“We Knew We Could Do This…” [ENT 600 Week 5]

The recent spate of catastrophic hurricanes that have leveled parts the US over the past couple of months has me reminiscing about one of my hobbies in which I have been unable to engage due to the heavy load of previous commitments currently residing on my desk and in my kids’ rooms, especially while also considering “skills you can teach and skills you can’t.”  Since Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans and southern Mississippi in 2005, I and some good friends who are all A-Players we call “Rock Stars” with whom I have created beautiful and miraculous works of cooperation at Rainbow Family Gatherings over the decades have organized what we like to call a Rainbow Emergency Management Assembly (REMA) to fill in the cracks left by federal and state emergency managers.

If you have 26 minutes and 43 seconds available, this video goes a long way to explaining what that is.

The Rainbow Family is a free consensual all volunteer act of participatory anarchy that gathers on public lands for a couple of weeks in a remote location in a different National Forest, ostensibly to pray for peace in a silent circle on July 4 every year since 1972.  Tens of thousands of people from all walks of life descend upon the site chosen by whoever shows up to scout it, usually at least 50 miles from the nearest electricity, running water, porcelain toilet fixtures, supplies, hospitals, or any type of civilization.  For those couple of weeks, thousands of volunteers under the direction of no one but their own experience and trusted network cooperate to essentially create a temporary fully functional small city of up to 30,000 people in the wilderness.

The Rainbow Gathering often becomes one of the five largest concentrations of people in the state, complete with drinking water and sanitation systems, free cooperative all volunteer kitchens that serve copious amounts of delicious often organic foods 24/7 free of charge to whoever asks for it, sophisticated radio supported peace keeping (called Shanti Sena), a centralized medical operation staffed by certified professionals as well as alternative practitioners also free of charge to anyone who asks, workshops on any and every topic under the sun and moon, entertainment of all stripes, as well as the place I plug in when I attend, The Granola Funk Theater which holds various shows nightly to as many as 5,000 people for the traditional July 4 variety show.  And it’s all free of charge.

The Granola Funk Theater, Utah Rainbow Gathering, 2012.  Lights are solar powered.

All of this happens without the benefit of electricity (even generators are “not allowed”) or anything any of us would call infrastructure, no central government or authority structure of any type, with all money raised only through a donation “system” called “The Magic Hat,” no admission fee, with every person as equals and all decisions made by consensus of whoever cares enough to show up and make those decisions.  Then it disappears without a trace after about two weeks without exception re-mediating the site to better condition than before the gathering happened.

So if you’re thinking, “Wow!  I bet these people would be great at responding to disasters,” you’d be thinking the same thing we did as we watched New Orleans drown on our TVs.  Disaster areas have no electricity, no infrastructure, no clean drinking water (other than bottled water shipped in), no sanitation infrastructure, no restaurants or grocery stores, people have no cooking facilities even if they had any food, people have often lost their medications and access to health care providers, and the hospitals are overwhelmed and often not functioning at full capacity (if at all).

The Rainbow Family setting up a disaster relief operation is a perfect example of what Eric Herrenkohl is talking about in How to Hire A-Players on the topic of “skills you can teach and skills you can’t.”  Certainly, the Bastrop Christian Outreach–the church we partnered with in the Fred’s parking lot in Waveland, MS–was impressed when the hippies showed up and turned their collection of shiny new kitchen equipment no one knew how to use into tasty meals for 1,000 within the first 20 minutes.

FEMA at first believed the propaganda shared by the US Forest Service whose Law Enforcement and Investigations Division had spent decades trying to remove the gatherings from our National Forests to no avail and for no good articulable reason (as the courts ruled over and over again).  Then, with the assistance of the local emergency manager, Mike Sweeney, FEMA performed an about face and not only threw full government support behind the operation (they turned the Cafe into a FEMA distribution hub, got the Navy to provide WiFi, and placed their extension office across the street from the operation), they have since been studying the Rainbow Family REMA model for large scale long term disaster response.  (Hopefully they will apply that model to Puerto Rico and soon).

The New Waveland Cafe would become the stuff of legend, garnering worldwide press coverage and even getting a nod from NPR’s All Things Considered.

As I said before, there’s no set hierarchical structure at Rainbow Gatherings, but that doesn’t mean everyone is necessarily equal.  Yes, anyone can show up to scout a location, but folks who have done it before successfully get heard a lot better.  Folks who have a reputation for putting out especially tasty food have more people coming over to clean the dishes and play music for them while they cook (there are no radios either, so musical talent is yet another A-Player skill).  People who really have it together handle and distribute donations and others bring essential infrastructure like water line and radio equipment year after year.  These are the A-Players we set out to recruit for this three month operation and for subsequent operations.  We do, like Herrenkohl suggest, try to keep a farm team ready to go.

Me “focalizing” a nightly REMA Meeting in front of the REMA Office with about 100 participants.  Anyone can speak.  Don’t ask me how this actually worked but it did.   Time wasters were encouraged to form subcommittees and report back with their recommendations.

The trick was to recruit the Rainbow  A-Players who could move the operation forward and contribute their time and skills while not just keeping the B- and C-Players in the farm system, but to altogether avoid the appearance of the F-Team, dysfunctional homeless alcoholics who are a pox upon the gatherings.  Since I had an air conditioned comfy converted school bus with a computer and printer and possessed the proper A-Player profile (including my decades long association with many Rainbow Rock Stars), I became REMA “administrator.” Recruiting, training and retaining A-Player volunteers while pushing the wrong people away became my primary task.

