Saturday, September 29, 2012

FEMA's Unique Language: Softness and Strength

I want to talk a little bit about the power of words and ideas.

If you read through the FEMA materials that we were presented with throughout the last two weeks of training, nowhere in them will you find the word ‘bad’. It has simply gone away, as though it never existed. ‘Wrong’, ‘false’, ‘poor’ and other such terms have met a similar end, replaced by ‘negative’, ‘confusion’ and ‘learning opportunity’. If curses are the fine edge of a knife, FEMA’s language is the plastic toy saw: deliberately blunted, gentle, impossible to harm anyone with.

Chewing this peculiarity over in my head for the past two weeks, I was initially surprised at its presence in FEMA. “These people deal with disasters,” I thought. “I would have expected their language to be blunt, direct, to the point: these are people who deal with some of the most traumatic events (there I am, doing it too) a person can suffer in this country. Wouldn’t they exercise brevity, practicality and toughness in their language?” In this line of thinking, I wasn’t just barking up the wrong tree. I wasn’t even in the right forest.

It turns out, of course, that FEMA takes an essentially opposite approach to the one I described. Instead of matching the brutality of a disaster head-on, FEMA seeks to blunt its edges. They’re taking these massive, desperate, chaotic things and sanitizing them, sanding them down, restoring order with bureaucracy and sanity. I should have seen it sooner. It’s right there in the name: Federal Emergency Management Agency. Their entire job is to take the devastated communities that these huge, scary, horrible events leave behind and get the people living in them back to normal. Of course their language would tend towards the harmless and bureaucratic; that’s the entire point! Normalizing the event is how FEMA helps places recover, and their language reflects that mission.

In that sense, FEMA stands as one example of the power of language and how it can evoke the culture of an organization. FEMA has adopted a very specific mission and mindset, and their softening of their language is a by-product and, probably, a driver of that effect. Here, language is strong and meaningful and full of information, however little one might glean from individual words or acronyms. (It’s a peculiarity of acronyms that they encompass so much meaning within their component words, but the acronym itself is often meaningless; what’s a NPSC or a JFO but alphabet soup?) The whole approach, language-wise, is heavier with significance than all the individual words that go into it.

Now we are officially part of that mission, speakers of a goosedown language in a world of rubble. FEMA Corps officially graduated from FEMA training this afternoon. Starting tomorrow morning, we’ll all fly off in different directions for our first spikes/disaster deployments (depending on the lingo). My team and two others will go on station in Atlanta, GA. Two teams are heading back to Vicksburg, and three are apparently going to Clinton, Mississippi; others are headed for Harrisburg, PA or Richmond, Virginia or points unknown (to me). I can’t speak to everyone’s mission, but in the present absence of disasters in Atlanta, we will be working in FEMA’s administrative section as, it seems, public relations and data folk. Community Relations is typically the face of FEMA, but this time around, we will be part of its voice.

FEMA’s style, obviously, is not my own. I don’t shy away from bluntness and I dislike the twisting, often torturous roads that politically correct language inevitably must traverse. But my central issue with sterilized language—that words are less important than the concepts they get across—can also be turned into a personal challenge. As we’ve learned over the past few days, FEMA’s policies and procedures and acronyms and euphemisms can seem labyrinthine to the uninitiated. It is the job of Community Relations to relate to the community, to parcel out and receive information in an understandable way. We will act as translators, fluent in both Bureaucratic and Ordinary English. And although we’re not going to be going door-to-door, at least not yet, this is still an opportunity to get the word out about FEMA’s mission. There’s a balance to be struck between jargon and information, and part of my job will be wielding concepts, words and acronyms to do so. I can't wait to get started.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Canvassing Then and Now: The Life of a Community Relations Specialist

During this past summer, I worked as a canvasser—very briefly—for two different organizations: Wisconsin’s Public Interest Research Group and Obama for America. Both jobs had me going door-to-door in targeted neighborhoods, talking to all manner of ordinary citizens and trying to either pry money out of them (as with PIRG) or getting them to register to vote if they had not already done so (OFA). I mention this because as a Community Relations Specialist, I’m going to be doing a lot of going door-to-door in disaster zones and listening to the survivors. My job—and the job of the other half-dozen teams of CR specialists in the Vicksburg class—is to assess, inform and report, to listen and hear and understand.

They say that the CR specialist is the face of FEMA, but I think a more appropriate analogy (I’m my team’s designated analogy guy, by the way) would be a capillary. There are lots and lots of us and, individually, we are insignificant in the sweeping chaos of a disaster zone. But we collect information and feed it up the FEMA pipeline, as it joins other information from other CR specialists and is compiled into reports (veins), which eventually find their way to the heart (Joint Field Office). We are the rock upon which disaster policy is built; our reports dictate, in part, FEMA’s response. That’s a hell of a responsibility, especially for young people like FEMA Corps Members, although we will be with a mentor (at least initially).

And it is not easy work. Our instructors have told us, or at least hinted from time to time, that we should prepare for the worst when we go to knock on doors. I mean, come on, it’s a disaster! It’s going to bring out some ugliness in people, people looking for somebody to blame or people struggling not to break down completely. We have to help all of them, point them in the right direction and let them know how they can get registered for aid. When I was canvassing, I got plenty of people who were terse or rude or simply didn’t want to talk, and that can wear on you. It wore on me. FEMA Corps won’t have to raise money the way I did, so that takes some of the pressure off, but we’ll still have to slough off negative reactions like so much angry snakeskin.

CR specialists live in tough conditions, too. The word from the Powers That Be is that we’ll hopefully be deployed right after disasters strike, so good luck finding regular lodging. With a sort of grim resignation, we (or maybe that grim bit’s just me) are prepared to sleep in waterlogged tents, eat crappy food and work twelve-hour days pounding the pavement, because the accommodations and accessories are secondary: you go where you go and do what you must, which is what we’re all here to do.

And I think that’s the key, the “what we’re all here to do”. Here’s the thing: I quit my first canvassing job after a week because I was flat miserable. The cause I was working for really didn’t need the money I was raising, and I just didn’t buy into the message they were sending. You try walking the streets for hours at a time, knocking on a door and trying to sell perfect strangers on something you don’t believe in. Maybe some people can canvass without buying into what they’re selling, but I needed something that I could personally get behind.

 And that’s what disaster relief brings, you know? I know I harp on this theme, probably more than I should, but we’re all here to do good works. We’ve got that motivation, and after six solid weeks of training, we’ve got the hunger to get out into the world and start doing what we all came here to do. That’s how we’re gonna weather the lousy parts of this gig, because the motivation is there to do what we must… and because the good times, or so I hear, are so overwhelmingly satisfying. Each night, I will be able to crawl into my government-issued sleeping bag and drift off to sleep saying “I helped an old lady get registered for FEMA assistance today,” or “I reported some downed power lines in a community this afternoon and got repair crews out to fix it before someone got electrocuted,” or “I helped a dozen newly homeless people find someplace where they could get food and shelter”. We’ve got all kinds of belief or nonbelief systems in this Corps, but I think everyone would agree that we’re doing righteous work. And unlike a lot of people in the Corps, we are privileged to do it face-to-face with the people who need help. I think that is a great gift that we’ve been given.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Anniston Tidbits, Part II: IA and CR Specialist Training

Caveat: This is Individual Assistance training only—Community Relations-specific training will come later in the week—but the two get cross-trained, so IA/CR people will need to know both areas.

Caveat Emptor: All things in this blog come with the tag “As best I understand it”, because this is confusing. Also, all of this info comes out of Gigantic Binder No. 2, “Applicant Services Program Specialist Student Manuel”. Don’t sue me.

-I went over the disaster declaration process in yesterday's post, but just in case, here it is again: disaster happens locally, local authority kicks it up to the state level, who kicks it up to FEMA, who kicks it to the President, who signs a disaster declaration that allows FEMA to help with the disaster.

