Community Resilience: Is Empathy Possible in an Online World?

With crisis management, disruptions to a sense of belonging and rising digital dependency, Sally Hussey asks whether empathy is possible in an online world.

In the latter part of twentieth century, cultural critic Raymond Williams described “community” as a “warmly persuasive” keyword that touches on a desire for a sense of belonging. Almost a decade later, French philosopher Jean Luc Nancy, in The Inoperative Community,[1] suggested that people are most likely to consider the significance of “community” when they feel it has been lost or is missing. This is not to suggest an insufficiency, but the activity of sharing and belonging. Nearly a quarter of a century later, the sense of belonging and the fragility of community – the idea that community cannot be taken for granted – couldn’t be more salient. The recent devastating bushfires in Australia devouring over 12 million hectares and a billion animals, razed communities to the bone of resilience with losses beyond their control. The increasing frequency of catastrophic climate-related and natural disasters – floods, hurricanes, earthquakes – have displaced communities the world over with recovery efforts often balancing initial urgencies with the enduring commitment to community healing and rebuilding. Caught in the maelstrom of these early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the virulent spread of COVID-19, too, seems an indictment to community as we know it, particularly in mitigating against the social and communal disruption of “social”, or “physical distancing”. As New Yorker columnist recently put it, “COVID-19 may alter the human journey.”

With events like extreme heat, drought, bushfires and pandemics, conceptualising community in crisis-risk management and recovery is fraught with complexity – this despite the fact that assessing community resilience, or capacity to ‘bounce back’, is said to strengthen disaster risk management. Taking meaningful action in risk management, it seems, translates to a community’s ability to re-establish stability after a catastrophic event.

Community participation builds community resilience

Earlier this year, researchers in Finland identified three ways to conceptualise community in disaster risk management: place-based community (where daily life is linked to residential area, its inhabitants and interactions between community members) interaction-based community (social networks and interactions of everyday community life) and community of practice and interest (common actions and goals performed by communities, local organisations and residents that are, in general, informally organised and community-generated). Perhaps in an effort to mobilise a more dynamic, multifaceted notion of community, this tripartite definition nonetheless highlights the need for adequate knowledge of local complexities when engaging with vulnerable and disaster-affected communities. Indeed, the importance of public participation, consultation and citizen engagement – while erroneously used interchangeably – is increasingly acknowledged and integrated into planning and governance processes following major disaster events. Since the mid-1980s and the United Nation’s first conference on disaster risk reduction, Andrew Maskrey has repeatedly highlighted the need to engage local communities in disaster risk management. But it is often unclear whether international agreements and commitments to community engagement necessarily translates into action. Public health emergency plans, for instance, are typically top-down and rarely involve public consultation let alone community input, instead relying on government and public health agencies and scientific experts.

But while there is much research on community engagement in disaster risk management and recovery – particularly as it is mandated by international agencies – little attention is paid to the dynamic, complex and, I would add, evidence-based intersection of community engagement and community resilience. That is, local, city and municipal governments engagement with vulnerable and disaster-affected communities. In 2017, in his preface to the collection Community Engagement in Post-Disaster Recovery, John Twiggy writes, “Community engagement in disaster-related actions has attracted a lot of research interest, but too much of that literature is uncritical and some is partisan.” Moreover, it often ignores the emergence of new collaborations and partnerships, recovery pathways and innovations that can occur in engaging local communities. That is, where resilience implies not only that a community might cope, or improve its capacity to respond effectively to a crisis, but lead to altered outcomes that include community well-being. The research focus on risk reduction and disaster avoidance, too, mitigates the reciprocal need for community participation in building resilience. This is not to disavow the difficulty in working with traumatised local communities. But to give attention to the effects of psychological well-being of civic engagement. As Mark Pancer writes in The Psychology of Citizenship and Civic Engagement, when connection is lost, when citizens feel detached from communities, individuals suffer and health suffers. For people’s connection with community has a proven – and profound – impact on their health and well-being.

Increases civic engagement, but can democracy withstand crisis?

Without question, disasters and crisis make clear the importance of government – demonstrated on a daily basis with the current pandemic. In this, local governments can seem less powerful in decision-making, positioned in the penumbra of federal government policy. Yet, as University of Toronto’s Director of Urban Studies, Shauna Brail recently points out, municipal and local governments are closer to people and therefore the first to act in an emergency. On the flip side, events such as the bushfires in Australia earlier this year witnessed an increase in civic engagement. Professor of Politics and Dean of Engagement at Griffith University, Anne Teirnan revealed that, post the devastating fires in Australia, civic engagement had never been higher. This despite an evident mistrust in government and the federal government’s reluctance to link the fires to climate chaos. The perceived increase in civic engagement, too, produces an optimism otherwise missing in the existing lack of trust between community and government institutions (however much the current pandemic is reporting increased trust in governments.) Indeed, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that the widespread mistrust in government is a wake-up call for institutions to embrace a new way of effectively building trust: balancing competence with ethical behavior.[2]

Despite this emphasis on local government and civic engagement, democracy itself seems a brittle framework. Ever decreasing numbers of recognised functioning democracies have given rise to notions of “democratic recession”, the “death of democracy”, and more recently, “post democracy,” where parameters determining people’s living conditions are set by entities out of reach of national policy-making. There is also increasing concern that some practices of public participation in major disaster events might narrow the scope for authentic democratic engagement. Raven Marie Cretney’s research into how residents perceived participatory processes following the Canterbury and Christchurch earthquakes of 2010-2011 in New Zealand, which killed 185 people and damaged tens of thousands of residences, revealed dissatisfaction with the actions of the then central government in the treatment of residents in official processes, reporting they felt dismissed and excluded – even deliberately left out of the processes of consultation and engagement. The quality of democratic governance, too, has come into sharp focus during the global crisis precipitated by COVID-19, where questions around a governance robust enough to win the trust of its citizens, in Australia at least, is in contrast with their degree of trust in science.

