Transformative justice, harm reduction and the acknowledgment of marginalised legacy in newly emergent COVID-19 mutual aid grassroots movements

I recently sent an email to the rest of the learning group asking the question ‘what could our group do in this current moment?’ It is a question I am still thinking through as a small group with multiple commitments and challenges who are still trying to find our feet. This blogpost is a result of starting to think about the new formations of UK mutual aid networks from where I am at as a white British queer person invested in transformative justice principles with an eye on abusive dynamics that unfold in activist groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic is for sure showing up the worst of our world. For example, how capitalistic structures of scarcity encourage panic buying whilst telling us to blame and label each other as irresponsible and selfish consumers. It is also showing up the best of us. For example, gestures of care, support and solidarity like the network of new mutual aid groups springing up across the country. Energised by this I joined up to the Sheffield Mutual Aid group. From what I can tell these groups have good intentions but I am also experiencing some discomfort. A bit like how I felt when white-majority volunteers were photographed and praised for clearing up the streets after the England riots in 2011. Total eye-roll. I became super interested in thinking about what and who is being left out during this current moment, asking questions and having discussions to strengthen community mutual aid responses in the long term.

Mutual aid work is not new. It has been the way in which the most marginalised and vulnerable in our world have survived. Eshe Kiama Zuri has long been running UK Mutual Aid: a private facebook group that works as an intersectional support group for the most marginalised people in the UK, particularly queer and trans people of colour. Queercare have been providing community care for queer and trans people, particularly trans women and people who experience transmisogyny, as an alternative to state institutions. You may have already come across their food networking form as they mobilised in response to COVID-19 and they offer up some crucial policies and protocols for doing mutual aid during this moment. This labour, knowledge and expertise has been nurtured and developed by black and minority ethnic communities, disabled, immunocompromised and chronically ill communities, queer and trans communities, sex workers, refugee and migrant communities, people who face poverty and many others who the state refuses to protect and support. There are some great guides and resources coming out of transformative justice groups established in the United States. For instance, check out pod mapping for mutual aid by Rebel Sidney Black and Half Assed Disabled Prepper Tips for Preparing for a Coronavirus Quarantine by Leah Piepzna-Samarasinha.

The least those of us who are new to mutual aid work can do is listen, learn, acknowledge, amplify, and thank those who have done the work. How can you continue to do this work or make this work more sustainable in the future after the current moment has passed? And if you have the means you could financially support this work:

Mutual aid groups, as activist groups, are susceptible to reproducing abusive power dynamics. This includes the white saviour complex, in which the help that white people do boils down to how it makes white people feel good about themselves rather than what would be in the best interests of black and minority ethnic groups. It also includes everyday microaggressions and marginalisation of women and femmes, queer and trans people, disabled people, survivors of violence and abuse, asylum seekers, and working class people that happen in activist groups. I for one have experienced how a small research project I was involved in, which sought to examine abuse and harm in activist communities, failed to recognise our whiteness and reproduced harm. I know I still have a lot to learn here. How can we make sure that the help that mutual aid groups offer does not fail to recognise the competencies that marginalised groups already have? How can we best respond to the harm and abuse that unfolds in mutual aid groups? To bring together those concerned about these harms a jitsi (video-conference call) has been called to discuss ideas for preventing & dealing with harm in mutual aid networks. Let’s have these necessary discussions:

  • Ideas for Preventing & dealing with Harm in Mutual Aid Networks
    Wednesday 18 March at 8:30pm. Full information here.

Domestic abuse and sexual violence is highly likely to increase during this pandemic. I have seen some discussion of safeguarding in mutual aid groups, of what is needed to avoid vulnerable people being exploited. The guidelines here seem to focus on hand washing, not entering people’s homes, and not taking money upfront for groceries. However, I haven’t seen much discussion about how to support survivors in what will be an upsurge of gender-based violence within discussions of safeguarding in mutual aid groups. There is some guidance emerging from the domestic violence sector here. So what can mutual aid networks do to best support survivors during this moment? 

  • Safeguarding Training for Mutual Aid Networks by National Food Service and COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK
    Tuesday 17 March 18:30-20:30 via Zoom
    Resources available here

In warmth and kindness

If you’d like to get in touch you can:
Twitter @juliahdownes
E-mail julia dot h dot downes @ gmail dot com


We are now making the transition from being an open to a closed group.

This means that we are currently closed to new members. We will have a process for new members to join in the future. If you are interested in joining the group you can contact us on

Planning meeting


Hope you had a restful summer. We are having a planning meeting on Saturday 28 September, 11am-1pm in Sheffield. Please email for location info:

We’re taking a summer break!


