In this episode, I’m talking with Jennifer Gray Thompson, who’s the Executive Director from the Rebuild North Bay Foundation in California, America. We’re talking about recover, rebuild and reimagine.
Jennifer has been leading a committed team on the long-term rebuilding of a region greatly impacted by the 2017 Californian wildfires. And she does it with nothing more than a great team and a workaplan!
Like me, Jennifer is a true supporter of greater private sector contribution before, during and after disasters – and provides lots of great examples of how she’s doing disasters differently.
A little bit about Jennifer...
Jennifer is a lifelong resident of Sonoma Valley in northern California’s wine country. She attended Santa Rosa Junior College and graduated from Dominican University in 2001 with degrees in English and History. After teaching high school for 10 years, Jennifer went on to earn a master’s degree in Public Administration from University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy. After the devastating wildfires of October 2017, she accepted her current position as Executive Director of Rebuild Northbay Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping the region rebuild better, greener, safer, and faster.
I like to start with where we met...
Jennifer and I were connected by the wonderful Brooks Nelson from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation who invited us both to participate in the 9th annual Building Resilience Through Private-Public Partnerships conference – which was a virtual event due to COVID this year.
Brooks recognised an alignment in Jennifer and my focus around disasters and it’s been wonderful to connect with a like minded peer from across the globe.
Here are some questions I asked...
1. Jennifer, can I start by asking you to explain a little bit about the North Bay Foundation?
So Rebuild North Bay was born in the midst of our devastating wildfires in October of 2017. And what happened was an unprecedented disaster for at least the state of California. At that time, we had never seen fire moves so hot, fast and so devastating. Our fires broke out on the night of October 8, and in, let’s see, about six hours had already burned about 6000 structures and moved 20 miles. We had a series of fires break out that night, about 11 of them across four counties.
Rebuild North Bay actually represents Napa, Sonoma lake and Mendocino counties, because that’s where all the fires broke out. And for a variety of reasons, it was the season, but also there we have an aging infrastructure for our power. So those utility lines actually set off quite a few of those fires and what happened with rebuild was that we had an effort where everybody sort of brought their talents to the table. And in my case, I was working out in Sonoma Valley, which was surrounded by a ring of fire. And we had very little support from our local county government, just by virtue of the fact that so many of them have lost their homes and responding to this unprecedented disaster was certainly a challenge for them and a learning curve for all of us.
I coordinated a lot of the efforts out here in the valley with a small team of people. I did work for the county of Sonoma at the time. So it was also part of my job description. And I mean, as much as it ever can be. And so what happened was that there was a man named Derek Anderson, who is very well connected lobbyists and developer and he looked around and he knew that the scope of this devastation was so great that it would take more than the public sector to actually get us through that time. And so he said, the talent that he had was that he had so many relationships with people in positions that could be helpful, especially in the private sector to help us rebuild. So he gathered together this amazing group of people. and some of them were from the private sector. But we he also brought in a tribal leader and the local president of our university, the local president of Kaiser Permanente health care, so that we would get a 360 view for what was needed and all of these leaders could leverage their talent.
So he formed Rebuild North Bay Foundation. I was hired about two months later in December of 2017, and started in January of 2018. And my job was to make it real and to make it relevant and to help our region rebuild back better, safer, greener and faster.
2. So you really are a true case study of how private sector can really play such a great role in collaboration with and supporting government for the benefit of communities?
I know, we are. It was an untested model here. And that actually caused some issues because people were suspicious. And they were like, why is the private sector trying to step up and we already have the nonprofit sector and the public sector just sort of carry the weight of this disaster.
So I wish I would have known you then. Because I would have absolutely called and asked for advice just about this sort of model, because it’s highly unusual, and it’s very effective. But it’s a little bit different. So the public, the interesting thing about the private sector is when you have a disaster, they’re most often asked just to sort of write a check and sit back. But the scope of our disaster was so great that it required all of the sectors to come to the table. And so it’s been an interesting learning curve for me for sure to navigate the different agendas and also to assure the public sector that we’re actually here to support them.
We do not lobby or benefit in any way personally for ourselves. And one of the things that we do about 5% of what we do is we go to DC, and we go with our public sector representatives, and we bring some private sector people in large and small businesses, who say we actually really support what the public sector is trying to do. And because we’re regional and because we’re multisector, we actually get a much, much better reception than piecemealing it out on their own.
Yeah, we have exactly the same conversations here in Australia. And I think, to me, it comes down to understanding and building trust in the sense of the roles that everyone can play. In Australia, we have a philosophy called “shared responsibility” in that it’s everyone’s responsibility to build resilience and in the response and recovery, but to do that, you need to understand what you can do and what others can do, and then have trust and faith in and work out how to work together for the benefit of outcomes in communities. And I think it sounds like what you’re doing over in California is a fantastic example of how that’s really making a difference.
