"Resiliency defines this idea of not just being able to get hit and get back up, but … how we rise up and build better systems out of what we're dealing with and how we make sure that we own our place in the future." -James Gore
SERIES: Role of the Public Sector
Disasters breed emergent leaders. But what is the true essence of being a servant leader? How can leaders help the community navigate through trauma and advocate for equity? What organization strategies can be applied to ensure public safety and speed up progress? Lastly, how can each member help rebuild the lost momentum and work towards a more resilient community? Leaders are our partners and allies for transformation, but only when the community plays its part will true recovery be achieved. Tune in as Jennifer and Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore share how to be a public official that the community needs in the midst of a disaster. It's time to own our future, be a champion for a change!
- 04:32 What Resiliency Includes
- 11:04 Navigating Through Trauma
- 21:14 Break Down Barriers
- 30:06: From Heels to Spears to Peace
- 37:20: The Public Sector in Disasters
- 41:52: Advocating for Equity
- 50:01: Wake, Wake Others, Stay Woke
- 54:00: The Essence of True Leadership
- 59:16: Own Our Future
04:34: "Resiliency defines this idea of not just being able to get hit and get back up, but … how we rise up and build better systems out of what we're dealing with and how we make sure that we own our place in the future." -James Gore
06:33: "Problems are liquidus but at the same time, it's a crazy opportunity." -James Gore
09:46: "If you help people rise up, they start to hold you even more accountable. That's good because they want more progress." -James Gore
12:39: "The hardest thing in this world is to create momentum out of thin air. And the only thing harder than the hardest thing is to try and recreate lost momentum because there's a lack of belief that it worked the first time." -James Gore
27:20: "The audience that counts is the people that you're serving." -Jennifer Thompson
34:25: "Admitting that it's a work in progress is progress." -Jennifer Thompson
35:25: "The energy of the disaster itself mimics how the community responds to it." -James Gore
38:58: "Not all of us can be strong all the time. To be resilient, we have to be quiet every once in a while." -James Gore
40:50: "Do not promise anything that you do not deliver." -Jennifer Thompson
47:25: "[People] don't want to be the recipients of recovery, they want to be the architects of recovery as well." -Jennifer Thompson
47:57: "It takes more time, more effort, and more imagination to do the right thing than the easy thing, and we all know that equity is a big foundational part of that." -James Gore
50:55: "The WE has to be expanded. You have to get beyond the system that defines you because it holds you into jail cell unless you create partnerships and do the right work in the right way." -James Gore
51:44: "The biggest reason that we will falter is if we go back to complacency." -James Gore
54:22: "The world is run by those who show up." -James Gore
54:51: "A part of true strength is being able to understand vulnerability and understand how that works." -James Gore
59:30: "This world needs a lot more people who stand up and take action. That's how we own our place in the future. It's not about us getting better as individuals, it's about resilient communities." -James Gore
James Gore was born and raised in the 4th District, living in Cloverdale, Healdsburg, and the Mark West area of Santa Rosa. He attended Jefferson Elementary in Cloverdale and graduated from Montgomery High in Santa Rosa.
In 2013, James returned home to Sonoma County to raise his family. He was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2014 after running a relentless, positive campaign built on inclusiveness and a commitment to own the future and deliver for the residents of Sonoma County. As he embarks upon his 4th year on the Board, James is slated to become Chairman of the Board of Supervisors in 2018. Beyond his work as County Supervisor, James is also serving on several counties, regional, statewide, and national organizations.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to another edition of How To Disaster, a podcast to help you recover, rebuild and reimagine. Today, I'm so pleased to have with us Supervisor James Gore. Now, I've known Supervisor Gore since probably about 2014. He was first elected to the Board of Supervisors in Sonoma County. And at that time, none of us really knew what was in front of us, which was the onset of the era of mega fires. And the first place that really showed up was in our county, in Sonoma, Napa Lake and Mendocino in our region. Now, a lot of things happen in a disaster. But one of the things is you have to figure out, what's the role of the public sector? How can they be of help? And how can they actually get in the way of public safety, progress, recovery and rebuilding?
I love working with James Gore because I find him to be a champion for progress. I often quote him when I'm talking to newly fire effective communities about the importance of really valuing relentless imperfect progress. I love his approach to collaboration, and I appreciate the fact that he is an elected official who will always pick up the phone to call that person who can actually make it happen and get it done. In fact, get it done. But if a different word for it is really his mantra. And so I asked him to come here today to really talk to you and give some advice about not only how to be a public official in the midst of a disaster, but how to be a champion for change from the communities level 2. Because what we often don't hear is an elected official saying, I really want more people to lobby me for the change that they wish to see. So there are ways to do that, and I'm really excited to have him here. He's also Chair of the resilient communities and a leader for the National Association of Counties. So his impact isn't just in Sonoma County, it's also nationwide. I think a lot of the wisdom and experience that he'll bring to this discussion today will really help some of you out there in our audience figure out how to disaster.
Okay, so I welcome James Gore who is a colleague and also a friend. I'm so excited to have you on today, and I appreciate having some of your very valuable time. I wanted you to know that I did some notes for this podcast. And at the very end, I wrote that the theme I wanted to be was called, Diving Into The Wreck. And that's a poem by Adrian Rich that I really love, which isn't so much about disaster, but it is about having to take an assessment and to not be afraid to dive all the way in and to come out the other side somewhat transformed. So I'm really looking forward to this conversation, and welcome.
James Gore: Yeah, diving into the wreck every day. Ubiquitous, uncertainty and disruption surrounding us. But what a prime opportunity to get stuff done each and every day. Looking forward to being with you today.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you actually start off by orienting our audience? If you think about our audience, it's really groups of people who have, it's a person who's either just gone through a disaster, maybe they're in mid recovery of a disaster a year or two, or maybe it's a person who just is in the public sector or not, but it wants to build resilience into their world where they are currently. So what I'd like you to do is, can you give us a little bit of background, you have a great background, and talk to us about your position now, including [inaudible] and for the local Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.
