How to Zone Captain: Rural Area with Jenna Murray Johnson

"You can't hurry a longer process that is thoughtful in strategy. It needs to be done the way that it's done." - Jenna Murray-Johnson


SERIES: Role of the Community

In times of disaster, the most effective leaders can emerge unexpectedly. How can someone build efficiency in a chaotic environment? In this episode, Jennifer interviews Jenna Murray Johnson, Co-Founder of Camp Fire Zone Captains on the role of zone captains in fostering recovery in rural areas. Based on her personal experience, Jenna shares ideas that can help other communities when faced with the same situation. The interview has a great impact in changing lives and changing the path of development on how a community recovers during and after a disaster. Tune in and find out how the love for the community solves problems and helps people unite.


  • 04:40: Five Minute Plan
  • 09:14: Emergent Leaders: Natural Organizer And Leader
  • 13:34: How To Zone Captain: Adaptability And Communication Platform
  • 24:20: Encourage People To Rebuild: From Rebuilding to Community Building
  • 29:01: Collaboration And Mobility: A Key To Success
  • 33:03: Great Source Of Funding
  • 38:32: Rebuilding  And Recovery: Different For Each Person Or Family





10:43: "Oftentimes, the leaders' people have chosen were not the effective ones in a disaster… The most unexpected people can become some of the most effective leaders." - Jennifer Gray Thompson

12:49: "It is crucial to have the right mindset during a disaster. Because there's no playbook, there's no handout."  - Jenna Murray-Johnson

13:03: "Everybody is different in how you handle it. You just have to be adaptable." - Jenna Murray-Johnson

13:10: "Being adaptable, flexible, and able to pivot is what saves these communities in the midst of their worst moment." - Jennifer Gray Thompson

24:03: "Disaster is like having a baby, the first year is a blur, and then you think you have it down and it changes again. If that doesn't apply anymore, now we have to move on." - Jennifer Gray Thompson

25:49: "When you're in the same zone, you can utilize people and reduce costs, because they're doing less work and because it's centralized." - Jenna Murray-Johnson

32:15: "It is very important to have collaboration, it is the key to any success." - Jennifer Gray Thompson 

32:23: "Every disaster may be different but mobility is critical to progress. You cannot make progress without moving. So whatever that looks like for your community, do it. Don't wait for permission." - Jenna Murray-Johnson

34:32: "Our purpose was to only go after what we needed." - Jenna Murray-Johnson

40:37: "It's really important to be conscious of not judging someone's recovery. Your recovery looks different from the next person's recovery, your family is different from the next person's family."  - Jenna Murray-Johnson

44:43: "You can't hurry a longer process that is thoughtful in strategy. It needs to be done the way that it's done." - Jenna Murray-Johnson

Meet Jenna: 

Jenna Murray Johnson

Jenna is a native of Plumas County but has spent the last 10 years residing in Butte County (Paradise) with her husband, two stepsons, and daughter. Jenna was raised in a family of Real Estate brokers. She has been licensed for over 10 years and enjoyed every facet of Real Estate because this has always been her passion. She is one of the top producing agents in Butte County. Also, she has proudly served her community in all aspects - not just real estate. She has served on the Social Committee for the Oroville Association of Realtors and was the Social Committee Chair in 2013 and 2014. She is currently a member of Sierra North Valley Realtors, regularly volunteers at the VRC in Chico, and is an advocate for rebuilding the Paradise community. 





Jennifer Gray Thompson: Hi, welcome to another edition of how to disaster, a podcast to talk about how to recover, rebuild and reimagine post disaster. Some of the people watching this never been through a disaster, and some of the people listening in have just been through a disaster. And one of the main questions is, how do we even begin to get back to a sense of rebuilding, like where is the beginning? Today, I'm really excited to have with us, Jenna Murray-Johnson. I met generally about two years ago. Maybe two, yeah, I think it was actually two years ago, the next month in March 11, 2019. I had the pleasure of working with paradise when they had their disaster. And then Jenna and a group of emergent leaders came to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County and spent two days meeting with people who had created systems for recovery, resiliency, rebuilding and even reimagining as they left that meeting agenda. And this other woman, Kyla, they spent their entire ride home, which was about five hours in a terrible storm, really devising their version of what we call Block Captains here. They then took and applied it to their very rural area in Paradise and Butte County, and they renamed it Zone Captains. So I asked Jenna to sit with us today to talk to us about her fire story, how she emerged as a leader in the recovery in the rebuild and the system that she created, and to really show and tell you how to Zone Captain in a disaster. Welcome, Jenna.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Hi, thank you for having me.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: We're so happy to have you. Can you start by just telling us your fire story?

