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?