What Do We Mean: RenegAID

One of our board members keeps reminding the rest of us to keep our focus on Natural Disaster like a focal point for a laboring mother. A focal point to distract us from the pain and fear that keeps popping into our heads. I am ever grateful for her reminders as our thoughts wonder around the landscape of chaos, expressing our opinions on what we see as haunting.

Last evening I spent time catching up on some inspiration by watching TED talks.

The one I have referenced here made me think…

Shouldn’t RenegAID be to survivors of Natural Disaster what TED talks are to inspiration and ideas? And shouldn’t RenegAID be to survivors of Natural Disasters what Burning Man is to art?

The event of natural disaster is not political. And we are about the event. In a catastrophic disaster, people who spontaneously show up to engage and help on their own volition, their own time, their own risk, their own money are called renegaid. They do whatever presents itself in the world of absolute chaos. They are not bound by policy and procedure and insurance clauses like volunteers who arrive from relief organizations such as Red Cross, etc. They are not bound by their schooling and corporate level. They are the off duty neighbors who drop what they are doing and run in to help, led by the spirit and not by rules. Rules don’t work well anyway in pure chaos. Corporations and governments exist awhile and then change but neighbors are forever.

In her TED talk, Nora Atkinson calls the Burning Man experiment in collective dreaming, off the grid, anti consumer community an “active collaborative making community.” It exists internationally year round but comes together once a year in the desert… made up of artists, scientists, welders, engineers, garbage collectors, etc. And when their time together is over, they disappear without a trace. Although the art is amazing, what inspires Nora most is why people come there again and again to make. She believes it gets to something that’s essentially human. She says that when people first come to Burning Man, they don’t know how to make this stuff. It’s the “active collaborative maker community” that makes it possible. And when artists stop worrying about critics and collectors and start making for themselves, these are the marvelous toys they create.

I loved the Burning Man people who came immediately and spontaneously to Katrina with bulldozers and tents and set up neighborhood with the Buddhist Temple. Spontaneous, engaging, willing to give of their talents and do whatever needed to be done in the moment, not worried about money or insurance. They were pretty renegaid.

Referenced TED Talk: Why Art Thrives at Burning Man by Nora Atkinson

1 thought on “What Do We Mean: RenegAID”

  1. Thanks for this post. Very thought provoking. But in this response I’m going to focus on one statement that caught my attention. I disagree with the premise behind the statement that “The event of natural disaster is not political.” The assumption is that you can divorce a disaster from it’s context or from it’s differential effects on various populations. I’m not convinced that’s possible and I’m not convinced there would be much value in doing so except for maintaining a particular image of ourselves as disaster responders and a particular image of those we’re helping.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could simply delete all context and just come in as thoughtful and creative heroes who help the naive and caught-by-surprise survivors who had made informed and unencumbered decisions about where to live in relation to the sources of “natural” risk – decisions that were equally informed to our own decisions about living near sources of risk (ie. oceans, volcanoes, historically mobile tectonic plates, river banks, tinder-dry forests, etc)?

    I’d argue that the reality is a highly unjust world, made especially unjust by those of us who act in our own self-interest to accumulate wealth and enhance personal security at the expense of others, as well as by those of us who did not create the systems but who turn a blind eye to the systems that subtly benefit us while hurting others.

    Most people who are affected by disaster are affected specifically because the marginal regions that they are forced into are, by definition, the areas that are more exposed to natural threats. The fact is that by and large the folks living in more expensive homes that are built to a standard that can withstand an earthquake, for example, are in those homes because of their economic and social status. There are certainly exceptions, where wealthy folks live in a naturally dangerous area and where poor folks live in regions relatively free from nature’s threats, but there are also certainly trends of the poor being more exposed. And historically disadvantaged populations also feel the loss of a home a lot more severely and have fewer options for even escaping with their lives.

    I’d argue that the main reason to hold to a belief that disaster events can be considered outside of their context is to hold fast to our identities of innocence in relation to the suffering of most of the people affected by disaster events. I think that both TED and Burning Man generally play into that same narrative of innocent (de-contextualized) hero entrepreneurs and hero artists helping others, saving the world. Anand Giridharadas talks about that, specifically mentioning TED and Burning Man as places where this message is “reevanglized”, in his book “Winners Take All: the elite charade of changing the world.” “Doing doing well for yourself by doing good for others” is how Giridharadas describes the current “gospel” that rationalizes capitalism’s process of benefiting ourselves at the expense of others so that we can help those others.

    I’d argue that there is value in recognizing instead that we are not innocent when a disaster event hurts some people. We’re complicit in the systems that all of us ‘repeatedly-advantaged people’ repeatedly participate in – systems that put some populations more at risk of harm than others. If we can accept that new identity of being complicit – accept that we’re all mixed up with some level of responsibility in this shitty mess – then maybe as advantaged people who get to occasionally be disaster responders we can let go of the hero image and start to take responsibility to change the systems that hold some people down. If we don’t take on that responsibility then we may be feigning innocence while getting credit for helping those we have contributed to hurting. Nobody should clap for me when I clean my own toilet. I made the mess, so if I clean up my act that’s just expected.

    The notion that ‘natural disasters are not political’ facilitates a common belief that we can be heroes when helping disaster survivors because it denies our status of being advantaged by the nation state and denies that others are being shit on by that same nation state. This reminds me of a quote from the author Teju Cole: “The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.” It’s a very cutting quote, but a good one for recognizing and moving beyond the baloney. I’m also reminded of a description of the philanthropist who carves a wooden leg for the pig that he’s currently eating!

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