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Sure. So like most of us, we woke up thinking it was just an average day. We lived on 27 acres in the Canyon, so our view was actually where the fire was coming from, which was poga, probably like 20, 30 miles away as the bird flies. So I woke up, we saw this kind of eerie smoke plume in the distance, called my husband, he was very worried, wanted to come home. I said: "No, we evacuated. every time there's a fire, don't even worry about it, it's going to be fine." I'm taking the kids to school, took the kids to school. By the time which was maybe a mile down the road, by the time I got home, our house was on fire. Everything around us was on fire. I immediately got the dogs and just the stuff that sits by your front door. Had no plan in place at all whatsoever in terms of evacuation, then I went to go get the kids. The traffic was so bad at this point because the fire had ripped up the canyon so quickly that everyone was just in a mad dash going every which way they could. Had to call a friend to pick up the kids. We had to go all the way up through Medallia. For those that are not familiar, we basically went to Sterling Cities, rural back roads, and then we took a dirt road all the way down to Chico. It took us about an hour and a half, which would normally take you about 20 minutes.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think about that time in between when you go to go pick up your kids or when you're separated from your spouse, so the three of you are in three different spaces, and that's probably one of the reasons why it is important to have a plan, but we never think about it until it happens. So can you walk us through what a plan might do for a family and some of the anxieties that are created when you don't?

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Yeah. As someone who was also trained to be an emergency response coordinator, all of your training, even if it's embedded into your brain for years, goes out the window. I mean, it's literally like fight or flight. So when I tell people, and I tell people this daily, have a five minute plan. I know it seems like a lot to think about, especially if you live in an area where fires aren't prevalent, or this only happens every 10 years, or whatever the situation might be, having a five minute plan is incredibly crucial. Who are you going to call? Who needs to know? What do you need to have at the ready immediately? And really, you can break it down to five items in five minutes. And trust me, as somebody who did it the wrong way, it's highly advised to just do it the right way.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I really actually have never heard that before. I have a five minute plan. And I love that. And I think it's actually much more doable and likely that people will implement a five minute plan, I think I'm gonna go home and talk to my own husband about that tonight, because I can handle I have five minutes to create a five minute plan.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: And that's really what you need, what's important, birth certificates, stuff that you're going to need tomorrow when you can't go home. And that's the question. It's terrible talking about what's going to happen if you pass away. Like having life insurance, no one wants to talk about it. But these things happen in life regardless.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It does. It's also interesting because we do a lot of work nationally. We work with a lot of boards and people who have a deep bench of experience in wind and rain events, and huge differences that wind arraignments, you tend to know they're coming. So you have like a week to decide, or prepare, or whatever. In the new mega fires that we have, it may be, you're lucky actually if you have 5 to 10 minutes, you're lucky if you have 15 minutes. In the midst of a fire season, we also recommend that you park your car with the tailpipe towards the garage, the backwards the garage so you can do an easy out, and make sure you separate your animals. One of the things that I keep in my go bag is, I now have a big closet, it's kind of impressive. We should share photos of our, I want to see what's in yours co'z there might be anything I want to steal from. I also have a full face gas mask now because it was my idea that I need to be able to help people, and I want to be able to see them, and I wouldn't be able to see my face. So that's it clear all the way through. So that's one of the things that's my acquisition, this guy got it for Christmas. I know my husband, he understands me, but really I'm fascinated by the idea of that together. But I highly recommend that he put a pair of clothes in there, some shoes, because I say it all the time, and people laugh but it's so true that in these mega fires, naked evacuations are a real thing. So do you have, in your go bag, clothes, shoes--

Jenna Murray-Johnson: I tell everybody, don't pack the clothes that you're like, Oh, these are in the back of the drawer. No girl, no. Pack your nice clothes, and set a reminder on your phone for once a month to pull them out, or wash them, or whatever you're comfortable with. But I'm telling you, I am not joking. I evacuated with a pair of geometric skin tight leggings and a cable knit sweater. I wore that for three weeks. Don't do that.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, my God.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Bring some nice clothes.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: You don't need heels. You're not gonna need space, but you want some clothes that are nice that you like, you're going to be in them forever. I see photos of myself from our fires, and I'm getting the same outfit that those full 10 days for sure. Seeing them. I think that's really good advice. Okay, so here you are in a disaster, we all have sort of a choice, which is ideally we all bring our talents to the forefront to the table. But not everybody is able to do that especially after experiencing such a major loss. So can you talk to us about how you made the decision to be an emergent leader in your community? And what that process was like?

