author logo: Kevin Murf
The Visible Hand – help in times of pandemia
WIDZIALNA RĘKA / VISIBLE HAND
One of the positive things we will take along with us of this 2020 are the many gestures of humanity and solidarity that mitigated the effects of a pandemic as unexpected as overwhelming. There have been countless single deeds, but here and there many support networks have also sprung up. In Poland, there is Widzialna Ręka (Visible Hand), a facebook group opened by Filip Żulewski. Created in the early March 2020, in just a few days it grew to 100.000 members. The idea of this mutual aid group is to give and receive help - whoever is in need can announce it in the group and other people respond depending on their possibilities. During the first weeks of pandemia there were a few hundred requests per day, almost all of them fulfilled. People were asking for help in coming back to the country, in finding a new job, for material support in the form of food or specific good, for contact to specialists, e.g. psychologists, and so on. With time local groups started to appear to make the process more effective and easier for those who are not very familiar with social media. There were around 200 local Widzialna Ręka groups around the country, some are still active.
Anna Książek: Where does Widzialna Ręka come from?
Filip Żulewski: From fear.
A: Tell me more.
In March, there were news that Covid started reaching Poland and it turned out that people on different levels were not coping with it. The police were afraid to visit sick people, although there were few of them at the time. Schools and universities began to close. There was fear, which became very... common. People were afraid to leave the house, go to the store, they were afraid to stand at the bus stop, to get on the bus. I also knew a lot of people who, living in Warsaw, had no loved ones around. Or people who returned to Poland from other countries and needed quarantine, but no one knew how this quarantine was supposed to look like. I was familiar with the concept of mutual aid groups, I thought it would be nice to create one of them and invite some friends.
A: You named this group Widzialna Ręka (The Visible Hand).
Yes, inspired by the Invisible Hand groups that operated in Poland in the 50-60s when I was a child. Those groups gave people anonymous support.
A: In the era of social media, no one is anonymous anymore ... and within a few days the group grew to a huge size.
My friends started adding their friends, who added more friends, and suddenly the group became very popular. In less than a week I had to make a decision whether I wanted to continue and, if yes, how, or rather quit and let it be. It wasn't an easy decision. But the responsibility for the group won. I started to wonder how to do it so as not to go crazy. Literally, because there was a day when I just couldn't get out of bed. There were too many emotions, thoughts, my mind was full of fear, doubts and euphoria all day long.
A: What helped you?
I invited other people to manage it. We created regulations - simple rules for building posts, but also information on how to create local groups. I started to suggest quite soon that it is better to set up local groups, as using hashtags on the main group may be too difficult for people who have no experience in social media. We let people use the name, the same rules if they wanted, because they seemed consistent and useful to us. 200 of these groups appeared in two weeks.
A: Two hundred?!
Yes. About 100,000 people registered for the main group within a month. The media did a lot, there were days when I gave 3 to 5 interviews during the first two weeks. I opened the group on Wednesday, March 11, there was an article in Na Temat on Thursday, information in Teleexpress on Friday. During the weekend, Polish television began to call and I received information that Widzialna Ręka was listed on the government website as one of the places where you can look for support.
A: You went to different media but without showing your face.
I didn't want to expose myself to the media, so I never give to the media the authorization and the possibility of publishing my image. I don't like to be in the spotlight, I wanted to take care of my psychological comfort, but also appreciate local people, and invite them to represent the group in the media.
A: What does Widzialna Ręka look like today?
More than six months have passed. The group eventually grew to 110,000 people and stabilized at this level for some time. Now that number is declining slightly, but steadily. The number of posts has also been decreasing: in the beginning there were 300 a day, now there are just a few.
A: Their content is also different.
Today, the posts are much more specific, you can see that people have learned to write about their needs. We encourage them to talk about what they need, not what they can give. Because when we start talking about how we can help, everyone has 5,000 ideas, but if it comes to pen down your needs, that's a problem.
A: We don't have a culture of asking.
No. Especially among men. I think that's one of the reasons why 80% of the group is made of women. For them it's easier to write that they need something. If a man has a need, often it is a woman to ask for him. There are posts like - “I need this for my husband”; “My partner needs that”.
A: Let me quote a few: “I am looking for a monitor regarding working remotely. Normally my husband works on two large monitors, and now we stay at home and he has to deal with the laptop. I want to improve his work."," My husband's aunt has mobility problems after the operation, she needs help with shopping once a week.","I am asking for help for my friend, Mr. Stas. Due to the very difficult situation, he cannot afford to buy food for the adopted cats. He's a very decent man who probably has a problem himself, but worries about his pets."
But let's come back for a moment to the actual situation.
Some groups start to establish their foundations or associations, but we, as the main group, don't want to get formal. I am not interested in the administrative and economic side of this project, this group was established to provide assistance without financial interest. There is a need, I can help, so I help without expecting any salary. Building a structure may turn what has so far been built out of passion and need into work. But if local groups want to set up organizations, if it helps them get a place, raise funds to make masks, support volunteering, etc., that's ok for me.
A: What wouldn't be ok for you?
