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Equity Champions 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
June 20, 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 equity champions.  

As I wrote in the introductory column of this series, “In many organizations that are speaking about social equity, the duty is made everyone’s responsibility. Practically, this means that no one is responsible. Much better to also identify a champion for social equity: someone trained, empowered, available before, during and after events and able to take a stand to promote equity considerations. The champion would hopefully be someone with an operational mindset that can help solve inequities constructively instead of just pointing them out. This can apply to both personnel administration and service to the public.”

This column will unpack that quote above and add two more concepts as a bonus. The outline reads: why we cannot just make equity everyone’s responsibility, what an equity champion looks like, how legal counsels don’t really work for this role and how we already have examples of how such roles can work. Lastly, I’ll share a section that acts as an assessment of this equity intervention for your organization.

Is equity everyone’s responsibility? Yes, but…of course we should charge all staff with pursuing equity, especially if you’ve established equity in mission and operation priorities. But the idea that an emergency management organization can meet the equity mark by only telling everyone they should do it—fails time and again. Diluted responsibility normally yields no responsibility.

What is an equity champion? An equity champion is a person trained, empowered, available and committed to the goals of social equity. In many organizations this might be a standalone role (consider that the Commonwealth of Virginia now has an equity champion related to emergency management). In some smaller organizations this may just be a “hat” that is worn, though hopefully an important hat. This champion is an advocate for the vulnerable, and the best would have enough experience to help solve challenges instead of just point them out.

Why don’t legal counsels count for this role? They might, but normally would not. Speaking generally, your legal counsel can advise about legal compliance and help keep you out of trouble but taking the normal legal counsel and making them an operational advocate for the vulnerable is often a step too far. One clear point—this equity champion role requires a body of knowledge and experience, including hands on practical problem solving around equity, that attorneys will likely not possess.

What examples of operational advocates exist in emergency management? One of the best examples of hiring professional staff to pursue the interests of a vulnerable group occurred in FEMA with the hiring many years ago of Disability Integration Advisors. These staff worked at the headquarters and regional offices as well as the field during disaster to engage with the disability community in pursuit of effective planning and preparedness. Then, when disaster strikes, Disability Integration Advisors travel to the field and support operations by ensuring access and inclusion. They represent a piece of the equity puzzle, for sure, but are focused on disability advocacy. The best of these staff offered solutions, not just challenges. A more holistic equity champion can assist with improving services to the whole host of vulnerable populations.

How do you know if you are effectively leveraging an equity champion to promote social equity in your emergency management organization? Your organization has:

  • An equity champion who can throw the flag during any emergency management phase and advocate for the most vulnerable
  • Leadership committed to a mission of equity who will listen to the equity champion
  • Staff who are empowered to pursue equity on their own and identify and share equity shortfalls or opportunities with the equity champion.

These are just a few ways to leverage an equity champion to improve equity. The next column in this series will explore the diversity and inclusion driver. In that one we will explore how the personnel practice of pursuing diversity and inclusion can lead to improved social equity outcomes in the delivery of emergency management services.


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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