Well-meaning outsiders crowd into a community to help after a disaster. Journalists, nurses, experts often with crucial roles to play- as well as stomachs to feed, beds to rest, showers to clean up, conversations to share at the local deli. The “space they occupy” in having these needs met will to some extent displace the space that community would critically depend upon after a disaster.
The same empathy that drove people to help may also guide the ways they take up space. Renegaid gives structure to empathy in “The Gangway. “
The Gangway is a physical space, at times- the temporary, self-provided trailers, food and supplies that outsiders will bring with them. The thoughtful self-provisioning that has a net-positive impact on the logistical demands of the response and relief efforts. In the Gangway, we bring in more resources than we take. And we are thoughtful in providing to the Survivors the resources that they ask for, that in our professional capacities we can provide them.
Finally, The Gangway is an emotional space: we understand that survivors experience a “falling together” that we as outsiders should not attempt to join. It is not our crisis or our regeneration. At the end of it, we will leave with the ghosts of the original residents- leaving behind an emotional saga that we only witness from the Gangway.
Why This Matters. Consider this account by one journalist of how she and her peers descended onto Sutherland Springs, TX after a church shooting there the day prior:
The media presence doubled the size of your grieving community, or so it seemed. You couldn’t park at the post office. It was jammed with news vans and satellite trucks, its lawn trampled by a half-dozen tents the big networks set up. You couldn’t get a quiet meal at the local cafe, where waitresses trying to get through their shifts were asked again and again to talk about the friends and family they had just lost.
It was miserably hot, even for Texas. But the gas station was out of sunscreen. We’d bought it all. It was an invasion. It was too much. (link)
The author contrasts her role as a professional observer and investigator with her basic empathy and humanity- arguing that there has to be a better way to chronicle disasters. In other words, the space they occupied was too great. One resident of the town had this to say about the journalists that week following the disaster:
They’re vultures, man. They don’t leave you alone. They just want their story. It’s great that you want to hear our story but when you’re at a memorial you have no respect. You’re walking around with cameras shining in people’s faces. We’re not here for some festival. We’re here because of something the likes of this town, Sutherland Springs, never thought they’d see. (link)
Well-meaning outsiders crowd into a community after a disaster. Sometimes their role is crucial- often their role is not what they thought it would be when they rushed in. Sometimes their aid is undercut by the impact that they have on the community’s limited supply of lodging, restaurants, and short supply. The space they occupy can be in many ways anticipated and self-met. This model of balancing the criteria of mutual aid with empathy; expertise with humanity; support and distance- it give substance to The Gangway. In its physical, logistical and emotional gangway- we experience and we document a narrative of the restorative potential of communities in crisis.
Living out and promoting this narrative of human potential at all times, and not just after a crisis, should be our goal.
2 thoughts on “The Space We Occupy After a Disaster”
Excellent post, David. Very insightful. I like the “space they occupy” language. It helps to capture the idea of physical space, time, and even air-time space. How often do you hear the stories of disaster responders and aid workers and missionaries taking up the limited appetite on radio or print media for stories about disasters. It stands to reason that when we go somewhere thinking we’re playing a “savior” role – where the saving-others experience helps validate the benevolent identities we want to construct for ourselves – then we also have an expectation or even an entitlement to talk about and broadcast our experience. Tragedies can tend to draw out our “savior complex” tendencies. Paying attention to this, as you’ve articulated, is important for avoiding further harm to survivors.
Reminds me of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where one of the protectors of the Holy Grail stops Indiana Jones during his quest to find it-and asks him- “Ask yourself, why do you seek the Cup of Christ? Is it for His glory, or for yours?”