Five ways we can do better to respond to crises in our communities

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Editor’s note: This is the first post of a series that continues the conversation begun in the February 2018 issue of The Public Historian with the roundtable “Responding Rapidly to Our Communities.”

A sign made by a resident of Newtown, Connecticut, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. Source: The Story of the Stuff.

A sign made by a resident of Newtown, Connecticut, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. Image credit: “The Story of the Stuff.”

When the Virginia Tech tragedy took place in April 2007, I was an adjunct at Virginia Tech (VT) and the general manager of an art house movie theater that touted itself as the “heart of Blacksburg”—located just steps from the Drillfield, VT’s version of a quad. More than just a cinema, this was a place for the community to come together—through music events, theater, and yes, movies. But it was also much more—the Lyric hosted everything from youth video workshops to special movie screening times for parents with young and special needs children. It was a cinema palace restored through the generosity of the community who wanted to bring it back after being shuttered in the 1980s. And it was an arts center that connected with students and townies alike.

But when tragedy struck, our response was lackluster. How would the “heart of Blacksburg” react to the murder of thirty-two faculty and students? With half-price movies for those with a valid Virginia Tech ID for a few weeks. I’d be hard pressed to pinpoint a moment when I’ve felt more impotent and inadequate. When I criticized our response, I was reprimanded for not toeing the party line.

How did our board and executive director get it so wrong?

That experience taught me a lot about how not to respond to crisis. And it inspired me to think about all the ways we can do better and take inspiration from those who have done it well. When something unprecedented happens in your community, you—the historian, the librarian, the archivist, the community leader, the minister, the educator—have an opportunity to stretch what it is you do to fit the unique needs of that moment. Here are a few suggestions, hard learned from my time in Blacksburg and from studying responses to the unthinkable in the years since.

Be bold in the immediate aftermath.
Do something unprecedented.

Tragedies shake up our sense of normal and so should your response. Acts of violence and terrorism, in particular, seek to inspire fear and anger. Consider the role you can play in creating a radical expression of the opposite of the incident’s intent. Think beyond the candlelit vigil and explore new and unexpected public and visible signs of unity, connection, and community.

Scratch your preformed lesson plan, lecture, or public programming. Respond to the moment with something the community can do together. Free your imagination: How about a community-authored zine delivered to the whole town? A spontaneous chalk mural in a high-traffic public place? A brigade of therapy dogs at your next event?

In these vulnerable moments, with the media spotlight on your community, you’re in a position to make an “ask” of corporations and businesses who want to do something good. So, be creative and make the ask to help achieve your vision!

Take what you do well and amplify it.

Whatever your organization or affiliation, identify the part of your mission that would be helpful to your community and kick it into overdrive.

If your community needs a place of quiet and reflection, let your space be that refuge. Take inspiration from the small Ferguson Public Library that strove be a quiet oasis and began circulating “healing kits” after protests at the nearby police department began in 2014.

If you community needs lifted spirits, program something whimsical and fun accordingly.

If the news media is invading your town, take a cue from Newtown and use your organization’s or position’s voice to make it publicly known that they are not welcome.

Treat your community like a dear friend who has just suffered an unimaginable loss.

You don’t just sign a Hallmark card; you show up. And you remember to call and check in after all the casseroles are gone. You remember the anniversaries. You are in a unique position to show sensitivity that outsiders might lack.

In practice, this might look like how Virginia Tech has curated a public exhibit from its April 16 Memorial Archive every single year since the tragedy, or how the librarians and town officials in Newtown chose not to display any gifts or donations that showed photos of the victims in the town library.

Help your community respond in productive ways:  promote acts of kindness that don’t place any additional burden on the community.

Well-intentioned donations of food, clothing, and other goods pose logistical nightmares for the receiving communities following human created or natural disasters. And yet food and clothing drives are a very common response. After the Sandy Hook shooting, Newtown, Connecticut, was particularly overwhelmed with tens of thousands of toys and school supplies that the community didn’t need; hundreds of volunteers spent lots of time and money redirecting all the stuff elsewhere.

Your public-facing organization can help discourage donations and point individuals to alternatives that will truly help the affected community or, better yet, their own.

One healthy substitute to flooding the victim community with unneeded stuff is to encourage outsiders to take action at their own local level. Is there a cause they can contribute to in their own backyard with time, labor, goods, or money? Consider how your organization might help your citizens take such local action: could you include a note in your next newsletter about community needs or events? Or might you host a nonpartisan letter-writing event to help concerned individuals redirect their time and energy into letters and phone calls to politicians and community leaders to effect change on the underlying issue?

Public history organizations are especially poised to offer alternative outlets for their own community to express themselves following tragedy, whether the event is local or far away. Consider how you might offer an alternative that harnesses the public’s goodwill and energy in a way that also serves your mission. For instance, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum offers an ongoing StoryCorps-style oral history collection booth that continues to record recollections of that day and how lives have changed since; citizens have the opportunity to record new memories and thoughts following new acts of terrorism in the city or elsewhere in the country that trigger memories of that day.

Be vigilant—grief doesn’t fade as quickly as the news coverage.

Long after the satellite trucks are gone, your community will still be grieving. To truly serve your community, you’ll need a long-game strategy of support.

Are there year-round programs, such as counselor “office hours” your organization could support? Are you poised to offer special programming during the holidays, anniversaries, or other challenging times of the year?

Experiencing a crisis often means that residents will divide their experience into a “before” and an “after.” You’re in a position to shape what that “after” looks like, so strive to become that beacon of light, hope, and love that residents need.

In that first forty-eight-hours following the shooting at Virginia Tech, the one thing I did manage to do (without asking permission) was change the theater’s marquee. Within its limited space, I placed a short but fitting message: Our hearts are with you VT. I left it up for a whole month.


Excerpt from the web documentary, The Story of the Stuff. Home movie footage that the author filmed of the Lyric Theatre marquee and temporary memorials a few weeks after the April 16, 2007, shooting at Virginia Tech.


Ten and a half years later, a piece of my heart is still there, frozen in that moment in time. I hope you, dear readers, never become part of this growing club of community leaders who must respond to a tragedy in their own backyard. But should you, you’ll find a rich and supportive community of historians, librarians, archivists, government officials, teachers, folklorists, and the like who’ve all lost a bit of our hearts in the work that seems so necessary following a crisis.

~ Ashley Maynor is an award-winning filmmaker, librarian, and scholar who uses digital and analog technology to tell compelling stories. Her work in grief archives includes the web documentary, The Story of the Stuff; a module for LIS students, Issues in Temporary Memorial Preservation; and a book chapter in the Handbook of Research on Disaster Management and Contingency Planning in Modern Libraries.

  1. Margo Shea says:

    I have watched the Story of Stuff so many times and every time I learn something new. “Grief doesn’t fade as rapidly as the news coverarge” is great advice. Thank you for your words, and more, thank you for your work!

    1. Wow–thanks for sharing, Margo! Your kind words mean so much.

  2. Melissa Barthelemy says:

    Thank you so much Ashley for this and for all of your years of work! I am looking forward to meeting you in-person at NCPH. And I must say, I felt this so profoundly when I read it in your piece “When something unprecedented happens in your community, you—the historian, the librarian, the archivist, the community leader, the minister, the educator—have an opportunity to stretch what it is you do to fit the unique needs of that moment.”

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