I am afraid that these mutual aid groups will start to get lost, commercialized, and will be taken over by big companies. There could be some kind of uberization of aid. This has happened with many initiatives earlier. Before Uber there was Blablacar, where people simply shared the cost of gasoline. AirB&B was born from the well-known couchsurfing platform, where people offered accommodation at home for free. First there was sharing, then money arrived. I would like to avoid that, which may be the result of the ethics of other groups I belong to.
A: Tell more.
I work actively in groups with roots in anarchist and leftist philosophies. Together with my friends, I founded the Ada Puławska alternative culture house. I am also part of the Spina collective, which helps informal groups by training them in so-called sustainable activism: we discuss how to organize, how to act to avoid burnout, how to talk to each other on equal terms, how to spot and break down hidden hierarchies in the group.
A: So Widzialna Ręka grew out of anarchist movements.
Rather from the idea of mutual aid groups, which are many, for example in Western countries, but not necessarily work through Facebook. Classics of anarchism, such as Bakunin and Kropotkin, wrote about mutual aid as an element that is supposed to unite the society, a complementary element beyond government. People are able to organize themselves. Widzialna Ręka wasn't a new idea, but the moment was right.
A: And you also work at the university.
Yes, I deal with automation and robotics, I am a lecturer and a scientist, I really like working with students. Activism doesn't take that much time. I meet with a group once a month and another once a week. For me, Ada is rather a way to organize my free time, meet my friends.
A: And where exactly is this activism coming from?
Good question ... I think I matured for activism, it didn't show up very early. It was important that people began to appreciate what I do. I also like working with communities, various groups, I have the ability to make friends, a certain kind of empathy, sensitivity to another person.
A: There was a special moment in which you found the activist in yourself?
There was. In 2010, some friends asked me to join the legal and anti-repressive group at anti-fascist demonstrations on November 11 [Independence Day in Poland]. It was there that I saw for the first time how badly one can understand what consensus decision-making is. I thought I was entering groups that communicate at a great level, but it turned out not to be true. I reached for practices of group organization, working with consensus, and prepared a small compendium. At first it was difficult, then, when Spina was created and there was someone to work with, it started to get fun - we worked with small groups, trained more and more people. I remember one training session for the Polish Red Cross, 60 participants aged 19-20. For 3 days we offered them various methods of consensual decision-making, and they actually succeeded.
A: Consensus assumes the consent of all persons participating in the discussion, and excludes making decisions by the majority, e.g. by voting. It requires taking everyone's opinion seriously. In Widzialna Ręka, do you make decisions this way?
We try. A lot of people in the admin group come from Ada, where consensus is common practise. Only one person among administrators is not from a group operating in a similar way, but is empathetic and cooperative enough to quickly understand what it is all about. If there is a need, we call each other and discuss 2-3 hours about the rules, about some posts, about how we feel.
A: How many people are there in the administrative group?
Currently six, before there were over a dozen.
A: And what next?
There will be more and more different kinds of catastrophes and crises, and as communities we must learn to deal with them. In my mind Widzialna Ręka is a networking space that can be used in future disasters, when the government is unable to respond immediately. We proved that we can organize ourselves. We can use the same skills in the future.
A: The Covid crisis released a lot of energy in people. What will happen to it when the pandemic is over?
Everyone asks themselves this question. I will be happy if 10% of people from Widzialna Ręka continue to engage in voluntary activities, set up other groups, and discover their potential. I don't expect more, but 10,000 will still be a good result. We'll see what happens in the local groups. Some of them closed at the end of the summer holidays and announced the end of Covid. Some of them keep working. There are great groups in Zielona Góra, Mysłowice, Węgorzewo or Piotrków Trybunalski - this is my favorite, especially since my mother is from Piotrków. They have their venue, logo, banners and events. The Radom group, which, interestingly enough, was founded by Confederation supporters [extreme right wing party in Poland], works also very well. In our administrative group, people share the same views, but local groups are made up of people from very different backgrounds.
A: And what if the group is taken over by Confederation and forbids seeking help, for example, to LGBTQ + people, if there is a conflict of values?
Then people should open another local group. We don't react, we wouldn't be able to check all local groups anyway. Of course, it is not easy for me because there is a conflict of values, but if political and ideological opinions are not in the first place in the mutual aid group, and people in it do a good job of helping hospitals, etc., let them act as a Visible Hand. The problem is that sometimes the moderators, for example in Krakow or Skierniewice groups, are people who are involved in local politics. Acting in this group, they appear in the media, which also raises their position in a given community and they can then use it for their own agenda. These are certain threats from local activities, so it is worth having at the back of your mind the ideas behind mutual aid groups - selfless help, building groups in the local community, the closer to each other the merrier. They don't have to be big - you don't need 200 people to help each other, 20 people may be enough if they are active.
A: What is the situation of mutual aid groups in Poland? Are there any groups other than Widzialna Ręka?
