The feeling’s mutual – or is it? Inclusivity in mutual aid groups

Earlier in the year we explored the topic of volunteer-led mutual aid groups. Volunteering has never been more accessible and inclusive. Want to volunteer? Join a Facebook or WhatsApp group. The appeal is clear: no red tape, no lengthy applications or inductions, task-based feelgood volunteering that does not require any training, and a ward or street-based approach so you can stay local (handy in a lockdown). Whether you call it volunteering, civil action or disruption, covid-19 has inspired a neighbour-to-neighbour approach many of us have not seen in our lifetimes. But are mutual aid groups really as inclusive as we would like to believe? Who helps – or can afford to help – and who is helped?

In this blog post I explore what we can learn from mutual aid, their approaches and what we need to be aware of when supporting them.

Pre-existing conditions

The recent New Local Government report Communities Versus Coronavirus: The rise of mutual aid showed that mutual aid groups flourish in places that have more social capital. Established local infrastructure or ‘anchor’ organisations had the knowledge and capacity to support emerging initiatives.

Millions of people on furlough with pay found themselves with unusual amounts of spare time to help out. Those same people tapped into their own professional networks while also developing new ones, to support others in need. Knowing your neighbours and having a willingness to lend a hand – even just living in the UK where you have a good wifi signal or can afford to have one – all laid good fertile ground for mutual aid to take off. Those are some examples of the pre-existing conditions that have made mutual aid possible. There’s plenty more to draw on in our Pathways through Participation report.

From volunteering to radical activism

Some of the mutual aid groups have gone beyond volunteering and embraced – or originated from – more radical action. Their work is fuelled by the manner in which covid-19 has sparked conversations about race, poor housing, insecure work and inequality.

The reasons why people have mobilised into self-help groups are not all alike. The character and expression of mutual aid groups will be completely different, even if their outwardly stated group goals are the same: to offer practical assistance in covid-19 times.

During the lockdown, I joined two mutual aid groups on different sides of the city. One was a Facebook group and the other was a WhatsApp group. Both are busy distributing food, clothes and other essentials, but one of them does so with an overt ‘smash the system’ ethos while the other does not.

In another group in south London, the coordinator told me he had a job of keeping the ‘ongoing political and personal narratives’ out of the group. The political nature of mutual aid groups is explored in recent research by the London School of Economics and Kingston University, as is the lack of race diversity.

Mutual but unequal

If mutual aid groups do reflect their local communities, then a village such as quaint and wealthy Walberswick is going to look – and I mean quite literally look – completely different, compared to people living in the Bangladeshi, Somali and white British social housing of Somers Town. How people give time and in what capacity will differ. Informal volunteering has always been hard to capture and there is still much we don’t know about the contributions of time and skills that have been given through informal means since the pandemic began. Mutual aid groups may help to level the ground locally but theirs is only one type of informal response. An analysis of who gives and receives mutual aid alongside other types of volunteering will lead to a better understanding of how hidden pockets of communities have responded, and will continue to respond, to the crisis. Maybe then we can begin to level the playing field.

What have you learned from mutual aid groups? Do you think they have made volunteering more inclusive and by doing so are addressing inequalities in society? We will discuss mutual aid groups and other approaches the covid-19 crisis at the Voluntary Sector Studies Network’s online conference on 7–8 September. View the agenda here and register here. The conference is free but, if you can afford it, a donation to a cause or charity of your choosing is encouraged.


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Jarina is our volunteering development consultancy officer. Jarina develops consultancy and training services with the aim of improving volunteering practice across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

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