-SEQUENCE OF DELIVERY. This is HUGE. It’s a seven-step process that each disaster survivor goes through after registering with FEMA and letting us know what they need. It is the foundation of what IA Specialists do. Here it is in steps.

1. The applicant goes to the volunteer agencies that show up after a disaster to get their basic emergency needs met, if any. Think food, clothing, shelter, emergency medical needs.
2. After that, they go to the insurance companies and get what they’re due. This would be homeowners’ insurance, the National Flood Insurance Program, whatever’s applicable. Straight quote from the binder: “FEMA cannot provide assistance until other forms of assistance, such as insurance, have been exhausted.”
3. If your insurance doesn’t cover everything, you go to FEMA Housing Assistance (HA). They’ll inspect your home for damages and award you money for repairs to or replacement of your home (the latter if it was condemned or damaged beyond repair). If your home is in a ridiculously remote location where construction companies aren’t, like the Alaskan hinterlands, they will actually build you a new house—but only in those rare circumstances. The watchwords are “safe, sanitary, functional”: they’ll give you funding to make your home those, but won’t pay for luxuries.
4. That money, however, is only for housing. Next is FEMA/State Other Needs Assistance, inevitably called ONA (pronounced Oh-nuh). This step takes care of medical, dental and funeral expenses, and a few others.
5. Here’s another confusing one. The Small Business Administration (SBA) gives low-interest loans to people for a) home and personal property, b) business physical loss or c) economic injury. That… actually was fairly straightforward. See why blogs like this are a good resource?
6. If they get the SBA loan, fantastic, they’re good. If they don’t, it’s time for another round of FEMA/State ONA assistance! This time it’s for expenses related to personal property, moving and storage of items (to get away from floodwaters, say), transportation and so forth.
7. If after all that they still have unmet needs, the applicant is kicked back to voluntary agencies who’ll help ‘em out.

That’s the end of the Sequence, but there are yet more agencies (and acronyms) who’re available to help out disaster survivors. Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) supplements but doesn’t supplant regular unemployment. The latter covers people at normal jobs, while the former covers the self-employed or farm workers (or whoever) that were rendered unable to work by the disaster. The Crisis Counseling Program (CCP, not to be confused with CCCP, the defunct Communist superpower) is what it sounds like: disaster survivors’ counseling. Disaster Legal Services (DLS) are free legal services for survivors, and Disaster Case Management (DCM) is to help people navigate their way through the last 400 words, because Lord knows I would need that.

-Privacy Act: This one is simple. Personal information that you take in is private. If you misuse it or let it get stolen, the FBI will hunt you down and bite your nose off. #incentive

-Oh, I forgot this: Both the HA and ONA are under the umbrella of the IHP (Individual and Households Program). The maximum dollar amount an applicant can get is $31,400 for all programs under that umbrella; they could get X dollars to fix their house and Y for rental expenses, but it all has to stay under the $31,400 ceiling. The amount changes with the fiscal year. How and why it does that is dark magic beyond our mortal ken; do not inquire, lest it claim your life. 

-Duties of an IA specialist: Answer questions about disaster recovery, about letters from FEMA, about housing assistance and rental resources (places that disaster survivors can rent. I speak bureaucrat), complete forms, talk to the JFO or register people with FEMA (more like tell them how to register).

-About the DRC: The Disaster Recovery Center is supposed to be a “one-stop shop” for everything. IA specialists work there. The SBA is there. Voluntary agencies will be there. The idea is that everything will get taken care of in one swell foop. 

-IMPORTANT WARNING THING, NOTICE THIS: It is not CR’s place, when we’re out in the field, to hint or lead people to expect that they’ll be eligible for whatever kind of benefits. Even if their house has been totally flattened, it’s possible that they won’t get money to repair/replace it. Maybe it’s their vacation home or something and isn’t eligible. We don’t know. But anything we say could create false expectations, so don’t. You can say “You may be eligible for YYZ”, but not “You will (or should) be eligible for ABQ”.
Other big thing to remember in general, as a guiding principle: FEMA pays for stuff when there’s no other source. HA only kicks in when insurance doesn’t work; ONA only kicks in after the SBA has denied a loan. (The second time ONA appears in the chain, anyway; there really should be a different acronym for that.)

This is a basic overview. There is a lot of other stuff and a lot of other details that you have to know, but this should be a decent foundation for the rest of the class. Tips: don’t let the acronyms get you down, use your common sense and take lots of notes.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tidbits From FEMA Week I: You Thought Americorps Loved Its Acronyms...

In keeping with the "Keep Vinton informed about the goings-on at the CDP!" theme, I'm going to post a brief (read: less than 1,200 words) summary of what we did last week. That was "Intro to FEMA, all specialist positions". This week is more like "FEMA 200: Advanced Specialist Training". 
Vintoners: posts about the general feel of the training and a general overview of the place are already up. 

-FEMA's motto is the following: "Protect communities by coordinating and integrating all activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters." It may be a good idea to memorize this; apparently the FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate, is in the not-at-all-unsettling habit of walking around disaster sites and randomly asking FEMA employees to recite said Motto at inopportune moments.

-You've probably heard the Stafford Act mentioned in the Specialist Position descriptions. That is the legal authority for FEMA to do its thing. It lays out the procedure for how FEMA gets involved in a disaster response, which is as follows: Disaster happens. Local government tries to deal with it, realizes it's too big of a disaster, calls in state government. State government does what it can with state resources, realizes it's too big of a disaster, formally requests federal aid. FEMA reviews the request and kicks it up to the President, who says yes or no. If he says yes, then FEMA swings into action. Key point: FEMA cannot help out with a disaster if the state doesn't say so. And once FEMA is called in, they don't "take over" the disaster. Their role is to help the state and get resources to the state.

-Going off that, FEMA has three main programs: individual assistance (IA), public assistance (PA) and hazard mitigation (AKA "mitigation grants"). IA is about helping individuals and households. PA is about fixing/rebuilding public infrastructure (roads, bridges, schools, etc). Hazard mitigation is about making the community better able to resist the next disaster, e.g. making buildings earthquake-proof in an earthquake zone. All three of those involve doling out rather substantial amounts of money to the relevant parties (grants or loans to individuals/households for IA, grants to the state for PA and hazard mitigation). I'll go into much greater detail on IA in a day or two, because that's what I myself am learning about right now. PA people, you'll have to just wait 'till you get here.

-The Whole Community concept: I wrote about this a little while back. Whole Community is basically about engaging everyone in a disaster-hit community (henceforth "community"). It's about engaging everyone who wants to help in the disaster recovery effort. That means not just FEMA, but state and local governments, faith-based charity organizations, nonprofits, businesses, families, people. And it's also about including everybody in a given community, leaving nobody out or behind. There's a whole list in the binder you'll get of people who have a "social vulnerability"--the poor, the elderly, the disabled, non-English speakers, children, people with pets (that's a real problem if people won't leave a flooding home without their dog, for example)--who all have to be included/taken into account when you're responding to a disaster. 

-JFOs and DRCs: If you're like me, you heard the acronyms on the NCCC campus but don't know quite what they mean. A JFO is a Joint Field Office. There's only one per disaster and it's the nerve center of the entire disaster response. The Federal Coordinating Officer, a.k.a. Your Lord and Master, works there. DRCs are Disaster Recovery Centers. There will be at least one (probably) in each county that's been declared an disaster area and eligible for IA. IA people will work there. If FEMA were a video-game enemy, DRCs would be level bosses and the JFO would be the final showdown with Bowser.
-Memorize this number: 1-800-621-3362. That's the FEMA helpline (3362 = FEMA). One way for people to register at the DRCs is for them to call that number, so remember it. 

