Encore: How to Create a Rebuild Organization with Charles Brooks
“Be very careful what you promise unless you know you can deliver something. There is enough heartbreak in a disaster that people don’t need to hear that you’re going to solve all their problems, and then you don’t.” –Charles Brooks
The last thing we want to do in a disaster is to create another disaster, that’s why having an organization to help build a system is invaluable. This week, Jennifer interviews Charles Brooks, the Executive Director of Rebuild Paradise Foundation. The Rebuild Paradise Foundation, incubated through the North Valley Community Foundation, is a grassroots movement of Camp Fire survivors and community leaders from the public and private sectors who are dedicated to serving the long-term needs of Butte County’s disaster-affected residents, businesses, and workforce. Founded in January of 2019 under the mentorship of Rebuild Northbay Foundation, this non-profit foundation provides access to resources and helps lower barriers to entry for those repopulating the disaster affected areas. The Rebuild Paradise Foundation is proud to partner with other non-profits, corporate donors, private donors, and government agencies to accomplish our mission.
Charles talks about building a sustainable model- from conceptualizing to framing projects that will serve the community best. We also learn how to measure and reach the target population, leverage resources to get the most impact, work with the public sector, relate your story, and furnish implementation. Emergent leaders are humans too. Hear Charles’ advice on how to avoid crashes and burns and be sustainable in giving. Most importantly, never give up on your dream to get people back to their homes. If you are receiving a chain of rejections to prospect funders, tune in and find out the secret to turning their NO into an ABSOLUTELY YES!
- 01:57: The Building of a Rebuild Org
- 07:50: The Value of Connections
- 12:33: The How of Fundraising
- 21:32: Facing the Hurdles
- 29:01: Develop Relationship with the Public Sector
- 32:17: Telling Your Story
- 40:49: Sustainable Giving
- 45:12: Do You Have a Disaster Buddy?
- 52:12: How to Create a Rebuild Organization
- 56:02: Be Careful What You Promise
Have you ever thought of starting an organization but don’t know where to start and how to keep it going? This week, RebuildNB and Charles Brooks, Founder and Executive Director of Rebuild Paradise Foundation, talk about the why’s and how’s of creating a sustainable rebuild organization. #RecoverRebuild#Reimagine #podcast #wildfire #disaster #nonprofit #rebuildorg #disasterbuddy
11:32: “Emergent leaders are the secret sauce in recovery.” -Jennifer Thompson
20:24: “Supporting another fledgling organization, being there to support and help keep them moving is invaluable.” -Charles Brooks
28:33: “Never underestimate the value of having relationships with your public sector.” –Jennifer Thompson
30:34: “Everybody from organizations and government has to be rowing in the same direction to be able to accomplish big things.” -Charles Brooks
41:54: “As much as you want to constantly give, you have to figure out where you can be successful in giving. If you always show up and don’t find a place to commit, you’re going to be always running in different directions.” -Charles Brooks
48:31: “There are things that are going on that you’re working on, that have a larger impact than you realize.” -Charles Brooks
52:39: “Start paying attention and start seeing who else is doing this work. Because the last thing you want to do is be doing the exact same thing as another organization that is operating in the same space”. -Charles Brooks
54:29: “Don’t just find people that you like, find people that are going to get work done, that do good work in the community, and that you can have a mutually respectful relationship working with.” –Charles Brooks
57:49: “Be very careful what you promise unless you know you can deliver something. There is enough heartbreak in a disaster that people don’t need to hear that you’re going to solve all their problems, and then you don’t.” –Charles Brooks
58:27: “The three types of people who show up post-disaster are those who want to defraud you, those who want to sell you something, and those who want to help you.” –Jennifer Thompson
Charles Brooks is a graduate of CSU Chico with a degree in Business Administration. Charles and his wife Jennifer have been Paradise Residents since 2004 and Butte County since 1998. Charles has always had a heart for service. He is an Eagle Scout and has been involved in several volunteer civic organizations including; Boy Scouts of America Students in Free Enterprise, Butte County Search & Rescue, Paradise Citizens’ Alliance, and coached his boys’ soccer teams for many years. Founding Rebuild Paradise was an easy choice and necessary step to assist the Butte County community recover in a meaningful way over the many years to come.
Connect with Rebuild Paradise Foundation:
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to How To Disaster, a playbook to recover, rebuild and reimagine. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I am the Executive Director of ReBuild North Bay Foundation. It is my pleasure and honor to introduce you to Charles Brooks, Executive Director of Rebuild Paradise Foundation. Welcome, Charles.
Charles Brooks: Hi, Jennifer. Thanks for having me.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m so glad to have you. Because for me, this is a very special podcast, you’re like my zastrow brother from another mother. We’ve had quite a few years together now. I think it was November 20, 2018, the first time that we met. So first, I want to talk a little bit about Rebuild Paradise Foundation, including when you were started, what’s your mission and vision, and a couple of your programs. And then I want to go back to the origin story of how it is that we came to meet, and then we will return more to what you’re doing as far as programming is concerned. Does that sound okay?
Charles Brooks: Sounds great.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay, so tell us about Rebuild Paradise Foundation.
Charles Brooks: Well, Rebuild Paradise Foundation started shortly after the campfire, which affected Butte County in 2018. It was and is today the most destructive wildfire in California history in terms of number structures lost, a number of lives lost in a wildfire. It consumed almost 19,000 structures in a little over a day and a half in our county, and it ended up being about 14% of the housing stock for the entire county. So it was out of that, that I realized that I needed to do something to see our community come back. And there was nothing else to do but to help in some way. Trying to figure out what that was going to be and how we could do something meaningful that captured the goodwill, the philanthropy and the resources that were pouring into our community immediately after the disaster from around the world, and getting that to hold for a long period of time is kind of where my mindset went. So that really was the initial thoughts behind getting that started. And then of course, you came into the picture as I was having those crazy thoughts in my mind, like how am I going to do something? And then from there, it was a lot of mentorship and a lot of work with trusted advisors taking this idea and incubating it to a point where it became an actual organization.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because it’s one thing to just have an idea but to actually do a startup after an unprecedented natural disaster in a new model too is really quite a challenge. And our fires are so different now. And one of the things that the listeners may not know is that until the campfire, the wildfires that we were created for which was October of 2017 wildfires for Napa, Sonoma Lake and Mendocino, at that point, we were the largest, most destructive wildfire. And 13 months later came the campfire and the question of whether or not this could get any worse, or whether or not this would continue to happen was answered. That’s how you came to be now. One of the things that really motivated you is not only was Paradise your home, but you lost your home in the fire. Can you talk about that?
