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Who helps when it’s no longer trending? Remembering the power of Black mutual aid

The buzzword of mutual aid largely excludes the community power of marginalised groups that already existed, writes UK Mutual Aid founder Eshe Kiama Zuri.

07 Oct 2022

Unsplash/Vonecia Carswell

Rewind back to 2020. Mutual aid groups swept across the country, and I, like many within my community, were sceptical of the impact and argued that we must remember the Black roots of mutual aid groups. What may have felt like hope for many during troubled times, unfortunately risked being yet another show of performative activism. Yes, some groups – especially those run by Black people and people of colour – that came out of the pandemic have done good and many remain active. But the ‘mutual aid’ buzzword largely excluded the marginalised groups of people and community power that already existed.

Mutual aid is what we’ve always known in Black communities and communities of colour internationally as abolitionist and survival praxis – from pardners, credit unions and funds, to big pots of shared stews, advocacy and revolutionary education. But over the last couple of years the term has been taken further away from anarchist and communist activism. What should be autonomous community organising that fosters the practice of solidarity, not charity, just became a snappy group title for Covid-19 neighbourhood groups. 

This appropriation of the term, without any political structure to back it up, has meant that, whether they intended to or not, these groups are being used as an excuse for councils and the government to abandon their obligations. It’s much easier to endorse that communities can ‘do it for themselves’ during a pandemic, especially when it has the fun bonus of depoliticising the meaning of mutual aid. We have been manipulated into thinking that it’s okay to have volunteers ‘running’ local authority’s emergency services and community outreach projects for them, instead of using the tax money we pay. 

Many of these new mutual aid groups may not understand the issues with what they are participating in and see themselves as only pure-hearted and beyond the need for politics, intersectionality and inclusivity. I do not wish to bash community mutual aid projects; this article is an act of care. It’s a reminder that ‘good intentions’ aren’t enough. Intentions don’t trump impact, and if our actions harm or oppress people – even with the best of intentions – we need to hold ourselves accountable and be better. 

“Mutual aid groups are being used as an excuse for councils and the government to abandon their obligations”

Working for or as a replacement to state services isn’t right. We should never thrive off hearing our overseers, our tax-funded ‘leaders’, praising us for licking boot, fixing their messes and allowing them to get away with not doing their jobs and funding resources. We won’t see any different outcomes without challenging oppressive structures. It’s essential that we fight to tear down our government as part of the big picture, but we also need them to be doing the bare minimum they should be doing as part of survival for right now. The government wants us to relieve it of the duty of care it has – and once services and resources are gone, it’s near impossible to get them back. 

At UK Mutual Aid, the Black-run, activist-forward support community running on Facebook since 2018, we’ve had people referred to us from Citizens Advice Bureau, local councils, crisis teams, the government’s Department for Work and Pensions, homeless shelters, food banks, national charities and city council-funded community centres. These organisations have presented UK Mutual Aid (and some even giving my own name) as services for people to access. But we are not a service provider, we are a community group. There should be no situation where funded bodies tell people to join a Facebook group and message a random person to get help, when they are the ones meant to be providing support.

Who helps who in mutual aid spaces?

Over 4,000 new mutual aid groups sprang up over the pandemic, and now as few as 40% of them are still active. While this is largely portrayed as positive, it raises questions over sustainability if 60% of the groups are folding. UK Mutual Aid had an influx of new members fleeing pandemic mutual aid groups, after being made to feel unsupported and unsafe by these overwhelmingly white and middle-class spaces. Working to full-spectrum community care and active inclusivity is ongoing work, which is unappealing to privileged people, and so many of the pandemic groups waved goodbye to their marginalised members instead.

At UK Mutual Aid, 61% of members are trans and cis women, 21% are custom genders or ungendered, and 18% are trans and cis men, of which most in our group are trans men. This data is without a breakdown of race, however at the last membership poll, just 73 white members out of our 2,300 members said they have been active within the last month. 

The 2019 census shows that 84.8% of the UK is white, with 51% of that being white men. So where are they? As I wrote in my article in 2020: “White people hate Black mutual aid. That’s a fact.” That fact has only been reinforced in the past two years. Our group hasn’t had any more love from the wider white communities compared to pre-Covid times, showing us that the mutual aid pandemic groups of 2020 didn’t change who white people support, or their politics.

“We won’t see any different outcomes without challenging oppressive structures”

White supremacy affects every part of daily life for Black people and people of colour, including financial security and stability. This is also replicated in mutual aid networks when group rules mean that people are unable to request financial support, thus directly affecting BPOC, who are economically disadvantaged within the UK. As seen clearly across crowdfunding pages, Facebook groups, Instagram reposts and shares across Twitter feeds, white requests for resources get an outpouring of support, love and trust. But when BPOC post requests, we receive racism and distrust, doxxing and call-outs, told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Black MaGes (marginalised genders) fundraise, signal boost and organise tirelessly to support everyone – rituals of love that have been performed countless times before and will be performed countless times ahead. I recognise mutual aid and community care as inclusive political praxis gifted by Black MaGes to the world, despite being routinely punished for it and left unreciprocated and neglected.

White British men earn more than women from 14 of the 16 minority ethnic groups. And in 11 of the UK’s 16 minority ethnic groups, both UK-born and non-UK born people earn less on average than the white British population. I believe personal reparations should be included in the structure of all mutual aid communities. This requires white people to give financially back to Black people as part of their own anti-racist journey – alongside supporting the fight for state reparations and acknowledgment of the impact of colonialism and white supremacy. 

Where can we go from here?

Building anti-oppressive infrastructure into community projects is essential, and it is necessary to stop and work on your group’s purpose. Let those most marginalised by society – Black people and people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people, disabled people, asylum seekers and refugees, currently and formerly incarcerated people, sex workers and other groups – be supported and represented. You have a right to challenge anyone who is harming, not helping. Actively work with groups that are teaching and talking on radical community care. And openly challenge the wider politics of society’s structure and our government, whilst also making them perform their duty of care to run and provide services. UK Mutual Aid will be making some changes soon too as we work on assessing our structure and evolve to best support our communities needs. 

No group is perfect and we all are constantly learning. We can build safe and sustainable communities, but only if we work on being consistently anti-oppressive, not just ‘positive vibes’ and ‘good intentions’.

Read more about UK Mutual Aid here.

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