-They give you a chapter on the FEMA organizational structure, most of which will be way over your head and mine. Basics: the FCO, the State Coordinating Officer (SCO) and various other luminaries are in charge: that's the Unified Coordination Group (UCG). Everyone else, which includes External Affairs, Operations, Planning, Logistics and Finance/Administration (the five main thingees) takes their orders from the UCG. The various IA people, the VALs, the Mass Care people and the PA people are all in Operations. Community Relations are under External Affairs. The Logistics people are obviously in Logistics. We're all still FEMA Corps, but that's where everyone fits in the FEMA hierarchy. (There'll be charts. Again, you'll get boatloads of detail at the CDP; these are basics.)

-One of CR's main missions is Assess, Inform, Report (AIR). This is the "boots on the ground" part of CR that I've mentioned in the past. This is going in right after the disaster and reporting back to the higher-ups. We're also the face of FEMA out in the community, so we have to represent the organization well. 

-Unit 8, "Working the Media", inspired a post all its own. They basically tell you to "stay in your lane" and only talk about the things you know about. This will be frustrating. We gotta deal with it. 

That's everything in my first gigantic binder. The second gigantic binder will be up soon!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

(Mostly) Everything You Want to Know About the Center for Domestic Preparedness

It occurred to me this morning that I’ve been writing a few things about the CDP and its programs, but not really giving people a comprehensive idea of what to expect at the CDP. And since people from Vinton have apparently been reading this blog (thank you, Vinton campus!), I feel like giving an account of what to expect here. Here goes.

Swag. FEMA will give you a LOT of stuff. In the first few days of being here, we all got a Blackberry and a bunch of accessories, a laptop (complete with indestructible case) and a RSD token that allows you to connect securely to the Internet. I would still advise newcomers to bring your personal computers, because the FEMA computers are slow and Windows-y and you’re not supposed to use them for personal business anyway. For someone who has never owned a smartphone, the Blackberries are your best friend and worst nightmare; they allow you to stay in touch instantly with everyone at all times, and they force you to stay in touch with everyone at all times 
As far as clothing, we just got that a couple of days ago. Everyone gets three FEMA Corps T-shirts, two like polo shirts, one long-sleeved shirt, one sweatshirt, one rain jacket and one baseball cap (the last two items magically transform the wearer, visually speaking, into a high school football coach). To Vinton: Plan for this when you’re packing your red bags!! I wasn’t informed about what we’re getting, and now I have no earthly idea how I’m going to fit all my swag in the bag. Now you know better than I did. Prepare accordingly.

Food. When I was looking up data for my Mississippi and Alabama preparation posts, I discovered that those states (and the Deep South in general) have really high obesity rates. After eating pure Southern food for a week, I now completely understand why. Don’t get me wrong, everything is absolutely delicious, but I tried early on in my stay to regulate my food intake to one incredibly unhealthy thing per day. That failed. Then I tried to regulate it to one incredibly unhealthy thing per meal, and sadly, that failed too. I’ve never seen so much fried food in one place in my entire life, most of which has been meat. (My vegetarian friends tell me their options are decent but monotonous.)

Worldview and expectations. As I described a few posts ago, the classes are a lot less hardass-y than we thought going in. It looks like FEMA really made a concerted effort to teach to our generation… which makes sense, because generational issues are a huge thing at FEMA. Most of the FEMA higher-ups are on their second career, having retired from the military or a fire department or something before coming to emergency management. (Nancy Jo, one of my teachers, is on her fourth career.) At a Q & A panel yesterday, the panelists agreed that most FEMA reservists were in their late fifties, if not their sixties. We even heard yesterday that at least one nonagenarian has been lending a hand!

One of the benefits of FEMA Corps, from FEMA’s point of view, is infusing new blood into the organization. The Corps is on a five-year agreement with CNCS, and I think the idea is that we’re going to be something of a farm system for FEMA. Another panelist mentioned that CNCS and FEMA were looking into getting us preferential treatment for government job openings after this year, and my teachers kept pushing the idea of a career at FEMA during class. It seems like there will certainly be opportunities for us in FEMA after this year is over, is what I’m trying to say. If that’s your thing, you’re in a good spot.

Classes. The first week is a basic overview of FEMA: what they do, why they do it, what’s their legal authority for doing it, what they do not do, where their money goes. The second week, which starts today, is specialist position-specific training. Again, the class structure is much more forgiving than you might expect in a hardcore Department of Homeland Security facility. There are lots of Powerpoint slides that can get monotonous, but they’re pretty good about designing creative activities for you (although I’m sworn to secrecy about the details), and everything is pretty easy to follow. The test at the end is not worth mentioning, except to say, really don’t worry about it. (They also let you keep the binder we got, which primitive man could probably build a house with. It’s large, thick and certainly will not fit in my backpack.)

Lodging. Is awesome. If not for the barbed wire around campus, you’d never know you weren’t staying in a classy hotel. DHS doesn’t exactly help itself by designating buildings by numbers (“Building 61” just sounds ominous), but buildings 322 and 294 are posh as hell. There are nice lounges, foosball tables and comfy couches, and the whole place has cable TV. Outside, the grass is well-manicured and (mostly) free of fire ants. There are lots of grassy fields and we’re doing team-by-team physical training, so Ultimate Frisbee has rapidly become a huge thing. Bring your disc if you have one. The only caveat is that we’re not allowed in the bar on campus, and the Anniston bars are far away and can only be reached by government van, which is officially prohibited.

So that’s Anniston. All the Alabama research I did turned out to be mostly useless, because there are few opportunities to explore outside the CDP, but inside the wire is still a good time. Be warned that the training is constant and there are no days off. Today (Sunday) was my first half-day off since arrival, and we still have class in the afternoon. It’s a lot of time in the classroom, but we're hungry for it. Hope the Vintoners are feeling the same way.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

You're Not Weird, You're Fantastic. And Either Way is Okay.

"Editor's" Note: This isn't a NCCC/FEMA Corps post, because there are days when I don't do that or there's nothing much to write about. I've got several completed blogs just sitting on my computer for days like these. If you're just here for the NCCC stuff, apologies, come back tomorrow. If you're interested in what else I have to say, read on, Macduff.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a friend or an acquaintance or a random stranger say something unusual or interesting or awesome about themselves, and them follow it up with some variation on the following phrase: “I’m weird like that”. If you hang out with interesting, often introverted people as much as I do, you’ve probably heard that phrase too, or perhaps one of its variations. Language notwithstanding, the underlying sentiment in there has always bothered me, and I’m going to try and talk out the why of that in this space.

 It seems to me that there are two basic meanings for that phrase, given the words and the context in which it is typically used. The first, by far the more common, is apologetic. It’s saying “Hey, there’s this aspect of me that is unique or uncommon or, for whatever reason, not generally accepted by most people I talk to. Because of that, I feel as though I need to give this little half-apology for it, as though I were ashamed of my uniqueness.”

That bothers me because you’re not really apologizing for your habit/interest/behavior, whatever’s under question, are you? You’re saying ‘sorry’ for yourself, for the way you are that guides you towards those interests. By apologizing for a specific manifestation of your personality, you’re apologizing for all of yourself, in a sense. And you should never—you should never have to—apologize for yourself. I like to tell people that there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure, because why be ashamed of the stuff that makes you happy?* The same thing goes for your behavior or habits. If you’re not hurting others with your actions/beliefs/habits, I really don’t see the need to be ashamed of them.

The second meaning of the phrase is more self-congratulatory then anything else. It’s an attempt to take that unusual trait and leverage it into prestige. Using “I’m weird” this way is saying “This unique thing that I do also makes me unique. I am better, or at least more interesting, then you because I have cool interests and you don’t.”

I’m definitely prejudiced against this trait because a certain scumbag that I used to know did it often, but it still rankles me even without the taint. Your interests are certainly part of you, but they don’t define you. They don’t impact who you are as a human being. And more importantly in this context, they don’t make you unique or special. What you do or say or like is part of you, but it neither defines you nor makes you better than anyone who doesn’t share that special quality. You’re not smarter because you read POLITICO instead of People or more fun because you wear flip-flops instead of sneakers. Personality comes from inside, not outside.