Charles Brooks: Yeah. We had lived in the house that we lost for 11 years prior to the campfire. And that was going to be the house that we were going to raise our kids, and they go to high school, and then we figure out what we’re gonna do with our life at that point. But it was this great piece of property, it was an old home from the 70’s that we worked on good bones just needed a lot of help, and we were working at that, and it was this ideal piece of property that we loved being at. And we have this saying or on the our welcome sign used to say, welcome to Paradise may you find it to be all its name implies, and our property really felt like that to me it was the one place place where I could truly relax when I walked in and sat down on the back deck or sat with my family. So there’s a lot of connection to a home and to a community that developed living there. We have lived there in Paradise for almost 15 years.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So tell us about the mission and vision of Rebuild Paradise and a couple of your programs.
Charles Brooks: Okay. So the mission of Rebuild Paradise is to provide long term disaster support for the disaster affected residents, businesses and workforce in Butte County. Heavily focused on the campfire right now. We unfortunately have had another disaster with the North Complex Bear Fire this year to where another one of our communities lost almost 2,000 structures. So that we’re evaluating tucking that into our programs as they start to go from disaster response to long term recovery. Seeing if we have the ability and the bandwidth and capacity to take on that as well. So we’re really focused on supporting the residents, businesses and workforce within the community. Right now, our heavy focus is on residents because commercial survived more than our residential structures did. So the need to get houses back for people that are displaced for workforce housing, and also to support the current businesses that are there is paramount. So most of the services, nearly all the services that we’ve developed to date is to support residents coming back and lowering barriers to entry.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay, I love that. Okay, when I’m listening to you, it occurs to me that I want to make sure that the listeners have an overall vision of what you do and what Rebuild Paradise Foundation is. I wanted to begin at the beginning. So November 20 of 2018, somebody reached out to me, Martha Miller, who was mutual, she’s an acquaintance of mine and a friend that you went to college with. She said, I have this friend who wants to help, would you mind connecting with him because I know you’re on your way up to Paradise. Now, when I saw the plumes of smoke on November 8 rise up, we can see that from Sonoma County, we’re actually doing a groundbreaking that morning. We looked up and we saw this huge plume of smoke, and you’re pretty far away, you’re about three hours from me. And that’s when we started learning about what was happening in your community. So devastating. So seeing that, I felt really strongly that if we could be of any service to your community, then that’s what I wanted to do. If nothing else, just say, Hey, we just went through this. I don’t really know if we can be of help, but we’re here for you. So we, you and I connected. And then the first thing I did say is: “Why don’t you come into this meeting with the Mayor Jody Jones and the Town Manager Lauren Gill. So pick it up from there, how did that go?
Charles Brooks: To say that was uncomfortable would be an understatement. So yes, I am grateful for the connections that led to you and I meeting, and you to become my disaster sister from another Mister, does that work?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Works for me.
Charles Brooks: So you and I had one or two phone calls. You were coming up to the area, and I’d researched your model a little bit, still major in recovery brain, fire brain, like kind of half there, I guess right after the disaster, your brain, you’re trying everything you can to just focus and it’s really, really difficult. But then you and I meet and we have like two minutes on a bench sitting before in an old municipal building, like the most uncomfortable bench seats possible. And then we get invited into this office, and here is the Mayor and the Town Manager completely exhausted. They’ve been working 12 days straight, basically 24 hours a day.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And had lost their homes too.
Charles Brooks: Yeah. They’re just looking at you and they have no idea who I am. I had interacted with Lauren on another project, but not in a closed context. There was no expectation that she even knew who I was, and then you were describing the process about, hey, we’re not here to sell you anything. We just want to help. We learned a lot out of Santa Rosa and out of Sonoma County. I’m here as a resource for you, and also Charles is going to be here to help you through this. I wear a heart rate monitor, I have a watch, my fitness watch, a heart rate monitor. When we got out of that meeting, I went back and looked because I was dead nervous. It was so uncomfortable. I looked back and my heart rate was like 130 when you said it was right around that time and during that short meeting. I thought, now, I’m expected to do something. These ideas that I had, and I talked to you about and talked to a few close people about starting this organization. Well, you were the encouragement whether I wanted or not that now we got to perform.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Your eyes are like saucers during that meeting. And then after, when you’re sitting on the bench again, and you were still taking notes, I walked out. My sister was with me too, and I walked out. We got into the car, I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, I hope he’s gonna be able to do it, but I don’t know. Can you tell us, I love this part. I know that you give me a little bit of grief for always bringing it up, but I do think it’s a really important point about emergent leadership. What did you do before you took this on?
Charles Brooks: I was a sales manager for a reusable bag company. So I basically sold reusable bags to grocers in the Western United States. It’s not uncommon for me to be in a meeting and be presenting to people, talking with people. I’m usually like, totally calm in those situations. But when you said those words to a Town Manager and to the Mayor, it literally put me in super uncomfortable mode. But that’s where growth happens, right? Being uncomfortable and getting out over your skis a little bit, and trying to figure out what the heck you’re doing, sticking to a plan and going for it. And yeah, so thank you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, isn’t that funny that I could visit such discomfort upon you, and you’d be like, thank you. So thank you for taking up the mantle and being willing to do it. Because really, no matter what I said in that meeting, you could have gone back to your life and just said, I don’t have the capacity to do this. And for a lot of people, it’s not possible. But one of the things in all of our community to community work, and one of the goals of this podcast is to really help people understand that emergent leaders are the secret sauce in recovery. And it’s great if you, it doesn’t mean that FEMA or people who you know have a PhD in disaster recovery aren’t super useful because they can be and they are. But if you don’t have community emergent leadership carrying or picking up this other side of it, in my opinion, you’re not going to recover successfully. So here’s what I like to talk about now. What were the first six months after your fire? What was that like? Because there’s a trauma aspect to it too. You’ve lost your home, you’ve had to relocate to Chico. You have two young sons, and your wife, and your dog Ranger. I think that sometimes people see where you are now. And Rebuild Paradise is so successful that you just went nonprofit of the Year for your state senate district so I just want to say that. What you’ve accomplished in two years has been super impressive, but it comes in stages. So what were the first six months like?
