An interview with Oscar Mogollon and Sabrina MillerWritten by Jessica Alvarez Parfrey & Juliet Brown.

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls and a quantitative change in our lives”

-Martin Luther King Jr. 

Community Resilience in the face of disaster… What does it mean to care for your community in unprecedented times, and how do you successfully navigate a rapidly shifting landscape of needs, opportunities, and challenges? Enter Cooperation Humboldt, an agile and intentional community-based entity (and inspiring Transition Initiative) whose mission is to build the solidarity economy on the Northern California Coast. Speaking plainly, the organization seeks transformation away from dehumanizing and defuturing systems, and towards regenerative, participatory, and just alternatives.  Sitting with Oscar Mogollon and Sabrina Miller, leaders of Cooperation Humboldt’s Disaster Response work,  it becomes quite clear that Cooperation Humboldt (CH) has also cracked the code on nurturing a “leaderful” movement.

Oscar Mogollon

Calling upon the impacts of her early training with CH, Sabrina speaks to the following during our interview:

“We as a society should all be supporting one another, and not have to work jobs that are unfulfilling or exploitative to our labor just so we can buy food. We should be able to support ourselves through love and compassion.”

As a means of building community coherence and effectively orienting new members into the organizational culture, CH offers an immersive study group experience to foster a strong baseline of shared values, and systems competency for all members. As leaders, and as two of the youngest members of Cooperation Humboldt, Oscar and Sabrina received a critical orientation and understanding of power, and the language needed to work impactfully and intentionally. At the beginning of their journey, Oscar and Sabrina were members of CH’s Care and Wellness team, spearheading a Community Health Worker Collaborative and looking to make connections and form organizational relationships within their community. Oscar recalls that all was going well, and then… “boom, here comes COVID.”

Over the years, Cooperation Humboldt has worked to build trust and credibility with the community it serves, and was naturally ready to step up and serve at the height of the pandemic. Transitioning from their work with the Care and Wellness Team, Oscar and Sabrina soon found themselves leading CH’s Disaster response work, effectively creating an organizational bridge between “disaster preparedness and community health work.” A community response form was placed online to solicit the help of local volunteers, and the response was overwhelming!

In addition to the tremendous outpouring of positive support from the community, the newly emerging Cooperation Humboldt Disaster Response Team was able to tap into an emerging recognition amongst large NGOs and Local Governments: the immense value of local grassroots organizations in their ability to more effectively meet community needs on the ground. For example, the Disaster Response Team worked with other community organizations such as Central Del Pueblo, with whom they partnered to get wellness boxes out to Latinx and Indigenous communities.

As a testament to their work, the Cooperation Humboldt Disaster Response team was approached to coordinate a  collaboration with the American Red Cross! Grant funds were received, organizational relationships were catalyzed and strengthened, and a food distribution program to meet the immediate needs of community members was deployed. This cross-organization collaboration enabled community members to network with each other and facilitate connections between people asking for support and those who had services or material support to share, empowering the community to get its needs met.

This kind of networking allowed them to get to know the skills and needs of people in their community and match them whenever possible. For example, Oscar knew there was a chef who wanted to provide food and a volunteer who wanted to distribute it. By introducing them, the Trinidad Food Program was born, and people in need received hot delicious meals they wouldn’t otherwise have had. Those people, energized by the chef and distributor’s generosity, were motivated to find other resources for themselves so they could shift the meals they received to others who needed them even more. Reaching out to people in the community to do small projects not only reinforced the strength of the community, but also the sense, for Sabrina and Oscar, that what they were doing was deeply meaningful. Sabrina was surprised and heartened to see just how excited people were when she came to their homes to install mini-gardens and teach them how to care for them. A few fairly simple gestures, these organizers found, went a very long way for everyone, especially themselves: their work and belief systems were validated with every community connection,  every newly formed relationship.

And then, yet another shift: the Disaster Response Team found themselves pivoting to meet the needs of their region now facing the impacts of another record setting fire season.

“We were not disaster experts or community organizing experts,” explains Sabrina, but rather “we relied on our ability to listen, follow the lead of the community, and connect with stakeholders and partners in a way that supported respect and awareness between community members and organizations.”

Out of the ashes of the fires and the uncertainty of COVID came a shared vision and clear purpose: a growing team of community stakeholders founded on trust, a collaborative ethos, and a desire to make disaster preparedness, mobilization, and response long-term priorities. When asked if they believed that they had planted the seeds of resilience in their community, Oscar and Sabrina humbly and confidently asserted that they were merely “tending the garden,” bringing light and nourishment to the underappreciated community capacity for care, collaboration, and creativity even in the most challenging of times. Creating space for relationships founded on trust and mutual recognition is essential, and  certainly emerged as a core theme and method in the work described by Oscar and Sabrina.

Offering some critical perspective, Sabrina also provided us with an opportunity for reflection on how we tend to define a “disaster”. We may be thinking most immediately about floods, fires, and now pandemic, but what about the “everyday disaster” of homelessness? In our quest for community resilience it is critical that we work from the transformational awareness that is needed to unite a diverse ecosystem of potential partners and perspectives towards action, equity, and community benefit. “It’s all interconnected”, says Oscar, and “what keeps me going” is the recognition of “people from all walks of life” coming together to “better their community and society as a whole.”

“I feel so in love with my community” says Sabrina, and have truly begun “to see my community as an extension of myself.”

Advice from Oscar and Sabrina

Returning to the critical nature of care and intentionality, Oscar and Sabrina offered some valuable insight and advice for those looking to connect with other organizations/partners, and catalyze community resilience:

  • “slow down!”
  • Take the time to truly understand your community’s needs…
  • “urgency can generate more problems.”
  • “Don’t assume, anticipate.”
  • “Take the time to listen to understand everyone’s goals, it will help you make a better, more informed decision on how to collaborate, mutually benefit, and share resources.”
  • “You’ll be surprised how willing people are to help out.” One of Oscar & Sabrina’s biggest challenges was coordinating the more than 100 volunteers who stepped up to support with distribution of food and supplies.
  • “Don’t be afraid or intimidated by others doing important work in the community.”

In partnership with the American Red Cross, and inspired by the community-based approach of Transition programs like Ready Together and Transition Streets, Cooperation Humboldt offered a successful 6-week resilient hub series: Building Resilient Communities. In the future they hope to be able to offer customizable experiences to organizations ready to take the steps needed to assure accessible community resilience. ”  For more information on Cooperation Humboldt please visit their website at CooperationHumboldt.com