Jennifer Gray Thompson
I’m extremely proud of the work that we’ve done over the past nearly three years and I’m proud to say that there’s a clone of us in the Paradise called Rebuild Paradise Foundation. And we’ve also helped some other areas by paying it forward just calling and saying, here’s our experience, here’s what works. And what do you need? How can we help and then we stay in contact with them as long as those people would like.
And Paradise has been probably the most emotionally gratifying professional experience I’ve ever had. Because we went up there when the fires were still burning. And I met this amazing person named Charles Brooks. And he was a reusable grocery bag salesman, and he and his wife and their two young sons had lost everything. And he said that he wanted to be a part of their recovery. So I introduced him to our model, and he took our model, and then he adapted it for exactly what Paradise needs and so he works in support of his public sector in support of the private sector. He’s a registered nonprofit like we are but he has done an amazing and innovative work. So we believe that just the structure of rebuild or a corporate2community is scalable, adaptable for every type of disaster and adaptable for every type of area as well.
3. Now your region is entering the fourth year of post disaster recovery. And we’ve obviously had our major black summer bushfires earlier this year. So what have been the primary changes that you’ve seen from year to year?
You know what’s interesting is one thing I’ve learned is don’t have a strategic plan. Because something’s going to change the year after and the year after that. And so when we first started Rebuild we honestly thought we were going to be the unprecedented one-off disaster because California has never seen a fire move like that and had never seen that level of destruction.
But about a month later, we had the Thomas fire in Southern California, and that ended up being larger, not more destructive, but the same type of fire behavior. And then we had 13 months later Paradise happened and it was the same type of phenomenon where it was an incredibly fast fire, hot fire and destructive fire. And so if you if you start off thinking, this is it, this is this is as bad as it gets, and we’re going to build back from here, then it does direct some of your work plan to when you soon come to realise that this is a new normal. Then how is it that you both deal with your disaster in your own region while also learning from other places and paying it forward?
We did not expect paying it forward to become a large part of what we did. And we also didn’t expect there’d be the level of interest, which I’m sure has come up for you as well in other areas of the country for what we do. Every year has been different. And it’s interesting. What I do is I develop a work plan and I hand that to the board and they give me feedback and direction. This year, we were planning on having a major conference in May called Rebuild California. And we had people coming from nationally and statewide and locally, to share their lessons and to learn from each other, and of course, COVID kicked in.
So the one thing that I’ve learned working in disaster is that you have to deal with the situation that’s in front of you, you have to meet the moment. And then you look, they use the same skills over and over and over again, which is you look at the matrix of need, and you look for the gaps. We specialise very much at Rebuild in filling gaps. And one thing I’ve noticed with COVID, is that as soon as that came down, then a lot of people turned to us and said, do you think you could help us organise our response because you’ve actually stayed in this space of disaster for nearly three years?
So I don’t have a perfect answer for that other than you have to just keep meeting the moment and watching the matrix and asking people what do you need and how can we help? That is at the very basis of absolutely every single thing that we do and drives all of our work here is meeting the need and filling the gaps.
4. Like corporate2community, much of your role is working with communities. And again, we’ve mentioned about finding the gaps and filling them. So do you have one or two examples of specific programs or specific initiatives that you’ve done to fulfill a specific need?
Oh, I do. So a little bit quirky, too. And it depends on the year. So in the first year, I probably was in this job, maybe a month when I got a phone call from one donor who said, look, you know, they happened to be one of the contractors, a federal government for debris removal, and they were like, we want to put some money back in the community. And if I gave you half a million dollars, what would you do with it? And I immediately said, oh, I would rebuild the Coffee Park walls.
So a lot of people when they saw our fires, what they saw with the neighborhoods, just the destruction, they saw probably Coffee Park on the global news outlets. Well, they had this old development, they had this stucco wall around their development and it actually acted as a wick because there was a wood topper to it that just carry the fire all the way down. So what they found out was and these are working class people, and they found out that they were actually individually responsible for the removal and the destruction, the removal and replacement of each of those walls and would have cost them about $18,000 per homeowner. And they of course were not prepared to do that. Most people are vastly under insured.
Everybody should do two things right away, videotape your home and check your insurance. And so what we did is I told I would rebuild the Coffee Park walls. I won’t take an admin fee. Because I had just learned that was what the interesting gap problem was for the city of Santa Rosa, that we were very successful. That project ended up costing $450,000 in cash and $200,000 and in kind donations. So that was one of those things where we weren’t looking to become a wall builder at all, or run a project like that. But we had to listen to the community and fill that gap. One of our goals was to actually mitigate the cost of rebuilding so that people would elect to stay. We were very afraid of a talent, flight from the community because it was just too much and some people have to leave and that’s fine. And I we totally understand, but we were looking for ways for to show them that we cared that we’re long term deliverables of hope and progress in year two was so much about paying it forward into other communities and then launching a grants program.
