Monday, 20 October 2014

Forum notes - Keeping the "Community in Mind"

One Voice Te Reo Kotahi
Sector Forum: Keeping the Community in Mind
7.30pm, 15 October 2014
Christchurch Polytechnic CPIT Whare Wanaka

Mihi & Karakia  The meeting opened with a welcome from Rex and a karakia given by Emma. 

Introduction:  Katherine gave the background to OVTRK and the sector in Canterbury before outlining the evening’s programme.

Speaker:  Barnaby Bennett.  Barnaby is an architect who is studying temporary architecture in Christchurch.  He is one of the editors of “Once in a Lifetime: City-buildibng after Disaster in Christchurch”, a book consisting of a series of written and visual essays about the issues in rebuilding Christchurch.  It does not lobby for any particular solution, but instead is intended to stimulate deep discussion. 
Barnaby identified four major themes that had emerged for him:
1.     Tension between bottom-up and bottom-down approaches to the recovery.
2.     Means and ends, and where to target our resources:  the challenge between attending to immediate problems that are affecting people and having longer stable plans for the city. 
3.     Anger and frustration (which has spread from the primary cause – the earthquakes – to secondary causes) c.f. the sense of excitement, adventure and achievement in the city.  It is important to acknowledge, respect and respond to both. 
4.     The recognition that to care for humans we must attend to environmental health, and strong institutions and democratic structures that support people to grow.
Barnaby’s essay explores how to deal with issues that are beyond the ability of a population and a government to keep up with the detailed information that is needed to understand them.  A way to understand collective action is that it starts because there is an issue to be faced.  NGOs in Christchurch give a response to issues that government has been unable (and sometimes unwilling) to handle.  For this reason their presence and work represent valuable information about the state of the city.
“Publics emerge when there are real issues” – they are not something to be managed away.  There are two reasons for this: 
·       It creates difficulties in maintaining and recovering psychosocial health.  People need to feel involved in the decisions that affect them.  Being consulted or otherwise engaged assists with people’s wellbeing. 
·       Without engaging the public there is no way to understand the nuances and complexities of the issue.  People merely presented with the finished product can only accept or reject it, not help modify it to address these complexities. 
"There is nothing more rigorous than a group of non-specialists who want to know why they endure unbearable misfortune", quoted Barnaby.

Speaker:  Denise Kidd.  As Manager, Community Resilience for CERA, Denise introduced the psychosocial strategy, Community In Mind. 
She noted that the strategy by itself could be seen as lightweight, but it was intended to be read together with an action plan that is being developed.  In response to the themes that Barnaby had identified, she said that there was a need for both bottom-up and top-down approaches.  Some people really needed additional support that could only be supplied by a top-down approach, but unless communities took control of their own recovery then recovery will not take place.
Her team recognised that psychosocial recovery is not in just one bucket.  Stresses come from other aspects of the recovery and the decisions that are being made there.  Her team tries to get this taken into account in other work streams, and has had mixed success.  She noted that the existence of the Community Wellbeing stream was recognition by CERA that the rebuild was about more than physical infrastructure. 