Charles Brooks: Personally, it was a very, very difficult time trying to recover, let it sink in what’s happened to your whole world, and that your entire life, your loved ones are safe, but everything that you’ve worked for is reduced down to two bags of clothes. And you know, you’ve got your family. So thankfully, you have the loved ones in your life. But now, it’s completely starting over. It’s navigating insurance, understanding debris removal, looking at the home that it was more than a house, going through that, seeing that and starting to navigate all that. And for me, I threw myself back into work right away because I needed to be busy. And then you have all this other stuff, you have to deal with the side that’s part of recovery, and also trying to figure out ways to do good and identify gaps for your organization to have meaning. Starting an organization, starting a 501c3 can be really challenging.
So while working and then discovering what do we have to do to get a 501c3 off the ground, we need a Fiscal sponsor. Well, how do I find the Fiscal sponsor to start doing some research on who has the capacity to do that in our area, all the nonprofits were overtaxed immediately during the disaster. But I reached out to North Valley Community Foundation, in a typical scenario, they have the ability to incubate new organizations and take on Fiscal Sponsorship, but now they’re trying to manage all the incoming philanthropy and basically be the hub for disaster recovery. They started the long term recovery group out of their organization. So I’m emailing them and submitting requests like, how come nobody won’t call me back? How come nobody won’t call me back? I don’t get this. I’ve got this great idea. We want to do something, we want to be supportive. And I walked into their office in mid December because nobody was calling me back, and I opened the door and there’s literally papers flying through the air. They’re people running around with phones ringing off the hook, and boxes, and clothes, stuff everywhere. And I got it. They were the hub. There was a place where people went with big donations and people wanted to send them clothes, and they couldn’t take clothes because they’re not designed. They don’t have warehouse space. They were just inundated and having to staff up so fast to support this, to figure out how they can support this need.
And then finally, after way back and said to the person in front, I said: “If there’s anybody that can just call me back, I don’t need a lot of time, I just need to see if this is something you can do.” I got through to somebody there and ended up making an amazing connection, and this gentleman Bill Hubbard there, and I have been really close afterwards. He helped us through that transition period until we could be a standalone 501c3. So during that time, I’m working regularly, my work was being totally flexible and saying: “Look, we know you need to do this, just get your work done.” But I still had a travel schedule for work so I’m flying to Los Angeles. That first time, I flew and left home, and left the ground at Sacramento Airport. I literally, if I could have turned that plane around without going to federal prison, I would have turned that plane around. Because for the first time in my life, I did not want to go anywhere. All I wanted to do was be as close as possible to home, and I realized that this is absolutely what I must do. I just have to figure out how to help the community. So over those six months for getting a Board of Directors together, starting to develop project ideas, starting to fundraise, and that’s another challenge. When you’re a new organization, you’re standing up fundraising is very difficult. When you’re trying to operate under another 501c3 and getting large donors interested in what you’re doing but you haven’t proven yourself, that is a huge hurdle. Once we got our 501c3, a whole bunch of doors opened up. So fundraising to be able to support projects, being able to just develop a presence, how are we going to raise money to be able to build a website, to do the outreach that we need, just do the simple things.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: A little bit different model too, which is one of the things that is always a barrier to entry is, if it hasn’t been done a whole bunch of times before, and if it’s not based in social equity, it’s hard for people to understand. It’s easier to give your money to something that is, you know, I like dogs too, I would like to give all the money and have all the dogs. Some things are easier than other things to decide to fund. So how did you frame that conversation to your potential funders, because I know, I sat next to you and you were talking to the Red Cross one day and you did a great job. So what advice would you give about that?
Charles Brooks: We were looking for the gaps, and this kind of frames an answer for you. So as we were developing our organization, we’re participating in the long term recovery group. We realized early on that our area that we’re probably going to be able to have, based on our experience between our board, or advisors, myself, the area where we could probably participate the most in the recovery and do the most good is around the housing space, and helping people get back to housing in whatever capacity that look like. So we started participating with the long term recovery group, housing committee meetings and some others, and that’s where we really started to see the gaps. And by identifying those gaps and developing projects that specifically target those gaps, it was a lot easier to have conversations with potential funders. With the programs that we are developing, we anticipate to meet this need that has shown itself in the community. This is how we’re going to do it, and this is how many people we’re going to impact. Because that’s the number one thing that major funders, whether it’s American Red Cross is pulling in other donor dollars who’s then redistributing that to organizations who will make the end goal happen, or whether it’s somebody like the Butte Strong Fund through North Valley Community Foundation, same thing. They need the partners on the ground that are going to do the work, we wanted to do that work. So how do we frame these projects as something? What is the deliverable? How many people are we going to impact? How are we going to leverage those dollars to have the most impact. We do that in a number of ways through technology and also through attacking barriers to entry for just getting to being able to rebuild. A lot of the hurdles that come up prior to that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you talk about a few of your innovative programs. I do want to interject here and say that, although we provided mentorship to Charles, we were not able to provide funding because our funds had to be used in North Bay. So they have nothing to do with your total success and finding funding. Full credit absolutely goes to you. But you talk about some of your programs. Because one of the things I love about a rebuild model is it’s highly adaptive, it’s not prescriptive. What’s going to work in Paradise is not necessarily what’s going to work perfectly in another community. But there are elements where I think that you, I know that you are really innovative, and I do believe it. Some of your programs are absolutely scalable to other areas.