Image text says: Want to get involved in Sheffield Transformative Justice Learning Group? Taking a summer break and back in September. New members welcome.

We are a small collective and many of us have experienced harm, are in the process of recovery and can still experience harm navigating in the world. Sometimes getting through the day can be exhausting and it can be hard to see that this is enough. I believe that allowing ourselves time and space to rest, recover and care for ourselves and each other (thereby resisting scarcity, urgency, productivity and other harmful white supremacist capitalist and patriarchal logics) is part and parcel of the practice of transformative justice. With this in mind we are taking a break over summer and will come back together in September.

If you are interested in joining us in September please get in touch, new members are very welcome. You can use the contact form or email (STJLG coordinator).

Wishing you all a restful summer x


Finally, here are some great resources about resting as resistance:

The Nap Ministry

The Body is Not an Apology

Overcoming burnout (blog series) from which the book ‘Overcoming Burnout’ by Nicole Rose is going to be published in August by Active Distribution

also the new Lizzo album is genius.

Cancelled: Disability Justice and crip approaches to harm

UPDATE – Thursday 6 June:

I am sorry to let you know that Lindsay and Michael are not able to facilitate this session as planned. The learning group have decided to take a break over summer and we hope to reconvene in September. If you are interested in being involved in the group please email for more info

Information about the planned session and resources are below for information.

In our next meet up our facilitators Lindsay and Michael will be focussing on disability justice. What is disability justice? How can disability justice help us think deeper about our work, how we view access, how we engage with our bodyminds and how we view difference? Where does disability justice sit in a transformative justice framework? What does it mean to be a disabled survivor in a world that wants to cure you?

Everyone is welcome to join our conversation and you can find links to our readings/resources below.

There are a lot – please do not feel that you have to read/listen/watch them all to come along to the group. Print copies will be provided of written resources at the meet-up and you are encouraged to read, explore and share what you find useful with the group. You can contact the facilitators in advance by email:

Mia Mingus “Reflections Toward Practice – Some Questions on Disability Justice” (6 pages, scanned PDF)

Mia Mingus “Disability Justice” is Simply Another Term for Love” (Blog post)

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha  “Not Over It, Not Fixed, and Living a Life Worth Living” (esp. ‘Cure, Crips, and Survivors’ section)  (book chapter PDF, 8 pages)

Disability Justice for the Apocalypse: Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha Gets Us Together, How to Survive the End of the World, March 20 2019 (podcast, 57:49 mins)

The Sins Invalid Skin Tooth Bone Disability Primer. ‘Why We Commit to Mixed Ability Organizing’ (pages 47-51) and ‘Principles of Mixed Ability Organizing’ (pages 52-54)

We Move Together: Disability Justice and Trans Liberation. A conversation with Patty Berne, Reina Gossett, Kiyaan Abadani, and Malcolm Shanks. Moderated by India Harville. Recorded on May 11, 2017 in Oakland, CA (video, 1 hour 37:56 mins)

Access is Love campaign (#AccessIsLove) and resource list

Reviewing where we are at and where we want to go

At our last meet up (23 February 2019) we revisited our group process and what we would like to get out of the learning group. Issues that came up for us in our conversation included:

  • what does the work look like?
  • what skills do we need?
  • how do we deal with a need for a tangible document/process?
  • what does safety mean from different perspectives?
  • what assumptions are we making about people we percieve with power and privilege?
  • how can we deal with conflict that results from political differences?

You can find out more about where we are at in this work in ‘Our Approach’ as we keep developing our work and how we work with each other.

We discussed the ‘Introduction’ by Dean Spade in Ryan Conrad (ed.) (2012) Against Equality: Prisons will not protect you that introduced some key principles of queer abolitionist approaches to harm. Paper copies were provided and spare copies were left in the cafe downstairs.

We reflected on how the group has gone and discussed how we wanted the learning group to continue in the future. We decided to have the group less often (every two months rather than every month) for a longer period of time (12 noon – 4pm) with a break on a Saturday afternoon. This could look like a more casual/informal start by sharing a meal (pot luck) with each other, talking about our approach and what motivates us that day. Then after a break moving into examining the chosen reading/audio/video and thinking through how to use it in our work/lives using different activities. We felt taking a slower and more in-depth approach like this would help us to deepen our discussions.

We identified a need to increase our capacity in facilitation skills – to increase the range of activities we could use to explore transformative approaches to harm. A google form will be created to organise this training for those with an interest in facilitation.