Small group discussion:  The meeting broke into small groups to discuss what is happening now in their communities and what else might contribute to keeping the community in mind.  Themes from the discussions:
Definition of ‘community’
Participants were eager to point out that there are multiple definitions of ‘community’ and that individuals can belong to multiple communities concurrently.  Whereas it is felt that CERA and other organisation primarily see community as geographically-bound, participants made clear that communities can incorporate other elements such as identity and interest.  Making sure that CERA and others understand the subtleties of the term is critical.  Firstly, belonging in these communities shifts in parallel with changing identities.  Secondly, people have moved around so much following the earthquakes that geographic communities have often been broken up.  Belonging to communities becomes even more imperative following disaster, and these communities are hugely important to people’s post-disaster coping capabilities.  It was also noted that people belong to communities not just for practical reasons but for socialisation - which in fact constitutes the fundamental reason for communities.
It was also noted that agencies like MSD are unable to reach many ‘communities’ - they only have contacts with perhaps 10% of all NGOs.
What support is needed?
·       Participants noted that humour and fun were critical to keeping people going.
·       Support for NGOs - primarily in the form of resources - was seen as critical to help people move forward.   
·       Support is needed for older people who have limited access to and understanding of computers, and are isolated in their homes, particularly given the changing bus routes etc.  This increasing lack of accessibility for older people was equated to an decrease in respect for them.
·       Particularly small NGOs are struggling to keep up with bureaucratic demands - as much as 90% of their staff’s time and energy may go into such processes rather than providing services for their clients.  It was noted that grants such as those provided by the Red Cross worked well because groups could access them easily, without too much bureaucracy.  Agencies which can grant resources need to have more trust so community organisations are not unreasonably burdened by application processes and accountability.
·       More support is needed for people living on the margins, who get noticed by NGOs but not by larger service providers.  This support is especially important in terms of housing, where the most vulnerable are at risk.
·       There needs to be action taken to ensure housing is healthy; too many people are still living in damp, draughty houses.
·       One tangible way in which participants felt the community could be kept in mind was through the construction of a central meeting space where people could meet up and talk and share.  This facility should work within the local context and communities, open for public use, and ideally with someone to manage it.  Beyond the physical space, other initiatives to bring communities together (such as a local newspaper) were also seen as important.
·       Four years on from the earthquakes, people are exhausted and stressed.  They need some support to keep going.
What needs to happen to keep the community in mind?
Participants noted that they would like
·       to see evidence that the learnings of the Christchurch experience were being taken on board
·       clear information presented by CERA and other bodies around the rebuild
·       support for migrant workers, whether this support come from employers or the government
·       recognition of the work of unseen elements of the community (including third sector and migrant workers)
·       opportunities for people to talk about what they envisage for Christchurch
·       influence over private property owners in order to try and minimise the amount of tilt-slab concrete in the rebuild architecture
·       a change in focus from Anchor Projects to the small things which matter to people
·       to see “Rebuilding communities” feature as an Anchor Project (which would involve getting people involved in decisions, making people feel strong, and catering for new populations)
·       get a bigger voice for local youth + more things to keep youth in Christchurch
·       building for climate change and sustainability
·       something done to address the unaffordability of housing
·       acknowledge the centrality of the environment and its wellbeing to our own wellbeing
·       attention “higher up” to measures that could alleviate some of the pressures NGOs see in their communities, for example – interventions around housing, accessibility/availability of R18 shops (legal highs), alcohol, and gambling outlets
·       recognition and appreciation of locally-driven recovery initiatives like informal networks - so far, such cases do not have much traction in official documentation
·       financial support not just for psychosocial recovery programmes but also community building programmes
·       the east/west divide that has emerged post-quake will need to be bridged if a united city is to emerge in the future
·       recognition about the important role Early Childcare Centres play in supporting communities (additional funding was only given for 6 weeks post-quake compared with schools which were given a year’s financial help)
·       careful consideration of timing of school closures, given their effects on the community.

Concluding remarks:  Barnaby brought the meeting back together with some reflections. 
He referred to the book “A Paradise Built in Hell” by Rebecca Solnit, which discussed the official and community responses to disasters.  The official response assumes chaos and social breakdown, and acts accordingly, but in reality communities in times of disaster quickly self-organise and work together to bring order and mutual support.  Barnaby suggested that the Central City Plan is another manifestation of the official response to an unfounded fear of what might happen if they didn’t take control.  The need for tight accountability in spending funds might spring from the same fear.
Barnaby was concerned that documents like Community in Mind and the CERA wellbeing surveys buried the issues that give rise to NGOs amongst lots of largely meaningless statements and value drives.  These documents can almost be seen to constitute the ring-fencing of difficult issues, as if an angry and damaged community is only missing things like community connection and conversations with neighbours. 
The real tension that emerges with the Community in Mind document is that what we are effectively facing is one arm of the state either failing to deal with complex issues (housing affordability) or actively disenfranchising people (meaningful and iterative engagement with the rebuild) and then reaching out with another arm to speculate about what the mental health impacts of these things are.  But with little apparent desire or ability to bridge between these two. The tragedy of this is that the NGO community are probably the most sensitive and active groups who can articulate the issues and the easiest solutions to them.  He did not see much evidence of the realisation of this in the Community in Mind document.
Given this inadequacy, it is unfortunately up to the NGO’s and other community groups to continue to not only respond to the immediate needs but also to clearly articulate what they are to the government and to do this in public.  This is how more publics will form in response to the issues.
In conclusion he urged us to be vocal about our sector’s needs so that government can hear.  It is really difficult for any government in such extreme times. 

Karakia whakamutunga:  Rex closed the meeting with a karakia.