Charles Brooks: Sure. I would say that while you weren’t able to provide funding, one of the things that I really, really focused on early was when you said your disaster is completely different from ours. So what works for us may not work for you, but I’m happy to share with you what has worked. But the other thing that you were able to do is when I was having not as much confidence in my abilities or what we were trying to do as a mentor does, you came alongside me and said: “Hey, you’re on the right path, and you provided a tremendous amount of support in that area.” So at that point, funding wouldn’t have mattered because now, you gave me and us the confidence to move forward to be able to attract the funders that we needed to. So just know that that’s really important. So if anybody listening to this is in that role where they’re supporting another fledgling organization, just being there to support and help, keep them moving is invaluable. As far as our projects go, we, Paradise had some unique challenges that popped up in getting to construction. Many communities will face similar things, but we identified some of those hurdles as not only cost hurdles, but mental hurdles. So if we can provide support in the form of grants, in money, but also in solving, not really solving some of the problems, but giving people the tools to get further down the line that it will help them mentally as well as in cost, or as well as financially. Because in a disaster, you have disaster economics, and most people are under insured because they don’t really pay attention to insurance. It’s not fun, it’s not interesting to sit down with your insurance agent every six months up your premium, nobody wants to do that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: On a personal note, I do want to say that I often think of your story that your insurance person is somebody you knew personally, and he had insisted about what it was like three months before the fire that you change your insurance policy.
Charles Brooks: Yeah, it was in May of 2018 that I sat down for our annual review. I was like, Oh, great. Here, my buddy is gonna try and get me for a couple more dollars. But I really listened because he said: “This is what we learned out of Santa Rosa.” So I really, really listened. I’m grateful to this day that we had that conversation, and we added an extra $200 a year to our policy,because it helped us recover better than we would have not had that adjustment. We still would have recovered, but the picture would look different. And so I’m a big fan of insurance. I’m not here to promote any insurance companies or anything like that. But look at your insurance policy, and really pay attention because the inevitable could happen to you. So we’re focused on pre construction hurdles, and things like in our area, access to water, getting a backflow device, and everybody in the town of Paradise has to have their property surveyed. Well, that’s anywhere from 1,000 to $9,000 to have your property surveyed, depending on the complexity if it’s ever recorded with the county, a whole bunch of things. And then also people are going to have to design a home, so you’ve got architecture and engineering. So we started kind of cluing into those first couple hurdles that people have to get to before they can put any money into a rebuild.
We developed our first grants program really focused on a population of the community, we call the missing middle. So middle class, lower middle class, typically above subsidized housing level but below being able to afford market rate housing, the type of people that never asked for a handout, never asked for any help, they just go to work every day, service workers, teachers, frontline workers, the people who just typically go to work every day have never asked for anything. So we really are trying to champion this population of the missing middle. And when we looked at the demographics, almost 40% of our community, in the town of Paradise met this criteria. We said, let’s see how we can incorporate this demographic. And it really hit home with some of our funders, they really got it and we were able to describe that demographic. So while we were developing this grants program, I’d always had this idea since we started designing our own home, how much of a mental exercise it is? How challenging is it? How could we help people with floor plans? So my first thought is, I’m just gonna ask my architect, would he give my floor plans to other people who lost their home? He’s like, well, it doesn’t really work like that. And he said: “I could, but there’s all these things that you have to do to make a floor plan work on somebody else’s property. I can’t just take your home design, your foundation design and plop it on the next door neighbor’s lawn. Because their topography is different. There’s all these other things.” So from that, we started talking about what would it take to get floor plans to work for other people’s property.
And after months of working with different architects and engineers, we finally put together this plan for a floor plan library. We wrap that into our missing middle grants program with this kind of Holy Trinity idea of, if we can get somebody access to floor plans that are so low cost that our grants program would cover that little bit of a cost to create a site plan, and somebody had their water and survey paid for, that’s like three of the major hurdles. So now, you can put your money into your house, and it was kind of that thought of how do we knock each one of these out. And then we develop this floor plan library, take floor plans through master planning with the town and county which saves time. Now, you can get a permit in like two to three weeks because it has been approved, opposed to two to three months of a typical custom home. So you’re saving people time, you’re saving them money, and their permit fees are reduced because you’re using masterplan. So hey, this is gonna work.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So I have to interject and say, taking an idea of how to provide that sort of relief and then actually making it happen, that’s a process and that is difficult. It means that you have to work really well with your public sector. So can you just speak a little bit to how you had to develop those relationships in order to even get a program like your library off the ground?
Charles Brooks: Yes. And this is going to speak to the value of a long term recovery group or a collaborative or after a disaster, community organizations coming together in a space that allows them to cross collaborate, and to have meetings identified by certain needs, housing, shelter, spiritual and emotional wellness. There’s a whole gamut of basically committees that come together. And so by participating in those committees, and being very focused on making sure that you’re attending those community meetings, and being a part of that is really, really critical because that’s where I started to develop the relationships with county officials and town officials that were coming to these meetings to represent what the municipalities were doing. So that’s where I had a chance to meet the chief building officer, the person who’s in charge of development services, which is where the county reviews floor plans, looks at permits and stuff like that. So making those relationships in your county supervisors in your town council members, and making those relationships, and letting them know that this is what our plan is. Then when you go in to start asking questions, they know you and they’re willing to work with you. And so we built those relationships across both municipalities. And then when we wanted to take this floor plan library idea forward, now, we’re having meetings with the chief building official and saying, this is how we plan to move forward, how can we work best with your staff to see that it’s functional? Because we don’t want to just dump a burden on you, we want you to be part of the process. And so in that, we’re now hosting meetings with the design community, and also the county and the town. So now, we’re having roundtable discussions about how to improve the process overall that isn’t even affecting our floor plan library, it’s affecting everybody in the disaster because we’re trying to improve the permitting process. It’s a little bit into the weeds–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: No, I actually, those are the weeds that I’m looking for because the podcast is called How To Disaster. And we’re hoping that before we have a disaster, people might be able to pick up parts of this series. But also, after you have one and certain things, you’re not going to be ready for all the information. But other things you might be ready, and somebody could be looking at their town, like in town Phoenix with the Alameda Fire where they’re, I think that there’s certain things that you’ve done that they could adapt really well to their town. But some of the key things like, actually listening and figuring out what the gaps are, and never underestimate the value of having relationships with your public sector, it’s just really important for them to spear public sector to be open to it and to say, okay, you’re not going to be a burden on it because that’s one of the things that they fear is you’re going to put more work on them. So did you run into that at all?