"Resiliency defines this idea of not just being able to get hit and get back up, but … how we rise up and build better systems out of what we're dealing with and how we make sure that we own our place in the future." -James Gore
James Gore: Yeah. Resiliency can oftentimes these days be confused as a buzzword, but what I love about it is that it really defines this idea of not just being able to get hit and get back up, but how to, as one person put it a former FEMA Administrator said, stronger in the broken places. How we rise up and build better systems out of what we're dealing with and how we make sure that we own our place in the future as opposed to forgive our optimism and become pessimists, and get and throw our hands into the air and give up. It's exhausting work working on this stuff. Whether you're a person who has been through disaster personally, whether you lead an organization or volunteered in support of others. We all know what it's like to deal with disasters in a sense that it has the blood pumping intensity of pure work, of pure purpose and passion. But then on the other side, it has the hard burn associated with it. You'll meet people who every day might be going through seven stages of grief, and other people who it might take 10 years for them to process that pain. At the same time, though we gotta keep improving systems, the worlds are changing around us more rapidly than we know, and the institutions in the past cannot handle what is in front of us.
"Problems are liquidus but at the same time, it's a crazy opportunity." -James Gore
So from my background, I was born and raised here in Sonoma County, got out, wanted to go get the heck out of this place, this beautiful place because I thought it wasn't that cool when I was about 18. And college, Peace Corps in Bolivia and South America, living in the jungle, horseback. And then Washington, DC, I worked for the representative wine industry, and then worked for the Obama administration, leading conservation efforts around the US. And when I came back home, when I chose to come back to this place that I had tried to get the heck away from, I found myself gravitating towards servant leadership. And believe in not just seeing problems, but getting involved in fixing stuff. That can be an insatiable appetite sometimes, because problems are liquidus. But at the same time, it's a crazy opportunity. I was elected in I think 2014, where I started in 2015. 2015, 2016, pretty quiet. A lot of complacency in our community. You know that, we used to work together. A lot of people focused on first world problems. Why isn't this perfect? Why isn't this perfect?
And then in October of 2017, we got punched straight in the face by not just a wildfire, but a veritable natural disaster, Diablo winds, Hurricane winds came into our community, caught us on our heels and it took us a long time to get back onto our toes. And once we organized the community and did all these other things, we learned what the true power of resilience and embracing that portfolio is all about. And it's been far more learning than I've been teaching. I've been a lead nationally, National Association of Counties, Chair of Resilient Counties, [inaudible] for Congress, led the effort statewide. I'm the president of California counties this year, created their resilient portfolio and worked with the governor's office on getting money resources, time prioritization into these efforts. It's time not to just be, as we say, Sonoma strong after disaster, or before a disaster be ready, but be Sonoma safe.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That was a perfect introduction. Thank you. Because it encapsulates so much, actually, why I like working with you. And one of the things is about your approach to servant leadership, and it is a different approach. Can you talk to us about why are they so important, especially in the midst of a natural disaster?
James Gore: Gosh, no. It's crazy, because I've got the chills right now. It's like you're bringing me back to those moments when you talked about that. The first thing that goes into my mind is, I'm in the public sector, I'm an elected official. I don't like to call myself a politician because some people think that's a bad word. But when things were going crazy in 2017, and before that, what I've learned is diving deep into it, that I have access. I need to give people that access. I don't need to hold that to myself. You and I know of a lot of people in my position and other positions like yourself, they go to briefings, they sit in big tents, disaster people run around and talk about high level things and show maps, and they put out a little bit of communications, a press release to the community. And for me, it's been all about getting people what they want and what they asked for.
"If you help people rise up, they start to hold you even more accountable. That's good because they want more progress." -James Gore
So if they want to know where the fire is, I go out and interview the fire captain, and I haven't got out of the map. And you know what? 200 people clicking on a link because it's like, oh, I want to see, all of a sudden, 50,000 people watch a video and I'm like, wow, okay, cool. Now I need to facilitate me to get out of the way of me to get all these other awesome people talking and help translate what they say as professionals into our community. Because our community wants to know what's going on. They want to know how to empower themselves. They want to know what they need to change. They have power, you just have to create some infrastructure underneath. So servant leadership in my mind is part of leading by following. You have to keep your nose to the ground, or as they say, get the pulse of the community. And once you catch that, you have to start to feed that. And if you help people rise up, the fascinating thing is they start to hold you even more accountable. And that's good because then they want more, they want more progress. That's what I want.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So as a very visible public sector leader, you and I were working for the county and you were elected. I worked in the board of supervisors to a the staffer, and one of the things that was notable to me was we know the capabilities, especially with department heads, and that they really do, really, they work very hard. But when the wildfires came through the disaster was so big and so stunning, even the callfire, that our public sector sort of almost, like some people can jump out in front of it and do really well despite their own trauma. You were one of those people that for a lot of the county staff in the public sector, they had also undergone the disaster and many had lost their homes. Many return with it's really difficult mission of carrying on everything needed done before, in addition to responding to an unprecedented natural disaster. And there were mixed results, who was able to deal with that because that essence of trauma in between, can you talk about what that was like to navigate any ideas or advice that came out of that experience?
James Gore: You hit it perfectly. I think in the intro is that there's people in our emergency operation center who were worried about if they lost their home, there was Karen who's our head of Human Services fled her home and went to her office, sat there and mobilized her team of 700 employees while her home burned down. I can still feel it. So there's this crazy thing about not being able to be a professional but being embedded into the very storm that you're sailing through. I think in a certain way, it makes you more human, and it shows you really how much you can handle. Because everybody was personally invested. You were running out into Sonoma Valley doing what I was doing and trying to hit everybody and everything, just get the sense of what was going on. Because a lot of people in those initial moments, they have that deer in the headlights look, and it's like the fog of war around the community. It was just about being like, you okay? Do you need a connection to something? It was kind of started with just a soft understanding. And then there's this point where certain folks just dive in. You've talked about this a little bit, you said, diving into the wreck. One thing that I always say is, hell hath, no fury. Like trying to really make progress in perfect systems. You try and stick your head into a problem. And all the people who have talked about the problem for years want to attack you for having the audacity to not talk to them first about what they've learned. And then the other ones want to critique you while you're going through to say what you're doing isn't good enough. But you just get busy, and you start to build momentum.
