One of the few positives to emerge from the COVID crisis has been an outpouring of neighbourly support and goodwill. Here in Islington, as in many other places, this was channelled through grassroots “mutual aid” groups. These groups were set up spontaneously at ward-level back in March 2020, loosely coordinating with each other across Islington and beyond.
How it Started
I was first approached by Victoria Collins, my friend and a Liberal Democrat activist. She had been among the first handful of people across all Islington to start to organise groups at a ward-level to support the community throughout the COVID pandemic, and was recruiting more organisers among the party activists. I am very grateful that Victoria got me involved in the Mutual Aid movement as it has been an amazing experience of the power of community. I feel that together we made a difference.
In the group where I became active, spanning Hillrise and Tollington wards, almost 500 volunteers signed up to help their neighbours. We have answered almost 400 help requests so far, with almost half of those during the initial weeks of the first lockdown in March and April last year.
In many cases, lasting relationships have been formed. People now regularly do the groceries, pick up prescriptions, or walk dogs for elderly or self-isolating neighbours. Incidentally, dog walking proved the most popular activity, with groups of volunteers forming to look after each dog! Of equal importance as the practical support, however, has often been the short conversation, socially distanced, on the doorstep, or the regular check-in by phone.
As well as individual Liberal Democrats such as Victoria and me, and many others, getting involved in their local Mutual Aid groups, the Islington Liberal Democrats as a party also supported the movement. The Liberal Democrats called up party members and vulnerable residents, checking in on them and pointing them towards their local Mutual Aid groups if they needed support.
Victoria was instrumental in ensuring we prioritised COVID support first and foremost throughout this dangerous, tragic time. And many more volunteers from other parties and none got involved in their local Mutual Aid groups.
What Help was Needed
Once the initial wave of help requests had been dealt with, the needs of those calling the Mutual Aid helpline started to change; increasingly we were dealing with people who had no money for basics such as food, either because they could not access their bank accounts or benefit payments via the post office, or because they were out of work due to the pandemic.
Our Mutual Aid group teamed up with the Brickworks Community Foodbank to organise regular deliveries of free food parcels to needy residents. Our volunteers continue to deliver 5-10 food parcels every day. Similar partnerships evolved in other wards in Islington.
Additionally, more complex cases started to emerge, often mental health related. It is not easy for an untrained volunteer to deal with people expressing suicidal thoughts,or ringing them ten times in a day. In some cases, we were able to pass people on to expert support, for example from the mental health charity Mind.
COVID has clearly deepened the already difficult social issues plaguing Islington. Poverty, food insecurity, social isolation, loneliness, digital exclusion, and mental health issues have been endemic in Islington for a long time. Prior to COVID, it was estimated that 48% of children in Islington live in poverty and some 19,000 people experience moderate or high food insecurity; with COVID the situation will have only got worse.
During the second lockdown, the numbers of people calling our hotline slowly increased again, with around two people per day needing help around the Christmas period. Thankfully it never reached the dramatic March-April 2020 levels when as many as ten help requests were being received daily. By Easter 2021, we were down to a couple of requests per week, often where long-standing volunteers are moving away and someone new needs to step in. So far, we continue to have the support of our volunteers, twelve months into the crisis, for which we are incredibly grateful.
Some Lessons Learnt
Apart from the amazing support that the Mutual Aid groups have been able to coordinate, the Mutual Aid phenomenon has also been a fascinating experiment in a spontaneous bottom-up neighbourhood mobilisation.
Depending on the motivations and views of each local group’s initial organisers, the different Mutual Aid groups took on quite distinct characteristics. In Hillrise & Tollington, we developed a model of democratic group decision making, with activists from across the political spectrum forming a core group of 6-12 organisers at any one time, and people coming and going as their circumstances changed.
We regularly discussed difficult cases, creating safekeeping rules, sharing information and resources, deciding the direction of the group and moderating our WhatsApp groups. This led to a collaborative approach with people from different backgrounds and convictions coming together, keeping party politics out of our group in order to unite over a common cause.
Maybe this serves as a small-scale example of how successful collaborative politics can work in systems that allow broad representation where people from across the political spectrum can come together to address specific issues, rather than our broken, adversarial two-party (or single party, here in Islington!) first-past-the-post system.
It will be interesting to see whether the Mutual Aid groups will keep going after COVID. Certainly the deep social issues in Islington will not go away, and help will still be needed by many. Interestingly, other local volunteer organisations with specific missions have also started to dock onto our Mutual Aid group; a local cutting hub making masks, a local church providing hot meals and another food bank.
Calls for volunteers were made on our WhatsApp group, and support offered. Similarly, unwanted furniture and other items were offered by individuals, and gladly taken by some of their neighbours. Some of us hope that this may be a way for our group to become a permanent part of our local community, even when COVID is eventually beaten, a place for neighbours to offer flexible volunteering for local efforts, and to help each other on a case-by-case basis. If we can keep the spirit of neighbourly goodwill alive, then something positive will have come from the COVID pandemic.
In the meantime, Victoria is taking her involvement with the community to a whole different level. She is now standing as the Liberal Democrat candidate in the St. Peter’s Council By-election.