Charles Brooks: Yes. And it was you sharing that initially, and then just being aware of the way that they reacted during conversation. So having that social awareness of body language, and about how people are acting in meetings and seeing that when you bring up an idea, and all sudden, you can see people kind of backing up, and you can see them kind of looking around like, oh, no, this is going to be a lot, but you circle back with, how can we make this to not be any more burdensome on you? Because now, you’ve got a staff of one size of municipality, that typically, they can’t staff up for a disaster. They don’t have the budget to start. All of a sudden, hiring people to take over things, especially when a good majority of your community has been impacted. So now, what else am I going to do? So trying to present these ideas and thinking about how much can we leverage philanthropy, our own knowledge and our own capacity to not put more work on them, and we’ve developed some incredible relationships with our county and also with our town government to where we’re a trusted partner that they’re willing to work with, and give information to, and to trust to do good things that are going to benefit the community. And then you find that staff actually go to bat for you to go out and get a little bit of grant funding that helps pay for master plan approvals that you’re going to have to go to philanthropy for all the town who went out and found a little bit of that, to help that process go that much smoother because they believe in what you’re doing. And so the relationship with the government is so important, it can’t be adversarial. And everybody from organizations and government have to be rowing in the same direction to be able to accomplish big things.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because after all, enough disaster to go around. And I think that one of the things that people run into, and we’ve just seen this repeatedly is you have a disaster in the public sector who are also undergoing trauma are expected to fix all the problems that we’re already attending to. And at the same time, deal with this massive, unprecedented disaster. So they naturally start to become more contracted into themselves. They can be more defensive initially, because also the public often takes their trauma out on the public officials because they have to stand up before the public and listen to them. So we like to always advise that you actually can’t get these things done without relationships in the public sector. I just don’t see how it’s possible.
Charles Brooks: I would agree.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And on that note, actually, I’d forgotten that we could talk about this. But one of the things that we did together was, and speaking of the public sector, we shared our advocacy model with you, and I was very proud. There was this moment a little over a year ago, a year and three weeks ago where we were sitting in the speaker of the houses chambers in DC, and you were there and you were talking to Speaker Pelosi about some of the challenges. And then we also had representatives from Paradise who met with the Republican Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy at the same trip. And the day before we met with all of the agencies, you were able to speak very eloquently about some of the challenges in Paradise. Can you talk about that trip a little bit.
Charles Brooks: That was definitely one of those Jennifer’s pushing me outside my comfort zone. But I know this is going to be good, because never in my life did I think that I would ever be doing anything. I didn’t even understand the term advocacy until I’ve learned from your model, and the value that it can bring to a community. But having the opportunity to take our community’s message to the federal level and directly speak to agencies and organizations that were going to affect the outcome of our recovery, and other communities like ours, we went as a group of disaster affected Northern California counties that were all facing similar challenges. So leading up to that trip, it was meetings with leadership at the town level, and also at the county level to understand what are the three top priorities that, when we meet with HUD, we meet with FEMA, and we meet with elected officials, what do you want us to support showing that kind of private and public partnership of, we’re going to go there and we’re going to amplify the message and the needs of our community. And then also share a couple of the true life stories of what we’re going through. And to have the ability to sit down and connect with lawmakers who you only see on TV, or you see their name as a byline in a news article was really meaningful, and to be able to share the stories of the community and have it make an impact to where staffers after you get back are reaching out because they want data, they want details, they want to know how a particular piece of legislation or a challenge that we’re facing might be, they might be able to tackle that, coming legislation.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And one of the things I really loved about that trip is that you all were able to talk about more eloquently than we had actually, the issue of tree removal. And so much of the Federal administration’s response to disaster is based on wind and rain events, and it’s not actually based on wildfires. Can you talk a little bit about the impact of being able to carry that message forward about the dire necessity to fund tree removal?
Charles Brooks: Yes. And for a little piece of perspective, after the campfire, it was estimated in Paradise alone that there were 750,000 to a million trees that were dead or dying. And we’re talking about big trees, 150 foot tall Ponderosa Pines, gorgeous trees that are all burnt to a crisp that are now standing upright, that in heavy winds will fall on either a house that’s being rebuilt, or a standing home, one of the 7% of the standing homes we had left in the town. And that was a huge part of the recovery that we needed to solve. And up until then, FEMA did not include tree removal. They included debris removal.
So getting rid of the debris from a house that it’s burned down, but trees were not part of it. It took months and months of focused effort between our fire safe council, our town, our county governments, or state officials, or federal officials, and our efforts of going to FEMA. Going there and saying that the number one priority in our community right now is trees, because these trees in another year are going to fall on people, they’re going to fall on houses being rebuilt, they’re going to block roads and they’re going to kill people. This needs to be part of disaster recovery. That was the one of the most unified messages that has come out of our disaster, trees. And now, the FEMA handbook has, I forget what page number it is. But now, communities that meet criteria and disaster can have tree removal as part of that. Because everybody was rolling in the same direction, and the connections that were made at the local state and federal level, everybody was pushing on this issue together. Community organizations, individual community members, nonprofits, local government, county government, state and federal officials are all realizing that this has to happen. And enough pressure was applied. What once was a NO became a YES. And try to move it just started two years later, it just started last week.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, my God, oh, congratulations. That’s awesome. What I love about it too is that anything that amplifies or helps people as they move forward, you were able to help your own community. But one of the things I love most about is you actually change what recovery will look like for a newly fire affected community. In fact, Sonoma County’s also, yet again, every year, a newly fire affected community. And now, Butte too, not in Butte County, but the Bear Creek Fire, they’re going to have an easier time because of the efforts that you put forth. And those people are accessible to you. I wasn’t anybody special necessarily. I mean, we have connected board members, but advocacy, we feel has to be a part of every community’s recovery and rebuilds. Because if you don’t advocate for yourself, and part of that cross collaboration of sectors is a really important part of it, but no one’s going to go on your behalf if you don’t call out what the problems are, and where the improvements can be made in our experience. And I think that we were all in that one head meeting together where the woman who was leading it said: “We love this model, we love that there are foundations at the table. There’s the private sector, there’s the public sector and it’s regional, this is exactly the kind of model that you should be using.” So I really was so pleased by that experience, I applaud you for making such a big difference. And tree removal seems simple, but it’s really important.
