How to Self-Care— Recovery Leaders and Helpers with Jolie Wills
“One of the beautiful things disasters have to teach us is how to not just offer support, but receive it.” —Jolie Wills
Emergent leaders and frontliners are akin to shock absorbers in a car. They absorb a heavy load of impact, cushioning the rest of the community. These individuals, by virtue of their roles, are at the frontlines of disaster response, spearheading the recovery efforts and acting as the life rope for those affected. But, even the sturdiest of shock absorbers can break under sustained pressure from constant exposure to distress, trauma, and physical and emotional burnout.
In this episode, Jennifer interviews Jolie Wills, the CEO of Hummingly, an organization that provides practical tools and resources, all gathered from real disaster and crisis situations, to help individuals and organizations around the world navigate the toughest of times.
Listen in as Jennifer and Jolie explore the gap in providing help to our front liners, what leaders can do to help their team, and how leaders can care for themselves as well. They also share how community members can show respect for each other’s decisions, how to overcome the self-imposed guilt of prioritizing self-care, and how to manage secondary stress.
- 05:19 The Mission of Hummingway
- 17:59 The Gap in Helping The Helpers
- 25:46 How to Support Leaders
- 37:28 How to Self-Care: Recovery Leaders
- 45:01 It’s Hard Because It’s Hard
- 52:30 The Burden of Guilt
- 01:01:56 Managing Secondary Stress
In the face of a disaster, we often look to helpers and emergent leaders to guide us forward to recovery, forgetting that they need help too. Join @JenGrayThompson and Hummingly’s CEO Jolie Wills as they share an insightful look at how we can provide support and care for those who carry the burden of disaster response. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season5 #HowToDisaster #selfcare #traumainformed #frontlinecommunities #helpingthehelpers #leadershipsupport #donotrewardburnout
07: 17 “When you are impacted by a disaster, you often don’t have a sense of what’s ahead, or how to navigate your way through it. It’s communities that will drive that recovery, but they often don’t have access to recovery knowledge.” —Jolie Wills
08:18 “It’s so uncomfortable and feels almost impossible to prioritize yourself amongst all of that… And self-care wasn’t the only component at play. There’s a lot that would need to be doing as leaders in organizations to support our people and not just expect them to look after themselves.” —Jolie Wills
24:32 “The hard thing with mental health is that once you’ve been through a disaster, or you see the absolute leveling of what you thought was true and what you thought was going to happen tomorrow, and what you thought you would see is gone. It’s all gone, and it’s never going to look exactly the same.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
29:43 “Self-care is important and very vital, but we can burn out and damage the most resilient of people if we load them up with too much for too long.” —Jolie Wills
34:09 “Often, it’s really uncomfortable to prioritize ourselves, and we should do it for ourselves. But if we can’t get there, then at the very least think about where it is we’re leading others too.” —Jolie Wills
39:16 “It’s not as obvious for us working under prolonged pressure what that harm might look like.” —Jolie Wills
43:19 “One of the first rules should be: do not reward burnout.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
45:22 “If you’re finding it hard, it’s because it is hard.” —Jolie Wills
48:40 “If you are in this space, you are actually part of the solution. You’re also part of the need base. Don’t think that’s not true.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
49:45 “One of the beautiful things disasters have to teach us is how to not just offer support, but receive it.” —Jolie Wills
54:04 “One wasn’t better or easier than the other. You have to make the decision that is right for you and respect the decisions that others make.” —Jolie Wills
01:03:56 “People get into philanthropy and disaster because they do care.” —Jennifer Gray Thompson
01:07:08 “If you’re a leader in any way, shape, or form after disaster, the more that you need to be curious, open, ask questions; surround yourself with truth tellers.” —Jolie Wills
Jolie has a Masters in Cognitive Psychology and is a leading psychosocial expert in disaster and disruption. Jolie has studied how the mind works under prolonged pressure, how we make decisions, and how our reactions and behaviors are impacted by stress. Jolie is a survivor of the Christchurch earthquakes and has lived disaster recovery with her family first-hand. She led the psychosocial recovery program for the New Zealand Red Cross in response to the earthquakes and has supported those working in disasters around the world. Jolie is a Winston Churchill fellowship recipient, a Leadership New Zealand alumna, an Edmund Hillary Fellow, a co-author of Leading in Disaster Recovery: A Companion through the Chaos, and is an advising member of the global Counter Terrorism Prevention Network.
- Website: https://hummingly.co/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Hummingly.co/
- Linkedin: https://nz.linkedin.com/company/hummingly
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome once again to the How To Disaster Podcast where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I’m the CEO of After The Fire.
Today, we have very exciting guests. I know that I always say that, but that’s what I always think. Jolie Wills is here, and she is from Hummingly, which is an organization she Co-Founded with her partner. She’s going to tell us all about that. It is very exciting that I had the opportunity last week to be with Jolie and really see her work firsthand when we were in the Marshall Fire with a delegation in Boulder, Colorado.
One of the very big gaps in disaster recovery is, how do you take care of the helpers? We’ve talked to Susan Farrell of First Responders Resiliency on this podcast. And we’ve talked to the amazing and much beloved Dr. Adrienne Hines about these issues as well. The thing that Jolie brings to this work, which I just absolutely love is these tools that I have not seen before. And these tools are like cards for catastrophe. And this workshop that she took us all through last week really resonated so much. I know with me after six years in this field, and then people who’ve been doing this who are emergent leaders who’ve been around this work for about a year and a half, but certainly feel the weight of it and do need that sort of ability to talk about, what are the challenges? What are the pitfalls? How is this difficult? And how is it hopeful at the same time?
A thing that we all go through in disaster and myself included is that once it happens, it feels so large. It’s very hard to say to your spouse, can you not just step aside for the next 1 to 10 years of my life while I helped my community rebuild. And that’s somebody that we really love, a leader on the ground. She had told her husband to sit on a shelf right now. That’s really not a good thing for us to do to ourselves or our partners. I have to note that it really resonated with me because that’s exactly what I said to my husband as well, both overtly and covertly by how much I dove straight into this work, and didn’t really come up for air for probably two years. And that was not necessarily the best at all. I’m not recommending that strategy. And so one of the things we like to do here is absolutely admit the ways in which we went wrong, and to talk about some of the best practices. I’m actually really looking forward to having Jolie along with After The Fire and the work that I do in both private consulting and the nonprofit to really help community leaders provide and find personal sustainability. I know people say that all the time, and it’s an overused word. But it’s just something that’s so important. And the thing about disasters, it sort of levels all of your expectations of how the world will be? Who are you? What is your role? What can you do? And it’s really difficult if you know that you have something to offer, to alleviate suffering, to be able to step back and say I also cannot create this whole ecosystem of private suffering in my own world and in my own family.