Jenna Murray-Johnson: I have been asked this question before, and I don't know that I chose it, which is weird to say that I feel like it chose me. I don't ever think that I never woke up and I was like, I'm gonna save the world. That just wasn't in my portfolio, my wheelhouse. I woke up and I saw a need, and I thought I can do this for other people. And it ended up being what I needed in the long run, but it was never like a definitive choice I made. Starting the nonprofit, that was a choice. But that was also like, it was the love child of being chosen to do this thing, and it just came naturally, we were already in it. So to kind of form it and organize it, which is what I do best, I am very good at organizing. The organizing, it just came naturally to me. So because of it, it just all fell in place.


"Oftentimes, the leaders' people have chosen were not the effective ones in a disaster… The most unexpected people can become some of the most effective leaders." - Jennifer Gray Thompson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: Often to people, though, I like to work with the most are the people who don't necessarily, they didn't design it that way, they would become leaders in the sphere. But it's just your skill set was naturally already there and loaned itself very well to leadership and disaster. And one of the things I learned in our disaster is that oftentimes, the most obvious leaders, people who had chosen to be leaders in the community were not the effective ones in a disaster. That they didn't have those skills necessarily in organization, they didn't necessarily have that, they didn't even always have the relationships to be able to get the stuff done. Or they didn't feel like they had a different attitude, which was that the other people should come to me as opposed to me always trying to make those connections and be a natural organizer and a leader. Do you think that's a fair statement on how you ended up in this seat now?

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Absolutely. I mean, as much as it was an accident, it was a product of the environment. Because when you're in it, and you're doing it, and you're trying to help other people, other people gravitate to that because it's their desire. Also, just not everyone knows how to.

Jennifer Gray Thompson:  That's exactly, which is why we're doing this. How do you know it's not, you can even listen to all of these podcasts and still like you're doing a disaster, or if a disaster comes to your community, you may find that that's still not something you're able to do. The most unexpected people can become some of the most effective. We have a guy that I've known forever. His name is Aaron Bromley, and he was a Sous chef at a resort in springs. His job let him pay him for those two weeks to just organize everything. So I could call, I could ask him like, I need five guys with tracks in half an hour in just one area. And he's like, done. And it would just be done. It wasn't like a natural next. I love emergent leadership so much. Or Charles Brooks from Rebuild Paradise, he was a reusable grocery bag salesman before, an excellent one. I really think it's important to highlight how important it is to have people like you who are emergent leaders. And they're not doing it because it's sexy. They're doing it because you have the skill set and the ability to be like, I think I can solve that. And then the next thing comes to solve, the next thing comes to solve.


"It is crucial to have the right mindset during a disaster. Because there's no playbook, there's no handout."  - Jenna Murray-Johnson


Jenna Murray-Johnson: Everything is figured out in a bowl, and it is crucial to have that mindset during a disaster because there's no playbook, there's no handout, you don't lose your house and someone's like, here you go, this is what you do. That doesn't exist, and everybody is different in how you handle it. You have to be adaptable.


"Everybody is different in how you handle it. You just have to be adaptable." - Jenna Murray-Johnson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think really being adaptable, flexible and able to pivot is what is saving these communities in the midst of their worst moment. I am so glad that you brought that up because, yeah, we can do a podcast called How To Disaster, we're doing that, but that doesn't necessarily, it's not going to apply to every situation or every person, it just gives some ideas that are adaptable. And speaking of which, let's talk about Zone Captains. So it's March of 2019, and you can tell us about the group that you came and who you met with over those two days in Santa Rosa.


"Being adaptable, flexible, and able to pivot is what saves these communities in the midst of their worst moment." - Jennifer Gray Thompson


Jenna Murray-Johnson: So Kyla and Charles ended up going to Santa Rosa. I want to say it was like the very beginning of March, and they met with Supervisor Gore and a few other people. I think Fannie Mae was there. There were several people, and they had a super long car ride on the way home. Kyla called me and she's like, there's a thing, we have to do this thing. And I was exhausted. We were fighting our insurance because our insurance didn't pay us and it was just like pandemonium. I said: "Are you sure?" And she said: "You just have to meet these people." And I'm like, okay, let's do. And it was the next day, we were in my living room in a townhouse with my three children, my three dogs. Kyla, her husband, her two kids and we had these like maps out on the table. We had Supervisor Gore on the phone. We had Charles on FaceTime. We just like having this mess, and we're like circling stuff, and drinking wine, and trying to figure it out. And we at the time, the callfire chief was a good friend of my husband and he said something about the maps. And I was like, the map. That's what we're doing, the maps. It just was like an aha moment. And we printed these maps and we were like, this is perfect. This will work. And in a matter of three days, we went from not having a plan at all to having a means of communication, website domain registered and volunteers. There was so much happening in so little time. I almost can't remember part of it. It was also less than four months after our disaster. I mean, that was part of it, that fire brain is real. 

