What We (Need to) Talk About When We Talk About Community-Led Disaster Response


By Liz Barry, Greg Bloom, Willow Brugh, and Tammy Shapiro

Hurricane season last year was wild, right? Harvey, Irma, and Maria—each storm spreading more devastation across the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. Many months later, communities are still recovering—especially Puerto Rico, where our government has outright failed its citizens.

Our climate is obviously changing, and the resulting storms are intensifying: tornadoes, floods, even earthquakes (probably unrelated to climate, but now a new threat in areas with heavy fracking).

We do not seem to be particularly well-prepared.

There are, of course, various official response agencies with mandates and resources dedicated to rescue, shelter and feed, heal and rebuild after disasters. And yet we’ve seen a recurring pattern in which these response agencies fail to deliver with the kind of focus, agility, and execution that we might expect—especially in historically-marginalized communities, in which already-vulnerable people are often ignored or even dis-empowered by outside actors. FEMA notoriously failed in its response to Katrina, while the Red Cross has been repeatedly criticized for its disappointing performance after Sandy, Harvey, and Irma.

In the meantime, however, we’ve also seen that the real first responders to a crisis are the people who live in the affected areas: community leaders who help struggling people face daily crises while just trying to get by, and neighbors who instinctively rise to help their neighbors.

Both of these patterns have deep historical roots, as outlined in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, which examined how formal disaster response tends to address the interests of wealth and business (and entrench their power over the public good), and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell, which highlighted how disasters bring out the best of humans’ creativity and compassion for each other.

Yet with the rise of the mobile web, these patterns are further complicated by seemingly-spontaneous remote networks that have “shown up” to assist with tasks like crowdsourcing data, volunteer coordination, and more. These networks are more rapid and distributed than the formal disaster response sector; however, they also lack any of the accountability, training, and resources that formal institutions (supposedly) entail. Given our experiences to date, we believe that the promise of remote digital networks needs to be realized through intentional practices, and guided by community leadership—and that without such deliberate practice, these new modes of chaotic response might yield unintentional harm.

An Emergent Network Convenes

Many of us (including the authors of this post: Willow, Tammy, Liz, Greg, and others) have participated in these emergent responses to recent disasters. We’ve experienced the rush of “doing it ourselves,” through efforts animated not by charity for the unfortunate, but rather mutual aid with our neighbors. We’ve seen clearly both the promise and the peril of modern digitally-enabled and network-led crisis response and recovery. We believe it’s both possible and urgent to improve our collective capacities for disaster response, so that they may more appropriately support local priorities and leadership in times of crisis.

Through these experience, we formed a network of people who have a shared interest in cultivating a better practice of community-led disaster response.

We are now calling for a convening of people who have worked together through crises such as Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria, and the like, either on the ground in directly-impacted communities, or virtually in Slack teams and Github repos.

At this “Crisis Convening” starting July 13, and continuing through Public Laboratory’s planned summer event on July 14 – 15 in Newark, NJ (more on this below), we will share experiences and skills, explore ways to promote equity and justice through modern crisis response, and build resources for the type of assistance that we offer.

The following question will frame our discussion and action-planning on July 13:

In times of climate crisis, how should the interests of vulnerable communities guide collective efforts to ensure an effective response and equitable recovery?

From this question, emerge more questions:

  • How can spontaneously forming volunteer networks best support those who are most impacted by a crisis?

  • How should these formal and informal systems interface with each other, and with community leadership?

  • How can we ensure that data about a community stays in that community’s control?

  • How can we support front line communities that we already know will be facing more intense impacts?

  • How can outside intervention (including formal institutions) best support recovery, beyond initial response?

Together, we will discuss real-world scenarios and actionable steps to help ourselves and others practice more effective community-centric crisis response.

Please indicate your interest here. Regardless of whether you can attend, your support will make these convenings possible and more equitable. Please donate here.

Continuing the Conversation

The links between environmental justice and disaster response are known. To support and link to existing communities working in environmental justice, Crisis Convening is preceding an event put on by our friends at Public Laboratory (full disclosure: Micah Sifry is on the Public Lab board).

Public Lab is an open community which collaboratively develops accessible, open source, do-it-yourself actions for investigating local environmental health and justice issues. At their biannual “Barnraising,” people come together to achieve something larger than can be achieved alone: like honing advocacy strategies through shared stories of their lived experience, building and modifying tools for collecting data, exploring local concerns presented by partner organizations and community members, and connecting with others working on similar environmental issues across regions.

Pending support, our discussion and action will continue through Public Lab’s Barnraising on July 14 – 15.

We know that the impacts of crisis often fall heaviest on those who are already struggling. So we are dedicated to promoting the voices of local stakeholders from vulnerable communities, even though these stakeholders probably have less capacity to engage in travel and workshopping. To address this disparity, we are inviting an intentionally broad set of people, actively supporting child care at the event, and offering support for travel costs to those who express interest and need.

The Barnraising won’t happen without your support. We’re currently fundraising and need all kinds of help to make this happen. Will you sponsor a participant who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to participate? Click here to contribute to travel and accommodation costs.

By approaching our environment and its extremities as parts of the same ecosystem, in a way that acknowledges our history, our faults, and our potential for change, we can build more efficient response and equitable recovery together. Please join us in this.

Liz Barry is co-founder and director of community development at the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, a nonprofit organization and global community which creates, collects, applies, and shares accessible techniques for knowledge production and advocacy.

Greg Bloom helped form and lead the Irma Response network. He was also a Civic Imagination Fellow at Civic Hall, and he leads the Open Referral Initiative.

Willow Brugh looks at connections, systems, empowerment, and powerlessness and strives to both understand and improve whatever if found. Project manager at technical infrastructure consultancy Truss.

Tammy Shapiro was deeply involved in the Occupy Sandy relief efforts. From this experience, she helped start, and is now a coordinator of, Movement Netlab, and she is the Program Director of the NYC Network of Worker Cooperatives.