The diverse nature and unique impacts of disaster events make the role of community engagement equally complex. Deliberative decision-making, for instance, integral to the legitimacy of democracy, is largely accepted as best-practice method of public participation. More recently, questions have emerged around whether deliberation can renew democracy, in part, due to its ability to support democratic decision-making at all levels by incorporating a range of different views and opinions into a focussed discussion. But it is challenging in a post-disaster environment, where devastation and loss of infrastructure and services compels an urgent pressure to rebuild communities. The aim of a public deliberation to investigate options by hearing from experts, explore common ground, and reach a collective decision – through the forms of mini publis, citizen’s assemblies or citizen’s juries, for instance – is made ever more difficult in disaster events where social processes are dampened not only through displacement, loss and grief, but where, adapting to a shock like a pandemic, flood or bushfire emergency, resilience is envisioned through the intervention of recovery efforts. For instance, in the resilience of food systems.

The current pandemic, too, sees governments increasingly dependent on online environments – observing, in some countries, calls for the digitisation of democracy. Add to this the fact that responses to containing the virulent spread of coronavirus require communities to be more digitally connected than ever, which also raises questions around digital inclusion.[3] To date, digital technology has wildly altered the way democracy works – to both negative and positive effect. In part, social media has negatively shaped public debate especially where it encourages polarisation and undermines trust in democracy and democratic institutions. It also positively responds to democratic processes. At a manifest level, through an increased accessibility and the ability to transcend geographical limitations – through virtual town hall, for instance – it can promote broad participation and democratic literacy. Dedicated engagement platforms, unlike social media, can also support online communities where, in moderated, safe spaces, people are invited to weigh up arguments and consider the issues at hand through a reflective process, engaging diverse ideas and expertise. And although the practice of online public engagement is relatively new, deliberative processes and methods – such as deliberative polling, consensus conferences, or citizen’s juries to name only a select few – can be translated into online environments. Translating face-to-face processes, deliberative dialogue can also adapt to online methodologies where processes like dialogue facilitation can uptake myriad opportunities afforded by the ability to capture thoughts and ideas, verbatim comments, and create a ‘reflective’ space.

Digital engagement in crisis management: Is empathy possible in an online world?

But where use of online needs and engagement come together at a faster rate –through major disaster events, for instance – evidence-based engagement is crucial. It creates opportunity to learn from experience – as a rule, this includes ways in which engagement might not have adequately engaged community with the process such as the example above. Equally, well-crafted creative and meaningful engagement absorbs learnings from practical experience. But it also provides an answer to how an online approach can offer practical suggestions to build resilience working with communities in transition and recovery phases – phases that often follow an emotional arc, from the sense of togetherness and altruism in the immediate and short term, to relief and renewal that come with restoration. While digital engagement is keeping communities aware and informed globally during the coronavirus pandemic, Logan City Council in South East Queensland, Australia, dealing with cyclones and floods and more recently COVID-19, created a “disaster dashboard” where dependable information on emergency measures serves as a community ‘source of truth’. This points up that disasters, too, can be multiple, where coming out of one crisis folds into another as Adelaide Hill’s Council currently seeking to gather positive community coping strategies exemplifies: “The bushfires brought us together. Don’t let the virus push us apart.”

The powerful, emotive appeal of community – or, to rephrase, the ways of belonging in the context of an increasingly insecure world – is redoubled in crisis. Like the sense of loss with physical distancing and community-at-a-distance in this current pandemic, community engagement itself can be seen to mourn the loss of traditional, face-to-face engagement. With increasing digital dependence, this also raises question of whether empathy is possible in online world?

 Indeed, there is a yearning for connection at times of crises that leave us bereft of solid ground. And connection is essential to building community resilience. But this includes engaging difficult conversations. Addressing a so called ‘empathy-gap’, online engagement enables an ability to open up difficult conversations that can readily explore possibilities and unmoors any fixed point of view that precludes empathy. For the imaginative practice at the heart of empathy gives rise to a range of emotions. In 2018, for example, Health Canada initiated a public consultation to collect input and ideas for developing a framework on palliative and end of life care where, through the use of well-crafted questions, prompted community’s meaningful responses around end of life stories. Alternately, fostering online empathy through inclusivity, Access together Ajax are currently asking questions around what accessibility and inclusivity means to residents, asking them to take a pledge to use person-first language move towards a community that promotes inclusivity and accessibility, on the one hand addressed the marginalisation and on the other, the often invisibility of disability. While the peer support program by Ottowa Public Health to support expecting expecting and new parents or caregivers around stress and anxiety of parenting through peer matching incorporates empathy in its very framework in helping connect with parents who have had similar experiences.

Connecting with – and participating in community – is crucial in crisis. It continues to be crucial, too, when the crisis subsides – in current circumstances, when the pandemic is over – and we are again faced with the task of rebuilding our communities and community resilience. Bolstering resilience, then, not only implies a given community’s ability to bounce back – but an ability to engage with empathy.

[1] Translated into English in 1991. Original publication in French in 1983.

[2] The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that none of the four societal institutions that the study measures—government, business, NGOs and media—is trusted. The cause: people’s fears about the future and their role in it, wake-up call for institutions to embrace a new way of effectively building trust: balancing competence with ethical behaviour.

[3] For instance, more than 2.5 million Australians are not online and many lack skills to benefit from connectivity, with affordable internet access a key concern, in particular, for low-income households.

Sally Hussey is a Melbourne-based writer and Bang the Table’s Principal Writer and Editorial Director. She has an extensive background in the publishing, academic and cultural sectors.

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