Seize the opportunity of crisis to rebuild community

24 November 2015 | Posted In: #127 Summer 2015/16, Community Development, Planning for People and Social Issues, | Author: Jim Diers

It is said 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. Jim Diers explores the upside that we now have unprecedented opportunities to rebuild community.

crack2Christchurch, 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 Sep¬tember 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 sub-urbs, triggered massive landslides and rock falls.
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 favourites is Urban Poetica, where the wall facing a vacant lot on Colombo Street has been painted as a chalkboard inviting neighbours 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 neighbours, family, friends and strangers stopped open¬ing 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.”
Similarly, on the global scale, the economic crisis has been an opportu-nity 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 neighbourhoods 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.

crack3The economic crisis also opened many governments to the opportu¬nity of community. They began to see neighbourhoods 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 organisers because its budget was so much more limited than the commu¬nity’s untapped resources.
A second global crisis is climate change. Increasingly, people are real-ising that they can’t wait for govern-ment 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.
In the health arena, there is clearly a role for professionals; you don’t neces-sarily want your neighbour perform¬ing your surgery. But, our community should be in the best position to influ¬ence our behaviours, 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 profes-sionals. And yet, communities are starting to realize the important role they have in holding police account¬able. 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 forgot¬ten 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 communi¬ty’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 depend¬ent on their neighbours in times of disaster. Lianne Dalziel, Mayor of Christchurch, told me: “We found it was more important for people to have relationships with their neighbours than a stock of emergency supplies.”
Similarly, there is no substitute for community when it comes to advanc¬ing social justice. No major social change in the United States has ever come top-down. Whether it was the

Jim diers at the 2015 marg barry memorial lecture and with is rc student interns sophia, kirilly (unsw) and sophia (usa)
women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, the disability rights movement, the gay/lesbian rights movement or the living wage move-ment, 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 chil-dren, caring for our elders, sustain¬ing 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.

crack1From Tiananmen Square to the Arab Spring to the most recent uprisings in Taiwan and Hong Kong, communi¬ties of young people are demanding democracy. Western nations that have long taken democracy for granted are realising 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 start¬ing to wake up and realise that the reason people think of themselves as taxpayers is because government has treated them as nothing more than customers. Elected officials are begin¬ning 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 partic¬ipatory 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 prob¬lems 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!

Jim Diers is the author of Neighbor Power: building community the seattle way. he teaches at the university of washington and travels internationally as a speaker. he gave the 10th annual marg barry lecture in 2015 which included a section on making use of a crisis.