The Space of Discomfort
We have thanked a lot of people and remembered so many that have made CanCERN what it is. With a bit of luck we have established that CanCERN is the culmination of so many hearts and minds and that its ownership belongs to the community. Now that we come to an end it’s inevitable we start to reminisce about the highs and lows, the what ifs and maybes. We plan to capture and share the lessons learned and will be calling on many of you to help with this in the future.
Quite a number of people have asked us to finish with the “real story” and to say what we “truly think” instead of staying in the space of solutions. There’s a certain desire for blood to be spilt and apparently we have the inside goss and can dish out the punishment. It’s not that we haven’t wanted to dish out our own punishment over the last five years – we have certainly ranted and raved about some of the more obstructive people and agency decisions – however, if we have learned anything, it is that extreme levels of public finger pointing rarely make us feel better. More often than not it alienates people and doesn’t result in better outcomes for the residents and community. We have learned to manage our anger, tailor our messages and stay at the discussion table. We intend to do the same today in the hope that a message can get through.
It took us a while to land on this last message but we have chosen a ‘what if’: What if we all had a better understanding of the value of discomfort?
The discomfort of the journey – It’s a discomforting thought that the community organisation you helped set up to make a positive difference for the earthquake affected residents may have no real power to make change. So many people invested in the hope that CanCERN could make a difference and the responsibility was always felt. It was hard trying to have conversations that addressed the needs of the people, while knowing that outcomes were still at the whim and control of others who make the final decisions. To continue to spend hours trying to convince others that there was another important point of view, that community need was different and constantly changing and ultimately having to cross your fingers and hope that the message got through. It was discomforting at times to hang on to the belief that a solutions focused and relational approach was going to be the best way through.
Add this to the discomfort of knowing we had thousands of residents counting on us to make a difference that they could see, feel and experience; a lot of the difference we made was definitely invisible. Some said we sold out, we gave in, we worked too deeply in the tent. It’s actually too much of an ask for them to have thought anything else when they continued to be at the receiving end of a frustrating, and at times, terrible recovery. However, our wise creators set the culture of ‘working with’ and ‘offering solutions’ as we worked to get the resident’s voice on the table and in the planning sessions. We always had to assess if we were working with the right people and trying to offer solutions in the right areas. It wasn’t too long before we realised we couldn’t do it all, so we chose our battles but don’t think we lost sight of presenting the plight of the people. We did allow ourselves to be constrained by agencies conditions at times, i.e. to get information and not pass it on until it was public, but this was because we felt caught by the need to develop agency trust. In time we did free ourselves from this constraint. ‘Piggy in the middle’ was a hard place to sit.
Creating discomfort by being the ‘thorn in the saddle’ – The real power we had was the ability to challenge the decisions and processes of all the recovery agencies simply by explaining how those things would impact on residents and the community. This was generally described as being the thorn in the saddle. Just when they thought they had it all organised and were congratulating themselves on a job well done we would tell them all the ways it would badly affect the people. We had examples coming out of our ears and it was hard for them to deny our critique. What then for the recovery agencies to do? We made people sit up and listen and feel the place of choice we were offering them. We told them we would help them make a different and better choice. We made it uncomfortable but not unbearable. Probably the bigger discomfort for them was the fact the choices were often not theirs to make.
Accepting the discomfort within the membership – Meetings with members created unforgettable relationships but were not always easy. Why? Because community is complex, constantly changing, and always ready to bring a perspective, a raw thought and emotion to the table. We also went from a group of volunteers to an organisation with staff so that brought its own change of dynamics. The recovery also introduced a myriad of ways to cause division – A, B, C, orange, green, white and red, mass movement, flood zone. Put this together with ‘democratic process’ and a disaster situation (where there are more problems and issues than resources to deal with them) and you have the right chemistry for a lot of tension. This was inevitable and necessary but not always pleasant.
The discomfort of knowing too much about ‘the other side’ – It didn’t take too long before we had glimpses of what the recovery agencies were having to deal with which was quite separate to the issues in the community space. Organisations were caught unaware and ill equipped for the disaster and they, just like us, were making it up on the spot a lot of the time. We were privileged to have very few constraints and absolutely no mindless processes, procedures or hierarchy to make things more difficult (these are actually code for stupid and lacking in common sense). The recovery agencies were drowning in them and as things got more complex, the powers that be in the organisations would come up with some more. We met with many great people and they understood and often even agreed with what we were saying but their world wouldn’t allow for that kind of thought or action. Silos have ruled the recovery, generally held tightly to by people in offices far removed from reality. Once we could see this it became very difficult to simply rant and protest at what they were doing because we knew we were never going to be ranting at the people who could change that system.
That said, we can’t allow the stupidity of ‘business as usual’ approaches to repeat if there is ever to be another disaster recovery. In fact, the world would be a better place if we stopped this happening in our everyday life as well. Agencies have to try harder to work with, for and amongst the people if they are to understand a better way of dealing with them. They can not close doors and shut out the community in favour of internal services and professionals who are expected to ‘save the day’. That approach has shown itself to be nothing short of humanitarian neglect.
The discomfort of knowing too much about the community – ‘The community’ is a big concept especially when the collective community approach to response and recovery dismantled very quickly and was replaced with an individualistic one. Again, this was understandable – insurance claims are all so very different, but it was unhelpful nonetheless. In the beginning the people talked of moving their homes to the same new suburbs so we could maintain the connections that were so strong just after the quakes. Later, stuck residents would resent their neighbours because of the progress they were making. The ‘victim’ cloak became a pretty common garb and with it came a whole raft of behaviours which were concerning, sad, and at times, awful. We watched many homeowners step up into the role of community leader, to offer hope and energy where there wasn’t too much and then watch them be cannibalised by the very people they wanted to help because they couldn’t make it all better. We listened to people as they described their right to build a castle purely to punish the insurer. We watched as the media let residents tell some terrible untruths and personally smash people in the recovery who we knew had absolute integrity. This was probably the hardest thing to contend with – how do you continue to work for solutions for people who sometimes don’t want them? The reality is that we learned the difference between representing the people and representing how people were experiencing the recovery.
The pleasure of the ‘we’ – Thanks to all those people out there who never had to be told about ‘we’ space. The people who knew ‘silos’ but worked beyond them when and where they could, the champions who just knew that sitting at the right table with the right people and working together was the only way forward and that we were all a part of the solution.
And to those other bastards that are still running around climbing career ladders, building castles in glass offices, and feeling self important because they protected their agency from ‘the enemy’ (the community)… Well, we think you know what you can do because…
“The wisdom of the community always exceeds the knowledge of the experts.”
– Harold Fleming