Jolie is very impressive. She’s from New Zealand. She’s a survivor of the Christchurch earthquake, which was in 2010 with several aftershocks. The worst and most devastating one in 2011. Sidenote, when we did not know how to disaster, one of the places that I turned to read all their surveys was Christchurch. I really wanted to know how you do this. And I love the fact that they actually survey their people. Every single year, they did a wellness survey. They wanted to know, how are they doing? What are the gaps? What can we do? It’s one of the things that I wanted so much for us here in Sonoma County where I live, but it just was not something, quite something we were used to in domestic disasters here in America. We know we do them in other countries. We did not do Christchurch, they did theirs. But they’re standard elsewhere, but they’re just not standard here. And I really wish that they were.
I’ve invited Jolie here today to talk to you about her background, which is very cool. She’s a cognitive scientist, how did she come to do this work? How did she distill all of these important lessons from over 100 global leaders in disaster into this very cool interactive workshop format? So once again, welcome to the How To Disaster Podcast. We’re so happy to have Jolie Wills from Hummingly today. Thank you.
Once again, welcome Jolie to the podcast.
Jolie Wills: Thanks very much, Jennifer, for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I told the audience in your intro that I was super excited because it was so great to actually see you in action last week, and I want to talk about it that way. I want to open today for you to talk to us about Hummingly, what is it? We will obviously have links where people can find you, but tell us about your company.
Jolie Wills: Yeah, so Co-Founded by Elizabeth McNaughton and myself. There’s two of us that started basically out of the need for designing some of the resources that we saw that we really needed after all the disasters that we’d worked on. So between the two of us, we’ve supported communities more than three decades through all sorts of disasters around the globe, including one that I lived through myself and experienced firsthand. But we just kept seeing these similar challenges playing out. Every community is different, every group of people working in it is different, and every disaster is different. But amongst that, there were these common challenges that people were struggling with, whether it’s recovery leaders, whether it’s people supporting communities, or the community members themselves coming up against the same challenges. So for us, it was around, let’s learn from other disasters, collate all of that learning into resources that will help those various different groups to make it just a little bit easier, that disaster recovery or supporting communities. Because it’s hard. It’s a hard run for anyone involved in disasters.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s a very hard run. And that’s why we started the podcast. One of the things that you and I really enjoyed, I think, was that we are very aligned. But I really liked the fact that you have all this depth in this other area that I also really care about, but I’m more of a generalist for community recovery. And so you really have been so intentional about how you dive into this particular, really, there’s four areas. So do you want to cover those four areas? And then I want to talk about your own personal story.
Jolie Wills: Yeah, sure. So the four areas, again, these are the design challenges that we would just say, these challenges playing again and again and we’re like, well, what if we could help with that by connecting people with learning from others who have been through it so that it’s not as hard. And the first one was when you are impacted by a disaster, you often don’t have a sense of what’s ahead, or how to navigate your way through it. It’s communities that will drive that recovery, but they often don’t have access to recovery knowledge. The knowledge from others who’ve been through something similar, which is why we love After The Fire. Obviously, you don’t know what your work is doing. And so for us, it’s like, how do we pull together all of those learnings and lessons from recovery experts that have seen it again and again, and from other communities who have lived it? So we created cards for calamity, which is a resource that will really help guide communities through what comes after, when all the sirens and lights have disappeared and they’re left with thousands and thousands of decisions and challenges. And so that was the first area. The second one was, there’s a part of the gritty slog process that is so difficult for communities who were interacting with all of these systems, agencies and processes that they never imagined that they would have to interact with. These systems often aren’t designed for the reality that people see after disaster, and the frustration, and the hurt, and the anger, and the exhaustion that all of these systems and processes often cause. We call that secondary stress. The disaster after the disaster is often how it’s put. And so for us, people working in those agencies don’t set out to frustrate people. The great people try to do good things without the training, the knowledge, or the expertise around how to work well with disaster affected people. How do we design those systems and processes to really help recovery rather than inadvertently hinder? So that was our second one. We work with agencies on that. The third one was in, we’ll talk a little bit about our own experience. But in our own disaster, we felt the weight of a leadership role and supporting a community through recovery. And we realize we’re not the first, this isn’t the first disaster. And we’re not the first people to have a leadership role after a disaster.
So to do this, the best way we can, we shouldn’t be drawing on the learnings from others. Avoiding some of those pitfalls, really helping steer ourselves through this in the best way we could. And we found it really difficult to find the advice that we needed. So we interviewed more than 100 crisis leaders, recovery leaders after disasters and asked them, what do you really wish that you’d known? Packaged all of that up to guide leaders. So that was our third piece. And the last one that I think we probably will speak more about today is, how do we sustain and support very good people who are really leaning in to support communities after disaster often impacted themselves, not always, but have a support role in recovery. It’s not about the lights and sirens. It lasts way beyond the sexy stage where there’s a whole lot of media and attention, and then everyone moves on to the next event or to the next thing that’s going on in their lives. And the long haul recovery piece, those that are helping to support that on the ground, how do we help prevent some of the bad things that we were seeing happening in terms of burnout and turnover for those people?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m so glad that you called it a slog, because that’s what we call it too. And it can be very disconcerting and also re-traumatising. There are certain things that re traumatize the community, and one of them is in that slog. They look around and now they’re ready. Now they’re like, okay, all right, we got through that sexy super traumatizing stage. And some people might beg, how is that sexy? But when you get a long way out of it, you do see like your adrenaline is flowing, and the love is in the air. Everyone’s together, their community and the honeymoon period. And then you enter into the true reality of what recovery takes. And depending on the size and place of your disaster, size of your donations, and your land values, and insurance rates. And there’s all of these things that come into it. And then you have to navigate those you said, it’s incredibly tough. And there aren’t a lot of tools to do that. One of the reasons why we started helping other communities is because we’re like, that was terrible. Maybe we can make it less terrible for you. I would like to just step back for a moment because I’m always interested in people and their stories. I’m wondering if you could talk to us about your own story.
Jolie Wills: Yeah, sure. My story is kind of interwoven with my Co-Founder, so if I give her a little bit of her background first. So Elizabeth had worked in disasters all over the globe, this was kind of her career, what it was that she did, looking at the long term recovery. She started with the, I have to think about what it’s called here. Because in New Zealand, we call it the Boxing Day tsunami.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I know Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. We love it. We wish we had it everywhere. It’s a very good holiday.
Jolie Wills: It is, it is. But the Indian Ocean tsunami that impacted Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other areas, was a really huge, huge scale event. And this is where Elizabeth (inaudible) in the disaster space. She had worked in these large scale disasters around the globe. Her story is that she came back to New Zealand to recharge her batteries, to start a family, go for some bushwalks as we call it, and go hiking. And of course, the Christchurch earthquake happened. So that’s running in parallel. So she ended up stepping in and supporting that, that’s how we met. We met while working on this earthquake. For me, my background is I’m a cognitive scientist. So I’m really interested in the connection between stress, and our cognitive abilities, and our performance, our decision making, our ability to take on information. So all those things that we know, there’s a fair bit of stress flowing after a disaster. But my background was in community services, working with people with disabilities, mental health sector, older person sector. And then the Christchurch Earthquakes happened. So for me, that’s my home city.
