This piece originally appeared on SF Chronicle.
In a time that can feel so politically divisive, where we are often cast as red or blue, urban or rural, have or have not, it can feel like there’s more that divides us in this country than unites us. But in the aftermath of the most devastating fires in California’s history, having seen the awe-inspiring outpouring of support for people who are complete strangers, I am reignited with hope that our humanity burns stronger than any disaster or political affiliation.
The night of Oct. 8, like so many others, I awoke in my home in San Francisco to an overwhelming stench of smoke, convinced that our house was on fire. After going room to room to check on each of my children, I noticed that my phone was lighting up with texts from my family. I soon learned that the fire was actually more than 50 miles away in my childhood neighborhood in Napa, which had burned to the ground just minutes earlier.
In the week that followed, with the fires burning out of control, I was consumed with stories of my family and close friends, as well as the stories of so many people I did not know: the man who held his elderly wife in a swimming pool while she died, a nurse who evacuated patients from the Santa Rosa Hospital while her own home burned to the ground just a mile away, countless hourly wage workers whose jobs were put on hold for weeks, and immigrants who lost their legal papers in the fires.
The need was overwhelming, but so was the call to do something about it.
I’ve spent my entire career raising money for those who are most vulnerable; it’s not easy. But when the Wine Country fires occurred, people didn’t hesitate. I didn’t have to send out multiple emails, remind people or give a second plea for help. Everyone said yes, and many took it upon themselves to ask others to join the effort.
The flood of support from communities around the Bay Area and around the country has been remarkable. The Petaluma Mothers’ Club put out a call on Facebook that it was raising funds for $25 gift cards to distribute at local shelters, and money poured in from mothers around the country. The group has raised nearly $40,000 for families that lost everything.
San Francisco chefs from top restaurants and food purveyors like Delfina, Jardiniere, Liholiho Yacht Club, State Bird Provisions and Bi-Rite Market rallied together to provide 35,500 fresh and delicious meals in the North Bay in less than two weeks, also raising more than $50,000 for relief efforts.
Tipping Point Community, an organization that fights poverty in the region, held a benefit concert in partnership with big tech companies like Salesforce and Twilio that raised $17 million to support organizations that are serving low-income communities hardest hit by the fires.
But it wasn’t just the fundraising that inspired people to give, it was the unrivaled heroism and outpouring of compassion across the community.
On the Move, a North Bay nonprofit that helps support vulnerable young people, many of whom have been through the foster care system, worked tirelessly to locate all 800 program participants within 24 hours. A man used his own bulldozer to build fire lanes to save his neighborhood. A woman donated tools to help an ironworker who’d lost everything get back to work.
What these tragic fires have taught me is that in moments of disaster, we don’t see the lines that divide us. We see the humanity that brings us together.
Fire doesn’t discriminate between rich or poor, left or right, black or white. And just as inspiring as the universal need of those impacted by these fires were the unconditional acts of kindness and courage offered by so many people from every profession, faith and persuasion.
As the cleanup from the Wine Country fires continues and the Southern California fires burn, Gov. Jerry Brown has urged us to accept wildfire as the “new normal” in California.
What if we chose generosity as the “new normal” instead?
What if we could surrender our dividing lines and come together to begin putting out the fires of homelessness, hunger and injustice we witness on a daily basis in the Bay Area and across this country?
The problems that lie before us require all hands on deck. If we can fuel the fire of generosity — that’s something I’m committed to fighting for.
Kathleen Kelly Janus is a social entrepreneur, author and lecturer at Stanford University. She is the author of “Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up and Make a Difference” (Da Capo Press, 2018). To comment, submit your letter to the editor at SFChronicle.com/letters.