You could think of those two meanings, apology and pride, as straying to one or the other extreme of a long continuum. Your interests/behavior/habits are part of you as surely as your  frontal lobe, but they’re neither something to be ashamed of nor something to crow over. What you do is just what you do. I think both meanings come from perceived societal standards; the apology from supposedly falling short of them, the pride from thinking you’ve transcended them. In reality, neither is true or needed. It’s okay to just be you, whatever that means. No apology is needed and no self-glorification will be accepted. It’s just you sitting right in the middle of the continuum, and that’s not weird, it’s fantastically, gloriously normal. And that’s much more liberating, because it helps you realize that everyone has “weird” interests; everyone is stuck in the middle with you. Far from flouting a standard, you’re part of a vast and interesting crowd. I think that’s absolutely wonderful.


*Assuming that poisoning kittens or whatever isn’t what makes you happy. There are society-wide standards, in my book anyway, but they’re much broader and more allowing then what people typically assign themselves. Just… leave the kittens alone.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Media from the Inside: We Look Like What?

I have scanty experience in public relations. I did three months as a P.R. intern for the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, but all I did was write and edit press releases. I never so much as smelled a member of the print or online media, unless it was a whiff of myself; I've been writing for high school, college and local online newspapers/magazines for the last five or six years, but regardless of the outlet, I've always been the guy asking the questions. On Friday, I was really and truly on the inside for the first time. I was preparing to be the guy that gets interviewed, not the guy who does the interviewing, and it's actually a hell of a culture shock going from one to the other.

The Center for Domestic Preparedness's curriculum has ten different units, one of which is talking to the media. We covered that one earlier this afternoon. The message was simple: say your piece and shut up. Talk about your Americorps service until you're blue in the face, talk about those parts of FEMA about which you can speak with authority (mine would be Community Relations, since that's my specialist role), but for heaven's sake "stay in your lane" when it comes to FEMA. Don't speculate. Don't talk about things you aren't an expert in. Don't give people false hope by speaking on topics you know nothing about. Just smile politely, get their name and the name of their media outlet, and go do your job away from the cameras.

There are plenty of reasons why this makes sense. As Summit V was told, we are the face of FEMA; as CR Specialists, we will be the first FEMA representatives that anybody sees. If we get on local TV or radio or in the newspaper, our job is to get the word out about what FEMA does, what Americorps does, and what we can do for the people in any affected area. Why? Because it helps people to have good and accurate information. Getting the good word out early could save lives. And, let's be honest, coming off well with the media also helps our bottom line. People meeting, liking and trusting FEMA Corps members means FEMA has an easier time with the disaster relief effort and improves FEMA's reputation in a given community, and Americorps members being popular improves Americorps's chances of not getting cut out of the federal budget.

This is all positive and good. But let me say my piece about being a member of the media. When you read professional journalists writing about why it's important to have a class of professional journalists, things get a bit self-righteous. We're the watchdogs, we say. We're the guys who keep government honest and ferret out corruption; we're the eyes and the ears of the general public, for whom we work. We're the unofficial fourth branch of American politics. But from inside a government organization, the media is... not exactly the enemy, but more like an extremely shifty ally that has to be watched every minute. Some helpful tips from our handy interview notecard include "do not get lured into a friendly conversation", "do not be overtly defensive or sarcastic", "stay on message and avoid traps" and "do not apologize or attack". There are plenty of innocuous tips in there, but those make it sound like I'll be fighting reporters for control of the FEMA message. That is startling, to say the least.

I'm not saying I buy the idea that journalism is a quasi-holy duty that has to be fulfilled for American politics to work, but I do generally think that we--journalists "we"--are out there doing good work on behalf of the public. I've done a lot of interviews in the past few years; I've interviewed local businessmen, basketball coaches, professors, college administrative staff, board members of nonprofit organizations, lawyers, doctors, even representatives of a member of Congress. Never once have I asked a "gotcha" question, tried to sucker someone into an answer, set a conversational trap or failed to identify myself as a journalist in a timely fashion. Yes, I have asked tough questions; that's part of the job. Yes, I have tried to identify interesting or juicy things that could make a story. That is also part of the job. But the crap I listed a couple of sentences ago, as far as I'm concerned, is bush league. It's not something you do if you want to be taken seriously.

We seem to be preparing as if all journalists operated in such a scuzzy fashion, and from a planning standpoint, it makes sense to prepare for the worst; local news, especially local newsmen that have been bitten by the self-righteous bug, certainly do that sometimes. But the majority of journalists I have known and learned from do not behave in such an amateurish manner, nor do I. If this is how journalists look from inside FEMA, then I'm disappointed in the quality of journalism that FEMA has interacted with. We're not the enemy. We're trying to help.

Ideally, the journalists I end up interacting with (if any) will be more in line with my idealistic definition (I'm young, I can be that) than FEMA's more pessimistic one. If they don't, I'll certainly be glad of the preparation; hell, I'm glad of it now, just so I know what might be coming. But if they act like professionals and ask good questions, I'll give good answers (or refer them to the people who have said answers if said answers aren't in my lane, FEMA overlords), I won't be disappointed. I'll be ecstatic. That's how this is supposed to work.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Center for Domestic Preparedness: Not Nearly as Scary As We Thought

At about 2:30 Thursday afternoon, as FEMA Corps was returning from a 10-minute break, the myth of "FEMA Strict" was busted forever.

That was when my teachers enlisted a bunch of Corps Members to crumple up pages from USA Today, dropped a pile of paper balls on each of the six tables, and... told us to go to war with each other. I thought it was going to be some sort of disaster-related exercise, but no: we were just supposed to blow off steam, six and a half hours into a long day of training. "This is big, bad Anniston? This is the place where they'll kick you out if you so much as sneeze?"

It turns out that the TLs were either exaggerating wildly or just had bad information throughout our NCCC training. Y'see, Anniston was the TLs' chosen stick throughout the month of CTI (Corps Training something-or-other). Talking in class? "That won't fly at Anniston." Walking in a minute late? "They'll run you right out the door for that in Anniston." And it only made sense, you know? This is a Department of Homeland Security facility we were talking about, the ominously innocuous-sounding Center for Domestic Preparedness. This is where they train people to respond to terrorist attacks. This is where people go to learn what to do in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. They have a terrifying statue of three faceless men in radiation suits dominating their lobby. Of course they would be total hardasses; that's their job, right?

Not even close. The CDP has been incredibly accomodating, both in terms of our training and our treatment. They let us raid the snack rooms and actually brought boxes of snacks into class today when the break rooms in a new building didn't have them. You're welcome to lean back in your chair, stand against the wall, whatever helps you learn; we have big comfy chairs to sit in, notebooks and post-its provided for us, whatever luxury you might want. And the training itself! Far from just sitting and being lectured, there are group activities, presentations in front of the class, frequent brainstorming sessions that allow us to think creatively about problems (and exercise our La Mettrie-style brain muscles). It's as non-traditional a classroom setting as I've yet seen, excluding high school Political Theory. Either law enforcement officers, firefighters, etc. have a lot more fun in their lives than I thought, or the CDP has adopted a totally different playbook to train this totally different type of unit that we, FEMA Corps, are.

And it's cool. They're still feeling their way, but the result is welcome. I loved the exercise where we took somebody's hometown (Michael's origin of Hustisford, WI) and brainstormed what would happen to the town in the event of a flood. Where are the highways in and out of town? What's the topographical layout; where's the high ground? What charitable organizations are based in town? Where could people gather in the event of a flood? I love that kind of stuff. Thinking creatively is my bread and butter in a school setting.

