Welcome to the Gangway

More thoughts on  The Gangway..

After a flood or a tornado strikes a community, a host of organizations rush on in to help.  They do this in many different ways-and some ways are better than others.  At its best, support is responsive and empowering- and helps the community transform itself.  At its worst, support is stifling, confusing, and humiliating.  Some help displaces local initiative and is merely misplaced- resulting in a ‘second disaster’ of unneeded supplies or burdensome red tape.  We want to support the best.

We call it The Gangway. This post describes the model of mutual aid for communities and the temporary connecting support structure, or “Gangway,” that is created in the process.  We have developed this concept to support our organization’s role as a project development platform.

To better understand The Gangway, consider the term “Mutual aid-” which this group describes as a voluntary and decentralized approach to offering time, energy and resources. They contrast it with conventional, top-down recovery efforts .

Renegaid calls this place of observation, support and action “the Gangway.”  Facilitators, advocates, grassroots organizers, community leaders- these kinds of people all see the gangway for its open potential that rewards initiative.  It may be a physical space, a house or church servicing as ground zero for truckloads of supplies and bright-eyed volunteers.  These kinds of places are fantastically unique- brimming with potential- yet  exists with a completely different kind of potential than glory or profit.  It tends to be  a humbling and inspiring space for group problem-solving. Leah Ayer describes West Street Recovery which sprang into being when friends and strangers reacted to Hurricane Harvey drenching Southeast Houston.

Our effort rose purely out of reaction. (…) A sign is taped to the front door encouraging the 50+ people coming through our front door to empower themselves to make decisions. The kitchen runs from sun up to sundown. Our rooms fill and empty. The backyard becomes a dishwashing station. The hallways become sleeping quarters that are packed into corners by 7 every morning. (link)


Why do we need the Gangway?   Mutual Aid Disaster Relief puts it best-

“Survivors of disasters look for accomplices who can assist them in achieving this communal recovery without imposing the stigma of receiving assistance. (..) [We] respond in a flexible, responsive and effective manner by not assuming everybody’s needs are the same or that we know best what a community needs, but instead acts humbly, asking, listening, and responding.

To us, disaster survivors have a right to be part of a communal recovery. We recognize survivors’ rights to determine what their needs are and how best others could assist them and we utilize the knowledge, skills and networks gained from our background in social movement organizing to respond from below, with direct action and no bureaucracy or red tape. This mutual aid, solidarity-based, grassroots approach to disaster relief, in addition to meeting the self-determined needs of disaster survivors more effectively, has the added benefit of building bridges, serving to unite disparate elements of social justice and liberation movements and build power from below.” (link)


Why Isn’t the Gangway The Prevailing Model for Disaster Relief?

In fact, it is- in many parts of the world.  Historically, mutual aid is the model by which friendly communities have supported each other. But in modern America this cannot be taken for granted.  Most Americans hear two different stories when looking at communities in crisis: either 1) People are rising to the occasion to save lives, or 2) People are sinking to looting, violence and panic.  Both narratives can be true and we choose to believe that more often than not, people are strong rather than weak; more courageous than cowardly; generous instead of greedy;  builders more than destroyers.  With support from the gangway- they will accomplish more than they could imagine possible.

If anything, it is the top-down model of disaster charity that disempowers people, separates them from their basic necessities.  It is not the huddled masses of survivors we should fear- it is the inhuman bureaucracies that take away their dignity and treat them like animals.

If everything we saw in the media were true, then that treatment would be justified.  Stories of rape and looting filled the airwaves in the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Corporate media was saturated with stories that alternatingly glorified certain communities for their brave and heroic responses, and humiliated other communities for their opportunism and violence.  The narratives fit a certain, cynical logic: “If you treat people like animals, they behave like animals.”  There’s a certain truthiness to self-fulfilling prophecies such as this.  They believe that “civilization is but a thin veneer” that is abandoned when hunger or desperation sets in.  From this perspective, it takes armed guards to feed hungry crowds; armed guards to patrol the shelters; armed guards to hand out tarps and bandaids.   It sounds ridiculous and yet it happens routinely after disasters.

