i am returning from a gathering that felt like a redirection, or next thrilling iteration, of my life resources.
a few months ago, my friend renna reached out to me because she knew some people who were getting together to design innovative responses in real time to the challenges of disasters.
i have very little background in disaster response, but i do live in detroit, and am as obsessed with apocalypse as the next sci-fi head, and i regularly work with communities who have been devastated by a combination of slow economic disasters and faster natural or manmade ones. so i agreed to go.
and i am so glad i did.
the room was one of the most experientially diverse i have been in in a long time. there were first responders and people who had worked in the disaster response field for years and have published books on it. and then there were veterans, an astronaut, robotics experts, artists, nonprofit leaders, government employees, theater arts facilitators, scientists, writers, designers, makers, hackers, teachers, futurists, technologists with communications tools that made me salivate, gamers.
we are all volunteers, and most of us have never been part of a disaster response effort. and that is the exactly the point. a few years ago, some people who had been involved in disasters we’ve all watched at a distance or survived – 9/11, katrina, fukushima to name a few – reached out to a team of designers, convinced that there must be more innovative ways to approach the conventional response to disasters. with the design team, they (at the time housed within fema) cultivated a survivor oriented response framework during hurricane sandy. they asked how do we fundamentally transform the experience of survivors? not seeing people as numbers, but as stories, people with futures, sensitive traumatized individuals and communities at a major precipice.
what grew out of this was a project called the field innovation team (FIT). it has spun off from fema to be it’s own project.
it includes a lot of characters and really brilliant people. i met an elder astronaut/pilot with a dry wit that kept me cracking up the whole meeting. i met a man using sci-fi to prototype plans with communities. i met a woman who makes robots that can swim underwater during a tsunami and tell rescue teams where people are, where danger is. i met other people creating robots that can carry supplies and resources to people where there are no/dysfunctional roads, and eventually might be able to lift people out of places where vehicles and helicopters can’t safely reach them. i met technologists envisioning a world where the detritus of natural disasters can be processed through 3D printers to rebuild. i met two facilitators using theater, masterfully, to deepen the relationships of the room, and it felt good to be in their hands. i met techies who are creating communication tools that keep people connected where there is no wi-fi.
i met a safety trainer who told us all to pack our ‘go’ bags – not just for doing this work, but generally to make sure we were ready for the world that exists now, with rapidly changing climate and manmade conditions. what he described putting in that bag made me think of lauren olamina, octavia butler’s perhaps most famous protagonist, packing her bag to survive an unknown future. the whole training placed me firmly in my ongoing question about how we grow in the escalating tension of our times – living on a planet we have abused so thoroughly that she must respond.
i won’t lie – it was a politically complex setting for me. i am used to being in spaces where people generally agree on a set of core values, or at least assume that agreement. in this circle, i could feel the best part of each person there, but knew that many had journeyed corporate, military or government paths on their way to landing in the place of doing survivor-centered disaster innovations. the language was largely foreign to me, i had to ask a lot of basic questions to make sure i understood what was going on, and i was left with so many more questions yet to get answered.
but i felt good that they were excited about my world view. and as i shared what mattered to me, i found that the common thread in the room was not just saving lives, but a passion for community voices being at the center of any response, communities being at the heart of envisioning futures that move us beyond the long-term crisis of inequality as well as the urgency of disaster. i learned a lot more about the resource and legal challenges to handling crises with community direction.
most of the people i talked to agreed that disaster strikes in ways that unveil the social inequalities in a place, in ways that open people up to different pathways than they may have thought possible – it is an opportunity to do what octavia spoke of in the parables: shape change.
i feel like my belief that ‘there are a thousand paths towards justice and liberation’ is alive in this work. from our unchosen starting places, we reached this room, and we were able to hold each other as living intersectional entities between lots of different worlds that need to be not just in coherent conversation, but in flow, if we choose to survive and evolve together on this planet.
over the course of the training, it became clear to me why i, particularly, was there. all the diverse, seemingly random skills i have been developing can be of use for FIT. from my doula training to my somatics training to my sci-fi scholarship to my facilitation and process design work to my auntie skills to my coaching work to my ruckus/allied media conference/detroit learnings. perhaps more than anything else, i can imagine calling on my network of incredible people around the country, dedicated to the local brilliance of their communities.
my vision for my impact as a part of the team is to connect communities i love to resources that enhance local reach in the midst of a crisis. i feel like in most cities in the u.s., i either know (or am one step removed from) a body of local experts – people who love their city, understand it’s dynamics and reactions, understand why people stay there and what could catalyze them to save their own lives, and most importantly, have a long-term vision of justice and growth that can shape the innovations that will work immediately and sustain the right kinds of change over time.
one of the things i have learned in detroit is to seek out opportunity in crisis, and i have come to see this as a foundational emergent strategy. the idea of FIT in and of itself feels deeply aligned with emergent strategy – responding to disaster – unexpected change – in ways that contribute to community resilience long-term.
it is just a beginning, and i have a lot to learn. but i am thinking very, very big again, and it feels magnificent. i am excited to find out who in my network will be amongst the local leaders, healers, doulas, sci fi writers and strategists who will transform the way we as humans respond to crisis.
it feels like sci-fi in practice. and it feels like an invitation you say yes to. i’ll keep reporting back on the experience and lessons. and i hope to hear from those of you either interested in getting involved, or with ideas and feedback on all of it.
now – off to pack my go bag.