Despite what most people have been led to believe by sensationalist media, disasters can have a silver lining. Time after time, remarkable communities rise up after natural, social, or political disasters, revealing the core of our humanity and giving a glimpse of how we might respond in the face of even bigger challenges.
For the past three years, my colleagues and I at Shareable have had the privilege to work with a team of journalists, audio producers, graphic artists, filmmakers, and several organizations to explore how communities are building collective resilience in the wake of disasters, through our documentary and podcast series The Response.
Last November I had the great privilege of presenting some of our findings during TEDxWolverhampton.
Tom Llewellyn is a community organizer, consultant, and speaker who promotes people-powered solutions for the common good. He’s the strategic partnerships director here at Shareable, executive producer and host of the award-winning documentary and podcast series “The Response,” and the co-editor/author of several books including “The Response: Building Collective Resilience in the Wake of Disasters”(2019) and “Lessons from the First Wave: Resilience in the Age of COVID-19” (2020).
Currently booking virtual speaking engagements and media appearances. Please visit here for more details or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Response TEDx Transcript
Early in the morning on September 20th, 2017, Judith Rodríguez awoke to the sound of her kitchen door flying off the hinges as Hurricane Maria surged across Puerto Rico. She survived the storm, but the damage to her home, and the loss of electricity, made cooking impossible.
Days later, she heard of a group of volunteers serving meals from a community kitchen in the neighboring town of Caguas. She wanted to support the effort, so she brought her dishes to see if they could be put to use.
What she discovered was that the community kitchen had quickly evolved to become a Centro de Apoyo Mutuo, or Mutual Aid Center; an open canvas for several other basic services including medical support. She found both community and an opportunity to directly contribute to the relief effort.
Instead of feeling like a victim, Judith was able to find a sense of purpose through a shared experience with others.
I’ve been interested in stories like this one for a long time. I grew up in a small community of about 200 people. And it feels strange to say it, but I have fond memories of when things have gone wrong.
Disruptions meant that for a week, a day, or maybe even just a few hrs, neighbors forgot about whatever else was going on in their own lives, or any interpersonal conflicts, and came together to work towards a common goal.
This happened when a culvert got jammed and a pond emerged in the middle of our main access road, when the creek rose so high that it washed out the bridge, or when my neighbor’s home burned to the ground and many of us ran around the hillsides putting out spot fires that would have most likely engulfed our entire community.
It would be easy to look at these situations and think that we were FORCED to come together.
But I see it differently.
I would argue that most people are just waiting for an opportunity to collaborate. To show up for each other. To share what they have. And, if only for a moment in time, to feel a sense of purpose.
For the past three years, my colleagues and I at Shareable have had the privilege to work with a team of journalists, audio producers, graphic artists, filmmakers, and several organizations to explore how communities are building collective resilience in the wake of disasters, through our documentary series The Response.
First, climate change-fueled disasters are destructive, scary, and on the rise all over the world. There’s a lot to unpack there, so I’m gonna come back to this in a moment.
Second, the majority of news coverage of these events teeters on the edge of “disaster porn,” focusing on the sheer mass of destruction affecting the “victims” while celebrating a few token “heroes.”
At worst, the media often perpetuates harmful stereotypes, depicting people meeting their basic needs for survival as “looters” and contributing to the justification for the extrajudicial killings of mostly people of color by police and white vigilantes. A sickening example of this occurred in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
But, in both scenarios, reporting routinely underplays the incredible response by the impacted communities themselves.
And the existing structural issues, that cause natural hazards to become disasters in the first place, are completely left out of the story.
Third, and here’s some good news, the overwhelming evidence shows that, more often than not, it’s the people living in the affected communities who, despite all the obstacles, rise to the occasion to save lives, reduce suffering, and form a community of care – experiencing what the author Rebecca Solnit calls “disaster collectivism.”
I’ve been told that I never get tired of giving people bad news, so here we go.
The impacts of climate change are already being felt. This is no longer just a challenge that future generations are going to have to face. It’s ours now.
According to a recent report from the UN, in the past 20 years, there were over 7,000 major disaster events causing 1.2 million deaths, affecting more than 4 billion people, and resulting in almost three trillion dollars in global economic losses.
Strikingly, the number of climate-related disasters nearly doubled from the previous two decades.
This year  we’ve hit the hottest global temperatures on record, seen the first Giga fire (burning over 1 million acres in Northern California), and even had a Zombie Storm in the Atlantic!
The questions now are:
- How bad is the climate going to get?
- How quickly can it get better?
- And what are we going to do in the meantime?
I don’t know about the first two questions, but I’ve seen a number of things that might just hold some answers to the last one.
