Writers note:This presentation was never presented as at 12.51 on the 22nd of Feburary 2011 another major eartquake hit Christchurch. The research and preparation into this speech played a major part in the development of the Feburary Student Volunter Army and development of the Volunteer Army Foundation. – Feb 2013.
Introduction (read by host): Sam Johnson is a 22 year old student at the University of Canterbury. Presently in his fourth year studying Law and Political Science, and a freshly elected member of the Riccarton/ Wigram Community Board. Sam led the team of young people who organised over 3,000 volunteers to clear liquefaction and debris from resident’s properties throughout Canterbury after the September Earthquake. Sam will today speak about the importance of Volunteering, how the volunteer movement started, the challenges that faced the group, and importantly, the role the social media site Facebook played in recruiting and coordinating volunteers.
Good Afternoon, It’s a pleasure to be presenting here today. My name is Sam Johnson and I am a fourth year student at the University of Canterbury, and also a member of the Riccarton/ Wigram Community Board. On the morning of the Christchurch earthquake I was violently shaken awake like most people in Canterbury as our houses rattled and shook apart. It’s an event that will vividly live on in my mind and one that has changed my life considerably. On the morning of the earthquake I was at my flat in Riccarton, a suburb of Christchurch that did not fear too badly in comparison with the eastern suburbs of Christchurch. We had no idea of the extent of the damage as apart from loss of power, there was no immediate sign that anything was out of the ordinary. Being a farm boy, power blackouts were no new phenomenon which led me to assuring a newly imigrated family living next door that earthquakes are quite normal for New Zealand and that I sure it is safe to take the children back to bed as that was certainly where I was headed. Despite a feeling of complete helplessness for anyone seriously affected, I somehow managed to drift back to sleep for a couple of hours. It wasn’t until a couple of hours later when I sat down and watched the news at a friend’s flat, who didn’t lose electricity, that I came to terms with the damage that the earthquake caused and the impact that this was going to have on the future on New Zealand.
This presentation is focused on the team of students that diligently volunteered in our community following the September Earthquake and how that operation was managed and the lessons can be taken from the experience. Over the two week period where the project was operational, 3,290 students from across the South Island registered with the Volunteer Army and embarked on adventures into neighbourhoods to clear silt caused by liquefaction. Our team of coordinators each day signed up to 900 volunteers in and out of the system, transported them to locations, provided them with equipment, fed them lunch and tried to make sure they had a good time along the way. It is evidence of the amazing power of volunteering, and of team work, and although I am continually reminded it takes a single person to start a project like this, what is far more important is the team of people in the background.
How the Student Volunteer Army began:
It was evident from the official media coverage and the self journalism that existed on social networking sites on the morning of the earthquake that there would be a great need for volunteers. As an individual young person who was relatively unaffected by the earthquake a feeling of complete helplessness was inescapable. As someone who had absolutely no training in civil defence practice or procedure, being able to volunteer for everyday people in their own homes seemed the most practical area to assist. I rang and registered my willingness to volunteer with the council along with hundreds of other skilled and non skilled workers. After waiting in a long phone cue I discovered that neither Civil Defence nor the Christchurch City Councillor had a volunteer coordinator position in existence at this moment.
Volunteering for me is giving back to the community and an active form of relaxing. It is a way to get to know new people and help build a stronger community. In a time of stress and anxiety such as Christchurch residents were experiencing, volunteering was the way everyday people were able to make a contribution during the immediate response period. Young people in Christchurch are well known for their loutish anti social behaviour, especially around the University. The time after the earthquake was a very unique one as university was closed, and being that our 3 week holiday had just finished, young people were largely at a loose end. I was invited to several ‘Quake after-parties,’ and invited to purchase a t-shirt stating that “I had survived the Christchurch Earthquake 2010” all before 11am on the 4th of September. It was these invitations that sparked the idea to create a volunteer base on Facebook as thousands of students had an extra 2 weeks away from our study.
The organisation of young people is a matter of marketing. If the conditions are right and an opportunity exists it seems that motivation will nearly always follow. The conditions such as hours worked, food supplied, transport drink, and social interaction all became the focus of the organisers as that was the best way we could ensure that the volunteers would return for another day of gruelling physical and mentally exhausting work.
