여hen Slung Low theatre in Leeds closed during the first lockdown in March last year, its five core staff decided to stay put. The publicly funded theatre had cash and a van, so the staff leafleted the theatre’s neighbourhood in Holbeck, an impoverished area in south Leeds, offering to help with everyday tasks that had suddenly become impossible for many people. Requests piled in for grocery shopping, dog-walking and prescription pick-ups. As workplaces closed, people started asking for food support. Before long, the local council approached Slung Low, which normally stages large-scale theatrical performances in castles and town centres, to organise a food bank for a ward of 7,500 residents. So it did, supplying around 15,000 deliveries over 15 개월: thousands of eggs, cereal boxes, tins of beans and pints of milk.
Slung Low’s food bank was, like its theatre performances, a large-scale production. But it was by no means the only initiative of its kind to emerge during the pandemic. Over the past 18 개월, 4,000 mutual aid groups formed across the country, staffed by millions of volunteers, who patched together safety nets for those in need. Whether delivering food, helping elderly people or supporting those with deteriorating mental health, many mutual aiders fast realised that help is a two-way street. For some, it provided an immediate way to practise political values. Other volunteers I spoke with said it offered them meaning and purpose in a way that actual, paid work did not.
Could this flourishing of mutual aid and volunteering have a sustainable effect on the way we do politics, or will it simply evaporate as the pandemic recedes from view? Regular contact with Holbeck’s community, many of whom live in deprivation, has been an altering experience for Slung Low volunteers, one they can neither forget nor untie themselves from. Food banking is an exchange of much more than groceries: care, connection and trust passes between people, 너무. “We are part of the community and beholden to each other now,” Alan Lane, the theatre’s artistic director, told me when I visited the food bank in June.
In a neighbourhood such as Holbeck, which has been ground down by neglect over the years, sticking around is a vital currency. The theatre has received letters of thanks from one family, who included a photo “to show who you helped”, and from an ex-prisoner who wrote that, despite a history of falling into crime: “I personally believe due to your help I haven’t reoffended.”
Lane told me it took constant work, “shitloads of cash” and hundreds of volunteers to keep the food bank running. Alongside funding from the council and volunteers from Leeds community hub, the theatre was able to access cash, goods and people. Furloughed ballet dancers and TV producers turned up to pack food and drive deliveries. An online community chipped in £5s and £10s. 처음에, the supplies of food were erratic: months of tortilla chips, then giant bags of popcorn; 2,000 avocados one day, 10,000 frozen vegan burgers the next, and piles of chocolate just after Easter and Halloween. Soon, Slung Low started buying its own food wholesale, warehousing produce, tins and packets at the theatre.
Disaster movies typically depict crisis-hit societies collapsing into selfish chaos, but in reality the opposite seems true. 에 A Paradise Built in Hell, her book about the goodwill that shines amid crises and emergencies, Rebecca Solnit describes how these moments show us the depth of “the desire for connection, participation, altruism and purposefulness in all of us”. Helping others seems to tap into something at the very core of our nature as social beings.
Mutual aid can also show us an altogether different way of doing politics. Slung Low, like other pandemic food banks I spoke to, refused to ask people for proof of eligibility. Typically, food support is based on referrals from a health visitor or social worker, which means that individuals have to show evidence of their hardship. Naysayers told Slung Low’s volunteers that they would be overwhelmed; that people would take advantage of the service, or that it could create dependence. These bad faith assumptions govern much of the UK’s welfare system, where assistance is means-tested and those who need help are frequently treated with suspicion, such as when Matt Hancock explained those who were told to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid-19 would not receive financial support because the system might be “gamed”.
대신, Slung Low was effectively practising the universalism that once underpinned the welfare state but has long been eroded: the idea that the only way to ensure everyone has what they need is to give to anyone who asks. Lane told me the food bank felt much like holding a finger in a river and hoping that someone upstream – the government – would stem the flood. But nobody was fixing the problems that had led so many to require the food bank’s assistance in the first place.
There’s a fine balance between finding ways to make this sort of volunteering more sustainable and turning it into an excuse for the government to devolve its welfare responsibilities. 그 동안에, as people return to full-time work and other obligations loom, it gets harder to keep the commitment going – one volunteer I met at a vaccine centre told me it was always a struggle to squeeze a shift into her diary, but always rewarding to have done so.
아직도, something shifted during the past 18 개월, for individuals as well as for communities. Some pandemic projects across the country have planted roots and are now seeking more permanent solutions to long-term issues. The real change may occur if such projects connect communities to politics with a big P, altering both the perception of what’s politically possible and the demands made of elected politicians.
In Holbeck, Slung Low eventually transferred the food bank to local services and has since reopened its doors as a theatre. It has also set up a football club, Holbeck Moor, which offers free childcare and has several men’s and women’s teams that now meet weekly. The football club is an enduring legacy of the theatre’s pandemic volunteering. But perhaps the most significant shift is the connective tissue that grew between the theatre and the community it serves. That people in the neighbourhood are coming to the theatre – to events, to make suggestions, to engage in learning activities or ask for help – is part of a shift in Holbeck’s social fabric that could take many new forms in the future.