These stories of looting, violence and panic on the TV- are overwhelmingly false.  We don’t believe the narrative that communities ‘deserve’ such humiliating aid.  We are not being idealistic when we assert that outside of the myths of the television set, an entirely consistent pattern of heroic and compassionate behavior sets in after a disaster.

The Gangway represents our hope and ideals taking flight- a part of the Restorative Narrative – that when you treat survivors with empathy, dignity and inspired support- you can make a real difference.  Let us not forget that our best friends are not the ones who always tell us what we want to hear.  They are there to support us in the long-haul.  As partners in mutual aid we are not in the business of short-term “feel-goodism.”  In the Gangway, we are in the business of empowering those in the worst of times and facilitating their basic emotional and material needs.

2 thoughts on “Welcome to the Gangway”

  1. Thank you, David, for another excellent post. What you’ve described about the two competing narratives regarding how we can see disaster survivors – as either looters or as inspired and resilient problem solvers – connects to an earlier post I wrote: “Looming Shocks – Part 3: theft of Indigenous land underlies our shock-susceptible racial hierarchies”.

    In the post I discuss Naomi Klein’s observation that unaddressed “foundational crimes” of a nation, such as insisting that “slavery and indigenous land theft were just glitches in otherwise proud histories” hamstring our community strength and resilience when faced with the shocks associated with disaster. She explains, “the same theories of racial hierarchy that justified those violent thefts in the name of building the industrial age are surging to the surface as the system of wealth and comfort they constructed starts to unravel on multiple fronts simultaneously.” In the context of disaster response, this means that the fact we have still not addressed the foundational crime of Indigenous land theft in America and Canada – the fact that notions of racial supremacy or superiority continue to serve as the ultimate basis for our non-Indigenous claims to the land – colors our response to crises on the land, where foundational presumptions of superiority lead to ongoing presumed superiority of our solutions that are imposed on others, presuming that local, land-based solutions are inferior and worthy of being overridden. That’s where Mutual Aid Disaster Relief’s advocacy for responding in disaster “by not assuming everybody’s needs are the same or that we know best what a community needs, but instead acts humbly, asking, listening, and responding” comes in as a call for a fundamental shift.

    Unexamined, subconscious notions of superiority of our own beliefs over those of others, I think, lies behind the narrative that sees disaster survivors as looters. And selective cinematography can capture examples which support the pre-existing national narrative. And in this way the narrative is repeated and prolonged.

    Reaching a place of being able to respond with humility, openness and treating all folks with dignity, I’d argue, is connected to a life-long journey of grappling with the “foundational crimes” we’re connected to through our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

    Would acting with humility as responders in relation to disaster survivors potentially demand that we give up an “entitlement” to being the experts with ‘the answers’ for how to help a disaster-stricken community? Letting go of that entitlement might be harder than it sounds.

    Would grappling with our ongoing profiting from theft of land from Indigenous people possibly demand that we give up an “entitlement” to identities as ‘friendly and innocent settlers’? Would it also possibly demand giving up our entitlement to land ownership, instead asking permission to stay? That might be every bit as hard as it sounds. Maybe even harder.

    Seeing disaster survivors with an attitude of humility is not just a warm and fuzzy shift toward greater niceness. It’s actually a terrifying and indefinite journey – not for the faint of heart – that might just demand everything from us. At least if we do so in a way that is not self-serving. Take heed! And let’s do it!

    1. Good, challenging thoughts Bjorn- the term “foundational crimes” packs a lot in two words. Good quote by Siri May in the latest GlobalWA newsletter speaks to this- “The important lesson I continue to grapple with is how to simultaneously represent part of the problem and still participate in the solution.”

      To be a part of a problem, and to participate in the solution- it is the weighted view of privilege. It’s a heavier foundation for some and lighter for others. For us as program developers in communities after a crisis-we put ourselves in a major role in a community during that time. If our privilege is a topic for us before, it shouldn’t be shoved to the side once we were spring into action. It’s hard to predict that middle path of thoughtful action but like Siri May we do know we ought to grapple with finding it.

      Maybe it means less material donations and more cash donations; less planning and more promoting of the plans of others; more efforts to get the survivors voices inside those meetings instead of our own; and always more alignment of our efforts, resources and talents with the priorities of survivors.

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