Chapter 10: Mutual Aid: A Factor in the Evolution of Settlement Work in Canada

Applicability of Mutual Aid for Settlement Workers

The final section of this chapter will explore the possibility of applying the principles of mutual aid in a settlement work context. It will draw from the experiences of other related professions that have been successful in doing so. Particular attention will be paid to recent examples from social work and lessons learned that settlement workers could apply.

I. Examples of Mutual Aid from the Field of Social Work

Mutual aid lends itself very well to the field of social work if one begins by conceiving it simply as a process whereby people help one another while they think things through. In contrast to the typical “individual-work-in-a-group” dynamic that exists in social work and other helping professions, mutual aid allows the group itself, along with its processes, to be seen as a client or service user worthy of support (Steinberg, 2014).

This raises some fascinating questions for settlement workers. If one recognizes that working collaboratively as part of a team is a core competency of settlement work (Kolterman & Scott, 2018), then it stands to reason that a more intentional adoption of mutual aid principles of solidarity and reciprocity could be of benefit. This intentional linking of one’s personal needs and interests with those of their group can provide powerful new avenues to leverage the distinct knowledge and experiences of individual team members for the benefit of the collective.

Incorporating mutual aid practices also allows for flexibility in group dynamics where individuals may not be as able to contribute as fully as others, but the collective energies of the team will ensure that their needs are met in a dynamic that is free of judgement. For example, although a group of practitioners may all work with different service users in their daily routines at work, the different needs of the various service users, such as those encountering poor physical or mental health, may limit a particular worker from being able to contribute as much to the team dynamic as they could or would want to (Steinberg, 2014).

As such, when working within a team setting, mutual aid can be successfully applied if sufficient time is spent on developing a process for outlining group goals and objectives. This is especially valuable for resolving conflict that may arise within a group because the healthy functioning of the team then becomes a collective responsibility. This has the added benefit of further creating conditions where group members not only support and help one another, but where a group can heal itself if need be and the health of the group dynamic in and of itself is taken into consideration when conflict arises (Giacomucci, 2021).

Similar to how the development of rapport with service users is considered a necessary first step in effective interviews with service users and a precursor to any problem-solving efforts undertaken by social workers (Ivey et al., 2016, p. 44), the incorporation of mutual aid into professional team environments will also require an intentional rapport-building process among team members. Steinberg (2014) summarizes their discussion of how to effectively begin the process of adopting mutual aid in social work teams by identifying five powerful group norms that can be catalyzed through the incorporation of mutual aid:

  • Collaboration
  • Authenticity
  • Use of self
  • Decentralized authority
  • Free-form interactions

In addition, although the “self-help” focus of many conventional social work practices is congruent with the principles of mutual aid, particularly regarding recovery-oriented practice, these principles are less apparent in support and/or personal care networks that are focused on supporting individuals with mental health concerns. This is in part because of the predominant models of family therapy that emerged in the mid-20th century, which situated families themselves as major factors in the development of poor mental health (Hyde, 2013).

The need to be aware of these dynamics is especially acute for settlement workers today because the use of technology to deliver services has never been higher. Hyde’s (2013) discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of mental health supports via telephone indicates that there may, in fact, be many potential benefits for service users to accessing mental health supports over the phone, including more flexibility in meeting schedules and a greater sense of service user anonymity. However, practitioners must also be aware of the limitations of such supports, such as the greater difficulty picking up on verbal and non-verbal cues during sessions and emotions that may arise with a potentially more abrupt end to a session.

In an Australian context, one way in which mutual aid was successfully applied to navigate these tensions was through the creation of a mutual aid network for family members who were supporting loved ones with mental illness. The creation of this network acknowledged the unique, and often isolated, nature of care provided by family members and linked members of different families together to share experiences, resources, and perspectives on effective care with others doing similar kinds of work in their families. In turn, the knowledge emerging from discussions occurring within this mutual aid network could then be used by practitioners to meet the needs of service users in more formalized care settings (Hyde, 2013).

II. Implications for Settlement Work

By this point, the applicability of principles of mutual aid to the field of settlement may have become more apparent to the reader. In particular, mutual aid lends itself very well to anti-oppressive and strength-based approaches to settlement work. In past chapters of this resource, strength-based approaches focus on the resiliency of service users and what they can already do, not what they cannot. Similarly, such discussions also often focus on recognizing what resources may already be available to a service user (even if they may not recognize them as such), as opposed to focusing solely on gaps that may be negatively impacting the quality of their lives at a given moment in time (Hammond & Zimmerman, 2012).

