Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

WEBINAR | Engaging After Disaster

This week Linda participated in an IAP2 webinar on Engagement After Disaster. The one hour session was presented by Nicole Hunter, who is experienced in community engagement in natural and industrial disasters. Disaster response is a specialised area of community engagement that is relevant for practitioners in the current context. There has been much media coverage and attention to disasters, in the face of floods and earthquakes in Australia and in our region. As a community and as a community of practitioners, we are developing literacy about community needs in relation to disaster response. In particular, there is an exploration of the connections between community development and communications.

Nicole drew on and introduced the work of key theorists:

Nicole also outlined how disasters disrupt established social bonds, described as ‘debonding’, and the community response to re-establish bonds as part of the recovery process.


  • The importance of establishing theoretical basis to practice and learning from others experienced in this
  • Don’t flood spaces with information. It’s important to balance exhalation, action & information in disaster/post-disaster context. Also, because of the emotional and highly charged nature of the space, it is difficult to absorb information. Consequently, there is a need for the community to plan to receive information and make a space to receive information
  • The rebonding process can happen quite quickly and the disaster response needs to be immediate to be part of the rebonding process, otherwise there is a risk of being excluded from the emerging community networks and dynamics
  • Don’t tell anyone you understand and don’t assume people’s feelings – there is a need empathic listening and gentle questioning so that people affected by disaster can tell their own story. This is what will create better understanding.
  • There is a need to share dilemmas to create understanding and this means acknowledging complexity, errors and deficiencies. There can be a tendency to reassure and this can sometimes have the opposite affect of corroding trust.
  • Over the long term, community structures and connections are forever changed. From the perspective of community development, there is a need to understand the change as a new basis for community organisation and social capital.
  • One of the other participants also recommended tools available through CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management). See http://www.criticalincidentstress.com




  Judy Pippen wrote @

HI Linda Thanks for making this is excellent material accessible. It is timely for me as I am about to assist in the develop of arts and cultural work in flood affected copmmunities. I read with interest Dr Rob Gordon’s material which reinforces the value of creative activity as an important part of long term community recovery

  lcarroli wrote @

If there’s anything we can contribute to this then please feel free to call on us. One of the key issues, not mentioned in my post, is about children and the need to (a) return to normalcy as soon as possible so that children can cope (b) ensure that there are things for children to do and that they are looked after so that parents and adults can focus on dealing with issues (note that in Japan Save the Children are setting up child-friendly spaces). Also, have a look at Haiti and New Orleans for some interesting creative responses and initiatives in disaster response. Good luck with this.

  lcarroli wrote @

Hi Judy,

Just thinking further about this question of the role of arts and culture in disaster response and recovery. I wonder what happens if you just assume there is a role – that arts and culture are fundamentally enabling – and then that frees you up to design a context-sensitive culturally-engaged tactical response. Perhaps you just need some case studies and a set of tactical, place-based approaches. I just grabbed this from a website on tactical urbanism, which I think is in keeping with the disaster context and just requires some tweaking to align with the language of disaster recovery (like the work of Rob Gordon):

• A deliberate, phased approach to instigating change
• The offering of local solutions for local planning challenges
• Short-term commitment and realistic expectations
• Low-risks, with a possibly a high reward
• The development of social capital between citizens and the building of organizational capacity between public-private institutions, non-profits, and their constituents.

I think, sometimes, we can all be a bit hesitant about asserting ourselves, defining our role and not questioning our assumptions. A bit of guerilla research backed up by actions can go far. If you think there is something the arts can do then just get in and do it provided you are assured that there is no risk of harm.

Good luck.

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