I doubt that anyone in this audience is not familiar with Facebook and the way it has revolutionised the internet world but it is worth taking a moment to explain that it is the most common way young people connect to one another. In New Zealand, 96% of people under 25 communicate on a social networking site at least once a week. Facebook is commonly referred to as a verb, similar to ‘email.’ In the way that you can email someone, you can ‘Facebook’ another user. Any person can create a profile, upload photos, and write on their friends pages. You ‘add’ friends, ‘like’ interest groups and users can ‘RSVP’ to events. I created an ‘event’ called the Student Volunteer Base for Earthquake Clean up. I added around 200 friends to the page, and requested that people invite other friends to it. There has been over 14,000 people invited to the page now, with nearly 4000 clicking ‘attending’.
The first days:
On the evening after the earthquake, I placed a message on the page detailing where and when volunteers where needed. Halswell was an area with bad liquefaction but little hazardous structural damage that would have been a health and safety concern. After another unsuccessful call to the Civil Defence call centre, I rang City Councillor Bob Shearing who suggested going and helping individual residents where we could.
On Monday morning, day one, I arrived at the meeting point fractionally past 10am slightly nervous and frazzled after just hanging up the phone from an in depth radio interview about the potential scope of this project which I didn’t know a whole lot about. Similarly, I had no idea about the substance that I was about to brief what turned out to be 150 people about, but it was very simple- be safe, clear the silt, have fun. The first road was cleaned up fairly rapidly, with the second not taking terribly long either. Work started drying up as more and more people arrived so we started sending them to other nearby areas, and then started sending people in search of streets around that needed assistance.
It was rapidly approaching 11.30am when food was the pressing issue for us. A resident had given us $50 to go and buy some lunch for the team on his property which together with some funds left from my Community Board campaign ($281), we managed to scrape together all the bread rolls, shaved ham and budget tomato relish in the supermarket which managed to feed the majority of the workers.
We moved locations twice that day, each time losing 50-80 people as we had no method of communication with our volunteers other than by word of mouth or Facebook. We hadn’t managed to feed everyone who was volunteering which I believe was the central indicator of when people left. Food was from then onwards one of our priorities, and something that we started preparing for the following day.
Embracing technology and working with Civil Defence and Christchurch City Council:
As I mentioned, I registered as a volunteer with civil defence on the day after the earthquake, and then rang again on the first day of our volunteer project. While I was assured that someone would contact me, I appreciated that we were not a priority group and would be just as well to start work ourselves.
The first important contact I had made was with a local MP who phoned and offered assistance in the eastern areas of Christchurch of which I was unfamiliar with. The afternoon did not run smoothly after the MP requested the students to deliver information brouchers on emergency services while affected homes were located. Information was important to deseminate, but this incident caused the first backlash on Facebook and volunteer disengagement where volunteer complained about being ‘used’ and their time being inefficiently utalised. It became apparent to the organisers that our focus must stay on clearing private homes only and that clear direction was needed to keep volunteer engaged. It was also vital to keep the student volunteers free from lengthy decsion making processes, beaurocacy, the direct influence of politicians, councillors, civil servants or the military.
The following morning Mayor Bob Parker phoned at 6am with concerns raised about sending 500 students into the disaster stricken eastern suburbs of Christchurch! The numbers on the Facebook page had caused alarm. The council arranged access to civil defence personal, military and a suitable meeting place in the east. While in theory this assistance was everything we needed, and was well received, some of procedures which my team were suddenly privy to were outdated and ineffective.
On the second day, 230 students stood at the meeting place for 90 minutes to receive instructions and an all control, no liability speech from civil defence staff. A group of army personal had also been brought in help manage the volunteers, each leading a team of around 50 students through Avonside as methodically as possible. Little did we know that it was the blind leading the blind causing great confusion among civil defence, the army, the council officers, and my team. The project had up scaled so quickly that no one knew who was in charge of what, who was controlling the students or where the silt from liquefaction was even located.
Like any large scale project, we expected that there would compromises that must be reached and tensions that would need to be worked though. While there were only had two major tensions throughout the project (first over civil defence protocol and the second over council protocol), the first tension came after a period of unproductive time and general confusion which was a major threat of the student’s motivation and enthusiasm to volunteer. As discussed below, the motivation and enthusiasm were the most important aspects of the volunteering that we were worked hard to safeguard. A meeting was called between officials and while I understand it was advised that the project be closed down or delayed, two civil defence managers from West Coast and Marlborough districts Alan Wilson and Ross Hamilton, with the support of Mayor Bob Parker, took a risk and placed trust in the potential that this project had.
We reassumed the control of the logistics of the student operation and worked very closely with the Civil Defence leaders, Alan and Ross, and also located liquefaction through our own methods. Our primary focus was to be efficient to mainting volunteer enthusiam, which led to an insistence from us to use our own methods to adhere to protocol that we were being retrospectively informed of by council.
