Podcast / Episode #7

#7: Community resilience – do we understand it and are we holding back?

By renae hanvin

Sep 2 2020

This episode

In this episode, Renae is talking with Dr Margaret Moreton, the Principal of Leva Consulting. They discuss the topic of community resilience and ask do we understand it and are we holding back?

Margaret gives great examples of what is and isn’t working, there are many “areas of opportunity” for us as a nation when it comes to community resilience.

“There is a lot to learn from my conversation with Margaret in this episode – she definitely thinks differently and does differently.”

key moments from the conversation

About Margaret

Margaret is a consultant who works with governments, NGOs, Emergency Service agencies and communities themselves.  The focus of her work is community resilience – how to recognise it and how to strengthen and support it.  She has developed a community conversation resource ‘Our Community’ and has written an e-book “Building Resilience in the face of catastrophic events”, based on the voices of community members affected by disasters.

I’d like to start with where we met...

I sat behind Margaret at a MUDRI Monash University Disaster Resilience Initiative presentation and was instantly drawn into her passion and experience when it comes to community resilience.

Our paths have crossed over regularly since.

Here are some questions I asked...

1. So can you explain what is community resilience?

So the usual answer we give is that community resilience is about the ability of a community to withstand shocks and stresses arising from disasters and emergency events. So that’s the stock standard kind of answer. I like to describe it as communities being able to help one another, get back on their feet, work together and create a new life post whatever the event has been. I actually don’t like the phrase a new normal, although people use it all the time. And most community members who talked to me say nothing’s normal, ever again. But they do help one another. They stand up, they help their businesses, they help their families, all the systems that exist within a community. It’s about them getting back into a way of operating that’s functional and satisfying.

2. So why is community resilience so important?

Well, you see, you’re talking to someone who’s very biased in this because communities are at the beginning and the middle of everything. We live in communities we’re born into communities, we work in communities we exercise and have recreation in communities. If not for community, then there’s no purpose to anything really. So I say communities are at the center of the entire process.

3. I have to absolutely agree with you there, Margaret. Now, how good are we as Australians at community resilience?

Well, the appropriate answer would be to say we’re pretty good at it. We have organisations and governments with programs and policies and frameworks. We have a strong understanding of it. We have a strong emergency services sector. We have organisations like the Australian Disaster Resilience Institute, we have researchers. So that’s the appropriate answer that I should give is that we’re very good at it.

And the real answer?

So the real answer is that I think we’re not very good at it. And I think we have a lot of resources. We’re very fortunate to live in a country that is well resourced, and I don’t think we’re using those resources the way we need. The surgeons are with people on the ground in communities affected by these events. Often I talk to them after something has occurred. And they are devastated. And they’re frustrated because to live in a country with this much wealth and this much information and expertise, and still be living in a demountable home or a caravan six months after a massive event destroyed your home without running water, without a telephone, in a black spot. It’s difficult. And so on the one hand, I think that we are doing some things quite well and on the other I’m frustrated as are so many in the community that we’re not doing well.

4. So talking about how you work with a lot of communities after they have been through a disaster I find it interesting and quite wonderful to be honest with you because we hear there’s a before, during and after a disaster. And I always think that the after is actually also the before because in today’s era of disasters while you’re recovering from the past you’re also planning for the next. Is that what you see?

Absolutely. And because because events are becoming more and more frequent and more and more intense, and this previous summer is a perfect example of that. And such a large area devastated in multiple states and so many events on top of one another.

I was speaking to somebody in the Bega Valley yesterday where I’m doing a project and he was describing how in six weeks, they had four separate fire attacks on their community and today floods. Wow. I mean, that’s outrageous. And yet it’s true. So I now talk about the entire processes being circular and cyclical and just rolling forward. So every preparation we do, there will likely be somebody that has been part of their history that we have been recovering or are considered to have recovered from. And when people have a massive event like last summer, like Black Saturday, like the fires in Canberra, like the cyclones in Queensland, and like the floods across most of Queensland some years ago, when people have these events, part of their recovery process in my experience is that they look at one another and say we must be better prepared.