After Hurricane Sandy hit NYC on the heels of the Occupy Wallstreet movement in 2012, a network of autonomous relief efforts came together under the banner of “Occupy Sandy”. It became one of the most effective responses after the storm; at one point swelling to 60,000 volunteers!
Due in large part to their informal techniques, they were able to foster relationships with residents, who in turn played a key role in their own recovery. They utilized a mixture of crowdsourcing essential goods, from individuals and other organizations, and the redistribution of government aid (primarily in the economically marginalized Rockaways Peninsula).
As part of this network, Terri Bennett created Respond and Rebuild, which, among other things, specialized in the pumping and gutting of flooded homes. She put an incredible amount of time and energy into actually making personal connections with the folks she was helping.
A great example of this is actually from the first basement they pumped out, for a retired cop and her husband. They pulled up with their big yellow van looking a bit rough around the edges after having not slept, showered or changed their clothes for days.
Terri fondly recounted an exchange she had with the woman after they had known each other for a little while. She conveyed that her perceptions about other people were changed forever because of the hurricane, saying, “a month before the storm, if I would have seen people looking like you, I wouldn’t have given them directions for the train. But then a month after the storm I’d given you keys to my house.”
While the scale of Occupy Sandy’s response is incredibly impressive, it’s the transformational aspect of their work that has really stuck with me.
In 2017 a magnitude 7.1 earthquake toppled over forty buildings, caused more than 350 deaths, and injured thousands in and around Mexico City.
With so much destruction occurring out of nowhere, an understandable level of chaos and confusion soon followed. It became clear that there was a lot of misinformation being spread over social media regarding where people were trapped, which locations needed life-saving support, and how much of it.
Community organizers jumped into action and utilized a vast number of volunteers to crowdsource information from the field in order to track and verify where support was needed.
Using basic digital tools like a Whatsapp group and google spreadsheets, Verificado 19S became such a valuable resource that government agencies began coming to them for information about where they should go.
And the legacy of this initiative lives on. A set of protocols and manuals they created have been adopted by almost 60 media outlets, civil society organizations, and universities.
And speaking of earthquakes, in 2011 a triple disaster was initiated by a magnitude 9.0 quake. It sent a 45-foot tall tsunami crashing into the eastern coast of Japan, leading to 18,000 deaths and causing a triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Instead of rushing to rebuild after their town had been totally destroyed, the residents of Onagawa were able to thoughtfully transform their experience from a catastrophic disaster to a once in a thousand-year opportunity.
Through a series of small listening circles, the community decided to radically change the physical structure of the town.
Onagawa offers a glimpse into what it looks like to not just rebuild the old systems and structures that weren’t working in the first place, but rather to do so with greater resilience, equity, and humanity.
Now, here we are in the middle of a global pandemic. For the first time in a hundred years, pretty much everyone on the planet is experiencing the same disaster at the same time.
And while the vast majority of us have had our daily lives disrupted insignificant, and in many cases catastrophic, ways, there has also been an incredible outpouring of support for one another.
Across the globe, people are (safely) reaching out to their neighbors offering connection and support. It’s become such a widespread trend that the term “Mutual Aid” is increasingly becoming mainstream as local newspapers, CNN, and even Teen Vogue are publishing about it!
This is quite the seachange.
It’s hard to believe that less than a year ago we were publishing stories about people who were getting arrested for handing out free food! It didn’t make any sense before, but it’s almost impossible to fathom now.
More than anything, COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of our social connections, well – that and the life or death impact of our political leaders.
And for the people of Puerto Rico, this is all too familiar.
Back in 2017, Mutual Aid centers, like the one Judith contributed to in Caguas, spread all across the Islands with 11 formal centers (and far more pop-up spaces) emerging shortly after the hurricane, in the vacuum left by the inadequate response from the United States government.
And while it’s been over 3 years since the recovery began, the centers continue to play a vital role in supporting the resilience of their communities in the face of earthquakes, hurricanes, and now the pandemic.
Organizers have continued their efforts to build popular power and are modeling what Movement Generation refers to as Permanently Organized Communities.
As we face the reality of an increasingly chaotic climate, we must examine the situation through a social, economic, and political lens. Without intervention, the contours of a disaster’s impact and recovery will inevitably exacerbate existing inequalities.
Maybe the best technology we can deploy in the wake of a disaster might just be a kind of social technology: closely knit, organized, and empowered communities that are more resilient during catastrophes and better able to demand the resources they need to not only survive those acute disasters but to rebuild on a more just and sustainable basis.
Perhaps these disastrous events can open up a space that is normally closed off, a gap in which we can begin reclaiming community agency and power, an opportunity to tell a different story about who we are and what gives our lives meaning and purpose.