“A New Way To See: Collaborative Decision Making After Disasters”

Feed Back Labs
Nota publicada originalmente en Feed Back Labs

At Cooperacion Comunitaria, we work to help vulnerable communities rebuild private and public spaces post-disaster in Mexico. One of the keys to this process is tuning in to the needs of indigenous communities and honoring their traditional knowledge, even as they may consider adapting or adding new technologies as they rebuild.

We are led by our community’s needs: before we start working with a new community we do in-depth assessments.

In Spanish, this term is called diagnosis and reflects how we are checking the health of the community and environment. How do they build their environments, how do they work with natural resources, how do they use them, what do they produce? This assessment allows us to better co-design private and shared public spaces with them.
But recently we realized that the feedback we heard through these assessments did not give us the whole story. We were making decisions based on the diagnosis, but we didn’t talk with community members about their responses after they shared them with us. We just got the information, and then adjusted the project.

We skipped a very important step: discussing the results of the assessments with community members and making decisions about the whole project together.

This meant that we sometimes missed the opportunity to help communities make the best decisions for themselves. For example, in the case of risk prevention, we mapped the community’s land with members of the community and then with a geologist. This enabled us to draw risk maps that identified buildings that would need reinforcement because they were in vulnerable zones. But, the community’s perception of risk is very different from ours or the geologist’s. We didn’t share the final risk assessment with them, so the risk maps didn’t reflect their cultural perceptions of risk. We missed the opportunity to make culturally appropriate proposals from the get-go.

If we had shared what we heard in the assessment with the community, they could have pointed out that we weren’t taking cultural perceptions of risk into account. That way, we could have started using the most accurate materials and techniques, matching risk perception with technology and cultural expectations at an even higher level.

This experience reaffirmed for us the importance of recognizing that an intercultural focus requires that we constantly validate our understanding with the groups we work with.

When we started discussing the conclusions we were drawing based on what we heard during diagnosis with community members we gained a much deeper understanding of the community’s needs and desires. We got something more valuable than information: we got perceptions and insights into their culture. For example in Oaxaca, they draw their land very differently than what we were used to. They don’t look at maps with the north up, they look at it as if they are in front of their plane. They draw the lagoons and seas, and never look at it from an aerial view. This perspective was new for us. We had to change the way we see maps, and now ours reflects exactly how they see their reality, very different from our original point of view.

Even the simple choice of what building material to use in reconstruction can be a very difficult decision. Some communities want to use adobe, others concrete. We talk with them about the advantages of different materials but it’s also about context. For example, many community members feel concrete symbolizes modernity. And this discussion is complicated as some materials may not be right for the environment or temperature.

Now, through having these discussions about what land and materials mean for these communities we work with, we can understand them better. And this understanding will make all the difference between the project proposals we used to make and the ones we make now. We believe now they are more adapted to the communities we work with because we are learning how they perceive the world, their reality, their context.

We have learned from them another way to see.