If we had been better prepared, our recovery from this event would be easier for us. And so let’s think about how to prepare for the future as part of a project. Even now they may not initially think of it as part of their recovery, but by working together and preparing for the future, they’re strengthening their bonds as a community. And this is part of the recovery process. So I don’t see the phases anymore. As we all say they’re not separate, and they’re not linear and they overlap.

Under COVID circumstance we have multiple disasters occurring simultaneously. We’re no longer able to really separate preparation, response, relief, recovery, they are all happening happening simultaneously, depending on where you live and who you are. We really need to expand our thinking and kind of drop the models that help us understand. That’s about as limited as it gets, we need to think about them being simultaneous phases preparation, if we could just get everybody to do more preparation, during or not during before or after a crisis, then the recovery and the resilience of these communities would be continually strengthened.


5. Now, can I ask you, who are the key players when it comes to building community resilience then in the communities who are the ones inside the community and who are the ones outside the community?

Yeah, so there are definitely sets of people involved. So it’s really interesting. You know, I often say to people, particularly if a crisis has occurred, if you’re trying to work out who the influences are in a community, then go along to the community meeting when we were allowed to do such things in person, and watch the room and particularly, look at the back. Because the person who’s on the stage, interviewing or introducing the guest, and the person who’s raising the hand and shouting and asking all of the questions, they aren’t the two people that I personally am interested in?

I’m interested in the person who’s leaning against the back wall and listening. And every now and again, will nod, and other people will begin to nod too, or they might murmur something to someone beside them. They’re not going to ask the question loudly. But that person people are watching because if George or Joyce or whoever it is, if they’re on board, I’ll be on board. Because they’re someone I’ve known or my family has known. It depends from community to community. So it’s those. It’s those quiet influences that people trust. It’s such an interesting, dynamic. You have to trust someone to follow them.

So I think the people inside that Communities are the salt of the earth. You know head of the fire brigade or UCS, they are the neighborhood house manager. They’re the person who comes in and looks after all brands, the tuck shop for the primary school. They are the person who runs the library, every community will know who they are. If you sit and have coffee with people from community, people will say, are the people in our community that we look to for leadership? The woman who ran the music club, she held that community together, she created resilience every single day. And now I realised that as an adult, I didn’t as a kid. So that all sorts of people inside the community champions of resilience they met ready can think of it in that way.

There are people outside of the community that also build resilience. I remember my first study into this area, I went to four separate communities and every single one of them, I didn’t know that we’re going to do this. I mentioned the Bendigo Bank. And so I gave that feedback back to Bendigo. Bank. So there will be organisations, there’ll be large organisations and large businesses that may well be supporting community resilience, either consciously or otherwise, there’ll be small businesses supporting resilience by operating and providing ways for people to connect with one another. There are NGOs whose business it is to create community resilience, and of course, there’s local council and governments at all levels. So there’s a lot of stakeholders in play. And I guess I would just want to say that how that works, and how interaction happens will vary from place to place.

So I think it’s a really important message to say, understanding resilience is a local issue. One must understand the local community to understand what creates resilience in that place. And of course, I’m talking physical communities, there are all sorts of communities.

6. That’s part of the topic of what we’re talking about today is community resilience are we holding back so how, how are we holding back and who can change that?

This is such a challenging question.

I definitely think we are holding resilience back. I think that people don’t intend to. I have no expectation or understanding that people are intentionally holding to be resilient back. I will probably offend many people by what I’m about to say. I think we hold communities back. Because we think as organisations, and I spent a long time working in government, I think we think in frameworks, we think in policies and procedures, we think in structures, we use a different language. And because we believe what we do works, we get more and more wedded to the way we work.

It’s been quite interesting for me to leave working in large bureaucratic organisations at the Federal Government level, and to step what felt like a cliff and work as an individual in communities on the ground. Now I do work for governments, I do work for NGOs, I do work for local councils and and for other organisations in this field, but I think one of the things I think I offer is that I understand how those organisations work because I’ve worked in them.

But I also understand how communities work. I grew up in one we all belong to a community, but particularly, I particularly draw on the community I grew up in which was in the country, and in a rural community. And they speak a completely different language. It always entertains me when I go to that community, they think I’m from a foreign land, particularly when I worked in government, because the language I would use was just unfathomable. And when I talk to community members now, the language people use when they go out to help in recovery centers or is often unfathomable. Now, it’s really hard to hear that usage. When you’re in an organisation whose entire purpose is to help community resilience. I think we somehow have to be brave enough to ask ourselves – Are we getting this wrong? So many community members tell me if only people were just out of the way, give us what we need. And we’ll do it.