One of the things that happens in disasters, everybody rushes in the first you know, 15 minutes and they take their cell you know, they they donate and in the case of Paradise, they often took a selfie of themselves donating stuff that wasn’t asked for or needed with all of the best of intentions and created an inadvertent secondary disaster. So sort of helping that community was something that we hadn’t counted on. But a really important part of our second year plan along with our grants program, one of the major things that you have to do is put a grant program into place that is long term that’s a minimum of five to 10 years. It’s that goes back to rebuilders constantly and says, what do you need and how can we help?
I see our role and the role of corporate2community is about adapting and about supporting others to adapt as well. And I think there’s some really great examples as to how you’ve done that in response to the fires and then also the unexpected, because let’s be honest who thought 2020 would be a global pandemic as well.
5. Your tagline Recover, Rebuild Reimagine, which is really easy to understand, and it’s really it provides a really clear vision. How did you create that as your focus and why does it resonate with those in your community?
You know, it’s interesting is it’s a strange thing and I’m sure this came with came up in the creation of corporate2community as well to sort of explain what you do to people besides you know, long term disaster recovery, absolutely. outcomes based over input space. So I actually came to me when I was trying to explained in a sort of aspirational way of what we’re trying to do here.
We know our mission statement, we know our vision statement, but our tagline how do we make this easy and what we’re trying to do is help people recover because that’s the first phase and then rebuild. It’s really important to also reimagine I and the reimagine part came to me when I was sitting in a meeting, the first board meeting of Rebuild Paradise Foundation, and they were maybe three or four months out of their disaster. And there’s so much talk about how do we get back to normal? How do we get back to where we were including right now during COVID.
And the first thing everybody needs to understand about disaster is you have to let go of before, because before is never going to be after you’re not going back to normal. And that can be very psychologically painful. But if you say instead, what I said to them when they were talking about getting back to normal, and I said, but it’s never going to be that way. So what if you could reimagine Paradise as your perfect vision? I don’t believe in perfection, to be clear, but like, if you could have it be any way, what would it be? What would that look like? What would the stores look like? What would the infrastructure look like? What would the schools look like? What would the homes look like? And I felt the room actually change energetically at that moment?
As soon as I said, reimagine Paradise. And that was a lesson to me because all of a sudden, they were more excited about the task before them. The weight of it wasn’t so painful. So I think reimagine is and I it was very interesting to me to watch it come up so much with COVID. But I really think that psychologically, it is almost a relief for people to hear. And it can be very inspirational because if you have to remake something, how would you remake it better?
It is, it’s such a hopeful word. And I know 10 years ago when we had the Black Saturday, which fires that devastated a lot of Victoria and so much of the recovery after that was focused on rebuild, rebuild. And then the rebuilds more often than not, were the assumptions of what was needed to replace what was there before but the assumptions were that it had to be bigger or it had to be, you know, the better technology yet the actual fit for purpose was never really part of the conversation.
And I love reimagined because it does it gives the power back to the community to think about it. Okay, so we’re now going to have a new normal, what can this new normal be? And how can we improve what we had before? But do it completely fit to purpose and to help the community as the community has evolved as well.
6. So what is the future focus for Rebuild North Bay Foundation?
The future for Rebuild North Bay is that we plan on staying. Originally, we thought we would be sort of in business for lack of a better term for about five to seven years. The county of Sonoma is about 75% and either rebuilt or in the process of being rebuilt. And so we expect that will actually probably be completely rebuilt in five to six years, which is pretty unusual for any place that’s had this level of devastation.
That won’t be true across all four of our counties, but it will be true in Sonoma and Napa, but what we’re finding as time goes on is that disaster is a it’s a growth industry, unfortunately, and there is a lot of room for innovation for it. The reimaginings, and there’s a lot of places that need support. And, you know, we’ve sort of spent this past almost three years becoming experts in our field. So what I would like to do is this year, we’re going to broadcast podcasts for this for the year, we’re going to do our grants. And we’re going to continue to connect with other communities that are undergoing disaster.
Because the strange thing about COVID is it’s the first time we’ve had a global disaster in our lifetimes and in many lifetimes. It’s the first time we all have this sort of shock in common. And so we would like to do is spend at least the next three to four years being of service in that way, but also really focusing on the resiliency of our community. We just got a $1.5 million callfire grant, and what and all of that money will go out to private landowners so that they can mitigate the fuel load on their property. So we’re going to look for more opportunities to build resiliency both physically and emotionally and to pay that forward.
With my final question always…
What 2 things would you like to be done differently in the disaster space?
1. I would like the funding to rebuild communities here in our country to move faster. It’s very difficult for communities to wait, you know, four years, five years for some of that funding to come in. It’s very difficult for communities to friends, a lot of that funding. So that’s one play one space that I would really like to see done differently.
2. And I would like a greater and greater commitment to innovate our way out of this. This is 2020 and so much of our disaster response is predicated upon what we learned 10, 20, 30 years ago and those things are valuable too. But they also have to be advanced we need to be using not only technology, but we need to enhance and fortify our communications and structures because we like we have power shutoffs now, and this year, they had the communications companies have done a great job of improving their structures, but we still cannot communicate.