Formal/Informal Crisis Response birthday party

A couple weeks ago was my 40th birthday. And as you may know, I occasionally throw conferences for my birthday party (CatCon in 2013 & 2016, Animal Talks in 2020, and governance structures in 2022). This year I did the same, focusing an intimate group on the interface between formal and informal groups in crisis response. You know, my jam

I was graced with the presence of John Crowley, Liz Barry, Joseph Pred, Evan Twarog, Suzanne Frew, and Schuyler Erle. I will forever be so grateful to these folks for showing up to share their brains and hearts on this topic. 

Scoping the problem

We started with a retrospective of our experiences of this interface, domestically, at the point in time when response is transitioning into recovery. It sort of looks like this: 

Informal groups are ALWAYS the first to respond – neighbors helping neighbors. They keep supporting each other until the formal groups show up on the timeline of days after the inflection point. Need for the local groups wanes as formal groups provide services. But then, as the formal groups pack up to move on to the next thing, the informal groups are vital again. So there are two main problem times that an interface would help out with – one as the formal groups are showing up, to know how to interact with the informal groups, and to not trample existing effort and knowledge; and a second when formal groups should be handing back off to the informal groups. 

In this retrospective, we ended up with headers about preparedness, a culture of friendliness, necessary support, knowledge transfer, interface, and leadership. From that, we drove to three main conversations.

Cultural competency

While we all love a good story about cultural competency issues, we realized we had our own gaps here. Although we who were in this conference might personally be equipped to translate between formal agency members and social justice flavored activist groups, a very real possibility is emerging of right wing groups being the first responders on the ground. Suzanne focused us around the idea of Cultural Competency.

We talked a lot about the difference between carrying guns to deal with roving people with guns trying to take over your community space, a la Black Flags and Windmills post Katrina, and people carrying guns to claim ownership of supplies or territory. We talked about motorcyclists and Anonymous doing work to prevent interruption of mourning in Sandy Hook. We also talked about how people in the formal sector may not be aware of how those are different, or frankly care why. 

Joseph brought up a way to cope with this type of problem and its ilk would be to unify folks through Management by Objective and to make space for cultural competency. At the end of the day, if people are feeding other people with no strings attached, they should be welcomed in doing so even if our political ideologies differ. 

We also talked about how different groups fail based along lines of their ideology. Many conservative groups double down on control when things aren’t going their way. Disaster capitalists try to make a business out of a single experience without understanding the larger context, and anarchist groups fall apart. 

Speaking in a way the audience can hear

John and I (and many others) have been working on a pamphlet for individuals in formal entities for awhile now, and it shaped much of the conversation we had. The thinking being that we will never know who the informal groups are in advance of finding them, so better to focus on finding groups we can find in advance, to help them hold space for the power of informal organizing in times of crisis. Joseph had the incredible idea during our sessions that we should make an ICS form in addition to the pamphlet which is essentially “here’s how to do this,” assuming the pamphlet or other mechanisms have made it clear why it’s worth doing. 

Another friend and I continue to plug away slowly on a zine for informal groups, which could be found on the internet, or handed to informal groups by the formal groups following the ICS form.

Decision making

We had two threads here – Joseph brought up how unified command would work way better for having informal participation and representation than a traditional command pyramid structure for ICS, and Liz brought up Sociocracy. For the formal and informal groups to get along with each other, we assume some demystification of how the other type makes decisions would help to build some trust. 

Wrap up

We’ve got a lot of work left in front of us, and most of us have shifted our focus from this interface to things that are more sustainable for us. However, we’ve all been reinvigorated to restart the conversation and see if we can make improvements here. If you’d like to join up with us to do anything from reviewing docs for readability to finding funds to support this work, please do reach out. 

Special thanks to my husband for keeping the house livable while I had friends invade it and we got thoroughly comfortable. 


IMG ref: Where “search” is when we hope an informal group might find a guide online by finally having enough time to do a search; “ICS form” is when a formal entity might follow an ICS form to understand how to navigate things with the informal group; and “governance” is when these groups would need some sort of governance structure unifying them to continue working together.

