Seize the Opportunity of Crisis to Rebuild Community

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

 

Home page image: Google image search

About the Lead Author

Jim Diers
Participatory democracy has been Jim Diers’ preoccupation and his career for the past 36 years. In his work with grassroots community organizations and with government and other large agencies, Jim has found ways to get more people engaged with their community and more involved in decisions that affect their lives. Jim moved toSeattlewith his wife, Sarah Driggs, after graduating fromGrinnellCollegein 1975. For six years Jim worked as a community organizer in the low-income, racially diverse neighborhoods ofRainierValley. Bringing people together to take action on issues ranging from dangerous intersections to obtaining a new health center, Jim helped the South End Seattle Community Organization grow to include 25 member churches and neighborhood organizations. Its annual meetings drew as many as 800 people. Jim spent the next six years with Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound where he organized medical center councils to review budget and quality-of-care issues from a consumer perspective. He also helped members organize special interest groups: the Senior Caucus, the Nuclear Awareness Group, and Partners for Health. Jim also organized­-and reinvigorated-the cooperative’s annual meetings, which attracted as many as 3,000 members. In 1988, Mayor Charles Royer appointed Jim to direct the City ofSeattle’s new Office of Neighborhoods. Jim was reappointed by the subsequent mayors, Norm Rice in 1990 and Paul Schell in 1998. By the end of Jim’s 14-year tenure, the four-person Office had grown into a Department of Neighborhoods with 100 staff. The Department’s mission is to decentralize and coordinate City services, strengthen communities and their organizations, and work in partnership with these organizations to preserve and enhance the neighborhoods. The Department manages 13 Little City Halls that provide basic services to citizens and serve as meeting places for neighborhood organizations. It supports about 400 community self-help projects each year through a $4.5 million Neighborhood Matching Fund that was recognized by the Ford Foundation and Kennedy School of Government as one of the most innovative local government programs in theUnited States. Another program of community empowerment involved 30,000 people in the development of 37 neighborhood plans. The Department also manages the City’s historic preservation program, a P-Patch Program of 75 community gardens, and a leadership training program. In 2000, the Department received the Full Inclusion Award from the American Association on Mental Retardation for its Involving All Neighbors program and a Best of the Best Award from HUD for its Cultivating Communities program. In 2001, Jim was named Public Employee of the Year by the Municipal League of King County. That same year he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law fromGrinnellCollege. After leaving the Department of Neighborhoods in 2002, Jim Diers worked for a year as Interim Director of the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, for three years as Executive Director of the South Downtown Foundation, and for five years as Director of Seattle Community Partnerships for theUniversityofWashington. Currently, Jim teaches courses on community organizing and community development at the Universityof Washington. Jim also speaks, conducts workshops and provides technical assistance to communities and agencies around the world as a faculty member for the Asset-Based Community Development Institute and as the author of Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way which is available in English and Chinese editions.

The Latest

Do You Want to Experience True Liberation?

In this week’s feature, the Meagan Scott and Courtney Ng speak on Common Good podcast about facilitating necessary conditions...

Featured

More Articles Like This