Reflections on Readiness and Resiliency

Posted by Ruby Lopez Harper, May 27, 2016 0 comments

On April 19, the National Endowment for the Arts hosted a convening of national thought leaders and practitioners to consider the increasing importance of work related to natural disasters, man-made disasters and civil unrest. “Readiness and Resiliency”: Advancing a Collaborative and National Strategy for the Arts in Times of Emergencies.

I was excited to be attending as an observer on behalf of the National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response. I had attended a preconference through Grantmakers in the Arts in 2014 in Houston. The preconference focused on the examination of the readiness, response, and emergency support systems for artists. It featured three artists and really centered around how the arts community responds to the effect of natural disasters on the lives of individual artists. It was, to say the least, so completely inspiring that I found the ideas and content integrating itself into the conversations I had with the local community in Columbus upon my return and for the time following.

Imagine worlds colliding as I sat in the convening listening to the ways that organizations around the country were thinking about and being supportive of response to disaster. First, starting with the concept that “disaster” now means so much more than FLOOD, HURRICANE, WILD FIRE…it can now include man-made disasters and civil unrest. Second, seeing a room full of women leaders was uplifiting because I had mentally prepared myself to be in a room full of men because, well, #thatslife. I don’t know for certain if there was intentionality in the choices made by the NEA in who was sitting at the table, but I’m going to say that it meant the world to me as a rising leader in the arts field to be in a room with so many amazing women.

I appreciated the position that the NEA clearly conveyed around their role as convener–their goal wasn’t to BE the solution but to create the space for collaboration and ideas as to how we, the field, want to engage and continue to support and evolve this area.

There was a bit of pride to see that one of the advanced reading materials was written by Bob Lynch, President and CEO of Americans for the Arts, published by the Huffington Post. I recall reading the piece when it was released, thinking to myself, “WOW, he gets it”–emergency response and readiness is not the trend du jour. And I felt that this convening really hit that home.

Listening to Felicia Shaw (Regional Arts Commission; St. Louis, MO) and Jennifer Cole (MetroArts; Nashville, TN) talk about the challenges and triumphs in their communities around disaster response. The ability for arts leaders to navigate and facilitate cross sector interaction is vital to being able to provide the much needed support to and from the arts. The realization that these structures are vulnerable as well when they rely on the person’s connection and not the organizational commitment. “Values drive Policy; Policy drives Procedure”–that’s what makes it stick according to Ms. Shaw–I, personally, wholeheartedly agree.

“Resiliency kicks in when the casseroles stop coming.”

  • While some took issue with the word resiliency, it is clear that a thing happens in a community after the attention dies down and after the media goes away…if they were ever there to begin with; that something is our purpose and our heart and our ability to continue forward. I call it courage; I call it strength and bravery–whatever you call it, it is this essence that can survive and thrive when the arts are in the mix.

“The teddy bears won’t stop coming.”

  • Well-meaning intentions are not always the best way to a solution. When you are prepared for the wave of teddy bears to do their job of comforting children (and adults) in time of crisis, you should also prepare for how to receive and distribute items for the arts community; and be able to articulate and prepare the community for what those needs are. While the teddy bears are great, if we aren’t able to organize and mobilize, it will affect the way “response” and the effectiveness and timeliness of that response.

“Carrot, Carrot Cake – Sticks are effective too”

  • Organizations must have some skin in the game. And how do we as a field add this area to our DNA. As we move away from disasters, we also lose the urgency around that event and the commitment to ensuring preparedness in their community.So how do we as a field create structures to, again, add this to our radar on a daily basis?

When you think about the fact that other sectors in the community, regularly and with intentionality, practice their disaster response plans, it is disheartening to know that the arts and culture community rarely considers this practice. How would we respond? Would we be prepared? Is the full ecosystem prepared–from large, well-established organizations to artists? What partners do we need to engage? Who needs to know what our assets are? Are we even on the radar?

These questions are quite sobering as they should be.

At the close of the day, each organization stated what they planned to do when they returned to their regularly scheduled life– things like social media activity to give some visibility to the topic; sharing the discussion and information with their teams; work with their community partners; getting their own house in order; and looking at ways to keep this going–taking it to the people.

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