The clearest example of such technological upgrade is the signing in/ signing out of the work sites. I was instructed that this was a not negotiable part of civil defence procedure and something we had to adhere to. On the first day the students all signed in using paper and pen, placing their name and address in a series of small books. Despite the request to sign out at the end, no one actually bothered to do so causing considerable stress to civil defence staff. The following day we only agreed to follow their protocol on the condition that we were able to do it our way. We arranged to have 4 laptops with typists to sign students in using their name and cell phone number, and had them sign out by sending a text message. This was far simpler, and grew each day as the numbers increased- eventually reaching 10 laptops and 1000 volunteers registered. Phone technology became an invaluable resource as we refined and built the project. Each day a database of names and cell phone numbers was collated and sent to an Auckland based company that allowed us to upload properties that needed assistance, and mass text every worker with details of where lunch would be supplied, and which streets to move to next. Through utilising basic technology that was in all of our pockets we saved countless hours of administrative time which made the volunteers less perturbed by
Relationship with the Media:
Our relationship with the media became the key to the project’s success. Media organisations had been interested and followed the growth of this project and the work of the students from the very beginning and were more than happy to be able to assist in a useful way. They were an extremely useful tool as at the same time our system became refined to coordinate, feed, water and toilet 700 students in one suburb of Christchurch, the immediate supply of liquefaction run out. Until this point we were able to go door to door and cleanup entire suburbs, but there were individual properties in every area that needed assistance. I emailed the Breakfast programme and asked for a message to be displayed with my email address and a request for anyone wishing for earthquake assistance to email a description of the damage to our team. A similar message was sent to as many journalists and media organisations that we could find.
Among the countless requests for tree removal, lawn resurfacing or chimney destruction we received over 300 requests for our services which were used to dispatch individual groups of students to greater Christchurch. Added to this were lists of jobs from Civil Defence property surveys that were being completed. We plotted out the locations using Google maps, and the following day dispatched 906 people to properties all over the city.
The following day we economised further as we scaled the project and ran it from the university campus, then my lounge on the final two days when there was only demand for 150-200 people. We asked through Facebook for people to text us asking if they wished to volunteer, and from our computers we would send the address, the type of project, and the number of people that were required to assist there.
Relationship with the Army, and the Waimakariri District Council:
In reality the Volunteer army ran two very separate divisions, one in Christchurch and one in Kaiapoi. Chris Duncan, a 3rd year Geography student took responsibility in the Waimakariri District, a much smaller council and a council with a much more defined workload post earthquake. The operation in Kaiapoi was very different from Christchurch as from the beginning the volunteers worked with the council. Chris had an efficient working relationship with the operations manager at the Waimakariri District Council who needed a work force to help clean up and repair the town, and in return he was able to supply access to transport, maps, lunch and lists of jobs to be completed. The simplicity of the relationship came from having a clear understanding of the role each individual played in the immediate response which minimised miss-communications and the wasting of time.
Together with the Distict council, the volunteers also worked very closely with the army who provided leadership for the work force that our organisation was supplying. The workload in Kaiapoi was of a nature that it required multiple small teams constantly moving across an area from one job to the next. The army leaders coordinated the mobility of the work forces, distributing the numbers where they needed and ensuring that the critical momentum of the workload was kept up and that the volunteers time was not wasted. The Army proved imperative to the operation in Kaiapoi. Our organisation would bring the workforce in, WDC would supply the information on what needed to be done and where, and Chris and the Army would execute the most efficient method of using the whole volunteer force to get the work done.
From day one we were on a very limited budget, and despite great financial assistance from the Ministry of Youth Development, $5000 did not stretch very far when we were providing equipment and lunch for an average of 600 people per day for two weeks.
Private enterprise support and product donations made this project a success. Everything from wheel-borrows, to home baking, sausages to fuel vouchers was donated as we required. I found every business manager I spoke with very helpful and more than willing to contribute something to help make the project a success. The spirit of communities throughout such a time was truly incredible. Thank you for your contribution to our work.
Motivation and observed patterns:
I think it’s very important to note that Facebook was not the motivator for this project, or the reason so many people got involved. It was a tool, it was nothing new- like text messaging and the use of the media, we simply embraced the technology that was freely available. The emotive imagery and community ethos that was present after the earthquake was the driving force to bring students out onto the streets. Like a good protest or a change in alcohol laws it was an issue that students cared enough about to want to make a difference. It quickly became our job to embrace and sustain this motivation and enthusiasm that had the potential to dissolve in minutes if that goodwill was exploited. In Kaiapoi Chris noted similarly having instantaneous working momentum was essential for getting the operation up and running each morning and making it sustainable for longer periods of time.
