Covid-19 saw an outpouring of community-led support in which 9 million ‘volunteers’ stepped forward to help out. As part of our Active Neighbours work, we’ve been interviewing people to uncover the stories behind the statistics. Here, we present Isabel’s story.

5 hands on wooden table

Background

Isabel lives with her boyfriend and one other housemate. She works for a research think tank for 4 days a week and this year completed a masters in Digital Culture. She has been heavily involved in her local Mutual Aid group this year and has clearly given a lot of thought to what it meant to be part of this work. She also did a lot of door-knocking for the Labour Party last year.  

Impact of the pandemic on Isabel’s work and life 

Isabel says that her life has not really been significantly affected by the pandemic. She has continued to work from home for 4 days a week. She has had more time but has managed to maintain a good level of mental health. While some of her friends have lost jobs or been put on furlough, most have been broadly fine.

History of volunteering 

Isabel did quite a lot of volunteering while at school and at university, getting into political organising and campaigning.  She went to a prestigious university, an environment that had a very strong politicising influence over her outlook. She co-ran the LGBTQ society and did a lot with women’s liberation and refugee groups.

“[Volunteering at university was] about building a community for yourself – as well as the classic type of motivations –  trying to be part of shifting and shaping a community. But also there was a lot of anger a lot of the time – like just being really pissed off with shitty lecturers, and bad university policies.” However, she says she “burnt out”, and then: “but it wasn’t really volunteering. It was more like organising social groups. […] it was quite inwards looking and campaigning, rather than bringing tea for old ladies” 

Since finishing her undergraduate degree, she hasn’t done much in the way of volunteering – just dipping her toe into various opportunities (such as a volunteering stint with the charity Migrateful) and always finding it disappointing – “it didn’t really stick.” She attributes not having been involved much in volunteering since moving to a city to the fact that she was new to the place and “it’s quite complicated working out what would suit you well.”

Attitudes to British citizenship

Isabel thinks that a lot of people really identify with the concept of citizenship, and like to think they have a strong sense of civic belonging and responsibility to each other.

“I think there is a really strong sense of social responsibility towards each other, which I definitely feel part of.”

She thinks that at times though there is  “a regressive kind of citizenship, which is a more rightwing take on national identity – there’s almost a closedness to it […] rather than being more open. But on the more progressive end, there are strong social bonds that bind us.”  

Before 2020, she describes her “effect on citizenry” as being “neutral or slightly positive”. In her words:

“[I am] not one of those people who know loads of people in the community, everyone looks to them if there’s a crisis, who are volunteering all the time […] I wouldn’t say I’m one of those people. I do my bit when I need to, but most of the time I’m happy if I’m not hurting anyone.”

She thinks however that there is a lack of kindness at the heart of government policy in its approach to the pandemic. She describes the government’s response as “embarrassing”, and contrasts this with the fact that the British public actually have one of the highest rates of volunteering in the world.

Volunteering during Covid

At the start of the pandemic, Isabel got quickly involved in the local mutual aid group, having seen the opportunity circulating on Twitter.

 “Just before the first lockdown was called, there was a lot of anxiety and a lot of people organising […] First there was huge Whatsapp chat for the whole of the postcode. And then we had like a few meetings that we split up into wards. And then from the ward-level, we started creating all these spreadsheets  – huge spreadsheets that were going around. There were hundreds and hundreds of people, so we split it up again and again [….] until it was ward-level groups. There were 200 people in the group, but there were more than 200 people who wanted to be part of it.”

Initially, Isabel was involved in setting up the group’s email account and the spreadsheet, and figuring out how to set up the phone line. She then got involved in delivering leaflets to get the word out about the support that the group was offering. She also dipped her toe in direct volunteering such as delivering food but says “there was so much interest in that. We’d get a call and then it was like “BAM” – floods of volunteers would come forwards to take part.

Isabel was struck by the realisation that she lived around a lot of highly skilled people who got involved in the group. There were also a lot of artists and designers.  

Time commitment & employer permission

Isabel claims that the time commitment for this opportunity was “not much”, even though she says she was “heavily involved” throughout the whole of the first lockdown. She would take part in one meeting per week and was also monitoring Whatsapp –  although that wasn’t a steady commitment, but rather 2 minutes every hour. Isabel also manned the phone line for one day every two weeks. She organised this so that it would take place on her Master’s day, but her boss also said she was happy for Isabel to spend some time away from work to shop for people. 

Isabel gives the impression that many of the people involved in the group were a particular ‘type’ of volunteer who tended to spend too much time intellectualising the work than actually getting on with the practical tasks at hand. She gives the example of spending 12 hours across 5 meetings writing a vision statement. “That’s the kind of people we had -systems design-type people.” 