Charles Brooks: I’ve taken your introduction to advocacy, and I adapt that word advocacy to so many other parts. From an individual advocating for them and their family. It was a term that was not in my regular use. But now, it’s applicable in so many different parts of disaster, not just on the legislation and federal and state level advocacy, but on the individual, working with your insurance companies, all the way throughout disaster advocating for your street, your neighborhood, your community, those things. Advocating with your local supervisor, there’s so much to that. I’m so grateful that that was introduced to us and brought to our attention. Because now, I look forward to a post COVID world where we can take our next set of challenges as disaster affected Northern California in fire affected communities as well as Paradise saying, this is what’s important. And these are the pieces of legislation, they’re gonna make a difference.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that it’s really important that you’re not just showing up to complain, you’re really actually showing up saying, we will work with you and provide the data. To say, this policy change makes sense, it will save lives and will work with you all the way through. So I think that that’s really important. I do think that one of the things that gets in the way for many people is they just hear the term lobbyists. What they don’t see is that everyone has a lobbyists. If you donate to the ACLU, they have a lobbyist. If you’re on the NRA, they have lobbyists. But there’s also, lobbying can be for good. And lobbying is really about advocating for what your community needs and making changes that will actually change the trajectory of how you recover and rebuild. I’m so glad that we were able to introduce you to that. I do want to say, on a side note, that every nonprofit needs to keep their advocacy and lobbying below 20%, that includes perceived impact. So we keep ours between 2 and 5% of our resources. Just as a side note, I do talk to a nonprofit attorney. We are not attorneys, we do not give legal advice, but I do want to flag that that isn’t a necessity to stay in line with the IRS. So one of the things, let’s see, can you talk about some of the changes and challenges without being too, I don’t mean to crawl into your personal life too much, but I know that my experience in my own family that, and I don’t think it’s unusual at all that you have this disaster,. It happens, it’s very traumatizing, like it rebuilds, we don’t even hire people who didn’t experience the disaster because you can’t explain what it’s like if someone’s never been through it. But if you decide to become of service to recovery in the disaster, there are certain things that I think that I’m sure you’ve learned in two years. And I’ve learned in three years, because I’m only a year ahead of you, that finding the balance, dealing with the trauma, and then also being a constant service to disaster over a long period of time requires strategies. Can you talk a little bit about your own personal journey through that?
Charles Brooks: Yes, and that is something that whether you’re standing up in leadership, we’re having this conversation about this model and about how to disaster. But even on an individual level, there’s so much to do that you have to find a pace that is tolerable. In the beginning, you’re just trying to get everything done. You got notebooks, you got paper, stuff flying all over the place, you’re really trying to get everything done because you feel like there’s just this impending time limit that it just has to be done. And there are certain things that have to be met. But once those things are met, you get through that initial rush. It’s like, okay, what can I sustainably do? What pace can I keep this going? Because you’re gonna find times where you push, and push, and push. And all of a sudden, things in your life, health and other things start becoming affected because you’ve just gone too far. You can look at other parallels in your life that you might have experienced before where you do that. But when you’re trying to deal with trauma at the same time, it only exaggerates that.
So as much as you want to constantly give, and you have to figure out where you can be successful in giving instead of just always showing up. Because if you always show up and you don’t find a place to kind of commit and stick a flag in the sand, you’re just going to be scattered, always running in different directions. You’re going to see the next thing that you can jump in, and, oh, I may know how to do that. Or I could go and I could give that person $50, but I just took an hour and a half away from my mission and my focus of trying to do this larger thing because I know that I can do that, I can help. I do this a lot in conversations with people who are working to access our grants or floor plan library, they started asking me questions about other parts of their recovery. And I could spend two hours on the phone with them going through that. But I know that there’s people that are better equipped to help them with those types of questions, even though I know I could be of service to them. God knows I want to be a service, but I’m just now taking two hours away from forwarding on and getting another floorplan into the library that can help 100 households. And so I kind of have to get that mindset. It’s hard to deal with sometimes because you want to help everybody. But at the same time, you need to focus, and then you need to find this pace that you can work within and take time to figure out what recharges your batteries.
So I now don’t do any social media on the weekends. I won’t take in any social media on the weekends. Because what I was finding, it was affecting my ability to focus on work and family. So if I was doing it on the weekends, it was definitely affecting family life because I was caught up in what was going on at work and how social media affects the things that are going on that I need to focus on for work. And now, I’m taking time away from the people that are most important in my world, which is my direct family. So I’m learning the boundaries. I’m still learning to this day because we have these seasons where we go through and we’re super busy 10, 12 hour a day. You realize, I can’t keep this up forever because I couldn’t help my kids with their homework or take care of that responsibility. I’m making shortcuts at home just trying to get by instead of doing the things that I need to be a responsible parent. So just find that pace. And that’s a lot of examples. But at the same time, it’s all about finding your pace that you can deal with and then figuring out ways to recharge your batteries so you can keep going.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think those examples are really important. I think that we’ve both seen people crash and burn post disaster because one of the things that heals our trauma is helping. If you go too far, then you’re actually, you’re not useful anymore. I’ve seen several people from our community. Some people have managed to do it, several people have not managed to stay in the helping game and some have had issues with substance abuse or have gotten very ill. And these are wonderful human beings who can no longer be of service because they just ran themselves straight into the ground, or they imploded in some ways. So helping the helpers are happy, having to figure that out. I know that it’s certainly been a journey for me. We’ve had a lot of conversations about that. And we’re just figuring out like meditation breathing, you’re a runner. So I’m sure that that’s helped you somewhat too.