Throughout the period when the volunteer operation was functioning, our team became very familiar with what young people were prepared to do, what they like, and what they didn’t like when freely giving up their time. The advantage of the Facebook ‘wall’ (where messages could easily be posted publically) was that many complaints were registered, debated and answered online. We were able to see this feedback, and alter the operation if necessary. I have outlined some of the observations that we made throughout the period about engaging young people in volunteer work.
1. Need a leader at each level of the organisation. Any volunteering needs leadership, but every single leader is as important as the next. I have been very privileged to receive a lot of recognition for starting this movement, but the real heroes are the ones on the ground who were leading a small team of volunteers, not to mention my administrative team. Volunteers all want to help but the average person is not interested in being the one in charge. We always attempted to appoint a leader of the smallest group of people to break any friction that can exist when someone is self-appointed in charge of other people. The leader didn’t necessarily have to do much above directing when it was time for their team to move to a new property, but it was vital leadership to minimise wasted time.
2. Work effectively in large teams. The decision had to be made at the beginning whether we would send 5 students into a property for half a day, or send 15 students into a property for half an hour. While the number of people varied from property to property depending on the access space and equipment available, many hands make light work. The work was hideous, and there was nothing glamorous about shovelling thousands of tonnes of endless silt from house after house after house. The trick was making it simple, and make it social- large teams problem solve better, and get work donw faster boosting moral.
3. Need instant gratification; we like to see ourselves making a difference. This was key in maintaining motivation and enthusiasm , and ties into large scale team work. Clearing a property with 3 or 4 people would have been depressing. You would dig all day, and still make no substantial progress. With team work, we powered through properties which allowed students to see themselves making a difference to not just a single property but to an entire suburb.
4. Students need feeding. The amount of time a volunteer would commit naturally hinged on their energy levels. With the amount of work that was being completed and the effort that was required, I felt it was the least we could do to repay them was provide them with food and drinks. Feeding up to 1000 people each day was the most complex element of this entire operation as we had to blindly guess at the number of volunteers we were expecting to feed. The challenge in the end wasn’t paying for the food, of preparing it but finding food in the supermarkets!
Similarly we discovered the things that student volunteers are not interested in, or good at. Student volunteers:
1. Were not good at logistics, nor were they interested in them. We tried our level best to make things very simple so people didn’t have to think about anything but the task at hand.
2. Are not free labourers. The work which volunteers undertook was to help individual households out the situation that they were in caused by the earthquake. Anything above this, we discovered, lead to protest and resentment. There was a direct correlation between the cause they were volunteering for and the task they were actually completing. If the two elements were not aligned volunteers felt exploited and used which dissolved any enthusiasm they may have had in volunteering. For example, there was resentment over handing out flyers with emergency information on it, for digging holes to check the status of sewer pipes, or especially clearing garden waste that was not created by the earthquake. This comes down to the difference between volunteer work, and work that one should be employed for.
3. Are not interested in long term commitment. One of the reasons that the Facebook group worked so well is that it required no commitment. A volunteer could work for half an hour when it suited them, or for two weeks solidly. Although this lack of commitment made preparing lunch in advance impossible, it encouraged many more people to come and volunteer as they knew that they were under no obligation to stay
As a result of this project, our same team of organisers is creating a permanent society for large scale volunteering at the University of Canterbury. Our scope is different from the many other successful volunteer organisations that are established in New Zealand, as we are engaging directly with the university market, and on a large scale. We are being very careful not to be branded in any particular way, ie, as a “Greenie/ Christian” club, or as the “goodie good students” but to be a broad range of people who may be willing to spare half a day to help our the community in their own way.
We were certainly not the only group of volunteers working in Christchurch after the earthquake, though we did cover most areas at some stage during the project. As I mentioned, volunteering during the immediate response period allowed the people of Christchurch, both young and old, to contribute to the cleanup of their city. Their focus on cleaning up created positive news stories and positive feelings towards the recovery. Clearing a property of silt allowed people to celebrate the piecemeal achievement that house by house, the city was being cleared. I believe that the celebration of such a small milestone as clearing one property, together with the talking, sharing and intergenerational contact that resulted from the students volunteering has been incredibly important in developing the resilience and confidence that people of Christchurch have showed following the earthquake. While the majority of students cleared the silt; many became cup of tea drinkers child minders, or counsellors which all contributed to the mental health of residents, particularly those living alone.
I hope that the story of the students can be one that will be remembered in the future and the lessons learnt about utilising everyday technology and effectively managing and coordinating volunteers can be incorporated into emergency management plans and be of practical use in the future.