Aid group in South Norwood thriving despite ‘funding roulette’

Covid Mutual Aid groups have been working day-in, day-out throughout the pandemic emergency to support their communities with food, PPE and a variety of social care. South Norwood is one such operation that has seen a weekly community kitchen blossom into a full-blown mutual aid operation.
In Volunteers Week, JANE NICHOLL interviewed Laura Whittall, one of the driving forces behind the award-winning South Norwood Community Kitchen

Laura Whittall and SNCK co-founder Paul Mitchell: impressive volunteers

Q We’re approaching three months of lockdown: how has the South Norwood Community Kitchen had to adjust and adapt to the needs of the regular kitchen users and other vulnerable members of the community?

A There has been a lot of listening to and learning from our regular kitchen community about their needs and how their circumstances have changed.

But also through our networks we have done a lot of work finding where the hidden members of our communities are who may have become vulnerable, or are more vulnerable than ever, and what they need.

A lot of our regular visitors’ support systems have come apart so we’ve had to learn fast about other ways they can access support, be it around mental health, housing, benefits etc, and what are the new channels for this. Hardly any of them have phones. Some of our friends stuck at home are unable to use technology, so we’ve had to find ways of helping them through this. We’ve noticed our friends who don’t have access to public funds have been doubly disadvantaged by this lockdown, as they are unable to access official support so we have had to support them more than ever.

Deliveries have also become an important part of what we do now. A reliable service for those who can’t get out of the house or find it difficult accessing food and basic things.

It’s helped to bring a bit of community to their doors when they have never felt more isolated.

Q Do you feel the principles of Mutual Aid have worked well for you?

The South Norwood Community Kitchen has been delivering hundreds of meals every week during lockdown

A Yes, absolutely. It has helped just to make things happen, get resources shared and information across quickly.

Even though we have had to put together new processes and ways of doing things, they are not weighed down by hefty structure or admin, which means we can be nimble and flexible when we need to adapt what we do.

Also, it means people can just get involved and crack on with what needs to be done. It makes the whole environment around what we are doing more inclusive and everyone feeling involved.

We’ve had scenarios where some people were accessing support and are now helping to support others, so it creates a culture of reciprocity and mutuality where no one is treated as a victim.

However, there does at times need to be decisions made somewhere, and people need direction or knowledge, but this doesn’t mean that it should work through hierarchical means but through supporting people to get the knowledge they need and share it on.

Q Do you feel that council involvement would have helped or hindered your mutual aid non-hierarchical way of all working and supporting one another on an equal basis?

A Council structures are paternalistic and deeply bureaucratic and they can only ever think in this way.

When resources are scarce like they are now, there are resources they can share such as funding but it needs to be done in a way that is not onerous or tries to control mutual aid efforts in communities. Creating competitive environments has not helped organisations, with some winning and some losing in the funding roulette.

Volunteers at South Norwood Community Kitchen putting the finishing touches to meals

Thankfully, we have always made the council aware that we are independent from them and that the terms of our relationship need to be on a footing where they see us as having better understandings of the needs and aspirations of our community, rather than prioritising their own internal agendas.

It is still a work in progress but any council involvement should be around giving and supporting resources led by mutual aid efforts, rather than them leading activities.

Q What has worked well for you in keeping the kitchen surviving and expanding during lockdown, and what have been the obstacles?

A Having a great community like we do in South Norwood is the best survival kit you could ever need, and from this has come a committed crew who trust and respect each other.

Having honesty, no egos or power merchants has been really important with regards to having to change things if they aren’t working. We made some mistakes at the beginning (and are still sometimes making mistakes!) and it was pretty stressful but we came together, reflected and shared ideas then got on with it.

Also our relationships with the wider community: if we need something quickly, it happens, like people dropping stuff off, referring people who need support or just championing the cause.

One of the key obstacles has been some of the competition that can arise between different organisations, groups etc who are each trying to support the vulnerable in our communities. Often there is competition for funding and resources, whereas we should be collaborating and supporting each other – by not working more together it stretches resources thinner and thinner.

Q The kitchen working so successfully has certainly been taken on board by the local community, and the phrase “mutual aid” is now becoming a daily description of what has been happening in the area. Do you think after lockdown is over people will hold on to this belief that it is possible for people to work cooperatively, rather than competitively and without a hierarchy?

A I think the foundations for this have been laid and people realise that they can take action and are not afraid to do so. I think before all this, a lot of people wanted to act but did not know how or did not have the confidence to do so. However extreme times call for extreme behaviours and people have stepped beyond their comfort zones (or didn’t even have a choice) and I think that to go back to their normal realities would never feel the same again.

Mutual aid volunteer: writer Jane Nicholl doing her bit as a delivery driver

It has burst a lot of bubbles about how we cannot rely on our individualistic efforts and that other people are sources of support and resilience. There is a collective consciousness there now that cannot be broken very easily.

There is still work to be done though.

As soon as the world’s cogs start to turn again and lives become increasingly focused back on to working and capitalist means of survival, there is a fear that many people will turn inwards.

Our communities therefore need to find fresh and renewed ways for voices to be shared and heard, and clear understandings of how they make change happen; however small or big. That their smalls acts will still really make a difference.

We have got to keep that energy going, but it cannot become trapped and suffocated by hierarchical and routine community meetings and consultations that are usually led by people in authority… we need to move through meaningful acts of community expression and action where everyone is invited.

Read more: ‘Community energy has come through in these testing times’

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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