Author offers advice for communities struck by trauma, disaster
Rich Harwood was called into Newtown, Conn., after a gunman fatally shot 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The town, struck with trauma, was confronting what to do with the school building. Raze it? Move it? Rebuild?
Harwood, who holds a master’s in public affairs from Princeton University and founded the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation—a Bethesda, Md.-based consulting firm—led the task force charged with bringing a recommendation forward. Ultimately, the town voted to destroy the building and rebuild on the same site.
“The uncertainty about the future of Sandy Hook Elementary had little to do with bricks and mortar,” Harwood told The Washington Post in 2013. “On the surface, it appeared to be about a building. It’s really about a community coming to grips with the trauma and the despair it is feeling.”
On Monday (Sept. 16), Harwood touched down in another region grappling with trauma: Butte County. The author is on a speaking tour to support his new book, Stepping Forward: A Positive, Practical Path to Transform Our Communities and Our Lives, and he arrived at the invitation of county library officials. He toured fire-devastated Paradise before leading a discussion at Chico State where educators, elected officials and those involved with Camp Fire response sought ways to reinvigorate enthusiasm for the recovery efforts and confront challenges that existed before the fire and may have been exacerbated because of it.
Like in Newtown, Harwood told the CN&R, he got a sense that those affected by the Camp Fire, which claimed at least 86 lives and ravaged Paradise, Magalia, Concow and Butte Creek Canyon, are still coming to grips with the event nearly a year after the fact.
“People have a desire—and really a need—to share their feelings,” he said. “To share their story, to share their sense of grief and to share their sense of hope that something positive can happen moving forward.”
Harwood said his visit wasn’t meant as a way to commentate on the challenges in Paradise and elsewhere in Butte County. He wasn’t familiar with the specifics, he said, and he wasn’t hired to consult the county or town. But his experience working in communities that have faced traumatic events—like the economic crisis that racked Flint, Mich., in the 1990s following auto plant closures—has given him some insight regarding how residents, organizations and government can work together toward long-term recovery.
“Look, Butte County had a set of challenges before the Camp Fire,” Harwood said. “Those challenges probably still exist and maybe have been exacerbated—like housing. And so how is it that you can use this unspeakable event to make the community even stronger than before?”
Seated in a conference room in Colusa Hall at Chico State, Larry Olmstead, CEO of United Way of Northern California, had the same question. Olmstead said there are multiple issues wound up in the disaster, including socioeconomic status, rural vs. urban recovery efforts, and homelessness. What, Olmstead asked, has Harwood learned that could be helpful to Butte County?
“To be honest, I’ve never worked in a community that’s faced a natural disaster of this size,” Harwood said. “I doubt there are very many communities that have faced natural disaster as concentrated as this.”
Nevertheless, Harwood noted there likely is an overlap of issues that existed before the Camp Fire and after it. They could be issues related to health, education and poverty. Find those overlapping issues and begin to address them at the same time, he said. As an example, Harwood said efforts by school psychologists to provide mental health resources to students and staff could be used as a model to address mental health issues long-term (see “Stressing support in schools,” Healthlines, July 4).
“At the heart of our work is the notion of intentionality,” he said. “We need to make intentional choices. I think in our work in communities, we make too many implicit choices—they’re not explicit enough—and we’re unwilling to make choices a lot of times. We want to be all things to all people. We don’t want to acknowledge we have limited resources. … I think our unwillingness to make intentional choices is one of the things that holds us back.”
There was also the question of “compassion fatigue.” Immediately after the Camp Fire hit, one attendee told Harwood, it seemed as if the entire community banded together. Tears were shared between store clerks and patrons. Help was offered in abundance. Now, it seems some people are tired of hearing about the disaster, and tired of dealing with it. How can that feeling of compassion be reinvigorated?
Harwood noted that part of the issue may be related to trauma. People affected by the disaster could be feeling a sense of hopelessness, and their personal recovery may be in a state that can exude negativity. There also could be a feeling of numbness permeating throughout the community, a feeling of, “Get over it.”
It’s important, the author said, for those ready and willing to help with recovery efforts to find their allies.
“As hard as it may be, and maybe as frustrating and enraging as it may be,” Harwood said, “I would urge you to try not to use as a measure [of enthusiasm] whether or not the whole community still can remain in the honeymoon stage, because it will only set us up for grave disappointment.”