But yeah, in three days, we had everything open. We had communication platforms, we had Facebook pages for every single zone that was affected by the fire. And our fire affected multiple cities and multiple areas, very rural cities and areas. So once we had this brainchild created, we literally printed postcards and papers, and we started organizing the town hall event that we did. That was our very, very first, like, here we are, this is what we want to do. Tell us if you love it or hate it. And the feedback was overwhelmingly awesome, and we just kept with it.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So let's go back for a second. For those of you, if this is somebody's first podcast, they have no idea what a Block Captain is. To say define a Block Captain is really great in a more densely populated, suburban or urban area. And basically, the idea is volunteers come forward, and they agree to take responsibility for a certain area or a certain number of houses. And that means that they will attend to meetings, they will disseminate information to those between, I don't know, 10 and 40 households. And then as those households are as needs arise, they're able to push that information back up to their Block Captain who they can sit with the supervisor, or your state senator, or just each other and figure out how to problem solve together, but not require every fire affected person or every disaster affected person to be at every single Town Hall. And that's where it came out of here is that our town halls would have 4 or 500 people. They were very emotional, which is expected and totally understandable. But what they weren't was effective for any kind of real information getting pushed up or getting pushed down and out. So if this was really building efficiencies into what was a chaotic system, and was also in wildfire, that's true in most disasters, not all, is that everyone was scattered. So really, you're looking at how to do the question for you all was, how do you take this suburban system? How do you adapt to a heavily rural area? So can you talk about that a little bit? How did you transform what was a Block Captain system into, and I know there was wine, and there were maps, but what specifically was helpful in those callfire maps that you followed along?

Jenna Murray-Johnson: For us, we're not a suburban or urban area, we do not have defined neighborhoods whatsoever. I mean, you have pockets of areas, but they're still not defined. So the thing that was the most beneficial to us in regards to the evacuation map that callfire had already created years ago, was it gave us boundaries. It was different zones, have numbers in the town of Paradise, and then the county actually has names for their zones. So we literally just listed them all out and we were like, okay, where do you live? Some of us didn't even know our evacuation zone, which is why Count Paradise was a hot mess during the evacuation. So we all figured out where we lived, and it was so crazy. I'll never forget this. We're sitting in my office, which made it, and we're sitting in my office, and there's 11 of us and we all had different zones. It was just this natural thing, okay, I'll reach out to my neighbors, see who they know, what they know. And like you had touched on we were everywhere. So having those maps that gave us some sort of a defined area with something to run with. Things have birthed from that map, we don't exactly keep it how we did in the beginning. So like in Midalia, there are parts that were not affected as much as other areas until we've combined those zones together for the purpose of communication. But for the most part, we still use those mountains.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And that's the adaptability piece too. We've actually seen in Southern Oregon, we're working with the Alameda fire and you've been on some of those calls. They have taken your model of Zone Captains and adapted it to their area, which is both kind of densely populated and also zone. The mapping part and how you use that was strictly from Paradise. Now I'm finding the third generation paid forward group. They're even making a little video about it. I'll share that later. Okay, so you've got all your stuff, you have your social media channels, what channels did you choose? How was the moderation, we all know that one of the things that happens is the cranky period post disaster. So how did you manage that online and in social media?

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Very carefully. We chose, our demographic is a little different. So we have a large elderly population, and we thought it was really important to kind of do damage assessment. And the quickest, easiest way to do that was to use Facebook. So the number one investigating tool, we created Facebook pages, and then we literally went down public records. And we were like, okay, this person has this last name, oh, we went to school with this person. Oh, this person's kid has the same last name, let's reach out and see what happens. Thousands of emails, which then we learned, translated to letters. So we started writing letters, because the big push was mail forwarding. So everybody had mail forwarding because PO boxes and stuff. So we were like, yeah, let's do it. We sent out flyers and postcards. I mean, we went from less than a hundred participants to over 20,000 participants. And like two months, like Facebook shut us down because they thought we were spam for a minute. But yeah, we're like, we're not spam, we're helping.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: That's really smart, though. mail forwarding, I just want to call that out. And then I'm going to let you keep going. Really smart.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Yeah. And if you do, anyone who's listening, if they utilize that option, I implore you to go and speak with somebody at the post office because they gave us this little meter thing to stamp on. And it was like 10 cents an envelope. Like it was next. And we weren't funded at that time. This was all our own out of pocket expenses. And because it was the first 30 days, and it was a huge help. They were great. We sent out so many letters and so many postcards. And it was wonderful.


