In his forthcoming book, Prepared Neighborhoods, social entrepreneur Scott James writes, “the neighborhood is where sustainability meets preparedness. It is one step beyond caring for your own family, and one step back from what the emergency professional does best at a national level. Self-sufficiency for every citizen is not only unattainable but also undesirable. The answer is resilient community.”
How do we build resilient communities? Is there a way to organize around preparing for “short term emergencies” to build neighborly relations and also strengthens us for other systemic economic and ecological challenges ahead?
This summer, our local “transition town,” the Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition, is experimenting with “preparedness pie parties.” It may be a way to bridge some of the race, class, and political differences in our neighborhood.
Neighbors meet each other, share information, and identify elderly and disabled neighbors to check in with. Neighbors take a few minutes to look at an “emergency preparedness checklist,” like the one FEMA puts out. Maybe one subgroup volunteers to coordinate the bulk purchase of flashlights and supplies. Another puts together a simple contact list with everyone’s name and basic information.
If neighbors are motivated, they could look at the “Map Your Neighborhood” process, piloted in Washington State and now adopted in other states. They have a nine-step process for neighbors responding to disasters, including urging neighbors to put “OK” signs in their windows—and visiting neighbors who haven’t put up a sign.
Some people might dismiss such organizing as fear mongering, a local version of the National Geographic series “Doomsday Preppers.” This is why the tone of such organizing matters: respectful, informed, friendly and hopeful. The message is “our individual security is linked to the well-being of our neighbors.”
The history of recent northeast ice storms and hurricanes such as Sandy and Irene underscores that neighbors are our true “first responders,” and that a modest amount of networking and preparation makes a huge difference. Many of my neighbors view this as common sense.
Rebecca Solnit, in her remarkable book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, reminds us that adversity unleashes extraordinary community spirit and generosity among neighbors. The fearful images of looting and selfishness are well publicized, but they are not the norm.
Chuck Collins is director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he is a senior scholar. He is co-editor of Inequality.org and the author of Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.