Food Not Bombs. These are groups that distribute hot meals to the homeless every week during the winter. They do it for free, of course, the food comes from skips. These groups were organized by the anarchist federation and the squatters' movement in Poland; currently about seven are actually active. Money should be given for food, not for warfare, that is the main idea. Other groups that operate similarly, although they are more organized, are Szlachetna Paczka and Caritas. But these are very highly structured and hierarchical groups. Another, let's call it a semi-mutual aid group, is the Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy. There are no typical mutual aid groups in Poland, known in other countries. The potential to build them emerges in a crisis. Widzialna Ręka arose at the right moment, but it would have happened anyway, even without Widzialna Ręka. People would organize one way or another, sew masks, help hospitals.
A: Which of the stories on Widzialna Ręka touched you the most?
Every story is important. To me, it might sound silly, even if someone asks me to buy cigarettes because he/she is in the hospital, is a story about needs. There were, of course, spectacular stories, such as a group returning from the Cape of Good Hope at the beginning of the pandemic, but it would be difficult for me to name the most touching ones.
A: I, as well, was very moved by stories of coming back to the country or looking for a safe place for the quarantine to avoid endangering the family, maybe because I experienced myself in such a situation. But I have a few other favourites. For example, Joanna Li's request for psychological help in a group on Facebook for 4,000 cancer patients. Or the response to Er Lilia's post about the violence she experiences from her family. Maja, who thanks to The Visible Hand, publishes a book about her experiences as a psychiatric patient diagnosed with eating and bipolar disorders. Or, finally, an employee's request for additional equipment for the Educational Center where girls from dysfunctional families live. Only this last post got 872 reactions and 446 comments!
We have a lot of such stories. There is another story that comes to my mind now, which I consider interesting but from a different point of view. There was a teacher from a small town who conducts classes at a school with refugees, with children from Chechnya. They didn't have computers for online education. His daughter told him to seek help through Widzialna Ręka and we managed to organize not only computers, but also a few other things, there was a lot of support. But when the protests about LGBTQ+ policy in Poland started and we published posts mainly about psychological help for people who are being detained or who are not coping with the situation, there were a lot of critical comments, also from this teacher. It seems that acting in one field doesn't necessarily translate into understanding another discriminated group. It was an important lesson for me. In Widzialna Ręka, we don't focus on the worldview, we talk about needs, not about the colour of the skin, religion, sexual orientation, because it is not important in a crisis, it is not the time to fuel conflicts.
A: What do you do when negative comments appear?
As administrators, we block the comment and kick the person out of the group, there is no discussion. If the conversations on Widzialna Ręka are nice, it doesn't mean that they are always like that, it means that we silenced the really unpleasant people and banished them for three days to cool down. I personally don't have a problem with this, it is a private group and as it's written in the rules the aim is to provide help and non-substantive discussions will be cut off.
A: Was there any attack toward you?
Sometimes people are disappointed that their post hasn't appeared. The rules for publishing posts help us in these situations, we can give clear answers – the post doesn't comply with this or that rule. Sometimes these disappointment or even frustration messages end with an telling that all in all we're doing a great job, which is quite funny. What's interesting, messages that we just did a great job I got only five since we opened the group.
A: What's the hardest part?
Reading heavy stories. Or no, maybe the hardest part is asking people to reformulate the stories.
A: Because they are so dramatic?
Yes. I personally got loads of private messages as an admin, before I started asking people to contact us through the site. For example, I got a picture of a girl with her hands cut off saying she is alone with a child, severely depressed and she thinks to kill herself. I sent various phone numbers she could call to receive professional help, we chatted for a while, but then she disappeared, she stopped responding. Another difficult thing is all the non-substantive discussions that we have to moderate. Especially with hot topics - you have to be careful what you delete. And of course the scams. There are people who obviously cheat, edit posts to add links to crowdfunding campaigns, although we asked them not to, or push others to send out help they don't really need.
A: How do you verify that?
It's not really possible. Sometimes, someone from the local group may come over, meet the person and get an idea of the situation.
A: Are there people who don't speak Polish?
We have opened a separate group for them, The Visible Hand International, and there is also a Russian-speaking group. In general, a lot of thematic groups were created. There is, for example, The Visible Little Hand for children and their parents, founded by the person who wrote a book about Widzialna Ręka, there are groups focused on work, sports or even vegetarian recipes.
A: And if now during the Covid, or after the pandemic, someone wanted to continue to get involved and change the world, what is it needed for that?
Ten years and a lot of work.
A: Why ten?
It seems to me that it takes at least a decade to really make a difference. If you have no experience in social activities, I would suggest starting with something very simple. Taking someone's dog out. Sharing information on Facebook about a specific action is also a kind of activism. Take a colour and paint over Celtic crosses, great activism for some people. Stickers. The entry threshold must be small. Go to demonstrations, prepare a banner, write something on a piece of paper and have it with you, simple things. You don't necessarily have to go to jail and confront the police. The second thing is to build a small community among your friends. I am a big fan of building so-called affinity groups that are created for a specific purpose. They talk about their activities, take care of each other. And the last thing is to focus on the one goal. Support other topics, but in a, say, declarative way. Pick one topic that's important to you, be it LGBTQ+ or climate change or anything else, and get involved in just that.
A: Thank you, Filip, for the interview and for Widzialna Ręka. You are doing a great job.
More about Widzialna Ręka: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2874461049277846
Zrealizowano w ramach stypendium Ministra Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego