Mapping Mutual Aid

Mutual aid is the name given to the spontaneous eruption of grassroots local support given by volunteers to those who are self isolating. Many people have found themselves with little to do as they are working from home, and are offering help to keep themselves occupied. 

The help usually takes the form of offering to deliver food, and sometimes prescriptions, to people's doors. The offer is often given via a leaflet through all the doors in an area. Mutual aid groups are entirely self organised, and not connected with government in any sense.

Mutual Aid is not entirely uncontroversial. There is no qualification for using the brand. Anyone can claim to be a mutual aider. Therefore it could be used by scammers to defraud vulnerable people stuck at home. Also, even when mutual aiders are well intentioned, it is sometimes suggested that they are not aware enough of issues such as safeguarding and GDPR to carry out this work.

However, one thing that cannot be doubted is how quickly mutual aid groups have set up and become active. Many of them  were fully formed and giving help before the lockdown started. The social media technology more than any other that has enabled this is Whatsapp.

Forest Hill Mutual Aid Google Map
Forest Hill Mutual Aid Google Map

My experience of this is in Forest Hill.  I received some information about a Forest Hill mutual aid Whatsapp group from another Whatsapp group a week before the lock down. As Catbytes' office is in Forest Hill, I was interested in this. I joined the group, and in the space of a couple of hours managed to hook up with other people who were in the area of Catbytes' office, Ewart Hall.  We formed a Ewart Road subgroup, and staked out our area of concern. We did this through a Google Map which had been created by the founder of the Forest Hill mutual aid Whatsapp group, Tom Walker.

A local Ewart Road resident called Hillary created the Ewart Road region on this map. Within a day we found the entire map had been populated with other regions made by other group members who had linked together into other subgroups. By the end of the next day the original Forest Hill group had too many members (over 250), and I left. Tom Walker had formed another group to organise relations with the official Lewisham Local led food aid response. However, the entire area was covered by different mutual aid groups. It was a remarkable example of self organisation and cooperation enabled by new online technology.

Mutual aid groups are often comprised of young professional types who are tech savvy. This has been part of the reason why they have been so quick to get off the ground, whereas existing local community organisations have taken longer. Another reason is that they are unregulated, a fact which has attracted criticism of them. 

Existing community organisations have to be very careful to follow established guidelines. They cannot afford to have their brands damaged by bad publicity. Time will tell whether mutual aid comes to be seen as as the voice of a community protecting itself, or a disorganised refuge of scammers. However, I am inclined to think that the positives will outweigh the negatives, as I believe the vast majority of mutual aiders are well intentioned. In a way the mutual aid groups resemble "disrupter" start ups, like Uber or Air Bnb, that have moved fast using new technology, and show little respect for existing protocols in the pursuit of their objective of helping people.

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