But the drawback to having a laissez-faire classroom is you get laissez-faire people. I've written before about how this class is smart, dedicated, idealistic, yadda yadda... but we're still 18-24-year-olds and you gotta take that into account. We suck at being in school. Nobody is good at school, but my age group is especially poor at it. If you give people my age room to slack off, we will... not out of malice or as a reasoned decision, but simply because we suck at staying focused on something that you have to really try to stay interested in. (The inner workings of FEMA and its bureaucratic organization are interesting as heck to me, but I'm in the minority on this one.)

It's a fine balance that they have to strike. Yes, it's cool and practical to give us some freedoms (I'm sure nobody wants to ride herd on 240 ostensible adults), and it undoubtedly will help us learn and absorb information... but we're still kids, even the oldest among us, and we still need to be prodded to learn. (Personal view--I don't know when adulthood happens, but for the past six years or so, it's been perpetually "a few years away" for me personally. I have no idea when people become adults. Do you have to fill out a form or something? Is that what mortgages are--no wonder the root 'mort', i.e. mortician, mortuary, morbid is in there!) Maybe they can tinker with it with the Vinton class, who's apparently coming in right behind us. And people will undoubtedly be more engaged when specialist-specific trainings start to happen next week. It's just something of a culture shock, given everything that we were told coming into Anniston.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Age of the Individual (In FEMA Terms)

We really are entering the age of the individual.

Back in college, I did my junior year thesis project on Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s postmodern masterpiece and a biting satire of huge, overarching bureaucratic institutions. Heller’s Air Force bureaucrats prioritized the written word over the evidence of their eyes, trapped airmen and soldiers in inescapable logical loops treated Yossarian and his compatriots as little more than pawns in an increasingly complex game. Yes, satire is exaggeration, but Heller had a point: in the early 1960s, with military and industrial bureaucracies mushrooming, they seemed a perfect villain for the postmodern age. Huge, impersonal and concerned only with their ends, the bureaucrats played hell with the lives of those under their thumb. The idea of blind, unfeeling, corporate authority has bounced around pop culture ever since.

I don’t know if my FEMA overlords have ever read Catch-22 (also, hi overlords! Thanks for reading!), but if they had, they might recognize Catch-22’s monstrous bureaucratic edifice as precisely what they’re trying not to be. In FEMA Corps’s first full day of genuine FEMA training, the emphasis was clearly on making disaster survivors feel included, not excluded; welcomed, not managed; part of the recovery, not a problem to be solved. We were reminded that survivors with disabilities should be housed in the same shelters as everyone else, so as not to set them apart. We were introduced to the “Whole Community” concept, in which everyone—regardless of class, race, creed, financial status, pregnancy and a dozen other things—was supposed to be included in the planning and recovery process following a disaster. In short, we were told that the people we were saving mattered. They are the entire point of all our efforts and should be treated as such. Big and complicated as it is—and any bureaucracy is—FEMA is trying to be a feeling bureaucracy, governing with as much personal interaction and attention as possible. That’s laudable.

This fits nicely into another concept on a somewhat larger scale, which I remember dimly from a political science class of a year and a half ago. For hundreds of years, individuals served the state. In the age of monarchy and long into the age of democracies, nationalism was the dominant ideology and individuals were expected to serve the State, whatever the political philosophy was in any given country. You gave your property, your taxes, your service in the army and even your life (if it came to that) because you were fighting for a Cause. You gave to the state; that’s how it worked. Your reward was being a part of the great machine, which hopefully won its battles.

Now, for maybe the first time ever, liberal democracies are coming around to the idea that it’s up to the state to serve the individual. I mean “now” in terms of the last fifty or sixty years, but it’s a relatively recent development when you consider the length of human history. The concept of universal human rights is a very new one. So is the idea that the government should provide basic necessities for its citizens, because that’s what government is there for. In the new world, it’s about providing individuals the tools they need to be successful, not individuals necessarily serving the state to make it stronger. The parallels to FEMA’s efforts to respect and elevate the individual, to include and help literally everyone affected by a disaster, are strong.
And individuals have their own responsibilities to go with all that freedom and power and advantage. Close to the last hour of today’s FEMA sessions was about actions that you as an individual can take to make you and your family safer. They hammered home the idea of an individual responsibility to prepare oneself and one’s home against future calamities. Yes, the government can and will help you in your time of need, but the best thing is for you to prepare so you won’t need it. It’s a different kind of individualism, but the same general result: they’re trying to make sure that you as a person are respected and treated in the way that you want, and preparedness helps you towards that goal.

A whole community, full of individuals, all of whom are having their own needs filled by an organization that cares about them as unique human beings. I can get behind that kind of an effort. Especially, as I suspect, if that transition over the decades—from Heller-style impersonality to individual assistance—is part of a larger society-wide movement towards greater recognition of and power of the individual. FEMA appears to be at the forefront of that movement, as much as any large bureaucracy can be, and I'm on board with that.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Another Enthralling Post: The FEMA and CNCS Budgets

At some point during the last couple of years, I started getting into one of the most arcane things in the federal government: the budget. Given that I’m now a government employee, working for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) via funding provided by FEMA, I thought it meet to go and explore the money that CNCS and FEMA get to do what they do. Here, then, are the numbers, straight from the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012.

CNCS


The CNCS gets $751,672,000 for operating expenses. $82,834,000 of that is earmarked for carrying out provisions of the National and Community Service Act of 1990, whatever they are. The National Service Trust (NST) gets $212,198,000. The NCCC brass can also transfer funds from “Operating Expenses” to grants administered by the trust, as long as those grants support people engaged in national service. $83,000,000 is earmarked for administrative salaries and expenses, and $4,000,000 is for the Inspector General’s office (again, whatever that is).

The bill also contains several administrative provisions. The first one prohibits hanky-panky in the grant awarding process: nobody gets to know until the selections are announced, and significant changes to the process or requirements have to be made in public view. Another mandates that Americorps programs getting NST grants have to pick up 24% of the cost (I’m assuming that’s what “minimum share requirement” means) for the first three years that they have a grant. Afterwards, they have to meet some overall minimum share requirement specified under federal law. A third says that donations “shall be used to supplement and not support current programs and operations”, and a fourth stipulates that only veterans of Americorps programs get the education award that we’ll be eligible for after successfully completing this program.

I don’t have the numbers for FY2012, but in FY2010 the entire Americorps NCCC program—five campuses, 1,200 members, administrative staff, food stipend for a year, vehicles, miscellaneous expenses, etc., etc., cost just $29 million. In government terms, you can find that kind of money down the back of the sofa. I’ve heard our TLs say that training each regular Americorps member costs $24,000; my campus director of operations (DDO) says it’s more like $27,000 when you take the cost of renting the campus into account. FEMA Corps members, the TLs say, cost $36,000 because of the two extra weeks of FEMA training we do. According to my campus DDO, the FEMA Corps budget is still confidential, and I don’t feel like filing a Freedom of Information Act request to pry it out. However, the $29 million mark at least establishes a ballpark figure. I’d be surprised if the total cost of FEMA Corps was over $40-45 million—which, again, comes through CNCS but from FEMA.

Anyway, when you put together all the numbers, the CNCS gets $1,040,870,000 to fund Americorps, Senior Corps and Learn and Serve America (LSA), its three main programs. That’s FY2012. In FY2010, Americorps VISTA got $99,074,000, while LSA got $39.5m. Americorps NCCC, as I mentioned, got $29 million that year.

FEMA


The Federal Emergency Management Agency gets $895,350,000 for salaries and general expenses. $41.25 million of that is for the Urban Search and Rescue System, $5.493m for the Office of National Capital Region Coordination, $12m for improvements at the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center, and $13.662m for modernizing automated systems. $1,349,681,000 is for “grants, contracts, cooperative agreements, and other activities”; $50m goes to Operation Stonegarden and $100m for areas with a high risk of terrorist attack. The bill earmarks $231,681,000 for “training, exercises, technical assistance, and other programs, of which $155,500,000 shall be for training of State, local, and tribal emergency response providers.” One would assume that the Center for Domestic Preparedness is funded out of that pot.