"The hardest thing in this world is to create momentum out of thin air. And the only thing harder than the hardest thing is to try and recreate lost momentum because there's a lack of belief that it worked the first time." -James Gore
I say the hardest thing in this world is to create momentum out of thin air. And then the only thing harder than the hardest thing is to try and recreate lost momentum, because there's a lack of belief that it worked the first time. So that momentum came from our community, it came from this overwhelming need to say, hey, we need to mobilize. One thing I learned with our staff and with everybody, and the exhaustion, and overwhelmingness is that you have to allow people to grieve in real time. You have to be civic and civil, even at the same time that you have to have confrontational conversations and get it out, and not be so nice that you don't get to the point. And then ultimately, you got to make the WE a true a bigger than a small way. The we of government oftentimes pushes partners out, private sector partner, faith based partners, nonprofit partners out and it's like, hey, we're in the Department of Emergency Management, we got this. You're like, you have, basically 10% of the resources that we have in this community if you work with us to mobilize. And they're too, sometimes, too busy working so hard to stop. And instead of being too damn busy to do damn good work is stopped and really realize how to partner and how to roll. That's what you guys did with ReBuild.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That was, yeah. So we were founded on the very idea that in no way should we only depend upon the public sector. That's way too big for any one sector to deal with the nonprofit, private or public sector. And that we all had to banded together in order to even begin to figure this out. And it was still going to be extremely hard and take a very long time, and a lot of talents. So one of the things I was super grateful for is, in our first year, we were like we're just gonna sit back and we'll do our work, but we do not want to crowd the market of disaster. We want to learn and be long term. In that time though, one of the things that you did right away that led us to our first project is the block captains system, which really cool for us is that with the convening that we held with campfire and Paradise, sorry, Woolsey Fire about 18 months later, you guys were able to then talk to them about it. They adapted it to zone captains, and now we work in Southern Oregon, they took the zone captains so now they are third generation for that system that was put forward. They really feel like it's the most powerful tool in their box. Can you talk about that moment and tell the story? And when you're in the theater, and you're faced with these giant town halls that are also a place where people are processing emotion, and upset, and a lot of anger, and grief, and then how you sort of channel that with the help of the community into something, it's so incredibly productive, that it actually changed the trajectory of how those parts of the community rebuilt.
James Gore: It is overwhelmingly shocking how much power and momentum is out there if all you do is build a foundation for folks to be able to get their feet on steady ground. Long time ago, somebody told me in the sense of politics, there was a presidential campaign going on And he said: "God, there's something out there that somebody has not yet ignited. But there's a burn that's ready." And I say that pun intended. Right now, we're talking about fires and other things. There was a secondary fire on our community after the actual Tubbs, Nuns, Pocket complex and died down, and that was a fire in the community for progress for, where do we go from here? Where do we go from here? What happened is as you and I talked about the disaster industrial complex, as we call it [inaudible], the consultants come in on parachutes, hey, we can get the FEMA money for you, your FEMA folks, the California Office of Emergency Services, the nonprofit groups, you have the American Red Cross there to manage and stuff.
You're swarming all this stuff around, and you're trying to figure out where you put your fingers on areas that need support that are not working, and then other ones that you just get away from because it's like get away if it's going right, because something's going right. What was not going right in my mind was is that the big town halls and the other things, we were having hundreds and thousands of people come in, and we were doing way too much lip service. And then we were trying to control that anger and that emotion. I say we because it was like, we had the congressman, and then we have the state legislature, and then we have the heads of emergency services, and then some of my colleagues, and it's like 20 speakers deep, and you're trying to organize this. Sometimes, to fit everybody's ego to have a talking engagement while they're standing back there. And people are sitting there going, I need less updates. I need to know what I do. Like, where do I go? How do I get food? Is there going to be individual assistance? Or get out of my way, and let me get back on my property. And the forum did not facilitate that. It facilitated the opposite, which was an enraged people who couldn't get simple questions answered. So this goes back to my point earlier about getting people access and organizing, simple organizing. I was like, you know what I'm going to? I'm going to stop doing these county wide things and go back to my district. And I'm going to work with, I worked with a school, to Mark West School District, and they sent out notes to all the parents. They had the best email list you could find.
And we hosted a forum, and then we hosted a second one in a theater with coffee Park, and then we hosted a couple more. And all I did was go back and get maps of my district where I'd knocked on doors when I was running for office. I looked at the maps, and I got all these people together. I said: "What I'm going to do today is just organize you. Remember the Organizing 101? My staff leads, put a pad of paper and a pencil that has the headings on the top of the name, contact info, insurance provider and the address where you live. And then I just started drawing on those maps and saying, Zone 1, Zone 2, Zone 3, Zone 4, Zone 5. You guys go over there and get to know each other. Each of you, select somebody who's a Block Captain, not looking for a leader who wants to get speeches, I'm looking for somebody who wants to meet weekly. This is how organizing works.