And just to give you a little bit of a sense, it all started for us very, very early one morning in September in 2018. We were very close to the epicenter, which was just outside Christchurch. Magnitude was 7 on the scale. So a really huge, very shallow event. And I kind of grew up with earthquakes. It’s kind of like a good thunderstorm, so I thought this was kind of exciting. But I went from that, switch flipped very, very quickly to, this is something very different than that real terror of where we survive this kind of moment. We had two small kids, and it all started from there. Both of us heading to our kids, sheltering in place, surviving, fortunately, the first earthquake. And then looking around and going on, what do we do now? We all trained around the first 48, 72 hours so we knew that we could work it out with our water, and our food, and support each other as neighbors. But beyond that, what happens next without having a sense of, what does it mean when you have a city of 400,000 people where 95% of the homes were damaged or destroyed? And we had 15,000 aftershocks, and it was actually one of those aftershocks that hit in February 2011 that claimed the lives of 185 people and injured thousands. Our central business district was roped off for two or three years, it could not be accessed, and you’ve got all of the horizontal infrastructure that needs to be repaired before you could even get to the building.
So every community after a disaster, or people working to support a community, there was this naive sense of what it would take, and how long it would take, new start off, and this adrenaline fueled way with your task list. I’ll put everything else on hold, and I’ll just focus on this, and then all your energy goes there. And then realizing, what you thought was days, weeks and months turned into years, and it was a really long process. So it’s in that context that I ended up leading some of the psychosocial recovery work in Christchurch to support the bereaved, the seriously injured, the wider support to the population around the stress, the ongoing aftershocks, the insurance and the rebuilding processes. So there was a lot of, how do we support a community through what comes next in the long haul phase? But they’ve got me so interested in supporting and sustaining the supporters. As a cognitive scientist, I’m like, this is going to be a lot of stress for a long time. And we’re going to need to protect and support our people through this if they’re going to be able to sustain their support to a community, because most of them, like me, were impacted too. And so there was that realization early on, and we put everything in place that we could think of every well being strategy or approach I could find. It was an instrument, you name it, we tried it. And the reality was we were still burning our people out. We were just burning them out slower than others that weren’t intentional about trying to support them. We were all headed to not a great place. So every table, I sat down around, whether it was with government, whether it was local community leaders, emerging leaders, whether it was health, all sorts of social services, the exhaustion and the fatigue just became really, really obvious and prevalent in the impacts that we were starting to see out, see play out personally for people supporting communities, but also for their organisations, for their mission. And for the community, when they’ve got all this turnover of people working to support them, and peer decision making, loss of all those things were taking a real toll.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I did hear the story, but I liked the story. And who doesn’t mind listening to a New Zealand accent? Because I know I don’t mind. But I think that it does matter, though. If you speak for like two minutes, and then we’ll all speak, but I think you just should go. Go go. It’s fine. Keep going.
Jolie Wills: Thank you. Someone told me recently, the New Zealand accent has been described as the most pleasant in the world, but that doesn’t mean that no one can understand me. So I have a very good American friend who often says, if only you had subtitles when you spoke. Well, I think that was translating for people.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: The good news is that we transcript everything, and people can turn on captions and there’ll be fine. I find it rather comforting. I think we can just go with it, it’s fine.
Jolie Wills: Okay, all good. So anyway, this was the challenge that we were finding, seeing the impacts really sobering when you’re seeing these mission driven amazing people who have put so much energy into supporting communities when there’s the sense of unrelenting need. It’s so uncomfortable to and feels almost impossible to prioritize yourself amongst all of that, so we would keep seeing this gap between, we need to prioritize self care, we all know we need to look after ourselves. People would say, if you tell me one more time that I need to get good food, get some exercise and get some sleep, I know that. But in the reality and the environment we are working in, all of those things were really challenging and difficult. And self care wasn’t the only component at play. There’s a lot that would need to be done as leaders in organisations to support our people to not just expect them to look after themselves.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I found that in my case, and I’ve seen this a lot. When I wasn’t boots on the ground, or thinking about the disaster, or how to fix it, or how to help people, I was like, well, I have more capacity for the stress or whatever it is. I felt like in times that were quiet, I needed to cocoon . All the self care was like, you need to get out there and exercise. It was more like, you need to, you need to, you need to. I was surrounded by so much need. I still struggle with this. But doing that, prioritizing the self care peace when I wanted to cocoon instead, which meant to also not communicate. I really loved it so much, in the Marshall Fire, when she said, I told my husband, I’m just going to put you on it. I just put them on a shelf over there and I’m like, why would you have needs. I need you not to not need me. That’s the biggest thing that I need. I totally related to that. My husband would be over here nodding like a banshee. So it is such an interesting day to talk to somebody who’s so versed in it and has seen it so often. So I just wanted to side note that, it’s very common.
Jolie Wills: Yeah, very, very common, and very real. We are driven because of our biology with that adrenaline to be very task oriented. And as tasks just don’t go away, that to-do list just doesn’t seem to get shorter, not for a very, very long time. And so this need to put all our energy and focus on these tasks means that what happens is we tend to really detract from or neglect the things that we do to nurture our relationships, or to look after our physical health basics, or to just do things in life that give you energy, joy, just bring light and color to your life. And when we put all of those things on hold for a really prolonged period, which is what this always is, that’s when we start to see people becoming so disoriented, forgetting who they are, and how to be in the world. That’s extreme disorientation. When you’re disconnected from many of the things that are really important in your life, the impacts on relationships, honestly, they’re incredible impacts on people’s physical health and mental health. Really huge. So maybe one step back, as a result of seeing all this playing out, I ended up doing a Winston Churchill Fellowship.
