Citizen Resiliency from a Community Organization Perspective

Allentown, a city of 110,000, is “still a small enough town that people in leadership positions, people that have community impact, we all know each other” according to Alan Jennings, Executive Director of the Community Action Committee of Lehigh Valley.  He said that “if there is something special about this region it’s the culture of collaboration that exists.  It is expected that groups will work together across boundary lines, across systems, across demographic groups” to get things done.  Strong formal networks exist throughout the Lehigh Valley as demonstrated by the churches collectively holding a fellowship gathering and the business community and non-profit sectors coming together within a week to create a system for donation collection, distribution, and long-term planning.

Jennings believes that one of the main characteristics of a resilient community is cohesiveness in normal times because that’s when you can make rational decisions.  Saying that Rudy Giuliani may be the exception to the rule, but disasters are difficult times to make decisions.  The two main mechanisms for resiliency according to Jennings are: 1) that the community has its act together in terms of community services, charitable system, collaborative spirit, and culture of working together, and; 2) an understanding of how decision-makers, those in response roles, and citizens who want to get involved can work together in times of crisis.

He is certain that Facebook and Twitter were used “organically”, especially by “groups that did not want to be part of the organized, mainstream effort, so they can do their own thing, outside the institutional system that was being crafted.”  Jennings said, “[h]ell, I’m 53 years old and I’ve done pretty well by using mainstream media and I’m still a press conference kind of guy.”

Despite what seems to have been an effective process to organize community assets in the wake of the disaster, Jennings laments the state of civil society today with its pervading cynicism.  He’s concerned about the segment of the population who “hates government, hate corporations, complains about the churches,” and their disdain for institutions, in general.  He thinks that this attitude tears at the fabric of civil society saying “I don’t know what’s tearing it apart, but it sure isn’t pretty”.

How can we reconcile the collaborative institutional approach to responding to a community’s needs in the wake of a disaster with the cynicism expressed by some citizens towards those very institutions?

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3 thoughts on “Citizen Resiliency from a Community Organization Perspective

  1. Mr. Jennings echoes an idea that has also been previously discussed on this blog and in class, that the degree of resilience is strongly influenced by how “rooted” people are in their communities. The degree of social cohesion and the long-term bonds that connect neighbors and entire neighborhoods inspires them to help each other in the event of a disaster that impacts their community. Challenges of social solidarity and empathy are made that much more difficult when neighbors change constantly, people do even know each other’s names, and neighbors in apartments or close quarters may be either ignored, or even be seen (or heard) as a nuisance.

    Given these factors, neighbors who may never have met and simply passed by each other in the hallways or on the sidewalk may simply think of those affected as unfortunate victims who should be taken care through existing mechanisms such as through their own insurance agents or through charitable/government assistance. In that way, through the provision of taxes or donations, strangers who happen to live near each other may feel that they have performed their social/legal obligation to provide a social safety net for a range of disasters and that their work is done and that anything more actually might be getting in the way of trained volunteers/professionals.

    What some may think of as cynicism, may actually just be some people’s perceptions of how the institutions are intended to work all along. Mr. Jennings himself says that people just assume that the Red Cross will show up and that local organizations played an important role in that particular disaster, so if people help through those proven mechanisms, then they are providing some assistance. This is actually seen frequently through foreign aid and charitable donations to other nations where the cost of flying overseas could be better used as direct funding unless that person has specialized skills such as medical assistance directly applicable.

    Should the disaster happen to involve communicable disease or even occur during a pandemic, then “helping” others without the proper precautions may even be an element of furthering the spread of that disease. Given this possibility and the CDC recommendations to practice “social distancing” during a pandemic, how would a community practice collaborative resilience if directly helping each other poses its own risks and may be in direct contrast to those CDC recommendations? How can communities help each other when they are told to be physically distant and isolated? What communities do we even identify with?