An additional $675,000,000 is federal firefighting and protection funding, $350,000,000 is for emergency management performance grants, $44,038,000 for the United States Fire Administration and firefighting purposes, $700,000,000 for carrying out the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act--$24,000,000 of which is earmarked for the Inspector General for audits and investigations. Another $295,000 is for the costs of direct loans, authorized under the Stafford Act. $97,712,000 is for expenses incurred under the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, plus whatever state and local governments want to chip in for “cost-shared activities”.

 $171,000,000 goes to the National Flood Insurance Fund (NFIF). Apparently there’s an immense amount of money in the NFIF; The cap that you can take out in a given year is $132m for “operating expenses”, $1.07 billion and change for “commissions and taxes of agents”, $60m for flood mitigation and unlimited for interest on treasury borrowing. $35,500,000 is available under the Stafford Act for pre-disaster mitigation grants as well as $120,000,000 for emergency food and shelter.

That’s $4,418,596,000 by my count. In addition, in a different appropriations bill, Congress authorized $2.65 billion for immediate disaster relief (to be meted out by the director of FEMA within 15 days). That brings the total to $7,068,596,000 by my count, give or take a few million. Some of that pot has presumably funded FEMA Corps, from its inception as an idea of deputy FEMA administrator Richard Sorino to the present day (and far beyond).

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Absolutely Nothing Happened Today, So I Wrote About NCCC Food. Enjoy.

Today I sat around and waited in, around and outside the Center for Domestic Preparedness for a non-exaggerated total of probably six hours. Outside of that, winning the solitaire trifecta (clock, Klondike, 7x5 faceup) and getting our equipment, nothing happened. So I’ll share what I wrote on the van ride yesterday: food. I figure I’ve written about plenty of graduation ceremonies and ropes courses, so it’s gotta be time for something incredibly mundane (yet terrifying).

The NCCC budgets $4.75 per person per day for food; that is what you live on. All of that money is pooled and put in the hands of your Team Leader; for a ten-person team like mine, that’s $47.50 a day. It’s doled out weekly, which pushes the amount up to $332.50. That buys weekly supplies, almost always purchased at Wal-Mart, and invariably made up of that store’s “Great Value” generic items. (I’ve joked before that the entire NCCC program is really just an indirect subsidy for the local Wal-Mart.)

 NCCC staples include wheat bread, pasta, macaroni‘n’cheese, salad that comes in a bag, drink powder that turns water into lemonade, frozen pizzas, occasional chicken breasts and sundry fruits and vegetables. Generic pasta is the most popular meal, made with store-bought sauce; tacos and rice are also quite common. All of these things are paid for with government dollars, tax-exempt, which REALLY helps one shop within the budget. Going over budget isn’t the end of the world, though. It’s pretty much expected in your first week on spike, for example, when you’re also buying base ingredients like salt or olive oil or ketchup. Now, it is possible to stay under budget until the end of an accounting period and then just have an extravagant meal at the end; you’re not allowed to roll over money into the next accounting period, as I understand it, so you might as well spend it while you can.

Cooking and cleaning duties are generally divvied up amongst the team. My temporary team had a four-person rotation per night; two people cook, two people clean for every dinner. You cook one night a week, clean one night a week and then have three nights free (on weekends, people generally fended for themselves during NCCC training). On my permanent team, that’s been shifted to one cook, one cleaner, at least in theory. In practice, we’ve had relatively few sit-down team dinners; everyone had different schedules and our kitchen wasn’t big enough to accommodate everyone, so most people just followed their own schedules and ate whatever. This week, John made minestrone and Mariah made tater tot casserole, both of which were welcome changes. I’ve cooked once since getting here, a valiant attempt at homemade salad dressing and pasta sauce that mostly just came out bland. I prefer cleaning anyway; it’s less stressful.

All of the above is daily life, but there are some outliers. For example, today is a travel day, during which our budget jumps up to $15 per person per day. (During the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac, when our power was out, we also got $15/person/day until the lights came back on.) That’s supposed to allow for three meals, but it doesn’t always work that way; on Friday, we only had to pay for one meal—breakfast was our stuff, dinner at Anniston was provided—and we went to, ugggh, Taco Bell. We each had $15 to spend… at Taco Bell. The amount of crappy food we ate as a team was just overwhelming. My friend Joe bought an entire cake there and, as of this writing, has eaten half of it.

We were lucky enough, as a Corps, to have the whole first week catered by a local Vicksburg catering company. During our two weeks at Anniston, which started today, we will also be catered to by the good people of the Center for Domestic Preparedness. Beyond that, NCCC is expected to take care of itself the rest of the time, absent random events like church dinners or barbecues thrown by the city of Vicksburg. I’d never had ribs before, and I’m now wondering how on earth I went 22 years without them.

That’s NCCC food. I’ve spoken in glowing terms about how we’re being trained in all sorts of ways for whatever may come our way and whatever whatever, but when you look at that aspect of our lives, we’re really being trained extensively for one more thing: bachelorhood or spinsterhood. At least I’ll have experience as a dishwasher when it comes time to look for a career path. (Kidding. Mostly.)

Friday, September 14, 2012

We Have Infiltrated FEMA's Sanctum Sanctorium...

...and all that's here is some well-manicured grass, large brick dorms, immaculate sidewalks and all manner of amenities and visitor-center stuff. Somewhat ominously, the fences don't have barbed wire, but foot-long curved spikes pointing outward. In other words, they keep people out, but if you really really need to flee, i.e. over the walls, the spikes won't keep you in.

I actually have no idea what's here, since we've yet to actually do anything. I just wanted to put this up to let folks know that FEMA Corps has officially migrated. Like birds in winter, we fled to the... east (shush, I'm tired) to the magical land of Anniston, Alabama, in the middle of a government facility.

So far, it's very nice. The staff was insanely accomodating--my group was the last of five, and we got there an hour late due to an overlong tour at another FEMA facility in Jackson, MS. Their cafeteria staff had supposedly long since finished up, but they brought out 33 boxes of pure Gulf Coast food--ribs, baked potato, crab still in the shell--and five or six staff members had stuck around to help with our initial processing. For the first time, somebody else was being "FEMA flexible" on our behalf instead of the reverse!

Adding to the good impressions, the facilities look quite nice. The rooms are basically hotel rooms: nice bathroom, TV, one good bed (we're two CMs to a room, thus somebody gets a cot), one giant black refrigerator that dominates the room like the monolith at the end of 2001. We have access to a computer lab and wi-fi, which I'm using in concert to type up this blog; there's a volleyball court, numerous gyms, the best foosball table I've ever seen and a storage locker filled with bikes. And that's just on the housing campus where I am right now; the Center for Domestic Preparedness is friggin' massive.

So yeah. We don't actually start training until Tuesday, but the next three days will be consumed with in-processing activities, from getting our FEMA badges to our training on the security protocols here to our FEMA equipment. Each of us will be getting a FEMA-issued laptop, which comes in a 20-pound case that could survive a cruise missile attack, a Blackberry and some sort of government internet chip, to aid us in our various specialist tasks. I should be getting a camera as well, since I'm a media rep, so I can better document what we're doing. (They want us to put up one blog post per week. I wrote 3,700 words today on the way here, not counting this post.)