You can't always meet with 500 people and get something done. So how do you empower thousands of people to be represented in a weekly breakfast at 6:30 AM for a year straight doing that. Fascinating part of that is it just started to fly and gain momentum. And then they were validators for their neighborhood. They all sudden stepped up and became leaders. And I would just bring in different folks to come and speak to him. What do you guys need next week? What do you need two weeks from now? And we staffed it so that they didn't have to keep all the notes that we kept minutes and they could send them out to people. It was just so cool to see them find an anchor in that, in something so simple. And to finish that out, I think one of the things that was most fascinating, Jennifer, as you've seen not only in our county, but other areas is how often times we're like, hey, this worked, or this is working. And even some of my own peers in the county were like, oh, my people don't really want to do this. I was like, your people, your constituents are coming to my meetings. You can come and we can collaborate, or you can do your own. But even with other areas, like when we went and deal with Butte in Southern Oregon and some people like, hey, I'm not trying to own your disaster, man. I'm just trying to tell you a way to do this smart.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I know that one of the fears initially in Paradise was that the Block Captain, Zone Captain system would be used against the public sector that it was like really frightening for some people up there who were in the public sector because they thought they could be activated to essentially make their lives more miserable. And I know that I had to have calls, I'm sure you had to have calls, we were like, no, this is actually your secret weapon. This is partnership with your community, and really having them take some of the weight of it off. And also, what you're talking about, like, see how far they can run with it and see how fast they will rebuild with it. And we didn't know, we were only 13 months when, but we knew that that worked, for sure. And we're seeing some of the same traction in Oregon. And for the first time, we actually saw public funds for the zone capping system up there too.
James Gore: Well, and to talk about that, like all sudden three, four years later, you see that these people, they go back to their communities because they rebuilt with more community than existed beforehand.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Amen.
James Gore: Done these resiliency projects that now they're potlucks on the streets are inviting us to, the cookouts and the organizing meetings, and they're all the sudden active. And yeah, for certain politicians, that's a fearful thing. Oh, God, my people are rising up. For me, that's a wave I want to embrace because I can get way more done than I can't on my own. I mean, not coincidentally, those folks, I work with them to bring proposals before the board of supervisors. I asked them to lobby my colleagues. I asked them to lobby me. They get mad at me sometimes because they don't think I'm doing enough anymore, because I'm focused on COVID and viruses instead of fire recovery. But that's the kind of accountable world that we need to be a part of. That's the kind of democracy that I love. The areas, not surprisingly, there's too many of the areas that burnt in 2017, or some of the quietest areas, civic engagement wise in our community. It was the suburbs on that wild urban interface, where we really got into, not just the first thousand homes burnt down really in the wild lands, but those next 4,000 homes were heavily embedded in suburban areas. And those are areas where people are working their butts, they're coming home to feed their kids, cook dinner, they're going to bed at night, and they're not sitting around going to community forums all the time. But now they are alive. I mean, they're creating organizations or fundraising, they're identifying what kind of development they want in their area.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They're also paying it forward to other new fire survivors, because we've certainly been able to access that system a lot. Another hugely ancillary benefit of that was that when there were they had these gaping needs that arose, because they spoke with one voice, was actually easier for them to communicate with you, you could support them, and you can also work from the countryside as the city did to to then amplify what those needs are, there were unmet needs.
So one of the things that I love is this meeting that we had, I don't know, like 7:00 in the morning, about the fence, the rise of fences for Mark West Estates. Which for those who aren't familiar, it was a very, it was half a million dollar project, mild common fencing. We were like, okay, I think we can take this on, but it took 21 funders in 10 months, like every ounce of you and I, that's for sure to get to that part. But your relentless, imperfect progress approach was very helpful and inspiring for me, because then I knew that I was never alone in that, which is a really important thing to have. But also you were like, Oh, yeah, so we can totally get this done. And we can do, we can do with one permit, we do not need to get 47 permits for every home. I'll go back and talk to the county, we're going to find out, just to keep the cost down, that if they can pre approve the design, and the design was with the community asked for. So that's another thing I hear from you often, and that we've done since the beginning of ReBuild, which is, what do you need? How can we help? How do we get to yes. And you like were immediately as a public sector leader able to go back to your own department and say: "Here's some of the barriers and we can remove them." Tell us about that.
James Gore: Well, the public sector, private sector, the nonprofit sector and then different iterations, the nonprofit sector, I think it's a perfect segue right now because the public sector is slower, like I think the public sector as a big beastly tractor. It's very hard to turn, but it can move a ton of dirt. It has huge resources behind it. And if you can get whether it's law changes, general plan amendments, big funding, you get grants of multi million dollars from some area disaster funding other things, then you can do that. But on the other side, like in the private sector, what you did with ReBuild and what we worked on is that it wasn't a sports car, it's like an alternative vehicle. There's like this awesome jeep out there that can tow something or do whatever, and you just kept pitching up.
Like for me, to be able to look at you and go, this is not a good place for government, this would probably take me, we could do it. But you know, you've worked in government too. It takes six months to get a resolution from the board to get us identified to create an office to support it, to hire people through HR to go through these processes. When in fact, a lot of times, people come and ask me for money. I'm like, it'd be way better if I could help you fundraise than asking for this amount of money out of the county. I can supplement you later, do other things. But what does the government need to do? A government needs to get out of its way and realize that it's not the only end all of the public good, that's the biggest thing that government needs to do. And we've seen this with a pandemic recently, and even our own Department of Public Health is there's been far too many resources that have been set on the sidelines. I think about our partners in the faith based community who are sitting there going, we were the safety net before YOU government came around. We still have buildings, we can do vaccines and all these other things, but you're just like, you're unsafe. So go away, and we're going to manage this. And we saw that time and again through our first iteration of recovery, and you guys had to really blow through that because some people are inherently, they don't trust the government, and then they don't trust business to help them. You're like, well, okay, let's not get into trust, look at my plan, look at my actions and look at what we're doing. And then you have people run after you and say, I don't know if you did that for the right reasons. And you and I have dealt with this is like the post hoc critic, who comes in and writes all these critical analysis that says--
"The audience that counts is the people that you're serving." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: James, one of things you mentioned is it's very easy for you to sit for some people on the sidelines, and that's their whole job is to not build things, but to destroy things. My advice to any group is, don't be afraid of that because the audience that counts is the people that you're serving. And if you hold integrity, the corner of everything you do, you'll be fine no matter what.
