The beginning of lockdown saw a huge number of Covid-19 Mutual Aid groups spring up around the country. One of the first such groups to get started in Newcastle was Byker, an area close to the city centre. I talked to Silvie Fisch, local resident and group member to find out more.
“The group was initiated by one of our local Labour councillors. who was worried about what would happen to vulnerable people and decided to set up a Facebook page to find volunteers. The group now has almost 500 members and we have dozens of volunteers who help out in the neighbourhood. It’s quite wonderful, really – people come from all kinds of different backgrounds and cultures, community activists and veterans.”
Silvie explained that there are no pre-defined roles, no top-down hierarchies. It is very much a community group effort.
For many years now Byker has been seen as a strong and supportive community and now is no exception. Fisch went on to describe what the group does.
“We basically try to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks. We do all sorts of things. We deliver emergency food, books, toys, we pick up prescriptions and take dogs for walks. We also cook and deliver meals to sheltered housing residents. And we can signpost people to support services. They know they can trust us – we don’t come from ‘the outside’, we’re just neighbours”.
I asked how she felt that the group benefitted the local community.
“We are helping on a small scale, responding to local needs. We’re there straight away, and so there is no anxious waiting for an anonymous letter that tells you if you do or don’t deserve help, there are no vouchers you need to show to prove that you’re eligible not to die from starvation. We don’t judge people.
We’ve recently moved on from providing immediate emergency relief to engaging with the community in ways that will make this area a better place for all of us, for example the group has started initiatives like plant and seed swaps. What’s happening now is of course nothing new, there are positive examples from the past when people knew they could rely on support and initiatives from within the community. We’re now talking about where we want to go next, something that’s happening all over the country. It’s not just about a ‘bottom up’ approach. There are many local councils who are discussing possibilities to hand over more power and resources to the communities. The consensus in Byker is that we are here to stay, and that whatever happens next, our motto will remain ‘take what you need, give what you can.”