Building the Will to Prepare Our Main Street Communities for Disasters

Building the Will to Prepare Our Main Street Communities for Disasters

By Dr. Tiffany Manuel, in conversation with the 1,400 member communities of National Main Street Center

Investing in our resilience now is one of the most important things we can do to secure the future of our communities. Indeed, if you were to go around the country and ask people whether they believe it’s important to prepare for disasters, you would likely find nearly universal support. Who wouldn’t want to protect themselves and their family from the distress of having their house burn down or fill up with muddy water?


Our partners at the National Main Street Center lead a movement committed to strengthening communities by bolstering older and historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts, and they have recognized that the way we are making the case for disaster preparedness backfires more often than not. So, they worked with us to identify how to build a strong case for the transformational change we need to keep our communities thriving for years to come.


For inspiration, we turned to some recent CaseMaking research we produced with our colleagues at Tipping Point Community that highlighted the will-building power of resilience. Especially now, the idea of resilience can move people to action on a range of issues that affect the future, as long as they feel like they have the power to make those changes.


We’ve got to empower people to lean into the moment.


As I told the audience at the 2022 Main Street Now Conference in Richmond, Virginia:


Folks, if you haven’t figured it out yet … this is a “let’s roll” kind of moment. There is such a great need to mobilize the people around us for action, even when they are afraid, and we don’t have a moment to lose. The challenges that affect communities, our nation, and the world are greater than ever before and the disruptions are coming faster than ever before. You are here today because you’re committed to doing the work to get your communities to a better place. The greatest opportunity you have right now is to help people make sense of the world around them and guide us toward real solutions … on main streets or otherwise.


Here are some of the things we’ve learned about how to mobilize people around disaster preparedness on Main Street:


First, we identified 5 reasons people haven’t been listening:


  1. When we talk about looming crises in our communities, we are piling on to the dire news that people hear all around them every day. It’s overwhelming and scary and causes people to back away rather than step forward.

  2. When we start the conversation with terms like global warming, we alienate members of the community that we need to make the bold changes that are required — either because they don’t agree with that framing or they don’t want to step into what feels like a deeply polarized space.

  3. When we focus on all the problems we are trying to solve, we don’t generate energy or enthusiasm for our solutions or help people understand their role in advancing them.

  4. When we consider our work a fundraising exercise, we condition people to believe their donation is all we need from them.

  5. When we allow ourselves to get pulled into refuting objections, we lose momentum we may have built.


Next, we recommended what leaders can do to persuade community members to act.


First, build relationships. To achieve the transformational change required for our communities to be truly disaster resilient, we need the support of broad coalitions of people and organizations that may not know each other very well. Take the time to map out all the possible collaborators – from the chamber of commerce to local “moms” groups to the high school “Green Team” — and strategically prioritize your relationship building.


Second, be clear about your solutions and the steps to get there. People in your community likely already know that natural disasters are happening more often and that they are more at risk. You don’t need to raise awareness alone, and efforts to do so may scare people into further inaction. Instead, give people hope by bringing them a plan that makes disaster resilience seem manageable and achievable.


Third, start every conversation about disaster resilience with a vision of the community’s bright future. To get people past any fear or despair that is keeping them from taking action, you need to pull them out of the present and put them into the future — imagining what they love about the community and what they want it to look and feel like 10, 20, or 50 years from now. The way you talk about a disaster-resilient future should reflect these broad community aspirations.


Fourth, tell people what they lose if they don’t build disaster resilience now. When we human beings think about change — and, particularly, big structural change — our natural inclination is to run through a mental list of all the ways we might lose out in the deal. And then we talk ourselves out of taking action. To get ahead of those fears, we need to remind people what they will lose if they choose the status quo.


Fifth, don’t forget to tell people what they can do! You’ve done so much work to convince people that disaster resilience is urgent and solvable. Don’t leave them hanging! Make sure you give people a variety of different ways that they can get involved, tailored to their comfort level, from signing up for a newsletter to joining a committee.


Want to learn more about how Strategic CaseMaking™ can help you advance disaster resilience and climate justice — or any other cause? Get in touch!