When I visited Taiwan earlier this year, I was reminded that the Chinese word for crisis is comprised of two characters, one meaning danger and the other opportunity. In every crisis there is opportunity. Our world is confronted by multiple crises. The upside is that we now have unprecedented opportunities to rebuild community.
Christchurch, New Zealand struck me as beautiful and orderly when I first visited Seattle’s sister city in 2008. It was a very different place when I returned four years later. A magnitude 7.1 earthquake had shaken Christchurch on September 4, 2010. It was followed by thousands of aftershocks including one on February 22, 2011 that killed 185 people, collapsed hundreds of buildings, ravaged the underground utilities, caused liquefaction and flooding, and in the eastern suburbs, triggered massive landslides and rockfalls.
But, this crisis brought people together like nothing else. On the vacant lots that are now ubiquitous, residents have created community gathering places—a dance-o-mat, cycle-powered cinema, blue pallet pavilion, petanque court, miniature golf, dino-sauna, little free library, community gardens, coffee shops, a unique pub called the Smash Palace, and dozens more of these “Gapfiller” projects.
One of my favorites is Urban Poetica, where the wall facing a vacant lot on Colombo Street has been painted as a chalkboard inviting neighbors to share their poetry. Kirsty Dunn contributed the following poem that was so popular it now appears in permanent paint:
Amidst the shards of glass
& twisted steel
Beside the fallen brick
& scattered concrete
we began to understand
that there is beauty in the broken
Strangers do not live here anymore
Out of crisis, Christchurch residents discovered what is most important—community. As one survivor put it, “It was a time when neighbors, family, friends and strangers stopped opening conversations with ‘what school did you go to’ and replaced it with ‘Are you OK? How can we help? Let’s check on each other.”
It was a time when neighbors, family, friends and strangers opened conversations with “Are you OK? How can we help? Let’s check on each other.”
Similarly, on the global scale, the economic crisis has been an opportunity to rediscover community. At the very time that people’s needs have been the greatest, our governments and other institutions have had the fewest resources to respond. Many people learned what those in the global south and many impoverished western neighborhoods have known right along—the only genuine source of care is community and all we can really count on is one another. Other people came to realize that even when times were good, they weren’t that happy—whether by choice or necessity, they began to focus less on acquiring material things and more on building relationships.
The only genuine source of care is community and all we can really count on is one another.
The economic crisis also opened many governments to the opportunity of community. They began to see neighborhoods not just as places with needs but communities of people with underutilized resources. Many local governments initiated bottom-up planning and matching fund programs as ways to leverage those resources. In the UK, the national government invested in community organizers because its budget was so much more limited than the community’s untapped resources.
A second global crisis is climate change. Increasingly, people are realizing that they can’t wait for government or green technology to solve this crisis. We all need to change in order to live more sustainably, and that will only happen if people feel connected to one another and the place they share. It’s in community that we feel responsible and accountable for our individual actions and have a sense that our collective actions will make a difference. Of course, the most important collective action is to hold government and corporations accountable for doing their part.
The unique power of community isn’t limited to the environment, though. As Margaret Wheatley says, “Whatever the question, community is the answer.” There is a vital role for government and professionals (something the UK government shouldn’t lose sight of), but there is no substitute for community when it comes to what we value most.
Whatever the question, community is the answer.
— Margaret Wheatley
In the health arena, there is clearly a role for professionals; you don’t necessarily want your neighbor performing your surgery. But, our community should be in the best position to influence our behaviors, to support our mental health, and to help shape the physical, natural, social and economic conditions that impact our health.
Likewise, when it comes to public safety, you don’t want people enforcing their own laws; that is a job for professionals. And yet, communities are starting to realize the important role they have in holding police accountable. We also know that enforcement alone doesn’t work. In the United States, our spending for so-called justice programs has continued to escalate, we have obscene numbers of citizens behind bars, and people aren’t feeling any more safe. We’ve forgotten about community’s role in crime prevention. We’ve spent way too many resources lining up the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff when community’s job is to build the fence at the top.
I was in Kobe and central Taiwan after their earthquakes, New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and Australia during and after repeated bushfires. What I heard over and over again is that people are totally dependent on their neighbors in times of disaster. Lianne Dalziel, Mayor of Christchurch, told me: “We found it was more important for people to have relationships with their neighbors than a stock of emergency supplies.”
We found it was more important for people to have relationships with their neighbors than a stock of emergency supplies.
— Lianne Daizel, Mayor of Christchurch
Similarly, there is no substitute for community when it comes to advancing social justice. No major social change in the United States has ever come top-down. Whether it was the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, the disability rights movement, the gay/lesbian rights movement or the living wage movement, every major social change has come bottom-up. Without strong communities, we can’t make change.
Community also has a major role to play when it comes to raising our children, caring for our elders, sustaining the local economy, creating great places, and ensuring our happiness. There is a growing recognition that government alone won’t solve the major problems facing our society.
Yet another global crisis giving rise to community is the democratic crisis. From Tiananmen Square to the Arab Spring to the most recent uprisings in Taiwan and Hong Kong, communities of young people are demanding democracy. Western nations that have long taken democracy for granted are realizing that they too are facing a crisis as fewer and fewer people vote and more and more people think of themselves as taxpayers rather than as citizens. Politicians are starting to wake up and realize that the reason people think of themselves as taxpayers is because government has treated them as nothing more than customers. Elected officials are beginning to understand that building and empowering community is a critical role for government. And, citizens are understanding that they need to come together as communities to challenge the way in which money has come to have more influence in government than the people do. Everywhere I visit, there is an increased interest in participatory democracy which requires strong, inclusive communities.
The crises we face are very real. They can seem overwhelming and make us feel powerless. After all, the problems are so much larger than any one community. What gives me hope is knowing that we aren’t alone. There are people in every community working hard to make a difference. We are part of a massive and growing community building movement. Collectively, we will address the crises that challenge all of us. My friend Cormac Russell says that you shouldn’t waste a good crisis. In fact, we can’t afford to. Let’s seize the opportunity!
You shouldn’t waste a good crisis. In fact, we can’t afford to. Let’s seize the opportunity!
— Cormac Russell