Sometimes engagement can be tough. You’re faced with a room of community members who are angry, frustrated, confused and sad. You can’t give them answers and you can’t make any promises. All you can do is listen. And as they share their stories, you can’t help but start to get teary-eyed. You want to be able to do more, say more. To snap your fingers and make everything ok. But it’s not that simple. Community issues are often highly complex and there is rarely a single solution.
I recently spent some time facilitating in a town affected by floods, working in the preparedness space. As we drove through the main street, the physical impacts were plain to see. Fallen trees pushed to the side of the road, mud and debris caked on buildings, houses boarded up. This town was still picking up the pieces months after some of the biggest floods in decades.
I had done my best to brace myself for what I knew would be an emotionally charged evening. But as I listened to people’s stories – stories of loss, displacement and hardship – all I wanted to do was cry. I managed to hold it together and got through the night. I thanked people for coming and for trusting us with their personal stories. As hard as it was for me to hear these stories without getting upset, you can bet it was harder for people to talk about.
As I got back to the motel that night, I couldn’t help but feel despondent. Had my being there done anything to help? What could I possibly do to make a difference?
It was in this moment that I heard a scratching sound at my door. Naturally curious, and with the door chain firmly fastened, I poked my head out to inspect. There I was greeted by a very large, and very friendly tabby cat.
You can imagine my surprise as he waltzed through the door, walked around the room a couple of times, and leaped up onto the foot of the bed, where he proceeded to purr contentedly.
Being a cat-lover and what with the cold snap outside, I was hardly going to kick him out. Besides, he probably belonged to the owners of the motel. So there he stayed, curled up like a toasty cinnamon bun.
And as we drifted off to sleep, I realised what I had actually witnessed that day was not a town devastated by floods, a community left floundering. It was a town that was resilient, a community that came together in difficult times, to lend each other a hand, to support each other, and to recover together.
Mo the Motel Cat reminded me that in many ways, the toughest engagement is the most important. Because this community was heard. They told us their stories, shared their experiences, and we listened. I hoped that through this, they could see how much strength they have as a community, and that knowing this might bring them some comfort as they continue to recover. Most of all, it would help this community, and others, be better prepared for the future.
I woke the next morning feeling reassured. This work was important. It was work that mattered. I let my feline friend out with a pat on the head and a fond farewell before making my way to the car, ready for my journey home.
I passed the hotel’s owner on my way, and with a cheesy grin mentioned my gentleman caller. She looked at me with confusion before saying “…We don’t have a cat”.