Editor's Note: This article by Molly de Aguiar was originally published by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation on Medium.com. The Patterson Foundation contributed to the Inform and Engage Fund, which helped improve access to reliable information following Hurricane Sandy. There is nothing quite like a major natural disaster to reveal huge gaps in a community’s information needs and infrastructure. When Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in late 2012, leaving $68 billion in damage in its wake, people scrambled for information. Where and when to buy gas during the shortage? When will the electricity be restored? How to get help from the state to rebuild damaged homes? Imagine too, if you will, a state that has long lived in the shadows of the New York and Philadelphia media markets, where the news coverage on the television and radio is not New Jersey news, but New York and Philadelphia news. Despite a growing network of online local journalism sites in New Jersey, there simply aren’t enough outlets to adequately provide information for New Jersey’s 565 municipalities. And the municipalities themselves are ill-equipped to provide timely, accurate information to their residents. These were the circumstances in the weeks following Hurricane Sandy — a state crippled by the largest Atlantic hurricane on record — that compelled several foundations to dedicate dollars to the Hurricane Sandy Inform and Engage Fund (part of the larger New Jersey Recovery Fund), a pioneering effort to improve access to reliable news and information, and empower citizens to have a voice in the long-term recovery from the hurricane. In establishing the Inform and Engage Fund, philanthropic partners including the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, The Patterson Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, among others, signaled that community information needs and civic engagement are at the heart of sustainable, smart long-term recovery from a natural disaster. "When disaster strikes a community, the media does a spectacular job with round-the-clock coverage of emergency response,” notes Bob Ottenhoff, President and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “But as the disaster fades from memory, media can play a special role in keeping citizens informed, highlighting key policy issues and involving communities in important decisions. A resilient community that can bounce back quickly benefits from an engaged media environment.” When It Feels Like the Rest of the World Has Already Forgotten Where should philanthropy even begin to think about supporting community information needs in the wake of a major disaster? What did it look like in real life, post Hurricane Sandy? At a very basic level, the public needs ongoing coverage of post-hurricane issues because that intense need for information and communication doesn’t go away a month or even six months after the storm, especially when it feels like the rest of the world has already forgotten about the havoc and suffering inflicted by the hurricane. One of the guidelines of the Inform and Engage Fund requested projects that would, “provide ongoing local, nonprofit digital media coverage of the post-Hurricane Sandy recovery.” Applicants were asked to “creatively include citizens, encouraging them to get involved with the news and information process, and in the community decision-making and recovery process.” Chris Satullo, WHYY’s Vice President for News and Civic Dialogue, and his colleague Harris Sokoloff at the Penn Project for Civic Engagement have spent years developing and refining a framework for hosting public forums to discuss and explore pressing community issues like education reform and city budgets. In these forums, citizens are invited to examine the issues more deeply as well as potential solutions to problems facing communities. The forums also offer citizens opportunities to participate in the journalism coverage of these events in partnership with WHYY’s online home for news, NewsWorks.org. Not only do these forums help citizens develop a more nuanced understanding of the issues, they also foster relationships between community members, and give people a voice about the issues they care about — in other words, exactly what was needed after Hurricane Sandy. With a grant from the Inform and Engage Fund, Satullo and Sokoloff led four of these public forums in towns along the Jersey Shore, as well as one in Philadelphia (for Philadelphians who are homeowners and vacationers at the Jersey Shore), asking citizens to explore whether we should “Rebuild, Rethink, or Retreat.” The forums were also developed in partnership with some New Jersey nonprofits with deep experience in community engagement, including Creative New Jersey, The Citizens Campaign,Sustainable Jersey, and Jersey Shore Hurricane News, helping to bring in a more diverse audience and encourage a richer discussion of the issues.
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