That's the news from the Center for Domestic Preparedness, of which we have seen only a tiny piece thus far. We have wi-fi all throughout the campus here, so I should be able to post daily (I have a TON of mostly non-NCCC stuff backed up because I've been limiting myself to a post a day) for the next two weeks. Breakfast is at 0545 tomorrow morning, so now is already past my bedtime. Goodnight internet!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I Am Officially a Member of the National Civilian Community Corps

Today was it: the biggest day of the last five weeks, one of the biggest events--pomp and circumstance-wise anyway--of our service lives. Today is the day that the first-ever class of FEMA Corps Members officially became part of NCCC. There was a color guard, an Americhoir singing the national anthem (I sang in that), an Ameriband crooning Queen's "Somebody to Love" (I sang along to that), and all of our High Overlords giving speeches to a crowd of royal blue FEMA Corps T-shirts. We heard from Wendy Spencer, the CEO of the CNCS; we heard from Richard Serino, deputy administrator of FEMA; we heard from Charles Davenport, our temporary Region Director; we listened to Kate Raftery, the head of NCCC, and half a dozen other speakers. There were thanks, well-wishes, analogies and congratulations in all of those speeches, but one line in particular caught my ear and eye.

I believe it was Mr. Serino who mentioned the word 'sacrifice', as in the sacrifice that we're making by joining FEMA Corps. And I guess it is considerable; ten months of our lives, working for little pay and in lousy (literally, I bet) conditions, when we could be out in the world starting our permanent careers and living life the way lots of 20-somethings want to? My friend and unit-mate Michael struck a similar note on Tuesday night, speaking to a stuffed Corps after the City of Vicksburg's delicious barbecue had vanished into our stomachs. He spoke about the sacrifices that members of the military are asked to make, and challenged us to think about what more we could--or would--sacrifice in our lives for the sake of doing good.

Listening to both Michael and Mr. Serino, a "sacrifice" seemed to be the act of making a concession. You give up something for the good of others and to help others; you're being selfless, noble, honorable. But you see, I've been playing chess for most of my life, and chess has its own special language. Within that language, the word "sacrifice" means something entirely different; in a game of chess, you sacrifice a piece in order to gain an advantage, even win the game outright. In other words, you sacrifice what you have in order to gain what you need.

I think that definition is much closer to the truth of what we're doing. Yes, we're leaving behind worldly comforts and glittering prizes, but the members of FEMA Corps Class 19 aren't truly giving up anything. We've traded our old lives for something fresh and new, and there's not a person in the Corps who hasn't bought into our mission. We're doing righteous work, helping people in their times of great need, and learning an amazing amount about ourselves and each other along the way. Give up? We're gaining everything. What we give to FEMA Corps will be repaid a hundred times over in friendship, experience, knowledge and good works. As FEMA Corps packs its bags and prepares to head to Anniston for training, it's my firm belief that we've given up nothing. A fantastic year is just around the corner, and you can't put a price on what we're about to experience.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Terry Jones, You Are the Worst Person in the World

"Editor's" note: Sometimes, I post non-NCCC-related things; sometimes, my posts include strong language. If neither of those are your cup of tea, then this post is not for you. (Immediately after writing this, I ran into someone who informed me that her parents and grandparents read this blog. Hence this disclaimer.)

Dear Mr. Jones,

When an outside observer cannot distinguish whether you are unbelievably callous or just intellectually deficient, it's probably a good idea for you to step back and re-evaluate your actions.

Are you familiar with the phrase "waving a red flag in front of a bull", Mr. Jones? Do you understand what it means? Do you understand that your words and actions may cause riots--have caused riots, most recently today--that killed four good men? Are you capable of feeling an ounce of remorse for your incredibly stupid actions?

Let me break it down for you. Despite the hate-filled vomit you regularly splatter on television and onto your poor, deluded congregation, Islam is not a hateful religion. It is not a place for the stupid or the weak-minded or the callous or the vicious. But like absolutely anybody else, when you offend a devout Muslim seriously enough, you incite them to righteous action against the people who disrespected their religion.

If I walked into your church and pissed on your Bible, would you be perturbed? Mildly irritated, perhaps? If I came into your home and insulted your God, would you bat an eyelash? Or would you simply turn the other cheek and remind me of my sins?

Of course you wouldn't. You'd yell and scream and rage and probably put me in the hospital or worse. This is utterly and totally predictable. Red flag, meet the bull. And even if you were too thickheaded to figure it out the first time, when you burned the Qur'an in April 2012 after literally every major political figure in the country told you not to, the fact that twenty-one people died in Afghanistan due to your stupid, stupid actions should have given you two fucking clues to rub together. Can you really not know, or do you just not care, what you're doing and the impact it has?

Now you've decided to promote Innocence of Muslims, an obscure independent film that mocks everything Islam stands for and makes the Prophet Muhammad into a cartoon. And by the way, you're far from the only person to blame. How about you, Sam Bacile, the sick, twisted coward who decided to make this filth? How about you, you actors and crew members that helped him do it? How about you, the hundred anonymous Jewish donors--Bacile is Jewish, by the way--who funded this filth? You make me ashamed to call myself a Jew. You have put a huge, seeping stain on our religion. Congratu-fucking-lations.

But even with all of that bigotry and shame, no one should have noticed. Who the fuck cared about you, Sam Bacile, before today? You were nobody. You are nobody. You could have produced this slug of a film in silence and nobody would have noticed or cared. But Terry Jones just had to promote this film and get it international attention and now guess what happened?

Riots in Benghazi, Libya. Riots in Cairo, Egypt. Four people, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, are dead because you just couldn't keep your hate and fear and stupidity to yourself. And it blows my mind that the police can't haul you and Bacile and all of those donors in front of a criminal court and sentence you to prison, because that's where you belong. Four people are dead today because of you, four good people. Good fucking job. And good fucking luck learning to live with that.

Sincerely,
Andy Tisdel

How to Be a Better Human: NCCC's Renaissance Men and Women

Four weeks of NCCC training are almost completely in the books. Our structured classes ended for good a week and a half ago; last Monday was a training on how to approach and aid people with disabilities, and then we headed off to Camp Lake Stephens to put our training to work. This week so far has mostly been loose ends and cleanup before our induction ceremony on Friday, when we become full-fledged NCCC Corps Members. (We’ll still have two weeks of FEMA training after that, but I’ll take my victories where I find ‘em.)

Looking back and taking stock, I’m struck—I was struck at the time—by how much of the training was focused on making us better, more well-rounded human beings. Traditional NCCC gives you project-specific training when you go out on spike, so I guess it makes sense that so much of the in-class training focused on the intangibles of how to live with one’s team. There were some very tangible classes—CPR/First Aid and van driving, for two—but they were far outnumbered by what I like to call the “Don’t be a dick” and “don’t be a dumbass” units.

Those are exactly what they sound like: how to live with your team and interact with others without screwing up. They were essentially reinforcing our common sense. Don’t send emails in an unprofessional manner; be courteous, polite and good-natured. Remember that what you’re doing matters, and do all you can to learn why. How to eat properly on a very low budget, conduct yourself ethically and properly, how to solve your issues with other Corps Members. Understanding and appreciating and allowing for diversity. Maintaining a high quality of life. We learned how to write in an office setting or work with the elderly or, as I mentioned, work with the disabled. There are numerous others, all equally holistic.

All of these trainings have two complementary purposes. Yes, they’re preparing us for everything we might encounter Out There in the big, disaster-hit world of spikes and sleeping in tents, and they’re teaching us how to live with the same people for nine months and not go shithouse crazy (I suspect that’ll be considerably more important than we think). But they’re also fulfilling half of that NCCC motto: “Strengthening communities, developing leaders”. The considerable investment of time and money spent on us (Americorps NCCC spent $29 million in FY2010, as an example) is expected to pay off in us. You don’t show young people the world and expect them to quit after a year; you’re recruiting the best and the brightest! We’re not supposed to do a year of NCCC and then go forget everything we’ve learned; we’re supposed to take what we’ve learned and go use it after 2012.

