Sunday, July 14, 2024
HomeWorkWhy I set up a support group during the Covid pandemic

Why I set up a support group during the Covid pandemic

Dr Mwenza Blell, 42, is from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She set up Elswick Mutual Aid group in March 2020.

The Elswick Mutual Aid support group was set up in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

When people were sent to work from home, schools shut and many people were told to self-isolate for 12 weeks, my partner and I joined a local group set up by a neighbour. We realised that many areas didn’t have groups set up yet so we set some up, one of which was Elswick Mutual Aid.

Later we merged most of the activities with the other groups nearby so we could be more effective.

What does the support group do?

We’ve done a huge range of things, from sharing knowledge on things like housing, immigration or benefits and raising and giving out money for no-questions-asked grants.

We share old clothes, books or toys via Facebook, WhatsApp and at freecycle events. Also cooking, distributing leaflets, donating IT equipment for refurbished laptops and smartphones.

And we make food deliveries (for about a year we’ve been doing weekly food parcels, mostly made from food which is diverted from landfill) or stocking our community larders.

Our events involve meeting basic needs, with free packed lunches in half term, or offering hot takeaway meals (particularly when a lot of former rough sleepers were moved into hostels without cooking facilities). There is usually some free food, often groceries to take away, but they also foster broader community cultural and political participation; we combined arts and sports events for children and families with workshops on eviction rights.

What advice would you give someone who wants to make a difference?

Don’t start with what people want to fund, what people like to see, or by doing things the way that replicates how you do them at work or did them in school. If you do that you will end up reproducing or ignoring problems and it won’t be the work that is needed.

What challenges have you had to overcome?

Burnout. The pandemic crisis has been exhausting in so many different ways. Many of us found this crisis fell on top of other crises that were already happening, exacerbating the whole thing. So even though we help each other, sometimes it all gets too much.

Sudden illnesses (including Covid) or flareups of chronic disease among the people involved in helping out, meaning people have to disappear for a while.

And non-hierarchical working with others is very difficult because in society we hardly have any real experience of this so it’s outside people’s comfort zone. In school, at work, and in our families, we rarely have anything that’s truly non-hierarchical, so this can feel good at times and unsettling at times.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Just because people don’t like you doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. Some people just want to be superior and sneer at people. That’s not about you.

One point that stays on my mind lately is that there’s a misconception that it’s always important just to connect things up or that any two groups doing something similar must link up.

I think this is almost a kind of coordinator role that people sometimes step into (in their own minds) but it assumes that everything is compatible with everything else. It’s very important to acknowledge that some things are not compatible and should not be linked up (we saw that with St Mungo’s and the Home Office, two things that absolutely should NEVER have linked up).

As a result of this idea that everything must be linked up, people spend a lot of time listing things at me, telling me the names of other community organisations or charities in the region, even if they know we’ve been going quite a while. It’s similar to the idea that working out a way to do things any new way is ‘reinventing the wheel’. Sometimes the way things are generally done is exclusionary or even harmful to people.

Charlotte Harding
Charlotte Harding
Charlotte is a journalist and the co-founder of The Women's Work Collective.
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