Citizen Resiliency – Alan Jennings on Social Capital in Local Disasters

The neighbors on the block were a reasonably tight group for this day and age with a number of residents who knew each other for many years.  It the immediate aftermath of the natural gas pipeline explosion neighbors helped neighbors some of which were able to walk out of their homes with their cell phones facilitating immediate communication. The strong desire of citizens to step up and do something in response to the disaster ‘almost forced’ community institutions to respond in kind.  Business leaders saw a void in the local response beyond the emergency and created a special fund to help the victims.  Despite having no experience in disaster relief efforts, Alan Jennings’ organization, the Community Action Committee of Lehigh Valley, was asked to create a process for the distribution of monetary donations because of their reputation for getting things done.  Alan tapped two local women with project management experience to quickly research other disasters including Hurricane Katrina and look for a model for distribution. 

Allentown, a city of 110,000, according to Jennings 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,.  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.

Given that Allentown has established institutional grops and individuals with strong social capital, how can individuals without pre-existing contact develop social capital if they wish to “do something” in a local disaster?

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