James Gore: And ultimately, that's a part of a process of growing up and doing things in this world. Once again, back to our idea or point about diving into the wreck, you get into that wreck. All of a sudden, you realize that you're inside the wreck, and you're trying to fix it. Everybody's like, what are you doing in that wreck? Why did you create that? How did you do that? Are you there for the right reasons? Are you trying to take advantage of us? Are you doing this? Are you doing that? It's like, wait a minute, I got in here to try and fix this. Do you know what I'm working on? And you got to be able to hold that position and just hold it. And some people say, oh, get thick skin? And I'm like, nah, man, I don't really want to be callous. I like to be compassionate. I like to care about what's going on in my community, but it causes me extreme anger. So it's an easy thing to say, but you and I know what it's like to sit up and try to do what you feel is good work, and believe in your integrity of doing it. And at the same time, having people lob grenades at you and staying up at night being pissed about it. And then to have to refocus that energy and not eat yourself alive with it, but refocus it outwards into what you're doing.
But let's realize that that is what these survivors, these thrivers of these disasters do every day. They've been beat down in the most surprised way imaginable, they pick themselves up, and then they have to figure out where am I going to build my life. No matter what resources are there available, private, public, nonprofit, there is a huge gap and a huge amount of grief. And the ultimate thing about resilience is that some of them come out of it and they're like caught back. Other ones look at me and are like, I had one who said: "You know? I'm better off. It's almost scary for me to say that, I would never wish that my house burned down. But I have more friends, more purpose than I've ever had in my life so I don't regret what happened."
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's interesting that you say that, and I have like 50 million thoughts. But somebody recently said to me: "Your job was so sad." I was like: "Really? Co'z I feel honored to do it. And I didn't start the fire, because it's not my fault that it happened. But the honor and the opportunity to actually step into that space to help people at this moment when they need an assist, that's pretty awesome."But what can get in the way is, and that fear that some people in the public sector have of making themselves vulnerable to criticism. I had this moment where, I wrote to Wade Crowfoot who's a personal friend of mine, I was like, it's so frustrating to dedicate your life to making the world a little, just a tiny corner of the world, just a tiny bit better, and people come out of the woodwork to criticize you. But they don't, when they go to a baseball game and they see somebody who's making $11 million a year, and they're drinking their $15 beer and their $20 hotdog, and no one's freaking out about that. So maybe I want to be less Jesus, Mary and Joseph and more of a baseball player. And he wrote back to me, he was like, Jen, I hear you. And if you want to change trajectory, you can and I will help you with the work that you do matters. And just to hear that from a public sector and somebody that I respected so much, and has remained so normal as a public sector face, really gave me sort of that hook. Alright, get up and do it again. And I see you very much in that, very in that vein of Wade Crowfoot as that servant leader who is not going to spin out, but in fact, you've actually had to get up and rise up again, and again, and again because we have had continual mega fires here. Can you talk about what that's like?
James Gore: I think at last count, it was, since 2017, I think it's seven declared disasters. And then there's a litany of other ones. There's power shut offs, there's homeless encampments. There's other things that just, it's the antithesis of what it was for my first year or so which was, how late can you do your event at your winery when everything like that? So for me, there's a part of it that is the absolute purpose, as you say, and it's on the other side. It's very strange to learn how to not just be embodied by the disaster, but how to be calm in the middle of that storm. And that's what I tried to learn how to do is because I burn out in every one of these. My wife looks at me and she's like, I'm going to give you a week. I lose my voice, and I do other things. I work I don't know hour days, and I go do things, and I've learned to really get back to in the peace times just build the systems. That means, I don't have to go that crazy and fill that many gaps or feel like I need to, and to live the ethos of making the WE much bigger, make the partnership that deploys.
And so these later disasters that I've seen, I think our community's perfect example of going from being on our heels in 2017 to really being at the point of the spear in terms of alert morning forecasting, ready for anything and good to go there. But then, as you talk about the other thing to transition into is how do you also be at peace? How do you not always be either responding to something, or ready to go? I'm ready. How do you get that place where you're like, okay, I can come home. I'm not going to do events. I'm going to pray, meditate, chill, reflect, whatever I need to do. I'm gonna spend time with my kids. I'm gonna go down to the Russian River so I don't hate my community because I'm so dealing with the angst of it, and the complaint line, and all of the disasters that I got to soak up the good too. So I've really, I think all of us in this work, in this purpose driven work, where you at first thing, because it's so purposeful that you'll never burn out and then you learn that you do, that it's all about feeding your soul. It's about finding peace in the process. And so that is a work in progress for me.
"Admitting that it's a work in progress is progress." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Even admitting that it's a work in progress is progress. I felt guilty for sleeping the first two years. Now when we're talking to new communities, we talk a lot about self care, like it's a cliche, but it's true. You have to aggressively guard your mental health, and these have been challenging times to have a mismanaged disaster that turned into a catastrophe on a global scale. And then to have to navigate these mega fires which are now like puzzle pieces here. I'm glad that you brought it up because I, we both knew people who have not done that. Wonderful people who lived in service, that community, then essentially broke.