7. Now changing the conversation a little bit. So yourself Chris Quinn and myself were on a webinar recently for the Business Continuity Institute. And we talked about unified resilience. Where does community resilience sit alongside organisational and infrastructure resilience?

It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because I think there’s also, individual resilience. And there’s a whole sector of work on resilience in children and young people and how we build resilience individually. I think they all fit in, in a sort of an interlinked way. I don’t know what sort of shape to suggest, but anyway, they’re all interlinked. And they’re all important. If we don’t have resilient organisations, then we’re not going to deliver resilient infrastructure. If we don’t have resilient infrastructure, we’re not going to have resilient communities. If we don’t, it could just go on and on.

And they’re all really important. And I, I love that we did that conversation together. Because usually it’s more competitive than that. It’s some even if that competition is implied, bit like the programs, everything’s divided and, and funded separately, where in fact, it’s all interlinked.


8. Now I was part of the working group kindly invited to contribute to and comment on a handbook that you’ve been writing for the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience. It’s the Community Engagement Handbook, and anyone listening, I strongly urge you to log on to the AIDR website and have a look at their handbooks. So this new Community Engagement Handbook, who’s it for and what does it say?

Who it’s for was quite a discussion that kept coming up through the development of the handbook and initially we tried to make the handbook something that could be accessible and therefore be written for anybody. Be it someone from business, someone from the community, someone from local council or any level of government, someone in an NGO, anyone. And to some degree, we stuck with that. And we have tried to be inclusive in the development of the handbook.

However, because of the conversation we were having earlier about language. And for other reasons, it was quite challenging to do that. I think the reality is that people in the emergency management in the local council areas those two groups will be possibly the most frequent reader of the handbook or access or the handbook. It would be fantastic if more people access the handbook. I suspect though those are the groups that we ended up shaping it for.



With my final question always…

What 2 things would you like to be done differently in the disaster space?

1.  I was thinking about that and thought, good heavens two things as so much I would like to see change.

And so I think the first thing I would say is moving towards a more holistic look at the situation which we’ve touched on a couple of times in our conversation. I’d like a national way of coordinating and bringing together jurisdictions and the sectors of education transport, land planning, with starting this conversation. All of these different areas need to be somehow connected so that we coordinate and share information, the number of projects that I’m currently doing for one organisation in one of those sectors. And the project result would add value if it was publicly available.

And I keep referring people in one State to another State’s website, because there’s some small business recovery material there. And someone needs to take a much more coordinated look at what’s available. We’re reinventing the wheel over and over and over in different levels in different jurisdictions, and it’s very inefficient. So I would love to see something that brought a holistic perspective to all of the information that’s available.

2. My second would be, we’re not looking at each other. So you can’t see my lovely great hair. I’ve been around a fair while and when I first joined the Commonwealth public service back in the 80s. And there was an entire department that was focused on communities at a federal level. Focused on developing and enhancing they didn’t use resilience at the time as the term but it was the Department of Communities.

I think we need to think about how much money we could save, if that’s your, you know, bailiwick, how much good we could do, how many outcomes we could achieve if we enhanced communities. If there was a way of focusing on developing community leaders supporting community leaders. My vision is to have a network of people across communities all across the city. Australia, not just in relation to having lived and worked in recovery after a disaster, but in relation to sharing educational approaches. There are small business, there are so many areas of our normal kind of daily life that we could enhance if we took the step to invest in communities. I mean, we have a great example at the moment with Steve Pascoe.

Steve is an example of community leadership. He’s now working in Mallacoota, where a section of that community is frustrated, and he’s helping them work out how to drive their own recovery processes. Now, we need to be connecting, strong, trustworthy, capable Community Leaders all over this nation, and then we need to be looking at our youth and developing them. So I would focus on community leadership outside of our sphere of emergencies in general, and ask the question of why are we not having an integrated approach to enhancing communities?

Connect with Dr Margaret Moreton