So I was really lucky to be part funded to travel around the globe speaking to others who’d been through something similar after the disaster, to learn whether we were alone in these impacts. And of course, we weren’t. They were very common, exactly as you were saying. And one of the things we need to do better and differently as leaders, as funders, as organisations, supporting people working in the space, but also as people with a role in it ourselves. And the number one bit of advice that we keep hearing over and over again from people who had a role and come out the other end was, everyone kept telling me to look after myself. They said it was really, really important. And it just felt really impossible to do. But if I would go back and give myself a piece of advice, it would always be that because you would have avoided X, Y and Z as a result of some of these impacts. So yeah, that was very much the backstory to us working out. How do we bridge the gap between the fact that we know we need to look after ourselves, but we find it really difficult to do. And some of the things that we know are really important for our well being. Their behavior that plays out when we are really dedicated to a mission for a prolonged period of time drives us in the opposite direction. How do we help leaders and agencies understand what they need to do to support people in space?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I think if people haven’t been, one of the reasons why I prefer to work with people who’ve been through a disaster, because I don’t really know how to. I’ve tried teaching it to people who haven’t. And it’s not that they don’t care. They’re not wonderful people, but it just doesn’t resonate. The same isn’t that visceral, like a deconstructing of what you thought was predictable or real. Christchurch was your home, and seeing that destroyed on a totally different level. But I do feel informed by driving away from Sonoma in the middle of an evacuation and a long line of people, and having my dogs in the back. I took a selfie, which sounds terrible. I didn’t take a lot during because I looked like hell. I was like, I don’t think I like these natural disasters. They’re not for me. I have no idea how my life would change. But it’s so horrible to see everyone that you love and all of your markers of who you are, that was my fact because I knew that working for the county, Sonoma downtown, was 10 minutes away from burning down. I grew up there, my husband grew up there. I was just like, I don’t even know who I’ll be like if I don’t see that corner, all the markers of my life, of my maturity, everything, you owe the place to home. It’s not the house, but the home that raised you and brought who you are, who you carry through the world. And it’s just a very surreal and grief stricken experience. We were fortunate that it didn’t. So it is different in that sense that yours actually was devastated. I want to acknowledge that, I see the difference. But now I feel fortunate that I had that terrible moment because at least I have a clue. And I think that the hard thing with mental health is that once you’ve been through a disaster, or you see the absolute level of what you thought was true, and what you thought was going to happen tomorrow, and what you thought you would see is gone. It’s all gone, and it’s never going to look exactly the same. And that’s a big thing.
We tell communities we go in and they’re like, oh, no, we wanted exactly back like it was. We’re like, so sorry. It’s gone like that. It’s the day before, and now this is the day after, but maybe we can help walk you through. So I love the fact of how trauma informs you. Of course, you’re able to make a lot of people think that they are. But you also did this really cool thing with your trauma informed knowledge, which is you didn’t just stay stuck in where you were, you actually pivoted your model of delivery in a way that people could actually, you can meet them where they’re at. Can you talk about that, because I have one of your things here. I’m not selling because I’m not allowed to do that. I do run a nonprofit. But the thing is that I’ve actually seen this in action. You were so kind to do this for the Marshall Fire community. So if you can talk about these cards and hearts for calamity, because our workshop is in a box, I really love that you did this.
Jolie Wills: Yeah. And for me, it’s the cognitive science piece. So again, we did all of this research around, how do we support people working in this environment? How do we sustain them? We did all this research around, how do we support leaders? What do they need to know? What we would see in terms of what was out there were things that were inaccessible when you’ve got a tired brain or a full brain, or you just got so much to do in this sense of the pressure that you’re facing the overwhelming need. So that was very much our challenge. What’s the point of having this knowledge that you can access and use in the pressured environments you’re in? So we’d see 700 Page Guidance documents for leaders after a disaster. I haven’t been there myself. No, I’m trying not to swear, but just no chance.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Tried enough highlighters posted time. You just can’t take it in, we call it fire brain. Yeah, it really takes at least a year. You can’t take it in, they aren’t used there, which I tell to local governments, they asked me to speak to them. I’m like, you should just QR code that and see if it can change. I know they have to do it, I get that. But it’s not as accessible as what you’ve done.
Jolie Wills: I guess that unique perspective of being able to, connecting with others who had been in these various different roles, and being able to research and connect them with that learning. Added to that, the personal experience of knowing that there’s just no way you could absorb this in this form. And then the third piece was cognitive science, which really understands how our brain operates under pressure, and cognitive load, and what it is we need to do to make things accessible and usable. And that simplicity is hard. It was a hard press. It took us many years working with people and understanding some of the processes. So that the first foray into that was the leadership guide. So it’s called Leading in Disaster Recovery: A Companion Through The Chaos. And that is a guide for leaders, that’s freely available. It is now located in DC and the Global Center for Disaster Preparedness, which is an International Federation of Red Cross resource. So that was our first, again, no 700 page document. It’s a 30 page maximum full of just quotes, stories, questions, things that you can absorb and use as a leader. So that was our first foray into, we need to design something that works. The second one was the (inaudible) calamity. Again, saying the same things. Playing out for communities, the game and the need for communities to have access to that recovery knowledge so that they could apply it in a way that made sense for them and their community. But knowledge is power. They’re trying to navigate their way through all of these challenges. And all of these decisions, without a sense of what has been done elsewhere? What might be helpful? What might be a hit for me? And so Elizabeth and I were working in different disasters at this point, and we were putting together our research, but also messaging those things to communities. When it seems odd, as normal artists say, oh, that’s useful. Going away with some strategies and ideas, and having things normalized. And so we wrote a book, Jennifer. We started by writing a book.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I had that idea too. And I was like, who’s ever gonna read that book?
Jolie Wills: Thank you. Yeah. So we had it in the draft phase. I looked at her and said, I’m a cognitive scientist, what am I thinking? I’ve been through disaster, I would never have had time or brain space to read a book. So we deconstructed that into the cards for calamity. So again, that process, thinking about how it is that we can absorb information, and what it is that those people need in terms of recovery knowledge to guide them. And doing well was the same. Brought back a lot of this learning around, we call it triple responsibility. So the ways in which we can support people after a disaster. There’s an individual component, that self care stuff’s really important and very vital, but we can burn out and damage the most resilient of people with all the right things in place if we load them up with too much for too long. So again, we have workshops in a box to help leaders understand what they can do to support people under pressure, including sustaining themselves. What teams can be doing to be able to support each other. Because when we’re under immense pressure for a long period of time and we’re really tired, teams can become a source of stress as well. But the flipside, we set them up. Well, they’re the most amazing source of support. And then at the individual level, what was that design challenge of, we know that we need to look after ourselves, but it feels impossible to do. Everyone’s saying, if I could go back, it would be that thing that I would find a way to do. So how do we help people with that?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: One of the things you said, which really resonated with me a few things, for sure, we need to just go on, but it was that thing about that you realize that you were leading your team into the same sort of burnout. And I think that that’s a very hard thing for people to feel in places of leadership. I’ve thought about that because I have pared down my team dramatically because I was finding it so stressful in that way. And instead, I felt like, okay, let’s just restructure how we’re doing this so that I can have personal sustainability. But also, I can tell them, you don’t need to answer emails after 5:00 PM. You don’t have to work on a weekend. But if I’m sending emails at 10:00 PM, midnight, and then 6:00 AM the next day, what I’m doing is setting a tone at the top for what I value. And what I value, obviously, is no personal space and burnout. I got better at that over the years, for sure. I wouldn’t say that I got that much better at it because I am on a mission. I’m clearly clear about that. You can’t expect everybody else to be on a mission. And if you don’t make it so clear, or give them lots of space to take care of themselves, I probably went overboard on the lots of space. Backfired a little bit at times, but I thought that that was really profound.
