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Social Equity and the Whole Community Concept

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

By Anthony Buller
October 24, 2022

This is the tenth and very final column in a series exploring: What makes an emergency management organization more likely to achieve the promises of social equity? This column is the second in a two-part conclusion. In this one, the concept of Whole Community in emergency management is evaluated against the list of drivers presented throughout this series.

Social equity of course “is fundamentally concerned with fairness and justice in the provision of public service.” There are drivers or interventions that promote social equity (see the graphic). Whole Community, per FEMA means two things: (1) involving people in the development of national preparedness documents, and (2) ensuring their roles and responsibilities are reflected in the content of materials. This definition comes from FEMA’s website glossary, and of course on the face of it you can see it’s wholly inadequate to achieve social equity goals.

That said, Whole Community has been an important step in the pursuit of aspects of equity. In fact, the definition above does largely touch upon two of the drivers explored in this column series: “understanding community,” and “diversity and inclusion.” Whole Community doesn’t meet every aspect of those drivers, but something is better than nothing.

We’ve had the concept of Whole Community in emergency management for more than ten years. And today you can find it mentioned to some extent in most emergency management plans at the city, county, state and even federal levels. Unfortunately, most often those plans say some version of the definition and little more.

This minimization is not how Whole Community started out. Ten years ago, it was much more than today’s limited definition. In 2011 FEMA published “A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action.” That document can be found here, and it demonstrates that Whole Community started off strong but this aspiration has not been realized. Back then, the message included the two above, and also “equipping staff and stakeholders.” So at least one more of the drivers was on the radar ten years ago.

This narrowing of the Whole Community concept has left a lot of room for improvement. So fast forward to today, when the Biden administration has issued executive orders about equity and agencies are acting on them. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is certainly acting in the equity space. In fact, I would argue that FEMA is pursuing all the drivers identified through this column series:

  • Culture – FEMA is diversifying its workforce, hiring equity champions, admitting past inequities, opening dialogue about equity and promoting transparency and accountability around equity concerns.  
  • Understanding Community – FEMA encourages jurisdictions to understand: (a) demographics, (b) vulnerabilities, (c) where, how and with whom to partner, (d) the “first concerns,” (e) historical and ongoing disparities, (f) empowerment of others, (g) the strength of cooperation and (h) the importance of action.  
  • Legal Compliance – FEMA has placed the Office of Equal Rights in charge of an equity council, which should pursue legal compliance. FEMA has a long history of dealing with compliance concerns in emergency management.
  • Equipping Staff and Stakeholders – FEMA shares: (a) emergency management knowledge, (b) resources and materials, (c) empowerment and (d) connection. One major mechanism for this is through various grant programs. But FEMA also invests directly in outreach and coordination efforts with communities across the country.
  • Equity Champions – FEMA is hiring equity champions who can lead in the equity space, call attention to inequity, partner with additional stakeholders and empower staff to pursue equity.
  • Diversity and Inclusion – FEMA has: (a) statements of principles, (b) honest inclusion, (c) fair personnel practices, (d) planning to promote equity within both personnel administration and service delivery, (e) assessment mechanisms, (f) advisory groups and (g) accountability.
  • Practice – FEMA has changed several of their programs recently to promote equity. For a list, you can look here. These practical changes reflect FEMA’s commitment to equity.

These ten columns have explored social equity in emergency management. The drivers were developed through a combination of experience and research. As emergency management moves forward and more attention is paid to historical inequity and the pursuit of improvements, hopefully more jurisdictions will adjust their plans from just saying the words Whole Community a couple times to actually enlisting these drivers to make real change.

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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