Motivations

The initial trigger for Isabel getting involved in the group was the sense of “acute need”. While this may have been the initial instigator, she was also drawn to the underpinning ideals and possibilities of the group: 

“I think what was really cool at the beginning was it felt like you had this whole potential to really rethink how you interacted with your local area, how you rethought your local relationships. There was a real sense of possibility – that you were really kind of mini-world making or something […] That there was a real sense of possibility that you could reshape all these forces […] I think politically a lot of people really frown down on traditional charity models – particularly the bifurcation of service users and service providers, and felt like what was needed was something that really lifted people up in the community, and made everyone feel like they were valued and had something to contribute […] which is still a noble goal – but I think it’s hard to do in practice.” 

She also says later in the interview: 

“Why I got involved with mutual aid rather than anything else was that I wanted something that I could build with other people and use what I was good at with things that other people were good at, and actually be part of something that was exciting. I guess I was drawn to the political possibility – the histories of mutual aid are really interesting and very politicised and tend to be stepping in where the government’s letting people down. It felt really fertile with possibility. It had the potential to really change how a community related to each other. – which is definitely something I’ve found has been lacking in volunteering before – a sense that you were often not really needed that much.” 

Petering out 

As the first lockdown came to an end, there was a drop off in involvement and demand, particularly as people came off furlough and had less time to give to it. Fewer people turned up to meetings. Isabel took time away from the group to write her thesis, and when she returned in August and tried to get involved again, she found it “a bit weird – the activity had really waned.” Whereas when the group was first set up people were really keen to be involved and immediately jumped on any requests for food and medicine, Isabel says: 

“It’s really quietened down now, and you’ll see, like, oh someone needs some shopping – and it’ll go a few hours before anyone picks it up. My impression is that it’s really hard to keep the momentum going.” 

The drop-off in involvement and motivation also impacted Isabel’s motivation to be involved, and has led to her starting to disengage from the group: 

“I came back to a meeting a few weeks ago, and it kind of bummed me out […] I was kind of like ready to be like ‘whoo hoo – back in the game!’,  ready to start again – and you could tell that there was probably a core group of about four people who are really really super committed, and they were tired out and worried and didn’t really know how to – I guess what was really good in the beginning was this sense of emergency and panic that was actually really productive for that kind of organising, and even now that it’s the second lockdown, I don’t think anyone feels as panicked as they once did. I’ve signed up to the phone line once every month now instead of once every two weeks. I’ve attended one meeting over the past 2 months whereas I would have been to 8 in the first lockdown over the same timeframe.” 

Unrepresentative and exclusive 

Isabel feels that what was quite damaging about the mutual aid group was that it was “a bit unrepresentative.” She lives in a very poor ward in which there is a fairly marked East/ West divide (east being a poorer, more ethnically diverse neighbourhood, and the west being predominantly white and middle class). Isabel thinks that the group quickly, though intentionally, felt quite “closed”, being made up of “friends of friends”, and didn’t do enough to reach out to and build trust with the more ethnically diverse neighbourhoods. 

Those accessing the support of the group were a more mixed bunch.  A lot of people just needed shopping, and it wasn’t all on the basis of wealth. The group tried to make it clear that the mutual aid group was not a charity service.

This language issue was important – “ we wanted to impress upon people that they were just helping our neighbours out.” Isabel feels this was key because “people have a sense of pride. I myself wouldn’t want to think of myself as a service user of a charity.”

Isabel does acknowledge that there was some reaching out – calling the churches, having conversations with the pastors, trying to engage community leaders, doing phone banking and calling people up – “asking who do you trust, where do you look to for help?” Isabel says, however: 

“We could have done so much more if we’d had dedicated capacity and made people feel like it was their own group, rather than thinking it was something exclusive.”  

She feels that lack of resources and dedicated time to give to the cause was a barrier to the group achieving impact and sustainability:

“I think when you’re volunteering and it’s a volunteer-only group – there’s really limited resources. There were a lot of people who knew the theory but couldn’t necessarily contribute the time.” 

Isabel also observes that even though the group did a lot of leafleting, even if you leaflet the whole of the ward the most contact that you get is still from the white middle-class side. She thinks that distrust and divisions are very “entrenched”, and you would really need to make a concerted effort to build relationships, rather than just sending out flyers. This was hard to do in a pandemic in which you can’t have face to face conversations. Some people did ‘buck the trend’, with people from tenants residents associations joining from time to time – and there were people keen to do the shopping for shielders who were black and more working class. Overall though, Isabel estimates that at least 60% of the group were white middle-class.

Evolving need 

Need also evolved over time, becoming more complex and less transitional. In the beginning, a lot of the people that the group was helping just didn’t have the systems set up – so a lot of what they were doing for people was getting food to them while they were waiting to go onto Universal Credit or were in transition. 

Isabel feels that this transitional need has now been replaced by more “entrenched need” that traditional service or charities or the council are better placed to provide.