"Disaster is like having a baby, the first year is a blur, and then you think you have it down and it changes again. If that doesn't apply anymore, now we have to move on." - Jennifer Gray Thompson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: So what did it look like? So if in 30 days, you were at 20,000 people, what did that look like two months later? And what kind of areas specifically was the system helpful for, and how did it change? Because over the course of time, because disasters like having a baby like the first year is a blur, and then you think you have it down, it changes again as soon as you're like, oh, okay, if that doesn't apply anymore now. Can you talk about the evolution? Because now, you are two and a half years post or four months post disaster.


"When you're in the same zone, you can utilize people and reduce costs, because they're doing less work and because it's centralized." - Jenna Murray-Johnson


Jenna Murray-Johnson: It's really interesting. Actually, I look back on it frequently. In the beginning, why we started was to encourage people to rebuild. That was our initial stick because I wanted to rebuild [inaudible] Home made it, there was just this group of us trying to basically pull our community back together. That was, and still is the foundation of who we are. So in the beginning, it was, okay, I'm rebuilding, who else near me is rebuilding. So it was like survey costs. We partnered everybody together and we used one surveyor who's now retired. He surveyed, I think it was 18 lots, and we each ended up saving over $1,000 a lot in terms of the surveying. I know this was before Charles started doing his plan library. But there were some people who got together and went in on a set of plans, and they tweaked them a little bit with the builder. There were several of us who went in together on surveys, I believe there were about 18 of us. And we each saved over $1,000 with each parcel for the surveying. And then I know that there were a few ladies in Zone 11 that went in together on a set of plans. They tweaked them a little bit, and they ended up all using the same builder and saving costs as exponentially because they're all so close together. So when you're in the same zone, you can utilize people and reduce those costs because they're doing less work, because it's centralized. And so we really tried to implement that as much as possible throughout the zones. But that evolved quickly. 

I mean, we went from trying to get the community back together to implementing rebuilding to realizing people were having serious struggles, both with the county and the town permits, whether or not they were allowed to live on the property, Cal OES Debris Removal. I mean, there were just unforeseeable events that kept popping up, and then we realize they're all the same, we're all having the same issues everywhere, they just look a little different. So we then transition from rebuilding to education. We were like, okay, who needs this information? How do we push it? 

So we went to work on the website, and we created what we call the Weekly Q&A. And we did one for the town of Paradise and one for the county, because our fire covered both. And different jurisdictions have different rules. So for example, in the town of Paradise, serving is required prior to you being able to break ground. Whereas in the county, that's not a thing. We also had some issues in the county with Cal OES and endangered frogs. So Cal OES, the debris removal was put on hold for almost a month in a couple of different zones. But anyway, so we did this Q&A where we would take all the questions from all the zones, figure out how they relate to each other, and then ask those questions and put out the answers. As expected, there was some pushback at both the counties in the town because they want to be the voice of what's being put out there. So we did our best to allow them to be in control while still making the message clear and easy to understand because people don't want these like fufu jumbled please see paragraph, 1B.2. They don't want that. They want to know, can I put a trailer on my lot? Yes or no? If yes, what do I need to do? Those kinds of things. So what evolved from rebuilding to this, like communication, education, peace to community building. So after the debris removal was completed, which a lot of people say it took a long time, I think it was pretty quick. I sit back and I look at it, and I'm like, that was good.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It was. It was very fast. It was very fast for us. And then it was like seven months for us. And like 11, 13 months for you, which is remarkable. If you go into some hurricane areas, I was in Panama City 10 months post disaster, they'd only clean the right of way. It didn't happen the day before so it was impressive. I do want you to touch upon one of the challenges of the work that you do as a private citizen or a head of a nonprofit is that the public sector does not always want or welcome your input or your participation. And it really is based usually upon not really understanding what you're going to do and where you're going to take over the narrative. And they are hearing so much criticism, and a lot of the trauma actually lands on their doorstep. I know that there were fears, not really here, but definitely up there that somehow by doing this sort of organization with the Block Captains that it would be weaponized against the public officials, and I knew that I had to talk to a couple of them on the phone just to reassure them, but I'm sure James [inaudible] did the same thing. That indeed the dome captains were going to be in fact their best friend. And it was wonderful to see you get that evolution. But can you talk about that a little bit because it's rough, and I've seen it repeatedly.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Yes. I will tell you, we had a really hard time. And I would suspect anybody else from the ground up would have a very, very difficult time. My best advice is do it anyway. When they see that you are doing it, they will want to participate because they are terrified of the private sector controlling the narrative. There's also a really big education piece, which I'm very blunt, and I didn't do it the way that I wish I would have. But it's really important to consider their perspective because they have so much on their plates, and they don't have a playbook, and they don't know what they're doing either. We're all trying to figure it out together. And in the beginning, I don't want to name names, but one of our high ups, I love him so much. I think about him all the time. We talk all the time still. But in the beginning, he was like, I don't know about this. I think he was more or less coming from a position of you're going to put so much work on my plate, and I already have enough to do. But really what you want to show them, and don't tell them, show them, you want to show them you're not here to alleviate a piece of that pie on their plate, because that's really what's important.