"The energy of the disaster itself mimics how the community responds to it." -James Gore
James Gore: Yeah. We have more retirements in the county than I've ever seen and other things. A lot of people who were kind of in the twilight of their careers were like, wow, I've done this for three iterations. I can't be more. The pandemics been really a backbreaker though too. I feel like each of these disasters, the energy of the disaster itself mimics how the community responds to it. There's this kind of mimicry. So if you look at it, like there's a fire, and there's all this intensity, burning and heat, and it feels like that, and how we rebuilt, it feels like that in the momentum that we created around that. The floods, slow moving, insidious, kind of drowning everything out, leaving it really dirty, it takes a long time to clean up. It's really mucky work, and it feels kind of like you're washing off. The pandemic feels like a disease in this community. It's a crisis of confidence. It's like having a disease, even if you don't haven't contracted COVID. And it's like, oh, things keep changing. Today, it's better than tomorrow. I got bad news, the goalposts change, I have to shut my business, I have to do this. People ,while they're in the midst of a disaster, you can't rally them in the midst of a disaster. They have to be able to process that disaster. Like for me during the pandemic, if I go out, I'm like, three months in, hey, let's identify and share news about how businesses are adapting. All of a sudden, they realize all these businesses. I do a forum on that and they're like--
Jennifer Gray Thompson: What you're really talking about is how difficult it is sometimes to meet the community exactly where they're at, and to deploy the same skills because not all disasters are created equally. And the response to them is not identical, which we run into. And we're meeting with people who are experts in wind and rain, and they're brand new to wildfire. We're like, why can't we get a foothold in this community? And we said, because they're not even clean yet. So there is nothing to get, there is no mold remediation, nothing is there anymore. So it sounds like you're saying that about the pandemic as well, that it does feel like an insidious disease. So talk about your strategies around being a public sector leader in the midst of this particular disaster.
James Gore: In any vocation that you want to connect with people, and be a part of the movement that's going on, and be able to try and steer towards progress. Whether you're a follower, leader, compatriot, compadre, whatever you want to call it, you have to get a sense of what's the energy around you. You can't go into a room of grief and say, Hey, tund a rally. You can't go into a room where people are ready to rally and and say, Well, I, as the government, I'm going to bring you into a bureaucratic morass that will take you six months, and I'm going to work you out. I'm going to wear you out. So I think the big key is feeling the different energies of those disasters, like we've said, as fires are all about intensity. Floods are like this kind of percolating washing over everything that we've dealt with, and a lot of cleanup, it's really dirty, takes a long time. And some people who weren't flooded forget, and everybody else is just mucking around for a while. The pandemic feels like a disease, it feels like a crisis of confidence, it feels like somebody is infected, they get good news one day, bad news another day, and they're trying to just stabilize themselves, they kind of get to a place where they don't get too high or too low. And so you got to mimic that energy, you got to bring whatever it is to it.
"Not all of us can be strong all the time. To be resilient, we have to be quiet every once in a while." -James Gore
And a good example for me was, I'm all about resilience, resilience, resilience, resilience. And there's a couple times where I would do something like posting on social media like, Hey, I'm with this person, they're rebuilding and they're doing great. I do that. I have these folks who sometimes would write, not all of us can be strong all the time. To be able to be resilient, we got to be quiet every once in a while and be like, thank you for that. And not only would I say thank you for that, I'd send them like a direct message, and I'd have a follow up call. And then one of those calls ended up being a woman who lost her mom, whose mom died in the fires and she was so full of pain. All these people were moving on and they'd never been acknowledged by those left behind. Who didn't want to say, yeah, firefighters, you saved all of us, things were like none. So I sit down and spend months with her and a couple others. I'm trying to, I'm still working on it. Just figure out a memorial for the 24 who died, just tuning in and understanding that when they come at you, there's so much pain. They're not really coming at you, they're emoting and you got to let that roar go out, and then you got to figure out how to work with it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think one of I also like you, because I have a little bit of a list that you are willing to say I don't know. And that's a tough thing for a lot of people in the public sector to say, is I don't know, and I'm willing to learn, and I'm willing to listen. And that's a very scary place for a lot of elected officials in particular. So can you talk about that approach a little bit, how that served you?
James Gore: Well, the final one of that is, what I can pledge to you is my effort, and I'm gonna work my tail off for you. It's going to be imperfect, you're going to be pissed at times, and I'm going to have to figure out how to adapt. If you tell people like that, they forgive you so much. It's amazing how much buy in there is achieved by letting people know that you don't know but you're going to follow up and you do follow up. That's the key. I mean, you have to do that.
"Do not promise anything that you do not deliver." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, very important. Make sure don't skip past that, do not promise anything that you do not deliver. Because that's like a rule of our organization. If we say we're going to do it, we're going to do it. And as a public official, we often hear these promises from the other side, the constituent level, and what we really want is a respectful partnership in creating change. I like that you're not afraid to be in that space, but I do want to turn it to a little something called equity. One of the things that I learned from an outsider's perspective I think has served me well, that you are fully bilingual. And one of the challenges has been, how to serve the Latinx community and meet them where they're at, and how to improve and how to admit where we missed a step. Can you talk about how being bilingual has helped as a community leader, but also some of the adjustments that you've had to make internally to better serve this critical part of our community, which is the Latinx community.
James Gore: I'll start with the conclusion, which is that this process has really taught me how to transition from being a partner to a champion, to an ally, and ultimately into an accomplice. As somebody said, our first big disaster hit in about two days and I'm running around chasing fires, doing videos, showing people, interviewing firefighters so that I can get people information. I just go, realize that I speak Spanish, and I need to step it up. So I just do this first video in Spanish, most of the entrepreneurs said, videos in espanol, [inaudible]. Like all of a sudden, it was shared like 500 times. All these people just saying: "Thank you for acknowledging that." So that started this process, and I never thought that my Spanish, growing up in the vineyard business speaking pretty darn good than living in Bolivia for two years in the Peace Corps, speaking Spanish all the time, that I would use it in a situation for like community organizing and not just to be like having fun and doing stuff.