She gives the example of some food banks that have a policy of only giving  2 weeks of food to families before they have to get a referral. The group didn’t do that, but they did try to talk to people by saying: “we can’t do this forever because we’re just a bunch of people – but we’ll try to help you find something more sustainable.” 

Finding sustainable solutions

As a way to try to tackle entrenched poverty in the area, Isabel mentions that some people have set up a new fund that you can pay into in order to “help a neighbour.” She has started to pay £20 into this fund every month. People can just claim this money openly, as and when they need it. This fund is now where a lot of people get directed if they need food and can’t leave the house. 

Forming relationships 

There is a sense that forming new relationships and bonds through the mutual aid work was not a priority for Isabel. She was motivated to join more by people she didn’t know talking about the opportunity on Twitter than by friends. She doesn’t really feel like she made any new friendships through the activity, but did form “casual connections” – people that she’d stop to have a brief chat in the street with – and she thinks this is “important.” She notes that she certainly hasn’t made any deep new relationships through the work, but doesn’t seem bothered by this. 

The role of the state

Isabel mentions that the council offered the mutual aid group a grant, but they turned it down (even though many other mutual aid groups accepted it) because there was a lot of wariness of the council and general mistrust.

One point of mistrust was that they were requesting that the group collect a lot of data, and they weren’t prepared to do this because they wanted to protect people who might for example not have Leave to Remain. They did however accept a grant from the local hospital because their conditions were a lot more light-touch – they just wanted a positive testimonial rather than data collection. Isabel, therefore, suggests that more light-touch financial support like this, with minimal strings attached, could be one way of supporting mutual aid-type groups.

Being patronised

Some people in the mutual aid  group went to a conference and reported back that mutual aid groups were both patronised and misunderstood by this ‘official’ organisation:

“It felt like mutual aid groups were really being patronised at the conference. It was kind of like: ‘how can we make the most of mutual aid?’, but they didn’t invite anybody from the mutual aid groups to speak. And there was lots about safeguarding, how can we ensure quality… It’s really hard when there’s too much regulation.” 

Fear of being co-opted 

Isabel wonders whether all of the hype around the Covid-19 volunteers is justified, mentioning, in particular, the wide variety in the depth of people’s engagement. She also worries that it is going to be politically co-opted. 

“It’s hard to know whether it’s being exaggerated, and I get a bit worried that it’s being co-opted. I’m not sure if you’ve read the Danny Kruger report about civil society – he’s really obsessed with ‘how do we capture it?’ And one of his ideas is: let’s make a volunteer passport” so everyone can find opportunities that fit with them. In my mind that’s just a really stupid suggestion.” 

Isabel also feels that she does not think tech opportunities like the NHS Responders scheme are the way to “capture” the desire to care and help, perceiving that this scheme was a flop – with people just sitting all day at their computers refreshing the browser, and never being called to help. 

Features of future opportunities?

What would be the ideal features of future opportunities? Isabel lists the following characteristics: 

  • Being needed and using her skills. Isabel talks about her experience at Migrateful, a charity for migrant chefs, where there seemed to be a surplus of volunteers that made Isabel feel like she was wasting her time. “I didn’t feel like I was the best person for the job. What was I bringing apart from a friendly face?”

  • Being able to be creative. When Isabel got more into political organising at university, this led to the realisation that she enjoys ‘creative’ opportunities that involve problem-solving and working things out.

  • A sense of being open and welcoming, rather than “closed” and “established” like many political groups can be.

“[In an ideal world] a future opportunity would retain that sense of possibility that the mutual aid group  – at least I found it quite open. A lot of political organising groups are quite established already and it feels hard to break into – part of this work was there weren’t preset authority positions – you didn’t feel like you were coming into an already-formed friendship group.

Isabel talks about having considered getting involved in a local political party group and rejecting this idea because it feels too closed off and established – the same goes for an old and established charity in her neighbourhood that is doing important work.

  • Something that is well-resourced and sustainable, but also gives you ownership.

“I also want something where people do have a bit more time to invest in building something a bit more sustainable and that feels genuinely co-owned across the borough/ ward and somewhere that has the resources to make that happen, rather than being run on a shoestring on people’s Saturday afternoons. It kind of sounds like two contradictory demands – on the one hand, I want the established organisation, on the other hand, I want the sense of ownership that you can’t get in an established organisation.” 

  • An opportunity that mixes the practical (e.g. food delivery)  with the strategic (e.g. organising and planning). 

Looking to the future

Isabel is excited about talk of people setting up a food co-op locally, and thinking about establishing organisations that embrace new economic models that escape the traditional charity trap. She would be interested in getting involved in an organisation like this and thinks that it would tick a lot of her boxes. In an ideal world, the co-op would be jointly managed by a group like the mutual aid group with a community-embedded organisation from a different part of her neighbourhood, such as a church.

This story sits within our Active Neighbours work. To find out more about the different types of Covid volunteer, their motivations, experiences and needs, take a look at our Field Guide.

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