    -Nathan

  2. Alan Jennings raises several interesting issues about resilient communities and community organization. I believe some communities are inherently resilient and others are resilient based on circumstances. Close knit communities are those in which the population is small, permanent, and interacts frequently. In these communities, families have lived there for many generations, people know their neighbors, and feel responsible for the “greater good” of the community. Binding these communities together is also their past experiences with disasters and/or tragedy. They have a shared history and suffer when others in their community suffers. They have the ability and feel the need to respond immediately when others in their community are in need. Especially following a disaster, people are moved to help neighbors because the disaster could have just as easily affected their family as it did their neighbors. Furthermore, following disasters, they collectively learn and implement strategies for future disasters. They are able to so more easily because of their small size and common goals. In these communities, faith based organization serve as a binding mechanism. Presumably, people feel connected to one another because they share the same faith and worship together on a weekly basis. Because citizens feel as though they are part of a whole, they are immediately engaged in disaster response and recovery, thus inherently resilient. My small hometown is an example of one such community. I had teachers who taught my parents. After your name, people ask who you “belong” to. Families sit in the same pew at church every Sunday. What starts out as small family BBQ turns into an all out feast for the entire neighborhood (which is also probably your family members). We’ve all experienced hurricanes together. Grandparents pass on anecdotal best practices and procedures to their grandchildren. We are raised with emergency preparedness and we all have Tupperware boxes full of water, batteries, flashlights, radios, and non-perishable food stored in our houses and ready on a moment’s notice.
    On the other hand, communities come together and are resilient following a specific incident and for a more focused purpose and shorter period of time. Major catastrophes with large a number of fatalities and victims brings people together in a pseudo-community. These tend to be on larger scales such at a state, national, or global level. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or the Earthquakes in Haiti, are just some of the recent major catastrophes that brought together people across state and national boundaries. Here the community’s resiliency usually only lasts as long as the media or the public’s attention span. Governments are reactive and tend to focus their attention and reform efforts on today’s front page news. As long as the disaster remains in the forefront, the “community” will come together and commit to recovery.

  3. When there is a lack of external support in such a disaster, people turn to inner resources first to response to problem and then to recover from it. In such a situation, to move and act quickly becomes one of the most vital things to rescue from deadly ends. Experience and trust is the matter for me to stop the first shock wave comes with the disaster. As we are all rational, self-maximizing actors and interested in our personal welfare in any difficult position, it is normal to see that people cannot try to find better way of struggling against the problems. The first questions come as “Why should I join the response efforts? What is it for me? Do the others will think like me?

    Social capital emerges as one of the biggest resource that communities need. Once a group of smart leaders (existing ones or emerged ones in such a tough situation) awake from the chaotic atmosphere, and clever enough to use scare resources to increase the level of resource instead of self-consuming can find their way to survive and challenge the other problems. There is a Turkish proverb that “if everyone cleans around the house, the street leave clean.” If the smart actor’s of the community can show and persuade the people who have the ability to help and join the combined efforts, they can enjoy the better times together.

    Tierney describes the atmosphere of hard times in of her studies by analyzing the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She mentions that tough times (like disaster experience) have been considered the period which creates more altruism, consensus and obedience in a community. However, Tierney also adds that is can be easy to see the radical changes form altruism and consensus to competition and conflict among community members. The agencies or individual that cannot manage their duties successfully can get critics and lose their legitimacy in the public eyes easily. Spread of the negative behaviors and selfish attitude can be easier and faster than the spread of volunteerism and altruism.

    Hackney et al. clearly express the effects of the opportunism and self interest behavior in network and show how easy the transfer between coordination and completion among agencies. Once opportunism and self interest or organizational interest is concerned or aimed by one of the participants in cooperation, other actors and members are likely to try to copy this behavior. Eventually, it is possible that relations return to more stable and formal relationship

    Resources:
    Hackney, R., Desouza, K., & Loebbecke, C. (2005). Cooperation or competition: knowledge sharing processes in inter-organizational networks. Second international conference on knowledge management.
    Tierney, K. J. “Strength of a City: A Disaster Research Perspective on the World Trade Center Attack” (2001).

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