So all of a sudden, it was like part of this imperfect, relentless progress that I talked about, which is, I had to like, go. And I started to say, Okay, let's go, and no one else was doing it. All of our bilingual staff just rose to the challenge, we started to create like press conferences, and Spanish, we started to roll, we started to roll, we started to roll. And at the end of that, we felt very confident that we had turned the page on something that was going to be a secondary disaster. But then it happened again. And then it happened again. And by the time we got into the pandemic, before this last round of fires, when I organized this big latinx workgroup with like hundreds different organizations represented. And here's the white dude, again, speaks pretty good Spanish and his ally. I'm looking at and saying, how do we roll? What do we do? And they're like, you know what Gore, you're not what do we do? What the heck are you going to do? What the hell are you going to do? Right? We're bootstrapping again, where's the institutional side of it? So I took a different approach which is like, Okay, how do I do? How do I not have this be about me speaking Spanish, and trying to help organize people, and bootstrapping, and innovating. And so we created a proposal to the board during the middle of a budget crisis when we created an Office of Equity, and they couldn't not vote for it. Let's just say that, right? That's good policy, make somebody into a corner.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's true. I think that the county was very blessed by, and I think this is good for any county, if you have a particularly talented person in your community who understands the county, and it happens to be the daughters, the farm worker advocates and is then we got really lucky bear, I think
James Gore: We have amazing capacity in our community. I would say and share you with other communities you work with, they have that. It's all about finding that and lifting that up. And that's the complex side. The equation is it has to be about letting that go right and institutionalizing it. And even if that's imperfect, it's somebody's damn job. Now, it's not duties, otherwise, it's signed on top of your normal duties to like lean on our bilingual staff to go out and translate documents as they're trying to execute and run programs at the same time. So core competency has been the whole thing of the reformation of our systems. And why I feel that we're truly much more resilient than we've ever been is because it's the Department of Emergency Management internally, huge staff, huge budget, but also a mandate to get things done, get money out the door, organize our Office of recovering resiliency, creating the list of items that we're going to go.
Not just Space Cadet into a strategic plan, like 200 actions, 140 have been completed. Some of it was funded by some of the money in this invention, money that we got back from our utility and others, from basically what we've been doing more to put into that endless work. And the other side of this Office of Equity, and then leveraging into the final one for me, which is really our partnerships, faith based community partners. So it's not just every one of my 24 department heads has to manage partnerships, but it's somebody's stinking job to help facilitate that. And those are the things that I'm really into now. Even though they don't flash in the headlines, it's like the institutional change so that we don't have to just rally.
"[People] don't want to be the recipients of recovery, they want to be the architects of recovery as well." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And reinvent it again. Even though we've gotten quite good in this area at many things. One of those was one that I continued to have a headache, and there's a place, there's room for growth, but we are so much further ahead than you were even at the beginning of the fires. So I'm very happy to see that. I also appreciate, one of the things that we give advice to new communities, especially if they're dealing with historically marginalized groups, is to make sure that you are not deciding for them what they need and who they need to be. But instead, you can organize them. And then I like the fact that they looked at you and they said, well, what are you going to do for us. Because that's what they need. And at that time, and it's empowering, and they have agency and their recovery, and they are partners, and they also have to show up. And that is the deal, because then they get to be the architects of their own recovery as well instead of they don't want to be the recipients of recovery, they want to be the architects of recovery as well. So I'm very happy to see that change in the county, and I really appreciate it a lot.
"It takes more time, more effort, and more imagination to do the right thing than the easy thing, and we all know that equity is a big foundational part of that." -James Gore
James Gore: It's not surprising that it takes more time, more effort and more imagination to be able to do the right thing than the easy thing. And we all know that equity is a big foundational part of that. I had an interesting read the other day where somebody talked about this idea of all these well intentioned people and saying you're just a good person because you're well intentioned. What the heck did it result in? What was the objective? And did you achieve it? There was an article written about San Francisco as more per capita, Black Lives Matter signs than anywhere you could possibly find, but how many affordable housing projects and really true programs have gone into those areas. How many people are willing to sacrifice their own worth, and their own view, and their own other things to be able to make room for others? And that's really something that's in the mirror when we look in the mirror of Sonoma County. That's not San Francisco, right? That we live with a legacy of, I want to support all the good things in the community, and I support all these efforts, I support homeless service outreach, I support affordable housing, I support all this stuff, I support disaster management, but not if it inconveniences me. And that is what we have to get over as people.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yes. I like to say that people who show up to those meetings often walk there on foot, went home to sleep in a meadow and pay with flower petals. Because what they don't seem to understand is their role in the system, that we each have an opportunity to make better, and we each have an opportunity to make it less inclusive, which is why in our area like the two, probably the most liberal place in the county, which I will not name on here is also the most Caucasian. So there's a direct relationship sometimes to progressive values around, especially around land use and housing, and then that ostracizes or really extricates the diversity from the community. We can talk about that, all day. What I would like to do is I would like you to give us what's your top five, or top three, or even your top whatever advice to someone who is currently in the public sector, and either worried about disaster or has just undergone a disaster and they're like, Hey, listen to his podcast, but what do I do first? Just to summarize a lot of our conversation here. What's your top advice for that person?
"The WE has to be expanded. You have to get beyond the system that defines you because it holds you into jail cell unless you create partnerships and do the right work in the right way." -James Gore
James Gore: I'll give you a top three. I'll link it to another kind of mantra that I picked up, or came up with, or whatever during this stuff is wake up, wake up others and stay woke. So the first thing is the world is upon us. These disasters are everywhere. Before the pandemic, a third of the counties in the entire United States has experienced at least one federally declared, which means big [inaudible] natural disaster in the last three years, and all kinds of ancillary other ones. So this time of disruption is all around us. It's on the presidents. And it's like, don't act like we're gonna go back to the land of milk and honey, if that really ever existed. We weren't just stepping on other people and enjoying our privilege beforehand. The world's in a tough place right now, and we have to own our future in it. So the second part of that wake up others TO ME is understand that the WE has to be expanded, that YOU have to get beyond the system that defines you because it really holds you in jail unless you create partnerships and do the right work in the right way.
An example of that would be in 2017, the activation of our what's called an emergency operation center. What I saw during that deployment was it was a bunker. And two years later, in 2019, after a ton of reform and imperfect progress, it was a nexus. It was a place where information came in and out of not just a bunch of practitioners going like, Hey, I'm super well trained at managing disasters and planning for the apocalypse. Nobody knows who I am, but I'm going to throw out and tell everybody what to do, even though they don't follow my direction, or have any confidence in me.