"It is very important to have collaboration, it is the key to any success." - Jennifer Gray Thompson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: It's actually getting to the other side and getting to the place of yes. How do we get this done? It's that relentless and perfect progress, no matter what. It's hard sometimes for any sector, especially the public sector to hear that there's so much disaster here. We're not going to weaponize this against you. And in fact, we're here to partner with you all the way through conversion. I've also seen a situation where the nonprofit has refused to work with the public sector. And in that case, that nonprofit was not as effective as they could have been post disaster because they refused to communicate and partner with the public sector, whatsoever. So I've seen it on both ends. But it's very important to have that collaboration though. It's just key to any defense you might have.


"Every disaster may be different but mobility is critical to progress. You cannot make progress without moving. So whatever that looks like for your community, do it. Don't wait for permission." - Jenna Murray-Johnson


Jenna Murray-Johnson: And the bottom line is every disaster may be different, but mobility is critical to progress. You cannot make progress without moving. So whatever that looks like for your community, do it, don't wait for permission.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: That's great. Meanwhile, you're also navigating your own rebuild. Can you talk to us about how your Zone Captain's grew. And really, it grew. It started as its very own thing. And then I heard you say that, did you guys file for a 501c3, or are you still under North Valley? Where did you get the funding from? Let's talk about funding.


"Our purpose was to only go after what we needed." - Jenna Murray-Johnson


Jenna Murray-Johnson: We were largely funded by our own expenses. And then at one point, we decided, let's just start asking for everything that applies to us. I have never done it prior to the nonprofit. I had never done any sort of grant writing whatsoever. I went to college to be a post secondary education teacher in English literature. So I have a dangerous English background so that I can make things sound pretty on paper. I'm like, we could figure this out. Between all of us in this room, we'll get it figured out. I can't tell you how many hours we spent drafting and redrafting different things. So in Butte County, we have NVCF, which is North Valley Community Foundation, and they are amazing, but they are the umbrella for a lot of people who don't have their 501c3. We are currently going after our 501c3, something I said I would never do two and a half years later. I also thought this would be over by now, by the way. That's funny. So anyway, we are now going after a 501c3. A lot of our funding came from a communication grant that we applied for. Today, we've only received three grants, but we've only needed that a week. Our purpose was to only go after what we needed. So our first like, big, this is what we're doing I don't know if you know what a little free library is. We decided that we wanted one in every zone and there were like, I don't know, 10 of us when we came up with this idea and we thought it was the best ever. 

So one of the women on the group works at Butte College, which is a local community college here. And she talked to the woodshop class and they're like, Oh, yeah, we can do it. So they gave us this price list. We wrote probably six or seven different grant applications, like we're googling this, like we don't know what we're doing. So we found that it's a company called Community, Community something. They're an organization, and what they do is they fund disaster nonprofits, I guess. And they need partners. Something, it's something, yeah, but we had to go through like a 35 page document of filling all this stuff out, and they gave us $10,000. That was like our first, Oh, my gosh, we can do this. And we really stretch that out. Community for Good, that's what it's called. Community For Good. And then we applied for a second grant, which was Charles, his idea. He sent us the information, and that was a community outreach grant. So you had to meet certain criteria, and then our community college put on a free grant writing workshop. And we all attended that.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, see? There's so many skills wrapped up in there and ideas, which is if your disaster is near a community college or any kind of college, do use your academic talent, it's right there. They obviously, you are a case study essentially for them so there's no reason why you shouldn't partner with them in some way. But also that anybody, if you're determined, you can sit down and write that winning grant, you can totally do it. And I think there's so important. I always say that I may have a master's degree, but you don't need it to do my job. It doesn't matter. What matters is that, do you love your community? Are you really trying to make it better?

