Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Community building in times of crisis

I've been meaning to post this for awhile -- with the disasters in Burma and China, it seems even more relevant now...

Through the initiative of some friends of mine from Seattle Works, I am now trained to be a shelter volunteer at the Red Cross for King and Kitsap Counties. What exactly is a shelter volunteer? Think of it as those folks who provide emergency, short term shelter for those displaced for any number of reasons including fires, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, wind storms and any number of other disasters that target the Pacific Northwest.

Admittedly, I knew nothing about what I was getting into when I learned about this opportunity. Mostly, I thought that it would be a nice way to give back locally following so many different natural disasters. And given that shelter is one of the most basic of needs, this seemed to be a great place to start.

The training is made up of three different sections to go over how to care for the masses, the basics of sheltering, followed by hands on simulations. Through each of the sessions, we learned about what it actually takes to plan, prepare, run and manage an emergency shelter. While it was great to learn the specifics roles, tasks and skills required for a shelter, I did not expect to learn about community building in times of crisis.

For years, I always defined community as the result of intentional interactions between people with similar experiences, interests, etc over time. Time, in my definition, never really crossed my mind in terms of a short term, temporary situation which is the desired norm for emergency shelters. Yet, despite the relative brevity of the duration of a shelter, a great deal of work and planning goes in to designing opportunities for community to occur. Whether its through organized activities for children in the shelter, or getting a shared sense of ownership from the clients there by involving them in the operations...there is a concerted effort to make it as vibrant of a community as possible.

This, along with the paper plate notion of relationships has me thinking differently about community. I'm not really sure where it will lead me, but the notion of time -- especially for extended periods -- does not seem to be as important as I once thought it to be.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Paper Plate Relationships

During a not too recent business trip to New York, I was having drinks with a colleague who remarked that she often had paper plate relationships. I was a bit puzzled by what this meant so I inquired more about it.

She went on to explain that paper plates serve a specific function, for a specific time and place. You wouldn't use a paper plate for a big fancy dinner to impress your in-laws, for example, but you would use them for a barbecue with old friends. She then explained that once you are done with the paper plates, you move on until the next time you need them.

This initially struck me as a little harsh -- the notion of disposable relationships -- but then I wondered if this is similar to the notion of social objects?

In many ways, I see the paper plate relationship to be the result of brief encounters with social objects. If indeed this is the case, what does this mean for those on point for fostering social interactions?