Rewind to 2020. Self-help groups swept the country, and like many in my community, I was skeptical of impact and argued that we need to remember the black roots of self-help groups. What may have felt like hope to many in troubled times, unfortunately risked being another display of performative activism. Yes, some groups – especially those led by black people and people of color – who have emerged from the pandemic have done well and many remain active. But the buzzword “self-help” largely excluded marginalized groups of people and the community power that already existed.
Mutual aid is what we have always known in black communities and communities of color internationally as an abolitionist and survivalist practice – from partners, credit unions and funds, to large pots of shared stews, advocacy and revolutionary education. But in the past two years, the term has moved away from anarchist and communist activism. What should be the autonomous community organization that promotes the practice of solidarity, not charity, has just become a catchy band title for neighborhood Covid-19 bands.
This appropriation of the term, without any political structure to back it up, has meant that, whether they like it or not, these groups serve as an excuse for the councils and the government to abdicate their obligations. It’s much easier to endorse that communities can “do it on their own” during a pandemic, especially when it has the fun bonus of depoliticizing the sense of caring. We have been manipulated into thinking that there is nothing wrong with volunteers ‘running’ local authority emergency services and community outreach projects for them, instead of using community money. taxes we pay.
Many of these new self-help groups may not understand the issues they are participating in and see themselves as pure in heart and beyond the need for politics, intersectionality and inclusivity. I don’t mean to denigrate community service projects; this article is an act of care. It is a reminder that “good intentions” are not enough. Intentions don’t outweigh impact, and if our actions harm or oppress people – even with the best intentions – we need to hold ourselves accountable and be better.
“Self-help groups are used as an excuse for councils and government to abandon their obligations”
Working for or replacing state services is not good. We should never thrive on hearing our overseers, our tax-funded “leaders”, praising us for licking their boots, fixing their mess and letting them off the hook by not doing their jobs and funding not their resources. We will not see different results without challenging oppressive structures. It’s essential that we fight to tear down our government as part of the bigger picture, but we also need them to do the bare minimum they should be doing as part of survival at the moment. The government wants us to relieve them of their duty of care – and once services and resources are gone, it’s nearly impossible to get them back.
At UK Mutual Aid, the black-led activist support community active on Facebook since 2018, people have been referred to us by the Citizens Advice Bureau, local councils, crisis teams, UK Department for Work and Pensions government, homeless shelters, food banks, national charities and city council funded community centres. These organizations advertised UK Mutual Aid (and some even gave my own name) as services accessible to people. But we are not a service provider, we are a community group. There shouldn’t be a situation where funded organizations tell people to join a Facebook group and message some random person for help, when they’re the ones who are supposed to be providing support.
Who helps whom in the mutual aid spaces?
More than 4,000 new self-help groups have sprung up during the pandemic, and now only 40% of them are still active. While this is widely described as positive, it raises questions about sustainability if 60% of groups fold. UK Mutual Aid has seen an influx of new members fleeing pandemic self-help groups, after feeling unsupported and unsafe by these predominantly white, middle-class spaces. Working at full-spectrum community care and active inclusion is ongoing work, which is not appealing to the privileged, and so many pandemic groups have bid farewell to their marginalized members instead.
At UK Mutual Aid, 61% of members are trans and cis women, 21% are gender matched or gender neutral, and 18% are trans and cis men, most of whom in our group are trans men. This data is racially disaggregated, but in the latest membership survey, only 73 white members out of our 2,300 members reported being active in the past month.
The 2019 census shows that 84.8% of the UK is white, with 51% white males. So where are they? As I wrote in my article in 2020: “White people hate black people helping each other. It’s a fact.” That fact has only been reinforced in the last two years. Our group hasn’t had more love from the wider white communities than it did in the pre -Covid, which shows us that the pandemic self-help groups of 2020 have not changed who supports white people, nor their politics.
“We will not see different results without challenging oppressive structures”
White supremacy affects every aspect of everyday life for black people and people of color, including financial security and stability. This is also replicated in self-help networks where group rules mean people cannot apply for financial support, thus directly affecting BPOC, who are economically disadvantaged in the UK. As clearly seen on crowdfunding pages, Facebook groups, Instagram reposts and shares on Twitter feeds, requests for white resources are receiving an outpouring of support, love and trust. But when the BPOC issues demands, we receive racism and distrust, doxxing and calls, telling us to pick ourselves up by our boots.
Black MaGes (marginalised genders) are tirelessly fundraising, reporting and organizing to support everyone – rituals of love that have been performed countless times before and will be performed countless times in the future. I recognize mutual aid and community care as an inclusive political practice offered by Black MaGes to the world, though they are routinely punished for it and left unreciprocated and neglected.
White British men earn more than women from 14 of the 16 ethnic minority groups. And in 11 of the UK’s 16 ethnic minority groups, 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 self-help communities. It forces white people to give back financially to black people as part of their own anti-racism journey – in addition to supporting the fight for state reparations and recognition of the impact of colonialism and white supremacy.
Where can we go from here?
Building an anti-oppressive infrastructure in community projects is essential, and it is necessary to stop and work on your group’s goal. That those most marginalized by society – black people and people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities, asylum seekers and refugees, people currently and formerly incarcerated, sex workers and other groups – are supported and represented. You have the right to challenge anyone who harms, without helping. Actively work with groups that teach and speak about radical community care. And openly challenge the larger politics of the structure of society and our government, while having them perform their duty of care to manage and deliver services. UK Mutual Aid will also be making changes soon as we work to assess our structure and evolve to better meet the needs of our communities.
No group is perfect and we are all constantly learning. We can build safe and sustainable communities, but only if we strive to be consistently anti-oppressive, not just ‘good vibes’ and ‘good intentions’.
Learn more about British Mutual Aid here.
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