Pulling Together


Chorlton’s Claire Stocks set up a community Covid-19 response group. Here’s what she learned along the way.

It’s shocking to think how much life has changed in just a few short weeks. In mid-March, the UK was officially in the ‘delay’ stage of the pandemic and wouldn’t close schools or ban sporting events. The ‘scientific advice’, said the Prime Minster, was that taking such drastic steps ‘could do more harm than good’.

I was glued to the debate; it had been three days since this article – a data-led analysis showing what an exponential increase in infections would mean for health services – had gone viral.

Most people felt sure that the government would have been taking decisive action if the article’s predictions were likely to be realised. Having spent the last year campaigning on climate breakdown, I knew this was not the case at all.

#viralkindness goes viral

A young woman in Falmouth, Becky Wass, borrowed an idea from other countries in the grip of the outbreak: she designed a leaflet to pop through a neighbour’s door to check they were ok.

That leaflet captured the groundswell of something that was happening all across the country: neighbours helping neighbours, community-minded folk reaching out to others. I went to bed wondering if anything was being done in Chorlton. The next morning, I came across a community support group in the Heatons on Facebook. They’d been active for a week, linking volunteers with self-isolating neighbours needing help.

So in the time it took to drink a cup of tea, I set up a Facebook group called ‘Chorlton Coronavirus Community Response’ and invited about a dozen local Facebook friends, including two of our six councillors. I was a bit embarrassed about doing it – who was I to think I should take such a step? In the past year, as a climate activist however, I’d learned the power of social media to aid action, and I’d gained the confidence to make it happen.

Mutual Aid

Within a day, we had several hundred members. I asked to join the Heatons group (who seemed super-organised) to gain tips. I soon came across links to wider resources and the concept of ‘mutual aid’, a term I’d not heard before. One was this invaluable guide from the Ella Baker School of Organising.

There was a huge surge in group numbers, which we needed to harness. I set up a quick volunteering process, using a Google form. Within the hour, we had 30 names. It was clear that this was going to take off as people looked for ways to help.

The way forward

About 48 hours after our group was set up, we reached what turned out to be a really important fork in the road, and one I now know – having learnt more about crisis organising – is fundamental to the concept of mutual aid.

With the national situation worsening, we held a Zoom call to discuss next steps. Some voiced concern at the volunteer sign-up approach. Matching individuals in need with volunteers would be a huge task – and did the ‘centralisation’ of support somehow diminish the power of individuals to act?

We decided collectively that a better and more practical approach would be to connect all the little webs, rather than attempt to create one giant one. One of the group came up with the term ‘community connectors’. There was consensus in the wider Facebook group, so our direction was set and our dynamic changed.

Communities connecting

People began using the group to post messages, reaching out to fellow residents in their various streets and forging new links.

Our role then was to support this new energy: to create a directory of registered groups – like an old-fashioned phone book! We also created a map of street groups, using Google Maps. We collated useful resources and articles and one of our volunteers monitored an email inbox.

Friends, acquaintances and strangers were all working together. Things had taken an empowering turn, that I believe will last far into the future. This isn’t just a corona response group, but a community network that will help Chorlton keep connected.

In model mutual aid projects, one aims for a ‘healthy triangle’: whatever the ‘perpetrator’, there are no ‘victims’ because we all have vulnerabilities and there are no ‘rescuers’, because the space allows for everyone to behave in a caring way.

Trying to do the right thing

While the official agencies were (understandably) still holding meetings, agreeing responsibilities, sorting communications systems and establishing health and safety guidance; community match-makers across the UK were out there, filling in the blanks and making sure no-one fell through the gaps.

In the early days, the two thorniest issues, about which there were huge online debates, were data protection (handling people’s personal details) and safeguarding (how to avoid exposing the vulnerable) – with some wanting or expecting to create and follow the same guidance as huge public sector agencies.

My own view – and that of many – was that we’d do our best, in good faith, to keep it hyper-local and keep it safe. We’d work within the spirit, if not the letter, of the law and we wouldn’t go far wrong. While it’s clearly important to make sure issues are researched well and thought through, we felt that the fear of acting wrongly might prevent any action at all.

Working together

As formal structures and responses were launched (like NHS Volunteers and Manchester’s official volunteering network, co-ordinated through Macc), they picked up some – but not all – of what some mutual aid groups were providing. There does seem scope for the formal and informal to work together more effectively as outlined in this piece by a member of the Levy Corona group.

But what has definitely remained is the need for the more general, ongoing support; especially in terms of wellbeing and a mutual aid ethos that means our community can easily react as the situation changes.

So where are we now?

Our group continues to be the community supporting itself and it’s been a brilliant way to share information about what’s happening: shops still open, those making deliveries or the latest on everything from bin collections to bread making! More importantly, however, it’s a source of general positive energy, ideas and support.

I like the way that little ideas bubble up and the Facebook group then gives a platform for people to share them. I remain one of the group’s three volunteer admins and we have a small group that discuss issues that arise: recently rationalising communications channels for folk overwhelmed by Whatsapp messages! This is a Facebook group by and for the community, just as it has been ever since I hit the ‘publish’ button.

What I’ve learned

We must protect ‘individual agency’ and avoid that unhealthy ‘persecutor- victim-rescuer’ triangle: this empowers us all collectively. Also, when you don’t know what to do in a crisis, acting with good intent and with the best information you have at the time, is always the right thing to do.

Thanks to everyone who is part of Chorlton Coronavirus Response, I hope I’ve done our group justice.

facebook.com/groups/chorltoncovidresponse/

Claire Stocks is a Chorlton resident, environmental campaigner and media specialist who writes at beethechangeblog.co.uk. @stocksyatlarge