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4 screenshots from Instagram stories asking for Mutual Aid funds for 4 Mutual Aid groups

My newsfeed is filled with requests for help.

And I’m not surprised. We’re a year into the Covid pandemic with unprecedented unemployment and underemployment in the US (sources). We’re 60 years into an American welfare system that splits the poor into two classes: the “worthy-of-help” poor like the elderly and differently-abled and the “not-worthy-of-help” poor.

And we’re 400 years into this failing? failed? experiment of American hyper-capitalism. See the Texas energy crisis that saw the state’s energy infrastructure crumble after years optimised for efficiency instead of resilience — leaving dozens dead including an 11-year-old boy who died of hypothermia in his home.

How does race affect poverty during COVID? (1)Before the pandemic, the monthly poverty rate in America:
> 11% for white individuals; and
> 24% for Black and Hispanic individuals.
During the pandemic, the poverty rate in America, August 2020:
> 12.3% for white individuals; and
> 26.3% for Black individuals, and
> 26.9% for Hispanic individuals.

And my newsfeed is filled with offers to help.

Again — not surprised. I work in tech and many friends and colleagues have spent the pandemic safe inside, working from home. They’ve continued to collect regular paychecks while slashing their monthly expenses. They’ve got money to spare, and more time than ever to think about how they can give back. But they don’t know who to help or how.

How does race affect safe employment during COVID? (2)30% of White workers are able to work from home.
20% of Black workers are able to work from home.
16% of Hispanic workers are able to work from home.
Note: A majority of people (62%) who are able to work from home earn wages that in the top quartile of incomes.

What’s up with the disconnect?

I’ve been exploring this question with my friends and co-conspirators Georgina Bourke, Ian Bach, and others who must go unnamed for now. We have social networks that “connect the world”. And we have peer-to-peer payment platforms that make it easy to send money directly to people. So why is it so difficult for the people who need help to get the help they need?

We have a few hypotheses:

1/ It’s an algorithm problem. We have existing social and payment infrastructure to connect people in need with people who have resources to give, but it’s not happening. Why? Requests for help are being shadowbanned and payments are being blocked. Why? What changes can we make to existing social network algorithms that could support requests for help?

2/ It’s a policy problem. Related to the point above, policy changes at tech organisation create product changes big and small, most times invisible, that change the way content is shared and discovered across the platform. These changes affect the users’ experience of, and therefore our expectations of, these products and platforms. How do users understand platform policies? How transparent are policy updates and products changes? What policies have inadvertently hindered grassroots community organising? Do policy teams know about the unintended consequences of their work? And what can we do about it?

3/ It’s a product problem. Our social networks and payment platforms weren’t built for community organising, or mutual aid, so their interaction mechanics and design language aren’t quite right. Our social networks are for “friends” or “followers”; our payment platforms are for borrower and lender, or donor and fundraiser. However, in the world of mutual aid, our relationship to one another is one of mutual power and respect, peers, neighbors, community members. What would a social network or payment platform look like, feel like if it was purpose-built for mutual aid?

4/ It’s a charity problem. In the US, ‘charity’ and its big-donor cousin ‘philanthropy’ are our primary mental model of community help, which is problematic for a number of reasons. I’ve highlighted two below that negatively impact the mass-adoption of Mutual Aid:

  1. Charity/Philanthropy operates in a paternalistic manner, creating an imbalance of power and influence between donor and recipient. Charities create a ‘let me take care of that for you, little one’ vibe which can be a barrier for those who might otherwise benefit from charities’ help.
  2. Charity /Philanthropy caters to the needs of donors over the needs of recipients. This is due to an operating model that too-heavily relies on fundraising. Donations come with strings attached so donors can define who gets access to the money, and for what reasons.

How do we support those who are unsupported by donors while respecting their privacy and dignity? Let’s explore alternative ways of supporting our community that aren’t charity-based.

5/ It’s a justice problem. The biggest problem with charity is that it doesn’t address the root of the problem, only it’s symptoms. Mutual aid should serve as a crisis response, not a forever substitute for a healthy and sustainable social safety net (update: GoFundMe CEO said something similar about this) How can we build something that serves us in our crisis moments but also fuels our fight for systemic change? This is the design challenge I’m interested in most.

To be clear, we’re not here to “Columbus” the idea of direct support or Mutual Aid. Community organisers have been doing this work for decades, and contemporary Mutual Aid groups hack our existing social networks and payment platforms to get the job done. The questions we want to explore are: How can tech teams learn from, support, and amplify this work so we can stop “passing around the same $20”? How can we problem-solve alongside these the people and groups already doing the work to purpose-build something made for the community by the community?

What’s next?

We’ll continue share what we learn here. Smash that like button to follow this WIP. Right now we’re:

  • interviewing recipients of mutual aid, community and mutual aid organisers;
  • interviewing people who donate to mutual aid groups and traditional charities; and
  • conducting a product audit of existing social networks and payment tools that mutual aid groups use today.

Our ask(s)

If there’s a complementary project we should know about, let us know! We’d love to hear all about it.

If you work with a Mutual Aid group, let us know! We’d love to speak with you and them about your challenges and success leveraging resources in your community and redistrubting to those in need.

If you’re interested in sharing your skills or resources to further this project, let us know! The more, the merrier.

Context

I’ve been exploring what it would mean for a product to be antiracistby.design (website coming soon 👀). What would it mean to purpose-build a product that decenters whiteness? To design an organisation that proactively dismantles structural inequities and racism? To see our work explicitly prioritise the benefit of Black communities?

To this end, I’ve included statistics about the BIPOC experience in America to help us maintain our focus on the lived reality of BIPOC Americans.

This is how I’ll approach this project and all projects moving forward.

Footnotes

  1. How COVID Has Impacted Poverty in America, PBS, Dec 2020
  2. Not everyone can work from home, Economic Policy Institute, March 2020

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Ploipailin Flynn

Ploipailin Flynn

Ploipailin is a business and product strategist, working on antiracistby.design