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Planning for Disaster: A Writing Exercise

What does it take to survive a crisis?

What does it take to survive a crisis?

Part of the Series

What does it take to survive a crisis? Have you ever written a personal safety plan? Kelly Hayes offers some guidance on building solutions for the situation you’re in.


Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Last week we talked about community safety and navigating our fears as Trump continues his lawless pursuit of authoritarian rule. I got a lot of follow up questions about the episode. So much so that I thought we should return to the subject this week. Some of you wanted to hear more about safety planning and that’s something I am going to dive into a bit more today. Because regardless of what happens on election day, there are a lot of potential catastrophes and crises looming, and people are on edge. Those potential climate disasters, mass evictions, waves of illness, and other threats, can make it hard to talk about the future, and the present, which can cause people to freeze up, personally and politically. So to get through a lot of the discussions we need to have, it seems like people need to talk a bit more about this, so let’s do that.

When we are strategizing around safety, at the community level, there are questions we ask. I have done some of that strategy work around personal safety with people who were in danger for various reasons as individuals. So I am going to walk you through some questions, and I want you to formulate answers, and to write them down. Because while I don’t know your lives or priorities well enough to write your safety preparedness plan for you, you do, so let’s start building that right now.

So if we’re confronting our fears, our first question is, what is the crisis? Right? That may sound like a silly question, but it really isn’t, especially amid all of the chaos we’re experiencing. I think we have all had moments, lately and in general, when we couldn’t even articulate what we were specifically afraid of or upset about. Because what we are being battered with is a barrage of violence, indignity and atrocity. Sometimes, it all blurs together into a painful cacophony. So we need to disambiguate, and pull complete thoughts out of our messy responses to chaotic news cycles and right-wing onslaughts.

So assessing threats. What are the things you’re afraid pose a direct threat, or a potential direct threat, to your immediate well being, or to the well being over your family? We know that most of our fears are connected in various ways, but as flight attendants tell us, we are supposed to put on our own oxygen masks first. So what do those oxygen mask-grabbing moments look like for you?

So make a list of your most immediate concerns. Are you primarily worried about right-wing violence? Are you concerned about mass power outages caused by climate catastrophes, or other forces? Maybe you’re concerned about what policing will look like in the tense days before and after the election? Or maybe you’re really worried about the rising second wave of COVID-19, because who wouldn’t be? It may seem intimidating to write all of these things down, but right now, for a lot of people, these fears are just a chaotic haze, people often don’t know how to navigate that. So if we are going to talk about safety, we have to talk about what’s making us feel unsafe.

Now that you have sketched out what some of those fears are, let’s map out some of your most basic responses. Make notes. During a power outage for example, what would you do during those first ten or fifteen minutes, or even the first hour of that crisis? Would you grab the nearest flashlight and gather your family and supplies? Maybe make a call or two to check on loved ones? You might use a phone tree to talk to your neighbors, to see what else people might now. Maybe someone knows that there’s a downed power line, and that it’s important to avoid a certain area. Maybe some people have been outside already and say it looks safe to come out. Maybe someone has managed to reach their city counselor, so they know what the officials are saying about what’s happening and what people should do. Other people are always our best resource in a crisis.

As I mentioned last week, thinking about survival on an individual basis leaves us with fewer resources, less input and fewer options.

So write down what you think your most immediate responses to the crisis would be. Would you grab your go-bag? Would you round up your pets and children?

Who, if anyone, would you contact? Do you have a core friend group that checks in often who you would check in? Does your family stay in close communication? Would you hit up a phone tree and connect with your neighbors?

If you’re not writing these things down right now, think about them a bit, and you can always hit up the transcript on our website if you want to return to these to write things out later.

Now, having considered your fears and your needs, make sure to cover your bases supply wise, as much as you can. Do you have flashlights in your home? If so, where are they? What would you put in a go-bag, to sustain yourself and your family temporarily if you had to flee? Do those items exist in your home? Does the bag they belong in? What would you need to have in your home to help you stay inside for a long stretch? Do you have those things? Can you get them? If you are one of the lucky ones who can acquire everything you think you might need for these purposes, how can you help other people in crisis access those items?

So those are some thoughts on personal safety, but this moment is bigger than our own personal safety, and we all know that.

When it comes to addressing fears that are bigger than what happens to us and the people in close proximity to us, I want to say first that you cannot do everything. Securing your safety, and connecting with others, like other people in your building, and attending to their needs, might keep you very busy, but these aren’t people’s only concerns right now. A lot of us are worried about political forces and events much larger than ourselves, and about what’s going to happen to people in a broader sense.

Maybe you are worried about what’s going to happen to children and adults in detention centers, jails and prisons, as the second wave of COVID rises. Maybe you are concerned about what’s going to happen to people who are living outside as violence or climate catastrophes unfold. Write down those secondary concerns — those things that are bigger than your own safety that you want to address. Remember, you cannot tackle them all. So pick one or two that you would want to try to prioritize, if you were able to help out in a crisis.

Then reflect for a moment on what you might do.

You may find that you don’t have any answers. You may find that you actually have more questions than when you first thought about it. That’s actually great, because you have now arrived at these important questions. At this point you have dug a lot of coherent thoughts out of the scary, chaotic haze of 2020, so let’s keep going.

