At the start of 2020, amid the height of tight pandemic restrictions in Queensland, I decided I wanted to give back to those around me. In some kind of effort to stave off the isolated feelings of COVID-19, I began to engage in mutual aid groups that focused heavily on the voluntary exchange of resources and caring for one another and the community.
One such community was Food Assistance Angels, a group of folks from my local and surrounding Brisbane areas who all had a passion for helping those struggling with meals during lockdown. Tasia Amber, owner and head chef at Wild Spice Kitchen, was the founder of the initiative. “I wanted to create something that helped people connect through food,” Tasia reflects. “That is something we have been doing through all of history. Sharing food makes us feel less alone, makes us feel connected to the one who made it, to those we eat it with.”
When times are tough, we often fall back on those connections of kindness and strength within our neighbourhoods, networks and families. “Humans are not islands,” agrees Tasia. “When you are told that you can do everything yourself you will always be left feeling less than, because no one is built that way. And suddenly you have a global pandemic and we are all more cut off from each other than usual.”
Tasia used the tools she had available as a chef and reached out to her social networks for the missing pieces: she sought more cooks (of which I was one), money for ingredients, and drivers to deliver homemade food to those who had lost jobs or were in need. “And then,” Tasia says, “even if just a little, we all felt a bit more connected and a little less isolated in a time of disconnection.”
During this time I cooked stacks of meals for differing dietary requirements and helped coordinate drivers and drop-offs, but most importantly I made new friends. The positive, community-oriented energy the Angels gave me meant I started talking to my neighbours more; we shared gardening tips and a cheeky bit of horse manure to help our apartment gardens flourish.
To seek out more tips, I joined the gardening group Growing Forward Brisbane (Meanjin)*. Founding member Hope Foley describes the group as “a grassroots approach to guerilla gardening that aims to create closed systems of mutual aid within the community, as well as promoting greater localised food resiliency against future environmental and health crises”. Their aim is not just one of human connection, but of human resilience.
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Like Angels, Growing Forward supports folks via food, this time by growing it straight from the soil and giving it to those in need. “The relationship between our urban farms and local community organisations provides free food to those who need it,” says Hope, “and brings community members together in supportive spaces.”
The fact that many folks are unable to afford their own food brings into question how we could be doing things better — how we can help those in need and help them feel more empowered. I have spent many times over the last six months agonising over grocery bills I can’t really afford — and I consider myself one of the lucky ones, with some money in the bank and a roof over my head.
The answer, I believe, is in community. “Our model of urban agriculture empowers communities to reclaim the commons,” says Hope, “and challenge the pillars of capitalism that create inequity in the first place.” Money creates inequality within society, causing some people to have vastly more money and resources than others. Mutual aid within community networks helps us foster a different kind of economy, one of assistance and sharing.
Marion Abraham of Seedbar, a free seedling initiative in Victoria’s Footscray and Northcote, calls this the “gift economy. Seedbar has shown us that people are closer than you would think,” Marion says. “We have also learnt that a gift economy really changes the way people interact with things: if something is free, you are much more conscious of what you take, and that in turn makes you more aware of what you actually need.” Within this non-money-oriented economy, folks are more conscious of what they are giving and receiving, taking into consideration others’ needs as well as their own.
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And at the end of the day, it’s not only humans who are in need. “We plant for insects, ourselves, soil repair and beauty,” says Marion, who makes sure Seedbar grows seedlings that give people varied gardens with flowers, vegetables, herbs and ground covers. “Looking after your neighbourhood is about making sure there is a big variety of plants that are accessible to all types of critters! They need our help in the cities.” As high rises continue to be built and climate change escalates, sharing seedlings and growing gardens feels like the least we can do to give back to the earth.
You might be thinking, “So what can I do to help my community?” I started by searching online and on social media for community gardens, food exchanges, street libraries or other initiatives in my area. If you’re worried about taking on board too much, be assured that even a little help goes a long way. One person can make all the difference.
And if you can’t find any groups or communities in your area, have a chat with your neighbours and friends; those within your network might know of a great mutual aid initiative you could join, or you could encourage each other to start one yourselves.
In the midst of our COVID-driven enthusiasm for human connection, we must not forget that community isn’t just for times of crisis and mutual aid isn’t just for pandemics. “I believe that this is the way forward,” agrees Tasia. “As climate change rampages forward and capitalism keeps grinding us down and separating us, mutual aid and the building of community is a skill we all need to sharpen to survive.”
The fostering of community and engaging in local assistance initiatives will help us create a stronger future together, one of resilience, community and love.
*Growing Forward acknowledges their gardens are on stolen land and have been built with permission from the Traditional Owners.
Rae White is a non-binary writer and artist. Their poetry collection, Milk Teeth (UQP, 2018), won the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Rae is the founding editor of enbylife.net, a journal for non-binary and gender diverse creatives. Their work has been featured in Archer, Overland, Pink Advocate, Sydney Review of Books and others.