Charles Brooks: Yeah. I’ve gotten a lot of frustrations and a lot of challenges out on the long run. But then I will say the other thing, whether you’re recovering personally, or whether you’re in a role in disaster recovery, having a disaster, buddy, so what I call them, you’re one of my disaster buddies that I can call when I don’t know what to do. I’m basically at the end of my mental bandwidth. I need to talk to somebody who gets it, or somebody that can step in and give me a little bit of a nudge, one direction or another. And when you’re recovering individually, that person needs to be a non trauma affected person that can help you through things that you just don’t have the ability to take on at that time. But in our world, and in our roles, having somebody that you can call who gets it is so helpful. You can share my contact information. If there’s somebody out there who’s in this world that just wants to chat for half an hour about what’s going on in their world, happy to listen because it’s so helpful to have that ability to have that conversation.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I really appreciate that last year, I had a couple of incidents that were pretty tough, and it made me question my sanity in doing this work and doing public work. I know that our phone calls, you’d be like, your Jennifer Gray Thompson. Yeah, that was like, okay, I could roll you in my head later. Although, yes, I mentored you for the first year, I’ve really valued the last year. I mean, all of it totally. But really, you gave me a ton of help last year, and I just want to really thank you for that. I totally agree on the disaster buddies, you need your people to carry you through. I do want to touch on one thing, because not everybody’s had this experience so far, but being value added, and I’m not required to say this at all, but bringing Fannie Mae to your community, I remember like meeting them really early in Santa Rosa for breakfast, and they were on their way up to Paradise, like, what do we need to know? And it was Tim and Michael. Can you talk a little bit about why, investment in people, investment in community, emotional and fiscal has made a difference, especially in that strange market that people don’t really think about which is the mortgage underwriters, and how to build the momentum so that people will build back in the community like paradise, especially when they had a number of manufactured and mobile homes in it.
Charles Brooks: I’ll start with the fact that, when I heard that two people from Fannie Mae were coming to see me that wanted a meeting, I was like, why does a mortgage company or like a mortgage underwriter, I didn’t even really know, I just knew the name Fannie Mae, like it was just something that was out there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: By the way, same exactly for me. And then they showed up and I was like–
Charles Brooks: I was like, why? I didn’t get it. And then they came in, and two of the nicest people I’ve met, sat and we talked for like three hours about the campfire, what had happened, what are some of the challenges that we’re seeing right now? And they said: “Hey, we’re part of the Disaster Response Network in Fannie Mae. We just want you to know that we’re here to help. So as you see these challenges, let us know, because there are things that are going on that you’re working on that have a larger impact than you realize. And the importance of stable home ownership, we always kind of understood it.” But they put it in a context that helps you understand the work that you’re doing, and provides more than you may realize in that path. And then they also were able to support some of those projects. There might be a part of the project that’s tough to figure out, how am I going to fund this? Who’s really going to understand this component and the impact that it has on it? And they’re able to see how that directly affects stable housing. So it was an opportunity to partner with somebody, at least for us, were able to partner. They saw the vision of the floor plan library before any other funders did. And they said: “We get it. This makes sense. This helps people get back into homes, so we want to be one of the first people to support the idea.” And that allowed us to take it further. And it was because two people sat and listened, and paid attention to what our challenges were, and saw an opportunity what they can do can help. And that’s really how I see Fannie Mae as a partner that just looks for ways to support and to help, and to help get stable housing back to the community. And ultimately, that means mortgages as part of their world, but they didn’t come at it from a perspective of, we need to get more mortgages so they can help us. We recognize that disaster has a huge impact on a community, and safe and stable housing affects people across the entire spectrum. From renters all the way through to homeowners. And how can we help?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I totally agree. I always feel pleased because I had the same reaction with you. When they first wanted to come here, I was like, why? And then after I’d spent the day with them, I went, okay, I think I get it. But I don’t even think that I understood completely the value that they would bring to it. They don’t do grants, they can do scope of work. They can do some sponsorships, but they don’t even do it. So they’re asking for an actual return on their investment. I know that they are underwriting some of the work that I’m doing with other communities right now. Just wanted to give them a shout out, because I know that they also work to underwrite the first five mortgages for Paradise to make sure that other lenders and other backers would then come along. I really appreciate them, and I appreciate how good your relationship with them. It’s completely separate from me is the design for every newly disaster affected community.
Charles Brooks: They’re amazing people.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So what would be, in brief, which is difficult, and we will put all your contact information, social media and LinkedIn in the second slide as part of this podcast. But we strongly believe in the model of Rebuild. One of the things that I love so much that I feel quite proud in some ways, you are proof of concept, even more so than we are because we were the first Rebuild, and Rebuild can have many different names. It doesn’t have to be Rebuild Paradise or ReBuild North Bay, but that sort of long term recovery model that is not a social equity organization. But certainly from your actions, you have increased social equity in your area. What would be your first bits of advice to somebody who’s just experienced a disaster, and they too want to step up and maybe create something like us, or like you to benefit their community. And also include in their piece, how you chose your board.
Charles Brooks: Okay, I would start with, as soon as possible, find the collaborative space where organizations are meeting to talk about the needs of the community. Whether it’s immediate disaster response, whether it’s short term. Then the groups that are meeting to talk about long term solutions for the recovery of your community, get involved and start paying attention . And meeting people in networking, you’ve got to get out there and start seeing who else is doing this work. Because the last thing you want to do is be doing the exact same thing as another organization that is operating in the same space. Because donors and funders are not going to be excited about that if they’re spending money and there’s somebody else doing the exact same thing. So really get connected, get connected from day one, find mentorship and people that you’ve worked with before on projects. If you have, maybe it’s an old boss, or find an organization like ours, or like Jennifer’s that you could reach out to and just start asking questions, because chances are, somebody like Jennifer and myself are going to take the time, we’re going to recognize what’s going on. We want to spend the time with you because we know how valuable it’s going to be, and how you’re going to need that support. And you’re going to need the ongoing support. You’ve got to find who else is doing work in the area. What are they doing? How can you identify gaps? Where do you want to work? What space are you confident in, or at least have knowledge in a direction that you think you want to go.
So you want to pull together a board of directors and that is going to be unique to your community, that’s going to be unique to you. You want to find, at least in my experience, you want to find a board of people that complements and challenges you all at the same time, but are people that are proven to work well with others and have a lot of connections across the community. So look for people that are already serving on another board that may be a community organization or that are connected in the community through private industry, but they’re at a level, maybe they’re a Rotarian, or maybe they’re in some other service organization that have a reach well within the community, other business leaders and other community organizations. So you get that, you get a built in network when you select your board. Don’t just find people that you like, find people that are going to get work done, that do good work in the community, and that you can have a mutually respectful relationship working with. That also are going to challenge you, they’re going to sit down with you and say, based on where you want this organization to go, that’s not a good direction. But here’s a direction that you might consider. And find people who are willing to work.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Because it’s a very long slog. It’s well past the selfie moment when you’re doing this work, and a lot of the stuff that you start in the beginning really won’t come to fruition for a full year after you’ve started your organization because there’s so much to do in the meantime that is really short term recovery, and that may not be the area you’re going to be most successful in. Because this is much more built for the long term. But even if you have this great idea for the architectural plans and then you start to implement it, or you start to design it, it really takes about a year from design implementation, and maybe you can get it done in six to eight months. But for the most part, that’s going to be a little trickier so you have to have a dedication to the game, like complete dedication, and also to be flexible. As far as maybe some of the ideas that I’ve come up with, or things that I thought would work weren’t necessarily exactly what the community needed. We designed this really nice website, but it wasn’t what the community needed a year later when it debuted. So some of the lessons are more expensive than others, but I do think that saying mistakes is really important. Do you want to identify a mistake that you feel like you made, I just made one of mine, I just shared mine.