"The biggest reason that we will falter is if we go back to complacency." -James Gore
So the third one, which is this idea of stay woke is that the biggest reason that we will falter is if we go back to complacency. So that's where you institutionalize this work, that's where you put it in and you have to understand that you have to share your flaws with your community, you have to share your learning with your community. You can't just, as a public official say, I don't know, I'm going to get back to you and I'm going to work hard. You also have to look out to them and say, we're not going to be able to save you all from yourself. You have to prepare, we can provide this, you can do that, but we're going to embed this into our systems so that we test our alert and warning system every year, even though it shows flaws. You have to show flaws because otherwise, the flow will come out and it will smack you in the face and give you a big black eye when it's game time, when the bell rings. And people are like, God, look like it worked out a lot, but he doesn't really know how to box. So it's all to say is that, just get into the mix and start figuring it out. Asking questions and demanding answers, and reflecting what you hear in your community. And by doing so, you'll be a better leader because you'll also be a better follower. You'll have your finger on the pulse, and you'll be able to get stuff done.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that. So the next part I want you to talk to us about is, often when we're dealing with new communities, there's no surprise, a distrust, but also of public officials, there's a disconnect between the community and the public official. And part of that seems to be by a mutual decree. And other parts of it, or your average person who's been affected by a disaster doesn't always understand that most of the stuff that doesn't get done is because nobody picked up the phone and asked how they could do it, or how they could partner with the public sector. They didn't say, take a walk with me on my land, I'm going to show you my concern. They don't feel a sense of agency or empowerment. So what is your top advice to your person who has the energy, or the desire, or has been wounded by this event? How should they be interacting with their local elected leadership in order to make a change and get help?
"The world is run by those who show up." -James Gore
James Gore: One thing I realized when I was a younger man in my 20's is I was like, why? Why do I not have more people who I think are mentors. And it was because I never asked anybody to be my mentor. What did I think was, I just assumed that the world was going to God, or some other thing was gonna just put people in my lap. So the world is run by those who show up is the point. And if people start showing up, they realize that they have way more power, way more agency and way more opportunity than they ever realized. I've watched countless individuals who have risen out of these stinking ashes and are just flying. And you know what? If you talk to them, they don't feel like they're the strongest, most powerful entities in the world. They feel wounded. But a part of true strength is being able to understand vulnerability, and understand how that works, and bring that to the table, and be authentic about it, and not try to put it into a frame of perfect vernacular, or public comment, or whatever. Just speak your truth. We got way too much stuff going on for people to be silent these days, and there's way too many avenues to raise your voice, then to be one of those tired souls who come every once in a while he's like, I wanted to get in touch with you, but I didn't know how. You might try Google. I mean, I do outreach, I do other stuff, I try to reach out to people, I try to activate people, I try to be infectious with my enthusiasm and my passion. But ultimately, somebody told me a long time ago that leadership is this, he stood up, and he just took a step back, that's leadership. Stand up and take a step, you'll be surprised.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And often, some people think, oh, I didn't go to college, or I'm doing this or that, so who am I to step into space. And they have imposter syndrome. I like to always tell them about Charles Brooks. I'm like, that guy lost his house in the Paradise fire, he was a very competent reusable grocery bag salesman, and his house burned down. And he was like, I don't know what I want. I know that I want to help, but I don't know what that's going to look like. And then we went into a meeting with the mayor of Paradise in the town manager on day 12 of their fires, and I invited him as a friend of a friend, I invited him along and I just volunteered him to open his own chapter of a Rebuild Foundation. And he did it. He actually is better at this than I am. He laughed at me the second year, and I helped him the first year and the second year. And now he's like my best disaster friend on the planet. I would say that illustrates the strength of emergent leadership from your community that can be nurtured and supported. And I just think that that's incredibly important in that people like you are very open and very receptive to people who want to make positive change, and you're not checking their CV to make sure that they're qualified.
James Gore: The optimism I have for the future in spite of these disasters is based on what I see by the champions on the ground each and every day. I could say as somebody who didn't lose his home, but was evacuated eight or nine times but did not lose his home. I can say that I've been a leader through a disaster. But really, I mean, I look at these folks and like, they give me energy each and every day. And as we translate disasters to this, that's the tough thing about the pandemic is people are so isolated in that world. There is such a difficult way of creating community and rallying through Zoom or other things. So it's an important time for us to take a reflective step back and understand how we do this better too. Because in 2017, once again, versus 2019, Kincade fire, very similar events. I call it a tale of two fires. We were ready, we were always a few steps ahead of it, and we got still smacked by something. But it stopped before it became like a natural cataclysmic disaster. And it's the same thing with this pandemic that we've been putting our plates. It's like all the systems, I guess all the planning, I mean, so called people have been planning for pandemics for decades doesn't seem anybody knows what the heck's going on. They've all been trying to iterate and figure it out on the fly, so this is just another thing that we have to just go humble pie, and go back to work. And that's the work.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Our way through it. Because you don't plan when you're ready for a pandemic, and you don't plan when you're ready for a natural disaster. But you can build some of your internal systems and strengths, and share your knowledge once you have it to pay it forward. I just want to thank you for all the times that you showed up to help pay it forward to other communities, and that you've been a strong friend to ReBuild North Bay and myself, and I thank you so much for being on today, James.
James Gore: I'm inspired by what y'all do. You talk about empowerment, you talk about helping people gain agency about what they're trying to do. You can't do that authentically if you're afraid of what they're going to do with that. You just got to realize that this world needs a lot more people who stand up and take action, and that's going to be how we own our place in the future. That's how we're going to sustain each other because it's not just about us getting better and better as individuals, it's about resilient communities. So thank you so much.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Thank you.