Most people don’t even have a rough draft of how we would survive or interact with the things we are most afraid of right now. A lot of things cultivate that sort of fixed state, including being told that we simply aren’t equipped. But preparation and cooperation create possibilities where despair might otherwise exist. And despair kills, so we don’t want it.

So if you have your secondary issue or two, and maybe you have no idea what you would do to be helpful around any of this stuff in a crisis. Here, I am going to invoke the wisdom of Mariame Kaba, and suggest that you ask yourself the following questions about the problem or injustice you are concerned with. And let’s think about these questions now, rather than waiting for problems to pile up or get worse.

1. What resources exist so I can better educate myself?

2. Who’s already doing work around this injustice?

3. Do I have the capacity to offer concrete support & help to them?

4. How can I be constructive?

If you answer those questions now, about the issue that you are going to want to help out with during a crisis, you will know what groups to look to, who to back up, and possibly, who is being left behind.

So if you have written all of those things down, you have accomplished a lot, so please give yourself a hand. Now, I want you to take those lists and thoughts — the things you think you would do, the things you hope you would do — and talk about it, first with people who you find it easy to talk to, like friends or close family. Talk to them about your fears and what you’ve written down. Tell them what you think you would do in these scenarios. Ask them what they would do. Talk about what you would want, in terms of help. If you were unreachable for example, would you want someone to come check on you, or is there a good chance it would just be hard to reach you, so maybe you wouldn’t want someone looking for you right away? If I lived alone, I might want a check-in early on, because my back problems could compromise my ability to do certain things I might need to do in a crisis. Since I don’t live alone, I probably won’t need someone to rush over to help me. Voice these kinds of things and find out what your friends think they would need. Even if you are not the one who can meet those needs, these conversations will help you and your friends or family flush out concerns and compare ideas. The people you care about might wind up better positioned to make their own plans on how to stay safe because of their talk with you.

If you’re close enough with someone to talk about how you like to be comforted when you are afraid, those can be good conversations to have too.

Not everyone will respond well to these conversations. Not everyone will be helpful. But talking to people we know about difficult topics is good practice for the slightly more daunting task of talking to people we don’t know. For some people, talking to strangers comes easily and naturally. Some of us can be a bit more curmudgeonly, or maybe just shy. This society was not built to keep us working in close cooperation. It was built to atomize us and silo us as much as possible to maintain a malleable populace. So making these connections and building mutual aid pods — which at their core, are just networks of people practicing reciprocal care, who are committed to each other’s well being — can be tricky, but if we are committed to each other and to our safety, we will have to do some challenging things in the months and years ahead.

Phone trees and other methods of staying in touch are important. The wider we extend our web of support, the more safety we can potentially create. If this feels particularly daunting, start small with one on one convos, through text or even through a door, to talk with the people around you about their needs and concerns. Talk to your coworkers, who you feel comfortable discussing these things with, and talk to your neighbors, even if it feels awkward or weird. The more extreme the emergency, the more prepared we have to be to do work alongside people we might not otherwise talk to.

Try to find some common ground and common concern. It won’t always be there, but you will find more by looking for it than you will if you don’t try. Put up a sign or note asking people to opt into a community preparedness or COVID mutual aid list. Give them a number or email to reach out to. Put yourself out there.

So many steps will be made imperfectly and as needed and in ways that might not make sense for other people.

As I mentioned last week, a lot of people are talking about things like guns, and I am not going to tell people how to approach those decisions. I think many of us are going to evaluate scenarios involving self defense differently, depending on our options and what we are up against. For personal reasons, I don’t consider gun ownership an option. To me that’s not a political decision, it’s a practical one, so there are a lot of ways we have to evaluate our safety, and a lot of things that won’t be obvious to other people about why we make the choices we do.

I hope that expands upon some of what we talked about last week in a way that answers some of the questions you all had, about what was discussed. Historically, survival is usually the work of people having each other’s backs. So please seize upon some time this week to ask yourself these questions and jot down answers, and to have these conversations. The election is close, and many of us are worried about the chaos the next few months could bring, but we are also living in a pandemic and during an era of economic and political collapse. These formations of care and survival, whether they are mutual aid or some other form of community response, are going to be essential in the months to come. A group of people who give a damn about each other’s survival, and who empower themselves and each other to do something about it, can accomplish a lot. It’s okay to be afraid, but don’t make fear your home. As my friend Mariame Kaba often says, “Hope is a discipline.” So let’s be disciplined, and sew seeds of hope where despair might otherwise grow. Let’s defend the parts of ourselves that help us care for other people, and for ourselves.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes:

Organizing resources:

Organizing Basics: Talking to Strangers

Want to form a safety team or mutual aid pod? Check out this How to Build a Neighborhood Pod guide alongside Rebel Sidney Black’s Podmapping for Mutual Aid guide.

Get in Formation is a collection of security and safety practices from Vision Change Win “built by years of learning in the streets from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color movements within the U.S.”

Bystander Intervention/Transformative Justice/Alternatives to Police Responses to Harm

Further reading:

Mariame Kaba: Everything Worthwhile Is Done With Other People

Building Community Safety: Practical Steps Toward Liberatory Transformation

“We Surrender Nothing and No One”: A Playbook for Solidarity Amid Fascist Terror

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