The shooting that killed 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn., nearly a year ago made the entire country wonder how it’s possible to move forward after such a devastating incident.
How, indeed, does any community experience such a trauma and avoid getting stuck in its own despair? And how can nonprofits and foundations learn to avoid the mistakes that have permanently weakened so many communities that have suffered shootings, hurricanes, earthquakes, plant closings, terrorist attacks, or other catastrophes.
Most important, how can we end the desperate cycle of pouring money, support, and cleanup workers into devastated communities instead of focusing on what matters most—bringing residents together to set a new course for their community’s long-term health and sustainability?
Newtown has already succeeded in handling one of the most critical decisions it has faced: determining the fate of Sandy Hook Elementary.
A few months after the December shooting, Patricia Llodra, Newtown’s First Selectman, asked me to help with this particularly difficult and potentially divisive decision.
I designed and led a series of meetings to guide the community in a methodical and transparent way. A 28-person ad hoc task force—made up of elected leaders from four governing boards who had never before worked together in this way—would make the final decision. Moreover, they would do so in full public view.
There was no guarantee the task force would be able to carry out its mission. The members could have easily splintered into different camps, engaged in grandstanding and political posturing, or simply backed away from making a decision at all. But nothing of the sort happened.
After several weeks of deliberations and gut-wrenching outpourings from parents of victims, survivors, teachers, and townspeople, among others, the task force appeared headed to the finish line.
I wasn’t surprised by what occurred instead: At the fourth session, when many, including the national media, expected a final decision, the process seemed to be on the verge of collapse.
What was really happening, though, was that the community was facing a fundamental moment of realization that no matter the decision, Newtown couldn’t go back in time. There was no way to “make things right,” only to choose whether to forge a path forward.
Those involved may not have known it at the time, but they were in the midst of a healing process. The apparent deadlock was a natural byproduct of efforts to make sense of a defining moment in the community but not to let that moment define the community. Indeed, by the end of the next meeting, the ad hoc group reached a unanimous decision to raze and rebuild the school on the same site.
While there’s more work to be done in Newtown, it is on a path to make the shift from trauma and despair to healing and growth.
But it is also suffering from our short-lived attention span. That happens after every disaster.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the RAND Corporation estimated that a full recovery would take 11&frac; years.
The assessment didn’t take into account the recovery time from the psychological impact of that disaster, a process likely to span many more years, if not decades.
That happens because too often we fail to make the distinction between creating an immediate focal point of concern and aid for a community and helping a community make the shift to long-term health and sustainability. These steps are related but vastly different.
It’s time to let go of the mistaken belief that we can “fix” a community just by channeling donations. The many people I’ve talked to—those who have dealt with disasters and tragedies—agree that this shift is exactly what is needed now.
In my work with communities across the country—including those hit hard by disaster and tragedy—I’ve come to believe there are at least five steps communities need to take to find a collective path forward:
Create safe spaces and a process that makes it easy for people to make progress together. A significant part of this must be to provide room for people to work through their fears and anxieties as well as to determine the next steps for the community as a whole. Their fears cannot be ignored in attempts to “get back to normal.”
But, as in Newtown, special care must be given to how the spaces are developed and the way the processes are carried out so that they lead to productive paths moving forward.
Enable people to articulate their shared aspirations for the community going forward. It is critical for people to reestablish a sense that they are moving forward together, beyond any needed care and support for individuals and families. This step moves people from fear and anxiety and perhaps feeling alone to a focus on what is possible and being part of something larger than themselves.
Develop productive norms, relationships, and capacities to guide the community forward. The goal oftentimes is to get things back the way they were before the tragedy, but previously established norms may not have been all that productive or they may not be suitable for what’s needed next. In many cases, it’s possible to use the disaster’s outcome to bring about better, stronger ways for the community to work together.
Develop a new can-do narrative that inspires people to believe in themselves and the community. The great hidden factor in whether communities move forward is to pursue a narrative that doesn’t attempt to sweep away the crisis and its effects but accounts for and then transcends them. To be clear: This is not about public relations or boosterism. A community must authentically build a can-do narrative by continually highlighting signs of progress.
Identify the roles, responsibilities, and contributions of leaders, organizations, and citizens. What’s needed is a way forward to navigate the pivot points and determine long-term action. The opening exists to engage and mobilize a community to assume greater ownership of its future and to create ways for all people to have a meaningful role moving ahead.
For foundations and nonprofits, in particular, the implications are significant.
Building resilient communities will take more than simply supporting stopgap programs, direct services, and new buildings or boardwalks. It will require a strategic investment that deliberately seeks to help communities collectively find a way forward and build the civic capacity and relationships necessary to be effective.
The very first time I walked into Newtown’s Town Hall, I noticed two signs posted in the window of the board-of-education office. The first read: “We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.” The second asserted: “Our collective strength and resilience will serve as an example to the rest of the world.”
Newtown is already proving itself to be an example of the way a community can face tragedy and embark on a path forward. Now my hope is that all communities will post such signs in their towns and see themselves as examples of collective strength and resiliency.
Ultimately, for those communities that have experienced tragedies and disasters, taking the steps to move from trauma and despair to long-term health and sustainability is a key factor in making that a reality.
Richard Harwood is president of the Harwood Institute, an organization that works with local groups to promote change.