When I tell people that I’ve volunteered in disaster response for over 20 years, I either get an eye roll or a look of confusion. At 35 years old, it seems unlikely.
I went on my first mission trip when I was 12 years old and continued traveling with my Dad until Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 and I started traveling on missions on my own.
I’ve worked inside the homes of hundreds of disaster victims — in the uber-conservative Bible Belt of Kentucky; Black neighborhoods in Mississippi, Louisiana and Queens; a neighborhood of undocumented Mexican immigrants in Texas that spoke exclusively Spanish; a secluded town in Arkansas where I was told my daughter could not be from New York because New York doesn’t have blondes; and dozens more.
Each of these areas posed challenges for me, especially when I was a skinny, bubbly, blonde teenager. People see race. People see gender. People see age. People recognize a New York accent. Sometimes bubbly blonde girl is a welcome sight. Sometimes it is not.
I’ve worked alongside church organizations where I was the only person under 50, veterans groups where I was the only female, and even international organizations like IsraAid.
In each group I was an outsider. I’d show up ready to fight, but disoriented trying to find my place.
In this situation, I learned the first step is to listen. In the veterans group in particular, I watched other civilians botch the dynamic while I was welcomed. I tried to figure out why and one night around the fire it hit me. When veterans were telling stories, I shut up. I didn’t try to compare my life to theirs — I didn’t and could never understand their experience. I always felt lucky to be able to hear it so candidly. When veterans were around each other, they talked openly about hard stuff — stuff many of them couldn’t manage to tell their wives at home.
So when those moments happened — as they frequently did after a few beers — I didn’t talk.
When a mom in Mississippi who’d lost everything told 19-year-old me the story of her son floating on a mattress to escape the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina, I didn’t talk.
When a 14-year-old Mexican-American boy translated his mother’s story of being extorted by their landlord to pay more or get turned in to immigration, I didn’t talk.
Instead I cried. And I got angry. And I vowed to fix it. The head of strategic partnerships at one huge international non-profit stopped taking my calls because I would get so emotional and beg him to partner with a dumpster company in Texas to help clear a homeowners property or the Walmart in South Carolina so I could get clothes for a single mom I’d met.
My friends at IsraAid told me never to travel to Israel because my emotion would never let me leave. They saw how personally invested I’d get in fixing huge systematic problems. I rarely slept on these trips and never came home with any money. When large organizations wouldn’t help me, my rage did the work.
I would get so angry at the people around me and at the “general American population.” Why was I the only one crying about this shit? Why were there only 70 volunteers when thousands of houses were flooded? WHERE WAS EVERYONE?
Then, in my 20’s, I was at a recertification class for first responders. I hold various badges and certifications for 5 different organizations so these types of classes are a regular occurence.
In this class, the instructor introduced the concept of Players, Payers, and Pray-ers. The idea was that every disaster requires 3 types of response. Like the holy trinity, each has its purpose and each is equally important.
The Players are the “boots on the ground.” This was where I fit in. We’re there mucking out houses, clearing roads, working with victims.
The Payers donate. They fund our equipment, our travel, our organizations.
The Pray-ers make appeals. Sometimes these prayers go to God. Sometimes they write letters to the newspapers. They write letters of encouragement to us personally and tell their friends about us. They also reflect on their purpose in the world. If they aren’t players or payers now, in what situations might they be? Where can they be of most use?
As I reflected on this, I thought about how many times I’d scoffed at people for not being Players. “They think they can just throw money at the problem” I’d say about the Payers. And “What are they actually DOING?” I’d ask of the Pray-ers.
My instructor that day challenged me to think about how my work was possible without the support of Payers and Pray-ers. Without funds, we couldn’t operate. And those appeals and letters? Those are what allowed us into the most vulnerable communities. That’s how people learned about our missions and chose to be involved.
I also realized that there are some places where I’m a Payer or a Pray-er. I donate to many local organizations where I don’t volunteer. And for many causes, I’m still reflecting on how best I can serve.
So today if you’re out protesting — you are doing amazing work.
If you’ve donated to organizations — you are doing amazing work.
And if you’ve written, shared the voices of the unheard, and spent time reflecting on your place in the world and how you can do better — you are doing amazing work.
Change comes when strong, determined and enraged people — the Players, Payers, and Pray-ers — unite around a single mission.
Here’s a few things I’ve found over the last week that may help:
Find out where protests are and what they are demanding before going
Know your rights if you’re out protesting
- Donate to 8 Can’t Wait, a campaign to reduce police violence in the 100 largest US Cities.
- Donate to the ACLU, who fights legal battles and advocates for equality and civil liberties.
- Research other organizations supporting Black Lives Matter and racial injustice causes.
Find out if your city has policies that reduce police violence by 72% and write to your officials if not.
Download this template for holding your local school district accountable for Racial Justice.
Educate yourself about the untaught US History of racial injustice.
And here’s a helpful list compiled by my amazing friend Allison Carpio:
- Amplify Black voices. Put them on your podcasts, share their posts, put them on your stages.
- Vote. With. Your. Dollars.
- Support Black businesses (My local area compiled a list of Black-owned restaurants in Upstate NY. Check your area for the same! And here’s a directory of Black coaches.)
- Read resources like So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo & How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.
- Have hard conversations with your white friends. Hold the white leaders you follow accountable. Tell your racist uncles, aunts, moms, and dads you do not agree with them and why.