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The gal-dem guide to getting involved in mutual aid

How To is a gal-dem series dedicated to demystifying practical steps involved in community activism.

17 Nov 2022

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People across the UK are now facing the biggest drop in their living standards since the late 1970s, and it’s estimated that 1.3 million will be pushed into absolute poverty. As the government continues to fail in providing adequate support for people during this time, many feel they have been left with no choice but to find their own solutions to community care.

What is mutual aid?

Mutual aid groups are solidarity-centred, community organisations that provide assistance and support where official governmental bodies can’t or won’t. Historically, mutual aid groups have strong Black roots and have been organised by underserved communities to help each other. As explained by UK Mutual Aid co-founder Eshe Kiama Zuri for gal-dem, Black mutual aid predates the formal academisation of mutual aid theory and has functioned through affinity groups and community events. The direct action and support centres on family and is inclusive of diaspora groups. It subsists as a decolonial practice that is possible because of the legacy of past groups such as the Black Panther Party, Race Today and the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD).

How to get involved

Setting up a mutual aid group starts with the basics: identifying a need and finding the appropriate resources to solve the problem. Most mutual aid groups work on a volunteer basis, so creating a network of willing individuals that bring varied skills and resources to the table is essential. 

“For us, it really started with a core group setting up an Instagram account and putting out a callout, which resulted in an initial group that shrunk as people worked out their commitments,” organisers from Trans Mutual Aid Manchester (TMAM) tell gal-dem. While the size of their group hasn’t changed, members fluctuate depending on their personal capacities at the time. As a support system for trans people, the group operates non-hierarchically and grows organically through friends and their wider networks.  

The organisers determine what is needed primarily through direct requests on social media, which could include financial aid, arranging lifts to medical appointments or non-monetary donations. TMAM recently helped source a new fridge for a community member, for example.

“Initially, we focused on mainly supporting people financially but then we began to run clothes swaps, workshops on skillshares and trans healthcare as well as providing people material support in emergency situations,” they say.

“With increasing living costs, we receive requests for the replacement of broken appliances, help paying bills, assistance for those in between jobs and other transition-related expenses,” the TMAM organisers explain. Money is raised either through direct donations (generally advertised on social media) or sometimes by collaborating with local event spaces, artists and small businesses that help set up fundraisers. The cash is then transferred via bank transfer or PayPal. 

“Mutual aid represents a particular kind of politics, rooted in ideas around direct democracy, self-management and decentralisation”

Migrant Arts Mutual Aid (MAMA) was set up in Liverpool back in 2011, long before the pandemic and the proliferation of mutual aid groups. A migrant family was facing deportation as they were unable to pay £900 to cover the cost of issuing their visas. With no exemptions made by the Home Office for those suffering from financial hardships, the local community came together to provide immediate financial support through small personal donations.

Mutual aid groups differ from charity organisations as they don’t rely on large donations and other top-down assistance, but instead work laterally through the exchange of goods and services. Due to their hierarchical structures, charities tend to follow rigid categorisations of ‘needs’ that can be embedded within the biases of those making donations. The politics of charity work runs deep and when money comes with strings attached, it can forget the needs of those most marginalised. Mutual aid, on the other hand, “represents a particular kind of politics, rooted in ideas around direct democracy, self-management and decentralisation,” as writer Matthew Whitley describes.

How to spread the word

Social media and word of mouth are the primary platforms for communication – both to find volunteers and those who require help. “Most people found us through the local network; just from people talking about our work and the help we can offer,” Jennifor Verson of MAMA, explains. 

“We primarily work through social media at the moment and people in need find us instead of the other way around,” TMAM says. Most mutual aid Facebook groups have responsive administrators who can amplify posts and reply to requests. Links to WhatsApp groups or volunteer contact information are also sometimes provided. In setting up one of these groups, it is important to not only lay out the group’s mission and the type of support it can provide, but it should also be used to set out community guidelines – such as those around inclusion and zero-tolerance when it comes to discrimination.

The dependence of mutual aid groups on social media naturally has its drawbacks. “This limitation is a problem for us, especially as we formed in 2020 during lockdown, so opportunities to reach people offline have always been limited. We currently don’t have much capacity to expand our reach beyond the demographic of people who use Twitter, Instagram and Facebook,” the organisers of TMAM explain. They are hoping to reach a new network of people by hosting their first in-person event. Finding spaces such as libraries or local community centres can function as important sites to spread word, not only for poster advertising but also for collaborating with other community-focused groups. 

How to keep them running sustainably

Most mutual aid groups rely on the exchange of services and goods on a voluntary basis. There is usually no consistent funding, aside from small donations or fundraising at a community level. “We don’t apply for any grants or accept money that comes with strings attached about how we use it, as we don’t want to limit the kind of help we can provide,” TMAM explains. 

The fundamental functioning of mutual aid groups rely on the time and efforts of the volunteers, so creating a structure around this is important. Organisers have to be realistic about setting expectations with volunteers, and recognising that they might have other work, social or personal commitments. It is not uncommon for volunteers to experience burn-out as they are often juggling multiple responsibilities and, unlike charity employees, they receive no financial compensation. 

So long as the government and welfare institutions fail to meet the needs of the people, mutual aid groups will continue to grow – though it is of course the state who must provide solutions and support. A simple idea can be amplified through social media to serve local communities, and in our current economic climate, small aid – financial or otherwise – can provide those struggling with much needed help.

Read ‘Who helps when it’s no longer trending? Remembering the power of Black mutual aid’, and the rest of our cost of living crisis coverage here.