, and who by. This will help create a paper trail if something goes wrong.
If you think somebody is posting information that might put them at risk, consider private messaging them to discuss how to best get them the help they need.
Don’t put sensitive information on a document that can be accessed by lots of people. Equally, be cautious of one person holding all the information themselves - for their sake as much as anything! They could be trustworthy, but shouldn’t be responsible.
If you are operating on a ward level, try to hold as little data as possible yourselves, and make sure it is protected.
You could use Nextdoor (a social network modelled on local neighbourhoods rather than friends) as your platform.
We can’t cover all eventualities. Sometimes mistakes will happen or unforeseen circumstances will arise. Consider:
What process can we put in place for preventing future incidents?
Who is responsible for making sure the incident doesn’t happen again?
How are we reporting incidents to members of the team and people using the service?
It is often good to share that an incident has taken place with the whole group, but a victim may not want their details to be spread around. Make incident reports anonymous unless strictly necessary or done with the express permission of the victim.
Promising to help somebody and then not doing so could be potentially dangerous if they are waiting for key supplies or reassurance. Most often, people don’t fulfill promises because they are overstretched or have offered something they can’t deliver. Consider:
Don’t promise everything at once. Rather, begin with a few tasks you group can do (like delivering food) and expand your range of services over time.
Don’t take too much responsibility on yourself. Make sure other people know about the commitments you are making, and tell them if you don’t think you’ll be able to deliver.
If you are organising a group, consider logging all the actions that are taking place and who is fulfilling them.
Get feedback from the people you’re helping about your service.
It’s okay to delete people and posts from WhatsApp and Facebook groups. Nobody has an automatic right to be a member of an online community.
Make sure you know who can access shared documents.
If you think somebody is too high-risk for your group to help, pass them on to:
We encourage mutual aid groups to be non-hierarchical – arranged so that everyone has the same level of authority. It can be useful to split into working groups or teams with different responsibilities, but all decision making should be transparent and accountable.
There will no doubt be members of teams like councillors, community/religious leaders etc. who can and should leverage all available experience and resources, but that shouldn’t necessarily make them more important than anyone else.
Risk assessments are a very useful tool to make decisions involving risk. The National Food Service has provided a template Risk Assessment which can be very useful for making informed decisions in a systematic way.
That’s the point – it isn’t just you! All you need to do is start a group on a platform of your choice, get everyone together on a platform like Zoom to have a chat, and take the rest forward as a group of equals.