The topics and potential resources that we are interested in focussing on in future sessions include:

  1. Disability justice and crip approaches to harm (Suggested reading to come from Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha)
  2. Self-accountability (Suggested viewing What is Self-accountability? discussion between Kiyomi Fujikawa and Shannon Perez-Darby and ‘New Year Intentions and Practicing Accountability’ by Mia Mingus)
  3. Confronting our/a need for a one-size-fits-all solution (Suggested reading to come from The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by Incite!)
  4. Difficulties in distinguishing what is conflict and what is abuse (Suggested reading to come from Conflict is Not Abuse by Sarah Schulman)
  5. What do we do with our feelings of anger and revenge towards ‘bad people’ in transformative justice approaches? (Suggested reading TBC)

So watch this space or facebook to find out where and when the next group is. Union Street and the Heartcure Collective have been approached to see if they can accommodate us.

Next group: Queer abolitionist approaches to harm

Saturday 23 February 2019 – Queer abolitionist approaches to harm
14:00-16:00, Co-working 2nd floor space (accessible via the lift) Union Street (18-20 Union Street, Sheffield, S1 2JP)

At our last meetup we started out by reading ‘Transformative Justice: A brief description‘ written recently by Mia Mingus. We used this as a basis for some facilitated work on our group process. This resulted in some initial ideas about how we want our group to work. You can find out more about this at ‘Our Approach‘. To follow through our desire to share resources with each other we now have a ‘Resources‘ page on our blog. This will enable people who cannot come to the group to check out what we have been reading, listening and watching as well as provide links to resource hubs and reading lists. We hope that these resources will be useful in creating responses to harm in other communities.

At our next meetup we will be talking about queer abolitionist approaches to harm. Can prisons and the police make all queer people safe from harm? Given this system continues to perpetuate harm against queer people, including raids, harassment, violence and criminalisation, that disproportionately impacts the most marginalised such as queer communities of colour. With the introduction of hate crime legislation to protect LGBT groups from violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity what are the debates around the use of the law, police and prisons to address harm? How else could these harms be better addressed?

Everyone is welcome to join our conversation and you can find links to our readings below:

Ryan Conrad (ed.) (2012) Against Equality: Prisons will not protect you. Introduction by Dean Spade

Against Equality – has a range of different articles on queer abolitionism – feel free to read what looks interesting to you

Next group: Black women’s anti-rape activisms

Saturday 19 January – 14:00-16:00, at Space One (First Floor) Union Street (18-20 Union Street, Sheffield, S1 2JP)

Please note that this date has changed from the 26th January.

At our last meet-up a few of us came together to discuss transformative justice and community accountability. We spent some time talking about what resonated with us from the readings and watched a video on ‘What is accountability’ from the brilliant Building Accountable Communities video series (highly recommended). It brought up an interesting discussion and reflections about situations from the past and present in Sheffield and elsewhere.

We are having a break over December and returning in January.

In our next session we will be exploring the legacy of Black women’s anti-rape activism.

The main reading focuses on the case of Recy Taylor, who became more well-known when she was mentioned by Oprah Winfrey in her Golden Globes speech in January 2018. Recy Taylor’s story has also been made into a film.

There is also an additional reading for white people on white supremacy culture and how it can show up in everyday situations including activist organising.

Everyone is welcome to join our conversation and you can find links to our readings below:

  • Danielle L. McGuire (2010) At the Dark End of the Street: Black women, rape and resistance – a new history of the civil rights movement from Rosa Parks to the rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books
    You are encouraged to read the whole book however if this is not possible for you the Prologue & Chapter 1 should give you a flavour.

For white people

  • Okun, Tema & Kenneth Jones (2001) White Supremacy Culture. Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. Changework.

Next group: What is transformative justice

Saturday 24 November 2018 – 14:00 – 16:00, downstairs at Union Street (18-20 Union Street, Sheffield, S1 2JP)

At our first meet-up a few of us came together with questions about what transformative justice and community accountability processes are. How are they different to ‘mainstream’ approaches to justice like restorative justice or criminal justice approaches?

In our next session we will be exploring the key principles of transformative justice and community accountability drawing on the work of CARA, Creative Interventions, GenerationFIVE and INCITE! Everyone is welcome to join our conversation and you can find links to our readings and videos below:

First Meetup

Saturday 27 October 2018, 2pm-4pm, downstairs at Union Street (18-20 Union Street, Sheffield, S1 2JP)

Introductions and trust building – in this meetup we will introduce ourselves and talk about what we want the group to be, what we want to learn about and what we need to be in place to create a space where we can be open, honest and feel supported by each other. The direction of group will then be guided by the collective.

Feel free to contact us to let us know you are coming and/or if you need something in place to help you come along and take part in the group.

Full accessibility information coming soon.