Jenna Murray-Johnson: They get used to hearing no, because I'm telling you, with grant writing, they're going to tell probably 20 to 1. I mean, unless you do this for a living and you know what you're doing, congratulations. I do not. And we heard no so many times. But it's worth knowing that they're going to say no though, because it's perfectly acceptable to pick up the phone and say, I don't know what I'm doing. This is my idea. Is this something your organization's even interested in? If so, do you have somebody that can teach me how to make this more presentable to you?

Jennifer Gray Thompson: They will say yes, if they're organizations interested in your organization. That is great advice. I'm always amazed by how much doesn't get done because people just don't pick up the phone and ask, and they feel like I can't pick up the phone until I know everything. I'm always like, I don't know, I don't know, let's see, let's just try. I'm doing a podcast, I don't try to do this, but I know that it will help in some ways. So I do this because I think it's, I keep it encapsulating, and highlighting, and amplifying the knowledge that we've all gained over these past years, and amplifying the critical role of the emergent leader, and it's real change, and you can make in your community in the mitigation of pain and suffering, but also to deal with your own trauma. Very effective for that. Very good for your mental health. So talk to us about rebuilding your own house in the middle of all this.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Yeah. My husband is a contractor so this is right up our wheelhouse. Right out the gate, I just had this idea. I'm in real estate, he's in construction. This just seems like the perfect deal. Like we've got this, we were wrong. But it was far more emotional than we expected it to be. In fact, we ended up buying a standing home because we were like, no, it's not for everybody. I have many friends who completed the process. We got as far as getting our plans approved. We even broke ground, like we did all of that. So I commend those who could complete the process. It's very difficult. I'm glad I went through it because the experience allowed me to help other people. Because a lot of people who are rebuilding were in the town of Paradise, and even though my address is a Paradise address, we were county. And so our process was completely different from the town. It was actually an expensive mistake, but such a great mistake to make going through it so that I could teach other people how to do it. And actually, I have resources today that I still hand out based on that experience.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'd love that actually. I think there's an important lesson in there too, which is, what we saw here was a little bit of judgment for people who chose not to rebuild. That's what we thought. So it talks about that.


"It's really important to be conscious of not judging someone's recovery. Your recovery looks different from the next person's recovery, your family is different from the next person's family."  - Jenna Murray-Johnson


Jenna Murray-Johnson: Yeah. There is a very strong sense of community that our area has. I think people are so sensitive to the decisions that they are making for themselves. They're projecting onto other people, which is not abnormal for humans to do. However, it's really important to be conscious of not judging someone's recovery. Your recovery looks different than the next person's recovery. Your family is different from the next person's family. I put it this way, when we started the nonprofit, we really reached out to community members that either had standing homes, or they were rebuilding, they were from Paradise, or Migalia, or Concow, they were rebuilding in those areas or they were living there today, that doesn't even look the same anymore. Out of my 31 volunteers, 22 do not live there.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Interesting. But I think it's also part of that need to be flexible and compassionate as you go through it. I think it was probably the press that asked me the most in the first year about rebuilding, well, what if people choose not to? I think it was almost like a, there's a little bit of a weird question every single time. I would just say, people need to do what they need to do to make it through their own personal drama. Like read, don't rush through it.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: That was my thing. I wish I hadn't rushed into it. I mean, I am thankful that I went through what I went through to help others. However, I wish I had not been in such a hurry. Our situation is a little different than the average person. I think if our insurance company had paid us out, I definitely would have gone through with the rebuild. But you can't expect someone else to respond in the same manner. It just doesn't, it doesn't work.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It doesn't work. And then there's that other side of it too, which is the rushing part. And that's been a real lesson for me working with newly fire affected communities. And now that we're on that third generation of it, and they're all in such a hurry, and they're only four or five months post disaster, and we've been trying to say, we totally get it, there's a trauma response to want to get back to where you were before as quickly as possible. And in real life, you should have a sense of urgency, that's good. But it's not going to go that quickly, will go more quickly if you have some urgency. But again, that feeling of rushing to make it right somehow and to get everything done at once, I think that's why the cranky stage happens about six months post disasters because things are moving slowly. And also, everyone in your community is traumatized regardless of whether or not they lost their home and still are traumatized.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Butte County is actually quite a large County, and only three towns in Yankee Hill. So I guess four towns, four towns out of the nine were affected by the fire, but everybody was affected. I mean, we surged into those communities, fleeing literally for our lives. And for the most part, I have to say we were welcomed with open arms. There was a little push back here and there because we challenged infrastructure, but overall, the community has, and you need those communities to support you wherever you are. Even if you are rural, your next closest community has to support you because you have to get resources from somewhere.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: But I think that one of the things that was really good was very, I should say, a learning moment for the rest of us watching the fire response there is that secondary disasters are created in secondary impacts. I should say in these other communities that absorbed the population willingly, but FEMA and other organizations need to pay attention to the fact that you actually have to help those communities absorb the impact. Oh, you have to. It's crucial.


