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Self-organising for Mutual Aid

I would like to share with you a few stories from the Covid-19 Mutual Aid group I am part of in London. It’s ward-level and we all take up different roles – so far I’ve chosen to leaflet, (wo)man the phoneline and link people to support from other residents. And now I’m now in a small group helping to think about our ‘just cause’.

Even being part of the Whatsapp group has been an honour – to witness and be part of daily acts of human kindness from such an array of different characters. So many groceries and prescriptions picked up and delivered, so much inclusivity (“of course you’re welcome here”) and focused attention to the most vulnerable. But what’s made me, well, quite tearful actually, has been the mutuality of the kindness, well-illustrated in this message on the Whatsapp group: “I appreciated the help I received last week with groceries when I was ill. I hope to volunteer soon too.”

There was a moment when someone on the Whatsapp group posed the question: “should those who are volunteering split off into a separate group so that people’s requests for help are not lost [amongst the chatter of the group]?” An innocent and well-meaning idea that thankfully did not come to fruition, because so much more could have been lost in the action of ‘protection’. The chance for people who are traditionally helped to be the helper, for the lines to blur between those labels, and with it any implied hierarchy. At the core of our human spirit, I think we all want to be in charge of our own lives and to be useful to others as much and as often as we possibly can.

There are naturally different appetites for organisation in community life, as in all life. Some wish to control the chaos, some wish to just see what happens and some seek to tread a middle path. If we want to really embrace and support the upsurge in self-supporting community springing up as a result of Coronavirus, it’s worth having a look at these differences – and particularly that middle path – which I would call the self-organising path.

Right now, we have come to a pivotal point in our Mutual Aid group’s life, where we are being offered the caring hand of funding from our own ‘controlling parent’ – the local council. Do we take it and risk becoming ‘self-organised’, co-opted, institutionalised? Or do we reject it and risk…what, chaos? Collapse? I posed the question on Twitter last weekend and of the 51 votes, 57% thought we apply for the funding. In the comments there were those who advocated clearly for one or the other, but many more highlighted shades of grey and “yes if” conditionality. Including one person who openly changed their vote.

When I’m faced with intractable dilemmas like these, where no one can agree on a single ‘answer’, including me in my own head, it reminds me, ahh of course, I am in a complex, living system where such tensions will always be at play (something you can read more about in research at Bromley by Bow).

I recognise that for some people even the language of ‘complexity’ and ‘systems’ is an instant turn-off, polluting the simplicity of human connection. But for me it brings relief. Firstly, because it means I’m not going mad, and secondly because it provides a pathway between extremes. Instead of ‘either this is true or this is’ which brews either conflict or paralysis (surely the worst enemy of self-organising groups) we have the opportunity to adopt a ‘BOTH this is true AND this is true’ approach. So instead of ‘we definitely shouldn’t touch that money with a bargepole’ or ‘we should just get on and apply now’ – we have an option of saying, ‘yes we want to maintain our independence’ AND ‘yes we might want some resources to continue / expand our support’ – what might be possible? Which brings us right back to that middle path and a careful balancing act.

There may be some who decry the idea of a middle path. Fair enough. We need people who passionately create the extremes that push us to evolve and expand. The middle path isn’t about some watered-down compromise or stale-mate consensus. It’s about finding a method to help navigate and include the extremes – ‘both, and’. And the way to do that is to self-organise. When self-organising, we need accept neither chaos nor control. We need neither to reject anycooperation with ‘the system’ nor blindly gift it our autonomy for the price of fifty packs of loo roll.

So, what does this mean for people within organisations who might feel the itch to control new mutual aid groups, despite best intentions not to? I say: come out and meet the communities in all their myriad and unorganisable forms, where they are at and:

  • Ask yourself 1) Do I and do my colleagues believe that communities can self-organise? And 2) if so, what are the conditions that help that to happen well?

  • Support mutual aid groups to self-sustain in line with their mutuality. Cormac Russell and Sam Spencer offer some great tips for this. This might be done via funding, or maybe you could help create the conditions for mutual aid groups to ‘fund’ themselves.

  • How about becoming more self-organising yourself? There’s lots of examples to follow: Buurtzorg in nursing, Kaleidoscope Health, a strategic consultancy, East London Foundation Trust in mental health and many more are all getting on board with the idea that staff do better with less hierarchical control. Holacracy and Sociocracy are models that show ‘how to’. And in my own work at Coaching Communities I support the growth of peer-led working in practice, in both organisations and in community settings.

For people in mutual aid groups or other self-organising communities, there are lots of resources out there on self-organising. This excellent and feisty video explains the essence of mutual aid; there’s some more nitty gritty in this interview including some of the pitfalls, and heaps via Extinction Rebellion. I personally offer you these encouragements:

  • Trust the living system that is you and your community as much as possible – by which I mean trust your instincts and the instincts of the group, even if they are in conflict.

  • Embrace diversity and complexity, they are our best strength. And remember that complexity doesn’t mean confusion. Nor is ‘instinct’ an excuse for lack of organisation.

  • Get clear on your primary purpose (your ‘just cause’, as my mutual aid group calls it) – and use it to negotiate decisions and to stay on course. Keep evolving it.

  • Create a set of simple principles that you stick to no matter what – call it a pirate code if you will. For example, ‘we collaborate as equals, or not at all’. So that whatever happens, and wherever you go, you go together.

What are your tips for self-organising? We’d love to hear them.

This article was written for the Ideas Hub's Covid Considerations series To read about more people who are getting on and making things happen follow them on Twitter @ideasAlliance_ or sign up for the newsletter here.

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