Under the Sun: Interviews ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


Under the Sun: Jennifer Gray Thompson, gamechanger 

Posted on November 2, 2022 by Sonoma Valley Sun

As CEO of the Sonoma-based nonprofit After The Fire USA, Thompson, influenced by the 2017 wildfires, is a leader in the emerging field of megafire disasters across the American West. Her path to leadership took several turns: she was a high school dropout, a homeless teenager, and a poverty-stricken single mom. But she self-funded her education, ultimately earning a Master’s degree and then began working for the County Supervisor Susan Gorin.

What adjectives describe you? I’ll start: fierce, compassionate…

Stubborn, determined, loving, loyal.

So how did the job come about?

Rebuild North Bay Foundation (RNBF) was formed as a nonprofit 501(c)(3)/(c)(4) during our 2017 wildfires by Darius Anderson and other top leaders from the North Bay, like Michael Mondavi and Judy Coffey. None of us really knew what it would be exactly, but given the scope and scale of the disaster, a dedicated disaster nonprofit was needed for five years. The board hired James Lee Witt, the former head of FEMA, as the interim executive director and then hired me as the permanent ED. Apparently, Darius knew of my work during the fires and I give him credit for seeing my potential. He told me from the first day to “Make it real.” And he knew I wasn’t going to simply cut checks and stand next to people for photo opps. I told him, “I want to make an impact.” Once we were up and running, Darius left the organization.

You recently were named by Forbes as a ‘national changemaker’ for your work. 

I was listed as a Forbes 50 over 50 in the category of Impact. My third thought after “Wow, seriously?” and “Wow, life is really something” was “How can I leverage this honor to further improve the space of megafire? Especially for under-resourced populations. I’m still figuring that part out.”

Prepping for an emergency (go bags, walkie-talkies, document storage, etc.) is vital. But ultimately, we’re on our own.

I’m a tragic optimist, I think that we’re likely to burn down or be evacuated several more times in our lives. But I also believe we will act with integrity, community, and humanity. I’ve seen it. I find myself letting go of material things mentally, but not of people – ever. We’re all fragile and we need each other, so we have to be resilient for ourselves and each other. The fires disabused us of several notions, including the idea a cavalry will appear and save us. In every single community we’ve served, response has always depended upon ordinary humans stepping up to help each other. There are no lone soldier hero stories. Community is the super power of disaster.

You’re taking what you learned in 2017 and sharing that expertise.

Everything we are doing in these communities – Paradise, Malibu, Greenville, Boulder, Santa Cruz, Southern and Central Oregon – everywhere we go – are things we did right here in 2017. We ask, “What do you need and how can we help?” Humanity flows into all of the cracks that disaster bursts open. Our services are trauma-informed, respectful, community-centered. We lived it. We help leaders navigate disaster, from personal relationships to the federal government to advising on disaster philanthropy. 

You’re on scene in the midst of disaster. There must be an element of psychology to be accepted by overwhelmed locals.

Accurate. I think the thing that comes through strongly is we’ve been there, we’ve seen it, and we respect the grief, trauma, desire for agency, thirst for hope. People want and need to be supported in their own leadership. They do not need heroes, saviors, cape-seekers, fraudsters, purveyors of BS. My biggest tool is empathy. I can meet them where they are at the moment. It is fine if they don’t want any advice at first. I can listen. Observe. Wait. Listen more. It’s very important to be aware that every fire is different – personal – and these communities need respectful, sage, effective coaching. 

Thompson, right, deliver 5k of materials requested by South Lake County, September 2021

What generally comes after that?

To support the community coalition, look for gaps of capacity and knowledge, connect leaders with organizations, systems, experienced peers, and document progress and problem sets. We love to coach local public sector leaders on how to navigate disaster as well as support their requests. Leaders, both official and emergent, have most often never experienced a disaster. Everyone’s in trauma, including the local government. They’re expected to not only navigate what happened but also provide the same services as before. We are very effective advocates for these communities at the federal level and have great relationships on both sides of the aisle. 

Exhausting. But gratifying?

I have many moments when I’m tired. Absolutely. But I use those to pause, reflect, assess. I love this work viscerally. So, there’s this emergent fire survivor leader from the Marshall Fire, and I asked her, “What could we have done better?” and she said, “You came in with your team, you were like saviors and organized us and shot us out the gate, for the next step.” She was still shell-shocked and traumatized, but we demonstrated compassion and the fact they were not alone. It’s a pretty powerful message in a very vulnerable moment. This is the goal.

You’re the fixer, in a good way.

I am! Thank you. I am really a Navigator that teaches the fixing part. We help communities navigate wildfires and then we envelope them in a Wildfire Resilience Network of expertise. We can translate and navigate the system. In the Dixie Fire, a Supervisor was worried about people sleeping in tents in winter and had been denied a Housing Mission. I called FEMA and learned we have to formally request it. Then I report back to the Supervisor about the process, to lift the stress from this community. Simple. I’m not a genius. I am doggedly determined to solve the issue of megafires and increase equity to systems and funding for all.  

Share a dopey story about yourself.

So many to choose from. I grew up in Sonoma, so surely about 692 people have such stories about me. One time I lost one lens on my sunglasses and walked downtown thinking maybe something was wrong with my vision, but buoyed by all of the smiles and thumbs up I was getting from motorists. Casey Tatarian called my cell and asked if I’d lost a lens. I poked my finger right into my eyeball and then laughed so hard I cried. 

– Interview by Val Robichaud



One thought on “Under the Sun: Jennifer Gray Thompson, gamechanger 

  1. Sounds like an amazing group of humans! Were I younger or stronger, I would jump on this project myself!rew

Comments are closed.

Sonoma Sun | Sonoma, CA