Jolie Wills: And I think the mission piece is hard because we drive ourselves so hard. And again, seeing that need is so very real and tangible. When you’re up front and close in person, or whether in a community, it is just so hard as a leader to prioritize all of that. And there’s a story, I know you heard me tell last week. But one of the very first people we interviewed was a woman who is a phenomenal recovery leader, so well respected in her community, has done amazing things, very effective, very capable. She was one of those hero people that we really couldn’t wait, we had a bit of a thing crash online. We couldn’t wait to interview her. So we had the opportunity, which was really exciting in terms of her leadership, learnings from working in space. And on the day that I was due to interview her, I got this message to say, hey, Jolie, you just need to know that I’m not in the office. I’m at home on stress leave, we can go ahead and do the interview. But I’m at home and I’m like, well, this doesn’t need to happen today. Your health and recovery is most important. And she was very magnanimous. She said, look, this needs to happen now more than ever. I’ve realized how important this is. I interviewed her and she talked about the very real impacts for her burnout in terms of her health, her relationships in mental health.
Again, very, very sobering to hear it. This incredible leader. And we’ve seen this play out in many forms again and again with great leaders. And she said, but it’s not a scary thing. We saw something scarier than that. And she said, it was the fact that when I was forced off that treadmill, this never ending treadmill and my body eventually said, I can’t do this anymore and I had to stop. Not by choice, but because my body demanded it of me. She said, I stopped and I turned around and looked at my team. I had this realization that my team was about two or three weeks behind me on that journey to burnout. It’s a question leaders ask themselves regularly, where am I at, because that’s where I’m leading others. And often, it’s really uncomfortable to prioritize ourselves, and we should do it for ourselves. But if we can’t get there with that reasoning, then at very least thinking about where it is, we’re leading others too. Because we talked about that triple responsibility, we can encourage people to do the self care piece. But if we just keep loading the map, some of that loading might be the stressors, that include sending emails at 2:00 o’clock in the morning, modeling that for our people where it makes it uncomfortable for them to do what they need to do to look after themselves.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yes. There is something about disaster because it does feel like everything is in a hurry. You touched on it right in the beginning, are you not in a hurry anymore? In my case, I’m just going to make this all about me. I don’t mean to because I helped so many other communities boots on the ground very soon after disaster, it sort of renews that. I love the humanity piece. I’m not a murderer. I’m totally going in there because I really love watching people be extraordinary and in really difficult circumstances, that’s my thing in life. How can I help you do more stuff, but then I may tell them to take care of themselves. But a couple of years ago, I got a call four days from now from a Dixie Fire person. Dixie Fire actually burned down two years ago, tomorrow on August 4th. And so I got a call on August 8th from a survivor and he was like, I don’t even know. I don’t even remember. Oh, he got my name from a mutual friend who used to work for the governor of California. He was like, we need you here now. And I was like, I’m not really the best. I’m not a firefighter. Your fair fire burned for another 80 days after that. And he was like, nope, we’ve got to have you, on and on. We’ve got to have you here now because we need hope. And I was like, oh, okay. Well, that was my birthday. I took the phone call and I was about to get on the Russian River, one of my favorite decompressing things, and I just had a terrible day. I couldn’t stop thinking about the grief and the upset. And then I was really trying to disconnect from it. But by that evening, I was like, I just want to go home. Our hotel, we just let it go. I was like, I just can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t feel so bad sitting here doing something nice when all these people are suffering. I’m going to go, and I will be there by August 12. I’m going back tomorrow for the first time in two years, which is great. I didn’t have any separation. I think I’ve been much better about that the last two years, mostly, because I hurt my back this year. And that forced me into a totally different place for months. But it was unhealthy. But being needed and knowing that you have the capability. But sometimes, you don’t want to lose your empathy or your compassion. You don’t want to do any of those things. So finding that mode of separation, that’s healthy. What do you say for that? My body forced the issue period, that was the deal.
Jolie Wills: I thought it was amazing. But often, that comes with pain. How do we get there before that happens is always the question.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. It is, always. How do we get there before that happens? Yeah.
Jolie Wills: Well, I’m very big at joining the dots for people. Because as much as I don’t want to scare people, I have seen the impacts play out in terms of, I’ve lost people working in the space because of what happened to their physical health. I’ve seen what it has meant for them in terms of their parenting and what it meant with their relationships with their kids, or their spouses, or their mental health. And when you’ve seen it play out again and again, it’s very real. But when you’re going into it, it’s kind of this abstract risk. We have a very western bias, that cognitive bias, the optimism bias if there’s something bad that will happen to someone else. When you work in disasters, you know this bias is not very real, that it’s better, that is incorrect. But we still operate that way. 75% of people think they’re better than average drivers. That doesn’t work in terms of reality. We all think that we are much less likely to get divorced, or to have cardiac issues, or what we really are. So I always say to people, if it’s very hazardous working in this space, it is incredibly rewarding, very fulfilling if we do it. Well, it provides the most amazing conditions for learning, and growth will come out in the end with these amazing learnings, new skills and different views on life. But the very real reality is, for many people working in this space, it’s a cause of harm. And if you had someone working at heights upon scaffolding, psychologically, it doesn’t take much mentally for us to equate in our heads, what might happen to that person if we don’t manage that? We can kind of imagine the harm, but it’s not as obvious for us working under prolonged pressure what that harm might look like. So we’re very big on painting that for people, then saying, here are the positive strategies, the things that you can do that are doable under pressure. Because of all of those well being strategies, the training that we ran in Christchurch was not set up for the kind of environments we’re working in. And it just feels like you’re talking to emergency managers about you not having technology in your bedroom, which doesn’t work when you’ve got two phones and you’re on call. Thinking about those strategies that are usable, doable, applicable under pressure that will work for you. So you asked me about doing well and kind of the approach behind that. For us, there were some design challenges that went into everything that you’ll see in that pack. So for example, not everyone knows, but most people know. In the world of emergencies, we were talking about social capital. So the people who have, and this is oversimplifying it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s okay because I love talking about this, go ahead.