All photos in here are by Suzanne. The chart is from yours truly.


CatCon happened last weekend. An unconference for systems thinkers from varied disciplines, it was an experiment in format as well as in topic. The invite list was small, and it was not publicized outside of that group. Invitees were encouraged to invite another 1-3 people, but a very small percentage of the attendees were new to me. The Media Lab provided the 6th floor for a relatively small fee (custodial and set-up services), and attendees chipped in for food.

Of course I second guess how it went. Of course I over analyze what could have gone better. But the one thing that someone said during closing appreciations made me think that maybe we’re on the right track:

This is the only time I’ve seen the web of trust work.

Unionizing the Revolution / Web of Trust

We read about inspiring things that people are up to fairly often. But rarely do we know the folk behind it, nor do we see how what we do can bolster them (and visa versa). If we’re going to “win,” as I think we should, we should be supporting each other. We should have each other’s backs, and we should call each other (lovingly) on bullshit. We should have focus on what we do, but we should know who else is on our team. The problems the humans on this planet face are huge and complex, and so our responses to them must be as well. This event was an experiment in that.


We took the first day to get to know one another, lots of ice breakers and running around. We asked questions of each other, and tried to get a feel for what the weekend would be like. Some hadn’t been to an unconference before, and I haven’t been lead on facilitating one before. But everyone was patient and good natured, and we made it through. The sessions for Saturday were curated, based on a conversation I had with Gunner (who has agreed to mentor me in facilitation, zomg!). The arc went over the course of the day from big picture, to meta endeavors, into focused projects, into designing projects. Tracks tended to be in education, interpersonal, economics, security, and co-ops. The goal was to get to know what everyone was working on, and share brain juices. Sunday was dedicated to work, to getting started on linking projects together.

Code of Conduct

So much of this event was about attendees getting to know one another. We needed conflict, and love, and trust. So we had a Code of Conduct. I kind of love writing these. Here’s one of my favorite parts:

Human being are sexual organisms, just like anything else. Harassment happens where there is a lack of consent. At Catalytic, that extends to enthusiastic consent. Act like adults.

Stages of Attendees’ Projects

One thing which was difficult was having such a wide range of expertise in the room. This was further complicated by having many different stages of projects. At most events, you share a common language of discipline with other attendees. Here, we had to learn what people were saying as well as where they were at. From a conversation with Ella Saitta, most boiled down into the following four groups:

  • Full-steam-ahead: I have a few questions that the expertise in the room can help answer, but really not up for shifting what they’re up to nor taking on new tasks.
  • Looking to scale: Project is plugging along, but could use some tweaks or some links.
  • Planning stages: I think my project looks a certain way, but need feedback, advice, assistance.
  • Open to signing on: I am super awesome! I have skills, but don’t currently have a project. How is yours?

What’s Next?

So next is figuring out if it should be done again. The rest of it is solidly in the hands of the attendees – disseminating notes and figuring out what (if anything) to publish for public review and feedback. But I’m considering if it’s worthwhile to do again, and will base that mainly on the feedback of the attendees. Also talked to Tim Maly about different formats, based mostly off of the Toronto Theater unconference. A bit more structured. Excited to try them out.

Diversity, Nepotism, Inclusion, and Quality Control

The thing is, if this happens again, of how to do the invite list. My own wariness of nepotism and ego have been rebutted throughout the past few days with conversations in good faith because “I knew the person I was talking to was awesome and kind because Willow had invited them.” But most of the people I know are fairly well-off white dudes (whom I adore), and that’s not a revolution I want. So, I’m thinking about how to handle that. Suggestions are requested. The last thing that this world needs is another echo chamber. Well, it needs other things far less, but this is pretty present in all of those issues.

Growing a Community

One thing I think about is, if this takes off and grows into a Thing, is how to maintain accountability in a growing group of people. Nothing drastic went wrong at CatCon (except for when we ran out of coffee), and those failure points are when you see how strong your community and its standards are. I worry about the first time accountability has to be maintained. But I also trust in the links being made to withstand and facilitate that.