"You can't hurry a longer process that is thoughtful in strategy. It needs to be done the way that it's done." - Jenna Murray-Johnson


Jenna Murray-Johnson: They have to have places to go, but that's another part of the not rushing. I mean, you can't hurry a longer process that is thoughtful and strategic. It needs to be done the way that it's done. I was just talking to somebody else from the SCU Lightning Complex Fire, and I was telling them, don't push it, let it happen because it will. If you want the recovery to happen, if it's the forefront of your thought process, it will happen. But it will happen organically.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: It will. It doesn't mean it needs some structure, some ideas, but I think that I've been thinking about this a lot because now we are three and a half years post disaster. I realized that probably for the first two years, I still felt guilty for sleeping. I was like, I don't need that much sleep. I should just be working harder in service to other people. How do I get there? Oh, my God, I took a nap on a Saturday. I was almost like, I would sell shame all the time, but not yet. I mean, like my every ounce and every molecule on it all the time and it's just stupid. Pardon my language, but it was a shitty way to go about it.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: And we all know to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of other people, but actually doing is a different story.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, my God. I have to be so aggressive just this year really. COVID sort of forced me and a little bit before then, like about six months before then few incidents forced me to do it. But it was like, now I have a Yoga Trapeze, and a VR headset, and to exercise on, whatever I can do to nap. You have to be aggressive with your mental health post disaster. Hey, what do you want to do now with the Zone Captain? So you're two and a half years post disaster, rebuilding is probably gonna take a decade. I believe weirdly in Sonoma County, we are at 75% rebuilt or almost rebuilt, which is weird, but it's only because of the Zone Captains in the Block Captains system, and everybody working together to get to yes, including the public sector, the private sector implicitly keep burning down so that's a good time. So tell us what do you foresee in your, your now in year three post disaster, what do you want to do with these Zone Captains moving forward?

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Yeah. COVID has really changed things. But what I love about COVID, that's weird to say. What I love about COVID is that it has forced online communication, which is like, that's our wheelhouse, we're so good and bad now, like outrage, we know people that lost their house in Paradise. I live in Russia now. Like, who moves to Russia? That's so awesome. I communicate with them all the time. But anyway, what I love about COVID is it has pushed now an online platform, and I really, really want to ramp that up. I want it to be so much more than it is now because our recovery is still ongoing. And while it's really important to shed a light on that recovery, in that rebuilding, and like you said, we're like a decade out still, I still want everyone who was affected by this fire to know about it and to feel like they're a part of it even if they're in Russia. And so that's really important to me. And that is what I plan on emphasizing the most over the next year. Our captains are still very involved. I don't know what I would do without them. I am a full time mom and I have a full time job. And I try to be a good wife. Without them, this wouldn't run, like this whole program would not be what it is. I'm like the smallest part of why this works the way it does. They're still actively engaging with the community social distance style. Somebody in one of our zones just had a tailgate party at the church so I actually snapped a picture of it, I'll post it, but they were all like eight feet away, like in blankets because it's cold right now, drinking tea. Some of them weren't tea. But they were all just sitting there having a great time, and I think that's great. It's about community outreach, wherever that community has landed. That's what it is for me.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I'm selfishly hoping that you're going to use all of your hard won skills, and that I can continue to call on you. Because one thing we know is that our climate emergencies are just beginning. It gives me chills because I feel sad in advance. And I have grief in advance for all the people who are about to come into our club. It's full of wonderful people who are in the club for the worst reason possible, which is this horrible disaster. But I know that the impact of talking to people like you, or having people like you at the Zoom table, whatever you want to call it, changes lives, it changes the trajectory of how these communities are going to recover. So I hope that you include that in your funding requests as well because you are paying it forward, you are making a difference and it does matter.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: I appreciate you. Thank you for doing it.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, thank you. I guess that's a wrap. I just really want to thank you for being on, again, Jenna Murray-Johnson. And if you want her contact information, we've actually put that in the tiles so please do reach out. I think what I'd really like to do too is make this something where I can come back to you again like a year at this time, we have other people in our club and we can do, I check on the progress of you becoming your own 501c3, and also the impact that I will do on how to help other communities.

Jenna Murray-Johnson: Thank you. I would love to do that.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks, Jenna.