Yes, it’s holistic and can feel very soft at times, as if we were learning how to be namby-pamby goodie-goodies instead of spending more time on what we’re actually going to be doing. Well, that part is getting started three days from now. FEMA is holding down the job we’re actually going to do; NCCC is more invested in how we’ll do it and who we’ll be afterwards. As a practical-minded person, I’m impatient for the FEMA training to finally get here. As a participant-observer of and in the program, I’m glad to see that we get the NCCC training as well.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11 and the National Day of Service: My Take

To be totally honest, I didn't even know there was such a thing as a National Day of Service on September 11th. I'd never heard of the "I Will" campaign, never seen an ad for it, never witnessed volunteers helping at my school or in my community. But apparently not only does it exist, but it mobilized as many as 33 million people last year who all went out and served in their communities or just decided to be kind to a stranger or a friend that day. Today, on 9/11/12, NCCC's Southern Campus held a 9/11 reflection meeting, then went out into Vicksburg and even all the way to Jackson for a day of community service.

It's a little strange to think about, because neither 9/11 nor the succeeding War on Terror have directly affected my life. I live a thousand miles from New York and D.C. and Shanksville, PA. I know very few members of the military personally and have none, at least of this generation, in my immediate family. Ditto firefighters, ditto-ditto policemen and emergency medical personnel. My taxes haven't appreciably increased because of the war, I have not been and am unlikely to be discriminated against in this country because of the 9/11 attacks, and while I've maintained a deep and lasting interest in 9/11 and the Afghan and Iraq Wars, they have yet to reach out and touch me. (Thank God.) I was in sixth grade when the Twin Towers fell, and at the time the death and destruction was impossible for me to understand. I simply couldn't concieve of death and suffering on that scale. Eleven years later, the events of 9/11 remain more historical than visceral to me.

I guess, to put it simply, I always focused on the results of the attack--two wars, an expanded national security complex, a new Cabinet department, a renewed and enhanced emphasis on secrecy, defense and security, and an ever-increasing number of bodies overseas--ours and theirs alike. The visceral, emotional impact upon a country that once seemed untouchable on its own soil (it had been almost 60 years since Pearl Harbor and 191 since the War of 1812) was lost on me. I guess this relates to my post about the long-term impact of disaster relief, where I focused once again on details instead of human stories. I never would have imagined something so widespread as a National Day of Service, designed to retake September 11th and make it a day of help instead of a tragedy, engaging people from coast to coast.

And yet, it makes sense. It actually makes a ton of sense. All of my associations with 9/11 are either absent or negative--bad foreign policy, bad domestic policy, a decade of war with no clear end or victory--because that's what the attacks inspired. The half-joke half-serious line in the years immediately following 9/11 was "...or the terrorists win". We do this, or the terrorists win. We go out and hit them in their heartland, or the terrorists win. But through our foreign invasions and occupations and all the death and sadness they caused, we handed them the biggest victory they could've hoped for. We became the enemy for millions of people. The history of 9/11 is not complete, would never be complete, without everything that that horrible day inspired in us.

But I said everything, not just our decade-long counterattack. The events of 9/11 have also inspired countless people to do good in whatever way they think best. The National Day of Service is about kindness, not vengeance... about service, not justice... and about the strengthening of life, not the punishment of death. It says 'You can't beat us because we're not even playing the same game. We're turning the other cheek. We're choosing to make ourselves stronger, not to give you the vengeance you want. We're taking the wound you gave us and making it a badge of honor and service.' The National Day of Service is our attempt to replace the memories of war and vengeance with a spirit of brotherhood, country-hood and service of those who deserve our thanks.

And so the members of the National Civilian Community Corps, like millions of like-minded Americans around the country, took time out today to reflect, remember and offer our aid. I washed squad cars at the Vicksburg Police Department and chatted with members of the force. Some of my fellow Corps Members went to the Vicksburg Fire Department or to local  elementary schools; others served in other communities with other First Responders. We served all around this community, and we will--a few minutes from now--attend a community barbecue thrown to honor the service of the citizens of Vicksburg and of the NCCC. Helping, healing and serving are the watchwords of the day. Together with reflection and rememberance, I can't think of better.

Monday, September 10, 2012

My Latter Two Days at Camp Lake Stephens

"Editor's" note: Excuse the present tense; this was written contemporaneously with and describes Thursday-Friday of last week.

After an eminently memorable first day, the second two days of our Camp Lake Stephens were… decent. It’s kind of odd. After a day clearing underbrush, I found myself really really wanting to write about them and tell the story of that day, because it was a profoundly unique feeling, a real NCCC memory. What we did yesterday and today was fun and dynamic and unique in its own right, but it didn’t leave me thinking “Wow! That was amazing, I have to tell everyone I know!” in the same way that Day One did. Maybe that’s my standards being unrealistically high, I don’t know.

In any case, Day Two would’ve been called fun by even the stingiest summer-camp participant. We did a low-ropes course and a high-ropes course. The low-ropes courses focused on teamwork; you had to fit everybody through the (rather small) holes in a man-made spiderweb of ropes, or get everyone to swing on a rope swing across an (imaginary) highway and land safely on the other side. It was okay, I guess. This connects to the Myers-Briggs personality tests we just took, I suppose, but I would’ve welcomed a little less standing and talking about the course and more “Let’s do something and see if it works!”. Perhaps correspondingly, my favorite of the four was when we were all mute, standing on a log, and had to arrange ourselves in a specific order (our birthdays, Jan-Dec).

The high-ropes courses, on the other hand, were all about individual achievement. We did a “flying squirrel”, in which—through the magic of lines and pulleys—one person (the squirrel) stood on one end of a rope, five strong team members were clipped to the other end of the rope, and the point was for the Five to run and yank the rope as hard as they could and send the squirrel flying as high as possible. That was terrific fun; I was one of the Five for about seven squirrels before getting my turn, and it’s like a giant eagle just picks you up and yanks you into the air. There was also a rock wall with a wicked incline at the top (I couldn’t quite make it, failing two handholds from the top, to my immense irritation) and The Pole, a highlight to end all highlights.

The Pole is simple in design, difficult in execution. The chosen one is equipped with helmet, harness and safety line and made to climb up a thirty-foot pole (handholds and footholds provided. Once at the top of the pole, they will see a trapeze suspended in the air about 5-6 feet in front of them. The objective, of course, is to jump and grab the trapeze.

Plenty of people were scared; perhaps two-thirds of my team required some sort of coaxing from the ground before making their attempt. I wasn’t scared at the top, at least not of falling; I just remember thinking “Okay, I have one shot, so I better not miss.” Didn’t help all that much.  I did not make it. After a sort of swimmer’s dive off the top of the pole, I fell about a foot short by my estimate, never touching the confounded thing. A very, very few people Corps-wide made it; I would guess about 20-30 out of 240. My teammate Joe actually touched the bar with both hands (he’s 6’4”, which helps a lot) but slipped off because his hands were sweaty—it’s unbelievably hot on top of the Pole. That was easily the high point, figuratively and literally, of yesterday.

Today was the “Amerilympics”, a unit-wide competition in all sorts of things. We had a punt-pass-and-kick with a football, a water balloon toss and subsequent free rein to just go nuts with water balloons, a trivia competition (apparently Ben Franklin died on 4/17/1790), a competition to kick the most soccer balls in a net, a Frisbee accuracy competition (I hit three of five cones myself; no TEAM of 8-12 people totaled more than four), “Dragon tails” (break into two lines of five, last person in line has a tail, get the other guy’s tail before he gets yours) and a three-legged race (Joe and I won within my team, but lost by eight seconds unit-wide). Like I said, it’s all fun enough, but none of it is particularly extraordinary. And perhaps that is an unfair standard, but many of the Corps’s activities have been extraordinary (using it correctly, i.e. much better than ordinary); this was just ordinary.

I’m definitely glad we did it, though. After shepherding each other through various impossible obstacles—and more to the point, just hanging out, living together, swapping music preferences and inside jokes and having long conversations—I definitely feel a lot closer to my teammates now than I did at the start of the weekend. That was the entire point of the exercise, after all, and I’m glad of it.