Why Community Based Services Are the Best at Responding to Disasters


Last Friday, the National Conference on Citizenship, in partnership with the Knight Foundation, released a study supporting the relationship between civic engagement and community strength in the face of adversity. More specifically, actions such as engaging with neighbors, volunteering in one’s community, and helping others register to vote are all linked to higher rates of employment and “economic resilience."

In today’s world of numerous natural disasters, rioting and war, it can feel like more communities are faced with the challenge of rebuilding than ever before. Advice on successful tactics, therefore, play a crucial role in providing models for such communities in need.

Riots and war, in particular, are fraught with destruction and trauma. Unrest in communities weakens civic engagement even further, and in many instances minimizes the awareness of outsiders of the plight of the general community members, who are often misrepresented by a vocal few. Unfortunately, in the face of trauma many of the most vulnerable are also the ones most frequently marginalized in the attention they receive.

The NCoC and the Knight Foundation are two of many who are proposing a new form of community action based on enhancing civic health, as measured by social cohesion (trust and socialization levels between community members), and the presence of nonprofit organizations.

The International Trauma Studies Program, headed by Dr. Jack Saul, and other projects supported by FEMA can provide data on the positive impact of community resilience as a defense against traumatic events. (You can read a description of one of Dr. Saul’s projects in downtown Manhattan post-9/11 here).

The strengths that exist in tight-knit, supportive communities are often overlooked by large, outside organizations. While well-intentioned, the support of external parties is drastically less impactful when they ignore the natural strengths of a community. Outside assistance often serves a critical role in these communities, but can be rendered useless if it’s not incorporated well with existing community groups and culture.

Instead of looking to others, hopefully these findings will serve to inspire more individuals to look within —vboth at their own community and the individual role that we can each play in helping highlight existing strengths. Acknowledging the existing good is an essential first-step before then looking for feasible, helpful changes. I’ve found this to be a golden rule with people, relationships, and communities.

It’s all too easy to fall prey to criticism, and often, there are plenty of reasons to demand change. But perhaps we could ease or better treat these frustrations by taking a note from those like Dr. Saul and the NCoC in relying more heavily on ourselves and our communities to play positive, supportive roles in recovery. Small actions actually do make quite the difference.