Jolie Wills: Really oversimplifying it. My apologies, I know some amazing researchers in space, but to oversimplify it in a way that will probably have their toes curl. But basically, people with a close social network that use it and lean into it under pressure are the ones that are going to have better outcomes. They’re going to do better. So we know that, and we would talk about that. Working with people and communities, but also with our team. And then the reality would play out, you’re under pressure for a really long time, people are exhausted. The energy it takes to catch up with their friends like they used to, to take the calls or make calls to their family, to be able to commit to the sports things they used to do regularly, to be able to hear the things from their friends, people around them who could see that they were heading for a bit of a fall, all of that. So we would know that we need to lean into our social networks, and then our actual behavior was the opposite. So the very thing we need most, we would lean away from. And so there’s a set of cards that helps people really set up that crew when you’re probably not going to be wanting to be connecting or leaning into it. But having people know how to reach and support you through that, there’s a set of cards around decision making. We often don’t have our prefrontal cortex online, which is the part of our brain that we really want to be able to access and use to make great decisions. We talked about those thousands of decisions that you’re encountering, whether you’re working in it or living it after disaster, and having to make those decisions that are going to have life shaping impact for yourself, or your family, or for a community if you’re working with the community. The risk of making a bad decision, and then the stress of that. So there’s a set of cards around, here’s some questions you can test. Some decisions give you a little bit more contemplation, reflection space, more confidence in your decision making. There’s some things around tuning back into your body, the physical aspects, because that physical health component is so huge. We often forget how our physical body is doing is going to influence how our brain is able to operate in terms of the role–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s very primary, I think, to have to offload the stress. It’s going to offload somehow. And to figure it out, also not to have your whole social network be immersed in disaster. I think that’s so important. Because otherwise, they may not have the perspective. You may get praised for a culture of burnout, that’s very common in this space. We’d be like, oh, I had a boss, she was so proud to text me that one of her employees was working 14 hours a day. And I was like, why are you bragging about that? I think that’s so lame. That’s terrible. We rewarded each other for that. When I talk about company culture in this space, one of the first rules should be, do not reward burnout. Because that’s constantly what happens in this space.
Jolie Wills: Absolutely. So when it comes to that, that social connection, setting up your crew, you want to have a few different people, you want to have someone who gets it right, kind of understands it so that you can talk about it, and they get it. You might want to have someone who maybe has been through it before like yourself. I’ve been through it before. They get it, but they’re not in it. So they haven’t lost perspective in the same way that we may all risk doing it at a similar point in time.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Just going to pin that really quickly. Because I find that one of the most valuable things that I do for leaders who are local, but I’m not part of their disaster, I’m just coaching from behind leadership, through followership and saying, how can we help you locally lead and design your recovery? But I have found many, many dozens of times, once we get on a Zoom call, I’m sitting there and it’s gentle because I’m not part of their disaster, they just need to cry. They just break into tears, and it’s compassion and understanding. I don’t have to know, you don’t want anything from me. I can’t overstate enough, that would surprise me but not now. But in the beginning, as soon as you even verbalize it, maybe what you need to do is cry and you can do that with me. And then they often apologize. I’m like, no, no, this is perfect. This is exactly what I should be here for because it’s exactly what you need. We don’t have to talk about FEMA and HUD, or roads and debris removal all time. Let’s talk about you.
Jolie Wills: Yeah, yeah. And I think you’re wearing this hat where you’re role where you’re constantly having to portray yourself as capable. You’re carrying the weight for others, trying to be calm for others and doing all this for others. And if you can connect with someone who’s been through something similar, when they’ll say, hey, this is hard. If you’re finding it hard, it’s because it is hard. We’ve worked with thousands of recovery leaders, and I’ve not found one who’s found it easy. It’s something that’s so nice knowing that. I’m incapable. It’s not that I’m weak or any of those things that we often beat ourselves up with.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: You could feel it in the room in the Marshall Fire too, because I’ve been working with them for 19 months of their 20 month post disaster. You could feel who was ready for it. Who wasn’t ready for it. Okay, we’re not going to talk about how to serve the community, we’re actually talking about how to serve our own well being. Energetically, it was very needed, welcomed and appreciated.
Jolie Wills: Yeah. And sometimes, you’ll only get leaders to turn up to something like that if they know it’s about setting themselves up to support or continue that support role as best as possible because we’re so driven that way. Often, we don’t catch it around. We’re going to provide some strategies and normalize what you’re going through as a recovery leader, because this isn’t easy. Just knowing that is really helpful. And then let’s connect you with those learnings from other leaders who have been through something similar. Let’s put some practical things in place to really sustain you and set you up so that you can continue to do your best by your community. They wouldn’t often come if you say, look, this is about your mental health and setting you up. Have you seen what it is that’s going on so that you can best serve your community? We feel the weight of that as a recovery leader. And then the relief of knowing your normal and there’s some things I can do to sustain ourselves, but also knowing what’s at stake, that’s why this is so important.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I know that in the beginning of our disaster, we have this really wonderful, I would like to introduce you, I don’t think I have yet to Dr. Adrienne Hines. She works at Stanford Centre for PTSD, and she lives here in Sonoma County. And so she designed this Wildfire Mental Health Collaborative so that every person through a federal grant who had access to something, either one on one, or group, or yoga, it was all trauma informed, you guys would get along beautifully. Crazy beautifully. But I remember that I was looking around, there was this gradation where people who didn’t die, but why didn’t they die. And then there were people who lost their homes, and they were the next on the list. They say, oh, I didn’t die. I did lose my home, but I’m okay. And then there are people like me who didn’t lose their home, but went through the entire disaster. I’d be like, well, I didn’t die and I didn’t lose my home, so why would I ask for that? Mental Health, I can’t take advantage of any resource that’s helping somebody who definitely needs it more. I’m not the family of a deceased person, so they didn’t take it. I know I would have never considered taking it until it was like a year later. I didn’t even realize how stressed out I was for three years. It took a long time. But if you’re listening to this and you’re fresh, or new, or curious, if that resource is there, if you’ve experienced a disaster, Disaster Survivor, yes, there’s different degrees for sure, have trauma. But if you are in this space, you are actually part of the solution. You’re also part of the need base. Don’t think that’s not true.
Jolie Wills: We call that the hierarchy of grief. We see that play out again and again after disaster in a way that’s often unhelpful. So people who are often united at the beginning, really supportive of each other, their different experiences will play out differently as you become tired, and find it really hard to see beyond your own experience. And so they become another ring of people in a different part of that letter, that grief letter, and discounting for ourselves or each other of the very real impacts or needs that people have no matter how they’re impacted. So just being aware of that, you can have a very similar experience on the day, and very different impacts, and very different support needs, a very different experience. You can have very different experiences, but because of what it is you bring to an event, the impacts will play out differently. That needs to be downplayed. I think one of the beautiful things disasters have to teach us is how to not just offer support, but receive it. We’re not very good at that as humans.
And when you were talking about that, brought to mind a story, or the person that we encountered in the Christchurch earthquakes, he was an old retired military veteran. Tough as boat kind of guy, and didn’t have a lot of family support. He was living in council housing. So the local government supplied housing in a small unit, and we’d knocked on his door, basically letting people know about his grants that were available for initial immediate assistance. And he said, no, no, I’m fine. I’m good. There are people much worse off than us. I don’t know how we got on to further conversation. He said, what are you doing? Well, I’ve kind of moved into my living area where my television is because at this point, he had power, electricity. And he said, it just gives him some company. And it was through this conversation, we realized that his ceiling had caved in in his bedroom, and he had moved his life into the living room. But he was fine. So again, amazingly resilient, amazing coping skills. But being able to say those grants for me, they’re for someone else who needs it. But being able to say, actually, these grants are for those things that we can address, some immediate need, and we can get you back into your bedroom, but we do have this. We’re very good at donating and giving to causes, but not very good at being at the other end. And there’s something beautiful in the human spirit around, how do we learn to receive? That means that we better give because we understand how to maintain dignity, and resilience, respect, the resilience and the power that someone has even when they’re impacted by something like a disaster. And if we can understand that and be better, more gracious at that as humans, that would be a good thing.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It would be good. When you were talking, that also reminded me of one of the women who was one of the leaders that you met last week in the Marshall Fire when we first met, she said, because I just met her for the first time because she lost her home. And then she had to leave for six months, she had to go. And then when she was talking to me this time, she was apologetic for the fact that she didn’t stay to suffer. I was like, yeah, that’s okay because you actually need people who have the fortitude, who are a little more fresh into it to take up the second, third, fourth, fifth wave, because it does last so long. But imagine apologizing for not suffering more in the beginning and feeling guilty about that.