Understanding the principles of mutual aid can assist settlement workers in dialogue with service users by helping them identify experiences of “everyday mutual aid” that are overlooked in moments of great urgency and/or crisis. For example, a newcomer who, in a meeting with a settlement worker, discloses feelings of intense isolation and loneliness in their new communities (particularly during winter months) may not fully appreciate little acts of kindness that a neighbour may show them (such as shovelling their walk after a significant snowfall).

Positioning a discussion on incidents such as these through a lens that highlights the principles of solidarity and reciprocity could open up new ways for newcomers to develop a sense of belonging in their new communities. In doing so, settlement workers could increase awareness of avenues for newcomers that could contribute to the overall community well-being. This, in turn, can then help lead to a greater understanding of available community resources (and how they can help meet newcomer needs).

In addition, understanding how mutual aid networks function and are structured can help settlement workers develop more comprehensive strategies for ensuring that individuals in more precarious persona circumstances access necessary supports. For example, during the Occupy Wall Street movement of last decade, numerous camps were organized throughout North America (including a high-profile one in Edmonton) that provided free food, clothing, and tents for individuals experiencing extreme poverty and houselessness (The Associated Press, 2011).

Settlement workers can be more effective in the work they do if they are more aware of mutual aid networks that may exist in their home communities and attempt to build relationships with them. Doing so will increase the likelihood that gaps in social support systems are better addressed with community involvement (Aaslund, 2021). They may also provide settlement workers an opportunity to incorporate the principle of mandar obedeciendo into their professional practice and allow underprivileged communities to play a more significant leadership role in identifying their needs, which could then be “actioned” in collaboration with community leadership.

At the same time, it is essential to recognize that many settlement workers work at organizations that have been in operation for a long time and, as such, may have already established strong connections with migrant diaspora communities. Service-providing organizations (SPOs) thus often have the capacity, as well as the social and political capital, to work as “institutional cultural brokers” between formal government agencies anddepartments and grassroots organizations in times of crisis (Suva et al., 2022).

Cultural brokering is an important component of anti-oppressive practice as it requires the ability of a “broker” (or intermediary person) to effectively navigate different, and often clashing, cultural spaces. A broker’s job is to bridge any intercultural gaps that may appear in dialogues, mediate any subsequent conflicts that may ensue, and play a constructive role in problem-solving efforts. Cultural brokering has its roots in healthcare settings because newcomers are far more likely to have a negative encounter with healthcare professionals and will be more likely to accept a referral for a service from a person or organization that has already established trust with them (Suva et al., 2022).

Cultural brokering lends itself to contexts beyond the healthcare setting and has taken on an added importance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, settlement workers who work with underprivileged communities will feel increased pressure to assume the role of cultural broker with their service users, and it is important to recognize that many of the practices employed by settlement workers in these roles are fully aligned with the principles of mutual aid.

For example, effective cultural brokering involves a thorough understanding of divergent cultural perspectives on health practices, perceptions of illness, and attitudes towards authority figures if the cultural broker is to be successful in the role. This involves a commitment to active listening and accurately articulating the concerns of different communities in intercultural settings (National Center for Cultural Competence, 2004).

As such, there is an implied negotiation that happens in culturally brokered spaces, and oftentimes, a shared understanding of different perspectives is required before a mutually agreeable compromise that meets the needs of the different parties involved in the discussion is reached. This compromise can result in a more inclusive and efficient dispersal of needed resources in a culturally respectful manner and can go a long way towards building trust between representatives of different communities.

Finally, and most importantly, mutual aid can help the practice of cultural brokering when engaging in discussions on justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in Canada. This is especially important in light of the responsibility settlement workers—and all newcomers to Canada—have as the inheritors of Canada’s colonial legacy. As discussed elsewhere in this resource, numerous reports have emerged in recent years that highlight how the Canadian state has routinely engaged in acts of genocide against Indigenous Peoples throughout its history.

In response, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015a) issued a series of Calls to Action that can serve as entry points into such necessary discussions. In addition, understanding Zapatismo can prepare settlement workers to act as effective cultural brokers in more complicated but necessary discussions on the concept of Land Back and the next phases of truth, reconciliation, and justice among Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada today.

(NOTE: For more information on existing cultural brokering programs across Canada, you can check the following resources: Cultural Brokerage Program, Cultural Brokers, and Multicultural Health Brokers.)


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