Number one in our A-Player profile was availability to stop what you’re doing and come to Mississippi for at least a week (but a month or two was better).  Baruch Stone dropped out of his Harvard pre-med program for the semester to “focalize” (a Rainbow word that means manage) the New Waveland Free Clinic, which became a world class operation operated  by dozens of visiting medical professionals, residents, and other practitioners.  Medical schools from all over the nation and the Cleveland Clinic especially sent residents and the Clinic served as the only medical services available at any price in Hancock County, MS, for three months.  Rainbow people, although coming from all walks of life, tend to live more flexible and nomadic lifestyles, which fit number one in the profile perfectly.  “Doc” Stone (he was an EMT) was not the only person to make huge personal sacrifices for the operation.  But his was the largest.

Any recruit for the New Waveland Cafe and Clinic also had to be drama free and in excellent physical AND mental health, including no problems with addiction.  During the first month of the operation, the temperature on the blacktop parking lot of Fred’s hovered around 100F.  The hours were long, often 16-18 hours a day.  And the place was under marshal law, so any drunken shenanigans would have led to serious consequences.  One of the reasons I was banished to become administrator was that Doc benched me because I couldn’t take the heat.  So I got to stay in my bus, which stayed around 85F with the A/C on.

Some of the A-Player Rock Stars relaxing atop the office next to the Tornado Lounge

Finally, any A-Player planning to do long term disaster relief has to be self supporting.   As I said before, the days were long and there was no pay.  Folks stayed in tents in our special worker’s tent village and we fed everyone.  We were beset by a mountain of donated clothing.  But if you needed to keep up on your bills at home, that was your problem.  I did raise about $55,000 (one of my other jobs) over the course of three months.  Most of that went to keeping the A-Players staying for the duration happy, thereby retaining a valuable resource.  For example, the other organizers locked me in my bus when my dog became seriously ill and told me I couldn’t leave because no one could take my place, so use some of that money for a vet.  I guess they considered me an A-Player too.

You’d think we’d encounter great difficulty recruiting under those conditions.  No electric.  No running water.  No toilets (porta-potties only).  No pay.  No benefits.  Our training program was called “Go to the Beach,” where I drove new arrivals to the site of the 100% region-wide destruction to show them how big the problem was after a few folks showed up thinking they were there to solve the entire problem single handed because they saw on the TV that things weren’t going well.  But I spent most of my time convincing people I knew would unbalance the operation from showing up, rather than talking people into coming.  Most of the Rock Stars showed up and stayed until the end.  No one wanted to leave and some of the crew were upset when emergency management officials asked us to wrap it up because businesses were opening again.  Many of the volunteers I recruited said they’d never do this for pay and I’m certain the culture was part of the attraction (most people reported it was a great time as well as very rewarding).  So there must have been an unexpected intangible in the A-Player profile I’ve overlooked here.

Actually, I didn’t.   The determinate, number one piece of the A-Player profile for The New Waveland Cafe was empathy and serious concern for the lives of our fellow humans….something in abundant supply with the A-Player Rock Stars of the Rainbow Family and REMA.

 

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There are currently two REMA style operations active–one in Houston and one in Marathon, FL–supported by Organic Valley and a non-profit called United Peace Relief (whose board I sit on occasionally).  If you know anyone interested in helping out, send me a message and I’ll get you in touch with the right people.  If you really want to dive deep into the Rainbow Family, I suggest People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia by Michael Niman or come to a gathering.  Everyone is welcome and next year’s gathering in July will be in northern Georgia, so most of you are gonna hear about this anyway.

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This is not only my Professional Blog where I post my assignments for my Master of Entrepreneurship program at Western Carolina University, it’s also my Professional Blog on my actual business web site for my actual functioning business!  Since they overlap so neatly in my personal Venn Diagram, I think clients, potential clients, or just idle passersby will find some value in my analysis as much as my classmates and instructors.  Enjoy!

 

3 Comments

  1. Dina Khalilova

    Arjay,
    What you’ve told us here is amazing! I want to thank all those volunteers who help others unconditionally. It always amazed me how people in the US are kind and generous. That’s what makes this country so great! I live in the US for nine years, and I’m proud that my children were born here.
    And, of course, there’s no doubt that all those people who worked with you are A-Players.

  2. I would summarize the characteristics of your A-players as dedication, focus, and selflessness. I think there is a nice overlap of those features with successful people in an officer role in a business. There is a stark contrast however between an organization funded by and highly focused on monetary reward and an organization lacking in resources, clear hierarchy, or monetary incentive. So perhaps the commonality is really just “good people.” I’m not sure that the book is satisfied with finding good people. I believe it is also looking for drive and intensity and inspiration. The other difference between the two analogies would be that in the business world there are very obvious metrics of success. And a long-term focus.

  3. Arjay I was so fascinated with the story, I had to go back and focus on your points about A-players. While the A-players mentioned have skills that can be taught, their characteristics Brad mentions in the comments cannot be taught. This is what makes them A-players, and I would dare to say many of them are A-players in other aspects of their life as well. Thank you for sharing your experience and incorporating the assignment within it. Great post!

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