Jolie Wills: Guilt around choices you have, there’s a lot of guilt around what is right for me, and my family may not be right for you and yours. After the Christchurch earthquakes, there was a lot of assessment done on the ground, it would liquefy with an earthquake. And so that would really impact the structural integrity of buildings and houses. Some calls had to be made whether or not people should be able to rebuild on the land. And so then they became this whole people again, having been united in a neighborhood that became divided because there were some that took the payout and moved on, and others who wanted to fight to stay. What is right for one person is so different to what might be right for somebody else. Just understanding that, and there’s some great research from the University of Melbourne, and Victoria, Australia around people after the Black Saturday bushfires, that is a call to bushfires around the wildfires following the mental health, and well being, and recovery process of those who left the community and didn’t come back and those that stayed. And actually, they had a very similar, I guess how they did or how they were doing, how they were recovering was similar. They both were dealing with stress, or wars, and impacts. They were just different. Those that left weren’t faced with the immediate constant reminder and the triggers of being an event, but they weren’t surrounded by people who understood and they felt the guilt on why they left. And those that stayed were surrounded by people who understood, but they also had the triggers and the rebuild process. And so one wasn’t better or easier than the other. You have to make the decision that is right for you and respect the decisions that others make.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I remember the very beginning of our disaster, because when I took this job, there were a lot of high profile people on our board. So for the first year, we got a lot of press coverage and then none locally for about four years. And I was asked often by the press, because we had this love, the love in the air was actually born here in Sonoma, and that’s where everybody saw it. And the person who wrote that the love in the air is thicker than the smoke did not take credit for it. And they said it should be shared. I actually happen to know who it was. But because there was so much love in the air and shared purpose in this unprecedented disaster, which is very similar to Christchurch because that was just a mess. The magnitude of that disaster was so overwhelming, and ours was so overwhelming. Within that first year though, when people were making the decision to move away and not do it, some people did make that decision. And other people, they were clinging to each other. And actually, there was a new huge level of social capital building here. I was asked by reporters maybe like, well, what do you think about the people who aren’t doing it? I’d be like, it turns out that it’s not my decision. I don’t judge them. They should do it, it’s a shared experience. It’s deeply personal at the same time so who am I to say that they should go through a suffering that they don’t want to do? It’s okay. But I really am glad that you’ve pointed out there is an isolation to people not understanding. I saw that with a Dixie Fire survivor who came here about a month after Greenville burned down. He was walking around and he said to me, I kept telling people that I’m a fire survivor, and nobody seems to care here. I’m like, I don’t know how to tell you this, but we’re all fire survivors here. And we’ve actually had in 2017 NorthBay, three mega fires since then. So he felt more isolated by it. But also this other weird thing is that he went into a very disaster affected community and then felt like that people might give him more of what he needed. but they were not able to do that. So it’s complex.
Jolie Wills: Yes, absolutely. I remember having just a moment where, I think it’s on my first interviews in that Winston Churchill fellowship. So I started in Melbourne, and then worked my way to Japan, States, Europe. But my first stop was in Melbourne, and then into the areas that had been impacted by the Black Saturday wildfires. I remember, I’d come from a city where the central business district was roped off, your workplace was damaged like dust rubble mist, the roads look like that, your poem looked like that. There was just no escaping it. If you’ve been in a community that had been through a fire, everyone understands it. But it’s hard to explain that often to people outside. And then you get into Melbourne and just sitting on a bench and watching, I could hear those church bells going, I could see people doing their daily thing, going to cafes, getting coffee, taking buses, doing all the things in a normal hustle and bustle of a city. And just the surreal feeling of, I don’t know, it was nice to escape the disaster zone. But at the same stage, it was also very isolating to sit there and go, no one here would get it. No one here would get it. I think he talked before about being able to imagine it and understand it. We talked about how we support agencies to support communities.
And one of the aha moments I had was, I went to a flood conference in Ireland. And oddly enough, it was at the Titanic Museum. Local government officials, a lot of people who worked in emergencies, various different government officials, all sorts of agencies that support after disasters. They did this wonderful job of saying, look, we always focus on preparedness and the initial relief response phases. We’re not as proficient as thinking about planning or talking about the long term recovery. So they set this particular conference up to be thinking about the recovery aspect. And so they did a great job of framing it, they had a survivor from a community in Norway explain some of what they went through as a community. And then we broke out into different groups to address and look at various different components of recovery or different challenges. And what really struck me is you had a group of people who hadn’t lived in it, or worked in it, who were really keen to support but the conversations could not progress beyond sandbags and the initial cleanup. And it’s because as a cognitive scientist, we can only add knowledge onto something that exists in our brain in terms of what we’ve experienced or seen. There was this big gap between, if I can imagine it, how do I plan for it? How do I support people through it? What is happening to a community in one year? What is going on with it? What are the challenges that they face, the opportunities that we need to think about? And that’s one of the reasons that we work with agencies. Because if we can give them some basis around some live experience, understanding of recovery and what might a community be going through, they can start thinking about how to design their systems processes support, the way they they interact in a way that makes more sense, but we’re asking a lot of people if they’ve never experienced it and can’t imagine it to do that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I know we’re going on but I don’t care. Gosh, this podcast is long. Yes, it is. I know. I’d like to say that one of my great frustrations or challenges in the work that I do is that I so believe in the boots on the ground on the frontlines. The people who are in it at all stages. I’ve never walked in and not learned something, I watched him like, oh, I know everything going on here. It never ever ever happened. Because if you listen to the people on the ground experiencing that particular disaster, no matter how many megafires I’ve been in, it’s always the same thing. I walk in, I listen, I figure out, I learned something new because I’m trying to design how we’re going to help them in a way that’s culturally relevant that’s helpful. That’s curious instead of arrogant, because I think it’s the best research and development on the planet. And then filter that all the way up to the very tippy top of government through legislation and helping agencies understand, but I am never ever thrilled by the fact that I’ve been to so many disaster conferences that have not one, or maybe they have one Disaster Survivor, maybe for the most part, they talk around disaster survivors over them, or the conversation is they don’t really know what they want. They don’t really know what they need. I just don’t find that to be true at all. So what if they’re not disaster experts? At the beginning, I didn’t know anything about wildfire. Nothing, I knew nothing. I’d been through earthquakes, but I didn’t know it. I never even thought about it. And now, I know a lot. I can have a PhD in wildfire community recovery. You’ve got to actually stop gatekeeping for people who’ve been through disasters. They’re not dumb because they went through a disaster. It’s one of those things that makes me insane. So at the Summit that you’re coming to, which I’m so excited about, I prioritize having frontline communities there all the way up to policy makers and innovators, and private sector and national NGOs because they’re going to tell you everything you need to know about how to actually serve better. That’s my soapbox.
Jolie Wills: Yeah, I absolutely agree. People are not blank slates. They come with all sorts of experience, they know and understand the communities, they are the ones that will drive recovery. I’ve often worked because I come to the emergency management space, There’s in the training or exercises, that group over there that are affected, and you might also be that group. There’s not this false division of this other group that are victims, I will never use that word for that reason. And yeah, often you might be impacted, and you’ll have more empathy. But helping people understand and bridge that, I think is a really important role. Because again, we talked about that secondary stress where you have agencies who are genuinely trying to help, but without that understanding that they may need, they divide between them and the people on the ground, and that becomes a huge source of stress and a handbrake to recovery. So how do we help? Actually, people often talk about community led recovery, which I’m a big fan of. But often, it’s a partnership approach. We read those agencies, we need that extra support from outside. So how do we set up in a way that is constructive that builds that bridge, that builds that empathy and understanding, and that there’s some mutual learning in both directions.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I think the most important thing, what we learned, what I learned during our fires is that I did really well if I just asked, what do you need? How can I help? And the answer yesterday can be different from the answer today. And then we had a group of us who were willing to take the information that we’d learned or if we were doing something wrong. We weren’t wedded to our processes. It was like, okay, till we could meet every day and talk about how we are going to deliver food, make sure shelters are supported, how are we going to make sure everyone has a mask, because that’s something in a megafire, that’s particularly important. But to be not afraid of saying, I don’t know, and to not be afraid of saying, what do you need, and how can we help? And then to sort of fill it in from there. I think people get into philanthropy and disaster because they do care, for sure. They’re not poorly intended. But there tends to be a fear of actually asking an open ended question and not being able to deliver because then you are subject to criticism, especially if you are a government entity. I saw that from behind the scenes in Sonoma County of Sonoma, because that’s where I worked at the time. There were some leaders who were fine with, I don’t know, I’m gonna get out there. And when you get into it, I’m going to risk criticism. And there were others who were like, I can’t. I do not want to. I can’t take that wall of anger, grief and trauma so I’m just going to shut down or shut them down, or just hide behind it, whatever it is. There was just this whole spectrum of leadership responses. I would encourage people to find, I always tell new communities that your superpower is the words I don’t know. And then you can ask, or you can tell, and that has to be on both sides. It can’t be that one side is all knowing and super expert, and the other side is cast like not knowing. And so we just figure out like, what am I willing to do for you. There are only certain things I can do, but maybe I can find them the person who needs what it is that they need. And if I can’t do it, I’m just honest about it, and then I’m not re-traumatising them.
Jolie Wills: Absolutely. And everything is turned upside down after a disaster. So there is the opportunity to work differently, to collaborate differently, but to figure it out together, it’s the space of any space to be able to say, I don’t know, let’s figure it out.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Totally. I will say that I tend to be a grudge holder. I’ll just say that on a podcast. It’s fine, whatever. So there are certain people who were like, oh, I’m going to take care of this all by myself. I don’t want you to be there because I want sunshine all over me. I actually had a leader that told everybody in a room full of really powerful people that he was in charge of the four counties that I was actually in charge of. But he was in charge of downtown Santa Rosa in real life. But I was like, that is so strange because I don’t know how any of us are gonna get through this without each other. I know, I’m not capable of doing it alone so I don’t know why you’re being such a weirdo. You do see that in disaster. People were like, oh, no, I got this. I had another guy in another community that told me that he had Googled me, and he already knew everything that I knew even though he’d never been through a wildfire or a disaster. That was like, cool, you let me know how that works out. I’ll be right here, and that’s fine. And he hadn’t even been through the disaster.
Jolie Wills: Yeah. Disaster is political, there’s egos involved. And people, when they’re under immense pressure, they will show up differently in terms of when they’re feeling wobbly. And the leaders that tend to do this, we’ve seen leaders fall over, we’ve seen it play out, make poor decisions that have impacted their careers in their communities. We’ve seen it play out in many different ways. The leaders I worry about are the ones that have to project that they’ve got it all together, they know all the answers, and I don’t need any help. They’re the ones that are most likely to end up in a pile and not a good space in the long run. So if you’re a leader in any way, shape or form after disaster, the more that you can be curious, open, ask questions, surround yourself with truth tellers, with people who can say I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you, who can do the leaks on the research, those people that you can be open with, and vulnerable with, may not be people in your community, it might be people who’ve been through it before, like yourself, do you know if it rains, but people who are like you into that, people who are open to that will do better, for sure.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So one of the things I always like to ask is, is there something that I haven’t asked you today that you wish I had, or would you like to include it in this podcast?
Jolie Wills: Thanks. So I think we’ve covered a massive amount of ground. I could go on, I really would like. There’s probably about three or four things I could say. But actually, I really love the ground that we’ve covered. It’s been great.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, I could go on forever with you. And actually, at the end of our deployment last week, I was like, I’m just going to look for me. I’m just going to start to manufacture reasons, whatever it is. One of the things, and I think you could probably relate to this, you’re always searching for the helpers in this job and especially when you know that there’s just no way that you can serve without a cadre of super cool competent people who are compassionate and caring. And there’s a lot of alliteration for one sentence. But for me, it was like, I have a few people that I think are great in this space. But with the tools and with your capabilities of moving through these disasters, I was like, how do I make sure that I add in Jolie and make sure she gets funded? All those sorts of things because it felt like such a relief to have you along.
Jolie Wills: And these are all the things that we wished we’d had in our event that we see others wish that they had had. So I guess that would be the only thing is there some way that we can send people for, there’s that leadership companion that is a free download, there’s 12 principles for supporting people in the space, we’ve got some things that you can put in your pocket to help through what is a really tough road.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We will put all the links, and you’ve already sent some links. And if there’s some extras that you’ve thought about in the course of this conversation, do send those. We always put it in there. We always do full transcripts. You’d like to meet people exactly where they’re at, which is why it’s both odd.. We’re trying as hard as we can. I look forward to seeing you in September. But also, I’m not looking forward to the next disaster. I am looking forward to the next opportunity to actually see you at work because I think you’re pretty cool.
Jolie Wills: Likewise, Jennifer.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It’s good. All right. Thank you so much. Once again, this has been the How To Disaster Podcast. Thank you for spending this time with us.