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Diversity and Inclusion To Promote Social Equity in Emergency Management

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anthony Buller
July 18, 2022

What makes an emergency management organization more likely to achieve the promises of social equity? Social equity of course “is fundamentally concerned with fairness and justice in the provision of public service.” In this series of columns, I am suggesting that there are drivers of social equity that emergency management should pursue (see the graphic). And specifically, in this column, I am exploring the importance of diversity and inclusion.   

As I wrote in the introductory column of this series, “The emergency management organization should achieve the practical goal of diversity by looking like the community served, hopefully in personnel and staff, but at least by engagement and inclusion of diverse community members and organizations. Further, a real sense of inclusion should be present as reflected by the above-mentioned culture. But far beyond this baseline, diversity also applies to the scope of efforts to engage the whole community within the jurisdiction in meaningful ways. Diversity and inclusion thus apply to both personnel administration and service to the public.”

This column will unpack that quote above by exploring some recent examples of executive action on diversity and inclusion, describing the emergency management concept of Whole Community, and then offering a reminder about inclusion and empowerment.

Recent examples of executive action on diversity and inclusion help us see what can be done to set standards within organizations. Starting with the federal level, President Biden issued an Executive Order that seeks to advance racial equity and support for underserved communities. This first one is very on point for our definition above for social equity. President Biden issued another Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) dated June 25, 2021. This one focuses on the federal workforce with part of the idea being that by improving DEIA through personnel practices, this will later result in more equity in service delivery.

In response to the above, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) started issuing statements and acting on these concerns as well. Of note is the recognition that inequity and vulnerability within communities directly relates to disaster outcomes. FEMA’s new strategic plan has three goals with one of them being to “instill equity as a foundation of emergency management.”

These are not the first efforts in FEMA and the emergency management field to promote diversity and inclusion. We are more than ten years into the concept of Whole Community that brought attention to the need to embrace all aspects of communities through partnering, involving, equipping, including and engaging with community members, organizations and other interests. One of the seminal documents on Whole Community was published in 2011 and titled: “A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes and Pathways for Action.”

A state level example of an Executive Order was issued by Governor Polis of Colorado. Signed on August 27, 2020, this order directs new action on diversity, equity and inclusion. It primarily focuses on personnel administration but has some nods to how good practices within government can lead to better outcomes through service delivery.

It is important to note that achieving diversity does not automatically yield all the important benefits of promoting diversity. In fact, you can have an organization that is representative of the community and still have an organization that has inequities both inside it and in what it does (e.g., a diverse police force that still discriminates against racial minorities). You also need honest inclusion and empowerment of staff. Part of inclusion is opening the door to the valuable insights and contributions that can be made by all. Unfortunately, too often an organization can impose norms on staff and partners that erode our best efforts toward inclusion and eventually equity. This means that part of diversity and inclusion is being open to learning and change, sometimes now in the form of admitting that inequity is long-standing, that the organization has (or is) contributing to inequity and that the organization will do better through such and such actions.  

How do you know if you are effectively embracing diversity and inclusion to promote social equity through your emergency management organization? Your organization has:

  • Statements of principles
  • Honest inclusion
  • Fair personnel practices
  • A plan to promote equity within personnel administration and in-service delivery
  • Assessment mechanisms
  • Advisory groups
  • Accountability

These are just a few ways to leverage diversity and inclusion to improve equity. The next column in this series will explore the practice driver. In that one we will explore how emergency managers can make actual choices that move service delivery from equality to equity and hence practice social equity principles.

Author: Anthony Buller has deployed to more than 40 presidentially declared major disasters and emergencies in his 17 years of federal service. He leads a team of emergency management professionals covering the western US for a federal agency. He can be reached at: [email protected].

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