September 21, 2019

Born For Storms: Nine Lessons on Creating Welcome and the Journey to Recovery

One of the oldest stories in the world is the story of displacement. Upended lives. Mass migrations. Wholesale disruptions of community and belonging. When weather or war make our world uninhabitable, we will move to higher ground. We will seek a new life.

I have witnessed this recovery journey as CEO of BakerRipley, the largest community development nonprofit in Texas, I’ve seen it after wildfires in Australia, in the Lower 9th after Katrina, in refugee camps in the Middle East and most recently at the BakerRipley NRG Center Shelter post-Hurricane Harvey. While the causes of displacement vary, here are nine lessons for leaders looking to create welcoming communities for the displaced, no matter the reason.

1. Public, private, NGO, and faith-based: All sectors are needed and each must do what they do best. Leaders from each sector must be identified and brought together to work in a coordinated fashion. Often city/metro elected leaders set the table for cooperation, bringing together the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

Sector leaders work together to identify capacity within housing, employment, health, etc. (Positive approach: Do what you can with what you have.)

2. There are two broad phases of community response. The first is handled by military, law enforcement, and emergency management. Command and control = hierarchical. They perform well in the first 60–120 days. There will be a critical handoff needed between emergency responders and organizations responsible for long term recovery (second phase). This handoff — from hierarchical control to collaboration — needs to be explicit. Long-term recovery/integration requires collaboration.

3. The recovery journey is map-able and price-able. Allows for planning and resource allocation. Assess, triage, map and price. Extremely helpful in keeping people and organizations at the table. Not a bottomless pit of need and problems.

4. Strength based assessments for individuals and families are crucial. They form a foundation for recovery plans (see above) — individual and community — and allow the larger community to view newly arrived as assets. Publish in the aggregate.

5. City leaders set the tone and determine how the larger community responds to the newly arrived or to those impacted by disasters or displacement. Leaders define the degree of “welcome” and draw community emotional response. Constant messaging and reassurance are necessary to combat relentless negative media. Humanize displaced people and celebrate “welcomes.”

6. Fear-fueled rumors infect newly arrived Or disaster impacted communities, destabilizing fragile social structures. Immediately define and establish a reliable official channel of communication/information for newly arrived. Choose a channel and post to channel constantly. Make it accessible to everyone.

7. Harness and channel the early outpouring of support and compassionate response in the service of longer term needs. City leaders must seek to capture volunteer commitment from the larger community early on before “compassion fatigue” sets in. Appoint an organization to do this.

8. Identify natural leaders and helpers within the arriving community. Engage as many newly-arrived residents as possible for every recovery position and task so that they are helping their own community. Support and resource “authentic” leaders whenever possible.

9. Prioritize getting children into schools. Enrolling children in schools sets off an immediate, positive, stabilizing chain reaction. School attendance provides structure to the day, hope for the future, and welcome respite for parents so they may make plans and seek solutions.

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