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Mutual Aid – How to Build and Help Your Community

Right now, thousands of people all over the world are pulling together to share resources through mutual aid networks. With the coronavirus pandemic leaving vulnerable individuals isolated and unable to stock up on fresh food or pay rent, this is perhaps the first occasion in our lifetime where we’re seeing the true value in community and connection, and the first time that the term ‘mutual aid’ has become a fixture in most people’s vocab.

In many areas around the world, though, reciprocal help has long meant the difference between life and death and is by no means a new concept.

What is Mutual Aid?

The Black Panther Party serves free breakfast to children in Chicago, 1969. Image via Chicago Reader.

The idea of voluntary exchanges of services or resources for the benefit of others has been around, well, as long as we humans have, really. Throughout history, support networks have proved essential to the development of communities and have certainly improved (and saved) many lives.

Examples of community care are abundant – in the late 1960s, for instance, the Black Panther Party initiated a Free Breakfast for Children program to great success, along with several other ‘Survival Programs’ such as free education and medical clinics, for those in need in the U.S.

Many dedicated groups that have been serving locales for years already are only stepping up their services in the current climate – the Bay Area Mutual Aid Network, which offers a plethora of digital resources to help with everything from PPE to childcare for nurses, has been active in the region since 1998.

Mutual Aid in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Mutual-Aid---How-to-Build-and-Help-Your-Community Image via U.S.A Mutual Aid

Image via U.S.A Mutual Aid

So, what does mutual aid really mean in this modern healthcare crisis? In short, it has evolved into everything from your favorite musicians playing free shows on Instagram Live to free meals for exhausted frontline workers. Mutual aid is no longer a case of just providing financial help or establishing food distribution projects, but finding creative ways to ensure the wellbeing of everyone affected by the lockdowns and sickness sweeping the globe. 

Mutual-Aid---How-to-Build-and-Help-Your-Community Image via Jack Arts

When the UK’s government asked for volunteer responders to assist the healthcare system with deliveries of medicines, phone calls to check in on the elderly and shuttling people between hospitals, more than 750,000 wannabe helpers signed up in a matter of days. Meanwhile, on social media, top chefs, fitness experts, pharmacists and even comedians have been sharing their skills to encourage those at home to stay on top of their physical and mental health. 

Perhaps the most common form of mutual aid is the local networks set up by communities to help people who are self-isolating. This involves everything from dog-walking to collecting prescriptions and dropping off essential items like bread and milk.

But it isn’t limited to key activities – the number of people experiencing loneliness, anxiety and depression is rising rapidly, so supporting the mental health of others is just as critical. “My sister is classed as ‘at-risk’ and can’t leave the house at all. After four weeks indoors, she was feeling very low, so I left all my knitting equipment on her doorstep to help her stay busy – I think it really cheered her up,” a friend mentioned to me, while another has been shopping for their elderly neighbor who can’t travel to a grocery store. 

It’s not just individuals who are getting involved, either. In the UK, private healthcare facilities have offered their spare beds to the (publicly funded) health service, and, worldwide, retired doctors have sacrificed their downtime to help out in hospitals. 

Mutual-Aid---How-to-Build-and-Help-Your-Community-Image-via-Jack-Arts-Scrubs-being-assembled-by-local-makers-in-London.-Image-via-Brooke-Dennis

Scrubs being assembled by local makers in London. Image via Brooke Dennis

All around the world, clothing producers and sewers have been pitching in with the efforts to manufacture personal protective equipment for workers on the frontline – we covered quite a few of them in our previous feature, but since then lots of local groups, like Scrub Hub UK, have formed as well, and you might’ve already heard that we’re collaborating with Winter Session.

So far, our Cover Up Colorado project has recruited more than 200 seamsters in the Denver area to sew and distribute masks to hospitals, testing sites, clinics, and others in need of them (if you were thinking about making your own, we have a couple of guides for that).

Mutual-Aid---How-to-Build-and-Help-Your-Community-Image-via-Jack-Arts-The-masks-we’re-making-in-partnership-with-Winter-Session.-Image-via-Winter-Session

The masks we’re making with volunteers in partnership with Winter Session. Image via Winter Session

How Can I Get Involved?

Groceries set to be delivered to those in need. Image via Teen Vogue.

Hopefully, you’re now feeling inspired by the citizens across the globe who are volunteering their services to others. As we’ve seen, even the smallest actions, like calling a relative to make them smile, can make a difference. 

If you’re keen to establish a mutual aid network for your neighbors, then first you’ll want to do your research and check that something isn’t already in place (there is a dedicated US site for this, and one for the UK, too). Once you’re confident about that, consider the best way to keep in touch with people in the community.

This could be by setting up a group on social media or by using a messaging service. Of course, there are a lot of people who don’t have access to smartphones or computers, and they’re often the people who might need help the most (like the elderly) so consider safely distributing flyers around the area to reach as many as you can. 

If you’d rather offer help in another way, then get your thinking cap on and consider your skillset. Maybe you’re a dab hand at sewing, a supreme project manager who can help a restaurant organize a drop of free meals to the homeless, or you might have access to a vehicle in order to deliver essential supplies or shopping to those who need it.

Many manual trades are still in demand, too, so if you’re confident with electrics or know a thing or two about DIY, then put the word out that you’re available to help. At this point, it really goes without saying, but be sure to take the right precautions if you’re coming into contact with anyone outside your own home, particularly those who have a higher risk of getting sick.