Leaders generally stand up because they feel they have something to offer; something of value to give to others. Sports coaches give their encouragement and skills, activists give their passion and spirit, teachers give their knowledge. Community leaders give time, energy, skills and vision.
Canterbury has seen many, many incredible leaders stand up since the earthquakes. Leaders have stood up into creative spaces, activist spaces, organisational spaces and communication spaces. CanCERN once had a bustling membership of more than 40 committed leaders and each one of them had a couple of leaders behind them in their own communities. They stood up to give their communities guidance, information, engagement, solutions, hope, and most of all faith in the fact someone had their back and heard their voice. They wanted to give before they ever wanted to take.
In the neighbourhood and community recovery space there are still standout leaders, although many of them do not hold local celebrity status and go about their work quietly. We benefit from what they give though; students shovelling, gapfillers leaving fun and creative spaces, facilities are re-imagined and rebuilt, community plans and events are delivered.
But what of the leaders who stood up to help their neighbours make sense of the damage the earthquakes caused to their homes and families? Mostly, these are the people who make up CanCERN’s membership. What benefit do we see for the time and commitment they have given?
The answer is sadly, for many of our leaders, very little. This isn’t because of their abilities or their commitment. This is because there is very little to give. The lucky ones are those who have home bases where they can provide programmes and services and ways of bringing people together.
Those more unlucky leaders can’t give information because there are very few pathways into the agencies to get information first hand and in a timely manner. They can’t give solutions because there are very few avenues for discussing community solutions with the agencies who ultimately make the decisions. They can’t give certainty because no one is telling these leaders enough for them to have certainty themselves. They can’t give confidence because no one is showing them why they should have confidence. They can’t give hope because most no longer have hope that there’s a role for them in their communities.
CanCERN has tried to provide our community leaders with some of these things – access to good information, a place to share issues and seek solutions, access to conversations with the right people, certainty that work is being done behind the scenes to make this residential recovery a better one. Unfortunately it hasn’t been enough – we have asked leaders to hang in there and believe that what we report back to them is really happening, but they can’t see the evidence of it and belief has dwindled over time.
CanCERN has been a little more active in the visible ‘giving’ space over the past year – the Recycle, Reuse, Relocate Project giving community groups access to free materials recycled from the Residential Red Zone, In the Know which gives community leaders (and residents) the opportunity to upload their priority questions, and Let’s Find and Fix which has given people the chance to have temporary repairs done to their properties without the financial burden on their settlement or accommodation allowance. These projects have lifted spirits and given leaders and residents some tangible sign that community-led initiatives can be done to solve issues.
But is it enough?
We have to be able to give community leaders what they need to actually lead. They need to see the value of stepping up as leaders and giving their time and commitment to residents who are still struggling with earthquake damage to their homes. This can’t happen if agencies and their processes continue to overlook those struggling. The most unnerving conversation we continue to have over and over again is about the need for agencies to recognise the most vulnerable earthquake affected communities – the ‘stuck’ – and help the leaders of those communities deal with their issues, rather then tell them how to put in a park bench, plant trees or organise a BBQ!
The ‘stuck’ space is largely leaderless due to the high rate of burnout and a constant migration by mainstream support agencies towards supporting traditional community development and enabling the enabled.
Heaven forbid, now that we have only the really hard cases left, the ‘stuck’ may actually get seen and attended to. Just imagine if all of those with the power to give finally recognise that leaders in earthquake-affected communities have real value and very particular needs. Imagine if those needs were met so the leaders themselves could give back to their communities, and in doing so… pay it forward.