Something is Not Necessarily Better Than Nothing
[Cross-posting this from my blog at gregbloom.org]
Last week, a distributed team of community organizers published the Principles of Equitable and Effective Disaster Response. This is a document that we’ve developed through a series of in-person convenings and distributed rounds of feedback over the past two years. (You can review and comment upon the original draft here.)
We first articulated these principles with natural disasters in mind, but now — with a pandemic emergency upon us — we’re sharing them in hopes that they may be useful for people and communities that are mobilizing to respond to this new global crisis.
Below I’ll share some backstory on how I came to be involved in producing this document, and why I think it matters.
Hard Lessons from Hurricane Irma
During the week before Hurricane Irma in 2017, I started up the Irma Response slack which quickly grew into a virtual network of about a thousand ‘digital crisis responders.’ As a network, we did some things that I’m proud of.
In the end, the storm swerved past Miami-Dade. The disaster never quite happened (to us, anyway). Nevertheless, this experience was sobering for me.
First and foremost, I saw firsthand how our institutional systems were almost universally ill-prepared to respond to this crisis. From governments to nonprofits, it was bleak: poor plans, poorly coordinated and poorly communicated. (The number of shelters were woefully insufficient; the evacuation order came late and left tens of thousands jammed on roads as the hurricane approached; the government and the Red Cross blamed each other. I never did find out what the Florida VOAD — Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster — was supposed to be doing, let alone what it actually did. Etc.)
I also saw how readily regular people from all over the country and the world rallied to help online. This swarm of support was initially exhilarating, then eventually exhausting and frustrating. I saw alarming gaps between these digital responders’ good intentions, their ideas, and the reality of what people needed on the ground.
Most importantly, I saw how the most urgent and appropriate responses to the situation came directly from communities that were most vulnerable to this crisis. Local leaders like Vee Gunder were the first to respond in the communities, with the clearest line of sight to what was needed, and the strongest connection to the people in need — and they would still be there working after the attention withered away. Amid all the attention paid to either the mistakes of the formal institutions, and to the flashy websites and data visualizations produced by the network of civic hackers, these voices were the most important — yet the hardest to hear.
The Crises of Network-Centric Crisis Response
Since I started the Irma Response network, I felt some responsibility for the things happening in it.
In the week before the storm was projected to hit, I found myself spending 18+ hour days tending to the network. An enervating portion of that time entailed responding to crises that were precipitated by our own crisis responses. I intervened when I found people putting out information that could put vulnerable Florida residents (like undocumented residents or disabled people) in danger. I interjected when I found people hacking on “first thought best thought” applications that — if they’d ever be used at all — would waste a lot of time and energy, and maybe even make a messy situation worse. I spent hours a day asking why people were doing various things, and asking people to reconsider whether those things really ought to be done.
The most common response I got was: “well we have to do something!” And I’d have to point out that this was not actually true.
These were difficult conversations. Everyone involved had the best of intentions. They were volunteering their time, out of care for people in danger. They did not feel like there was time to waste in “philosophical discussions,” and they did not feel like we should be “political.”
And at a glance one could understand where they were coming from: with no money and a matter of days, our network built websites, and generated data visualizations, that looked way better than those produced by government agencies and giant organizations with multi-million dollar budgets and timescales of years. Our digital products loaded faster. They were ‘user friendly.’
But just because they looked better, loaded faster, and felt nicer to click on, did not mean they were delivering more appropriate information.
Likewise, someone could (and did) build an app to dispatch random volunteers to “rescue” people in need — and many people volunteered for such rescues. But should we have been encouraging random untrained and unaccountable volunteers to travel by boat (or, in one case I heard from someone in the field, by jetski) to try to rescue vulnerable people? The answer did not seem obvious to me.
Yet we lacked shared criteria with which we — as a community — could critically evaluate what we could do, in order to figure out what we really should do.
Re-aligning Responses Around Community-Centric Leadership
By the day before Hurricane Irma was projected to hit us, I was at my wits’ end — hardly sleeping, dropping balls, losing my temper. The network managed to stay together because of last-minute assistance from a handful of people who had experience facilitating network-enabled, community-centric crisis response. These organizers knew what problems to anticipate, and who knew how to cope with those problems. They helped us bring some order to the sprawling Irma Response network, established documentation for every project within it, and applied a framework to define each project’s objectives.
In the end, Irma swerved around South Florida and hit other parts of the state where we had less of a connection to the community; the main thing we did was help raise money to be distributed through a local foundation. Then things went back to normal all too fast. But the lessons stayed with me.
In the months and years afterward, I stayed in dialogue with that network of organizers.
We convened a series of “Crisis Convenings” hosted by Public Laboratory, attended by organizers from Occupy Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Katrina, among others. We shared stories of our own experiences, and found a range of commonalities. In between these events, we shared outputs with broader networks of organizers to solicit their feedback too.
Broadly, there were three themes that emerged through this process:
- The institutions tasked with responding to crisis tend to fail in their responsibilities to provide effective information, resources, and support — especially to communities that are not wealthy and powerful.
- The ad hoc networks of ‘digital humanitarians’ that emerge in response to any given publicized crisis tends to generate more light (visibility) than heat (impact) — and sometimes, their good intentions result in wasteful or even harmful mistakes.
- The most urgent, important, and potentially transformational leadership comes from impacted communities themselves, in which people with firsthand knowledge and longstanding relationships work together to solve their problems.
Across our network(s), the lessons were clear: the failures of formal institutional disaster responses (#1) and emergent ‘digital humanitarian’ disaster responses (#2) can best be corrected by re-aligning their power relationships to center community-based leadership (#3).
We agreed that these insights should be easier to share, so that — in the words of Willow Brugh — “we can at least make more interesting mistakes next time.”
So we reviewed existing statements of principles that had already informed our work or emerged from it. Personally, I’ve long aspired to uphold the principles of the Allied Media Projects and the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition. Some of us had helped articulate the principles of Occupy Sandy and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief. We also found Movement Generation’s Principles for a Just Transition, and thought hard about whether we really had anything new to offer. We listened deeply to organizers from Puerto Rico about how the botched response to Maria is inextricably tied up with a tragic history of colonialism and exploitation.
Ultimately we concluded that we could build upon this body of wisdom by offering a specific framework to guide those who might ask:
“What should we do NOW in this crisis?”
The resulting principles are designed to be immediately readable at a glance, yet one can unpack layers of insights within them and challenges among them:
1) Ask — and listen. We support those who most directly experience the impacts of crisis, and we act in response to their expressed needs.
2) Distribute Power. We promote strategies that effectively distribute information, resources, and decision-making ability, so that people can most effectively adapt to their local circumstances.
3) Collaborate Strategically. We work with institutions, to the extent that such work is in service of our goals of equity and justice.
4) Seek Appropriate Solutions. We understand that problem solving is an ongoing process requiring varied skills — and while we identify common patterns, every situation is unique.
5) Use Appropriate Technology. We prefer tools that are simple, accessible, freely usable, and well-documented.
If people find this doc useful, I hope it evolves along with that use. Organizers can include it in manuals, and in community forums. You might use it to think through dilemmas that may emerge through your efforts. When there’s disagreement or concern, use it to guide your questions and your assessments.
Above all: this is a living document, and we’d welcome your feedback.
What happens now, when we’re all in crisis?
This crisis we’re in now isn’t the kind of thing any of us have had experience with, and I can’t even say those of us who drafted these principles had anything like it in mind. The COVID-19 pandemic is not local; it affects everyone. And it wasn’t quite sudden like a hurricane or earthquake; it unfolded over months, and it’s going to keep unfolding for a while.
So I don’t immediately know how these principles should apply here. Yet as I’ve watched countless “mutual aid” efforts and civic hacking projects popping up around the country and the world, and participated in a few myself, it’s clear that the principles are just as relevant as ever.
For example, see Jen Pahlka — Code for America’s founder — pointing out a great example of a case in which something is not actually better than nothing:
Sometimes it takes some time, reflection, and deliberation to figure out what should be done.
We do know that some people are far more vulnerable in this crisis than others. Those who want to do something should let this knowledge focus your attention.
Here’s how you can start: look for the people who have already been helping people who have already been in crisis. Such people are most likely to understand how the crisis is showing up and what kind of response is appropriate. Ask those helpers what they need; listen carefully. Try to build their capacity. Do so using appropriate technology. (New, unproven, and ‘black box’ technology is probably inappropriate. Default to simple, accessible, and when possible nonproprietary tools.) Know that the first answer that comes to mind might not be the most appropriate one. Work with institutions that are already working on the problem, to the extent that those institutions are working (or can be pressured to work) in effective and equitable ways. Repeat.
The root of the word “crisis,” as maytha alhassan once told me, means ‘turning point.’ A fork in the road. A pivotal moment like this can change the story we tell ourselves about our world. As if a veil has been lifted, we can see each other in a new light. As Rebecca Solnit writes in A Paradise Built In Hell, this is the light of people’s spirit, and it’s powerful stuff. It’s so vulnerable though; it’s easy to distort, and easy to snuff out.
We know that every crisis is unique, and also at the same time each crisis relates to and is shaped by a vast intersecting history of other crises. The communities that are most vulnerable to this virus — elders, uninsured, low-wage workers, etc — were already struggling with a failing healthcare system, a broken safety net, etc. Let’s use this as an opportunity to listen to those who’ve been experiencing these crises long before 2020. What’s their vision for a better future? Ask — and listen. Start with that.
I’m grateful to have had the chance to learn through this experience from so many leaders who brought these insights all together, especially Tammy Shapiro at Movement NetLab, Liz Barry at Public Lab, Emilio Velis at the Appropedia Foundation, and willowbl00 at large.