Charles Brooks: Oh, I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way. But the fortunate thing is, if you’re willing to learn from them, a lot of good stuff comes from that. Time to implementation is something that you never get right. And if you do, my hat’s off to you. The floor plan library was going to be up and running. And in six months, based on conversations with design professionals, it hasn’t hit its stride until just now. We’re a year and a half since we started working on that idea and started putting the pieces together. The website’s been designed and working fine, but it’s getting everybody going. And yeah, there were COVID delays, but you have to keep working at something, you have to have that long term vision, and this is going to work. I know it in my heart, my soul that this is going to work and be willing to figure out ways to overcome objections. Because the first handful architects I talked to, no, you can’t do that, I wouldn’t be willing to do that. You’re crazy. There’s too much liability, there’s this, there’s that. But once you listen to what the challenges are, and you’re open to listening, and you get them to expand upon that, then you realize there’s something I can tackle, there’s that little thing. And if I could move that a little bit, then something’s gonna happen.
So that long term thought process, I put out there that we are going to have 10 floors. I remember at a community event where somebody was donating money to us and the press was there, I said: “We’re going to have five building plans by the end of the summer.” And that was last summer, because I was going on this expectation that that’s what the design professionals were telling me we could pull off, didn’t come close, like totally overshot it. And here I am, that goes through my head to this day is the fact that I said in front of a large group of people, including one of our donors, that we would do this by this date. So be very careful with dates. Be very careful what you promise unless you know you can deliver something. Especially to disaster affected individuals, do not promise something that you are not going to deliver on. There is enough letdown, enough heartbreak and disaster that people don’t need to hear that you’re going to solve all their problems, and then you don’t.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, my God, that’s yes. And to remember that, of all of the communities, to not let down a disaster affected community is the last one you should be. That’s it really, it’s just the whole spectrum of who’s involved there. If you say you’re going to do something, and even if it takes a lot longer to do, you actually need to do it. Because the three types of people who show up post disaster are those who want to defraud you, those who want to sell you something, and those who want to help you, and figuring out who, where and what is incredibly difficult. And unfortunately, on the balance, as you’re going to help you for the long term is the smallest percentage of those groups. So I bet you did deliver, and that’s what matters. What matters is that you learned, which I had to learn that way too, thinking that something was going to take, I remember like, I want to build a common fence in six weeks, and it took like 14 months. So very important.
The last thing I want to actually touch on with you is pay it forward. When the campfire happened, it was a human response to want to go, help, and be of service, and to try to make the pain go away a little bit. It’s almost like a trauma response. But I didn’t know that paying it forward becomes such a big part of what we do here at ReBuild. I had no idea, and really, you were my first experience with that. And then the Woolsey Fire happened on the same day. So I reached out to you and then to the Malibu Foundation, and that took us here, became part of my work plan for the next year, which I’m very proud of. Super nice, wonderful. We got a ton out of it. And now, what I’ve asked of you is that I asked you to get on calls with newly fire affected communities and to share some of your knowledge, and you can part with this podcast is about, but then we also have this other program community to community. So I want to thank you for showing up, and if you just tell me what the value of paying forward some of your lessons is.
Charles Brooks: It’s a cathartic experience. And it’s also something that it’s part of that, you just want to serve, and you just want to help. So when you see another community going through what you went through, it brings back so much that you can see it on their faces, you can see it in the way that they talk, the questions that they ask. And if anything you learn and benefit somebody to speed up the process, make it easier, make it hurt less, whatever it is, then paying it forward is the only way to go. I don’t know any other way to say it other than it’s the only thing to do once you’ve gained this experience. Because otherwise, if we did all this work, great. Look at us, we did all this work. Yay, we’re so great. That’s lame. There’s no other way other than sharing what you’ve done. And because people, if it helps, I don’t know, you just want to make it easier on people because it sucks so bad.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It was. It sucks so bad, it’s really traumatizing. it resets your world. Whatever happened the day before, it’s also knowing that you don’t get, like in our case, you don’t get your November 7 back, we don’t get our October 8, 2017 back. But if we can help other people through that, we can take all of our lessons, exactly what you said, shorten their pain period,so that they can move forward better, safer, greener, faster, whatever their goals are. I find it to be incredibly gratifying. I’m so glad that you’re along the journey with me, that we continue this relationship. I do super value you as my disaster brother. I’m just really thankful to know you and the work that you’re doing for your community. And I look forward to many more years of doing this work together.
Charles Brooks: Is it shown on the camera? I can’t imagine my world without the amazing people I’ve met since this disaster, and you are number one on that list. There are people in my own community that I never knew, I probably passed them in the grocery store 100 times, the hardware store, and they’re just so many amazing people that have come out of this. I am so grateful that you said the things that you did in that meeting that day, and you sat outside on that uncomfortable bench with me prior to that meeting, and then afterwards, and basically, we’ll figure this out and we’ll get you there. Nothing but love and admiration for who you are, all you’ve accomplished, the places you will go and the people’s lives that you will help make better. So keep being you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I feel the same way about you Charles, and really is an honor and a privilege to work with you to have gotten you to this moment. For all of this support and care that you’ve provided to Rebuild and to me, it’s gonna be great. I know that this is just the beginning of other wonderful things, so thank you so much for taking this time with us to record this podcast. And I guess that’s it. We’ll call it a wrap. Thank you.
Charles Brooks: It was an honor to be on the call with you, or on the podcast with you, Jennifer. Thanks.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay, thank you.