After Hurricane Maria pulverized part of the Caribbean, and especially the island of Puerto Rico in 2017, many residents lost access to electricity, cell phone coverage, water, transport, health services, education, policing, virtually all government services, and livelihood activities – not just for hours, days and weeks, but months, and, for many, years.
Last month, I visited San Juan as part of Feedback Lab’s annual conference. It was the first time Feedback Labs has organized this event outside of Washington, DC. It did so because something extraordinary is happening here that all philanthropists should know more about.
Everyday people have stood up, self-organized, and did what was needed to rebuild their communities. Local civil society and philanthropy organizations instantly stepped into “business unusual” mode and responded to voiced needs.
Over the course of this extraordinary event, the conference attendees were treated to dozens of inspiring stories of resilience, self-organization, and imagination. Urban communities found ways to address the psychological trauma affecting residents through peer counseling. Rural communities rebuilt ancient aqueducts using local materials. Periodic markets organized by community activists rose out of urban wreckage. International and local funder organizations astounded us with examples of how much was accomplished with very small amounts of money, all because of the explosion of civic volunteering, something that continues to this day.
Leading up to the event, conference organizers worked with a group of local nonprofits that had been especially effective at facilitating community leadership, and they formed the bedrock of the conference. We were embedded with these organizations and their practitioners who have lived through the forge fire of natural disaster and magnificently risen out of that fire to share what authentic community leadership looks like.
I was part of a group that visited G-8, Grupo de las Ocho Comunidades Aledañas al Caño Martín Peña, which is, like the name says, a group of 8 communities bordering a canal. Physically smashed by the hurricane, these communities came together and over the course of more than 600 meetings (and counting) and innumerable actions, they have rebuilt, formed a detailed plan for further community development, and are now daring to reform the local schools. A group of community leaders used our visit to brainstorm about how they might convince the schools in the area to adopt a new and progressive curriculum they had developed together with leading international education experts. (Ironically, the school authorities blocked them on the grounds that they lacked “expertise.”)
As I reflect on my time at the conference, I leave you with a quote from Sister Nancy Madden, the founder of P.E.C.E.S., Inc., a rural community organization:
“If you are in the right kind of relationship, the feedback comes.”
Action Items for Donors: