We are at a critical point, as recovery starts to ramp up, and the structures around recovery are formed. We have a new national agency, we have a new state agency, all working out what their role will be in recovery. There will be a temptation to ride in on a white charger to save the day. The problem with riding in, is that one day, you have to ride away. And while the white knight cuts an impressive figure, being all decked out in heavy armour, personal standards, and chain mail; mobility, vision and flexibility are restricted, and even the best of the chargers cannot turn on a sixpence. These are the days that you need Hermione, Merlin and Gandalf, wizards not to conjure up solutions, but be alongside, all the while pushing those who need to lead, forward, and pulling our the wand as a last result.
Leaders are already emerging in communities, the natural ones that generally take part in everything, the new ones who feel emboldened and empowered by the events. People who are concerned for their community, and want the best for it. Leadership is also not about the person that stands on the hilltops and shouts orders at people. It may be the person who just knows everything and everyone in the community, someone whose can see most or all of the moving parts in their head. It will evolve from being directive, while things need to be done with a degree of urgency, to deliberative, and things need to be done in a considered way. We can’t presume to know what is best for communities.
We have recognised this in the evolution of recovery. “Recovery is best achieved with the input of the affected community” so droned the National Principles for Recovery, endorsed by the Standing Committee of Income Support Administrators back in the late 80s. We’ve moved on from asking people about what they might be experiencing and what they might need, to placing people at the centre of recovery, community led recovery.
Naturally, some people are thinking, so this is some hippy shit utopia, look at these communities, they are shattered. If you think that, then watch Strathewen’s story. On any outsiders view, Strathy could be considered a “broken” community, almost the entire town was destroyed, 15% of their population died (and it is a close knit community), but watch this video and then tell me that they were a broken and helpless community.
Of course, all communities are different, but all have some capacity and that is a starting point. Community led recovery is challenging for governments. In principle, they support it, but they are also juggling a range of competing interests, not the least the pressure to “get recovery done”. Louise Mitchell from the Social Recovery Reference Group has grappled with this, in this excellent guidance for government on community led recovery. The Inspector-General for Emergency Management in Queensland has also looked into how best governments can enable it. Much of what is needed is to be able to take a back seat and facilitate, rather than drive. And we all know how much we hate those backseat drivers.
Best of all, is the voice of those who have done. The leaders of the Community Recovery Committees in Victoria after Black Saturday, spent a weekend distilling their knowledge so that others didn’t have to go through what they did. Instructive reading. These are all volunteer positions, but we don’t think of them as formal volunteer positions, and don’t recognise them as such. I know many of these leaders who put their own recovery decisions on hold, while they helped their community navigate recovery. They need support. I recall speaking with community leaders about their needs after a flood, and they said “an admin officer” I thought to myself, the disaster recovery funding arrangements won’t come at this, but we used “Community Development Officer” to support the community recovery committee with admin tasks. These little things are important.
Community led recovery is not neat and linear. Its messy. But communities are messy, every day of the week, and in the long run, the feeling is that those with active involvement, recover better.