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Understanding Community and 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
February 21, 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 understanding community.  

You might be wondering where the “your” is, as in: understanding your community. But the “your” is not absent by accident. In the introductory column to this series, I stated: “Most emergency management organizations have sections of their major plans describing the community or jurisdiction they serve. But understanding community goes far beyond being able to list community demographics. Understanding your community includes understanding vulnerabilities and needs. A step further: to be fully informed, we must understand the historical and the ongoing inequities.” Understanding community—no “your”—brings in higher concepts of common purpose, togetherness and intentionality of engagement. To build social equity we need much more than that “your.” These are what we should be looking for to gauge if we are understanding community.   

#1 – Understanding Demographics: Many years ago, the inclusion of community demographics in emergency operations, hazard or mitigation plans was the thing. Some would pat themselves on the back—even today—and say, “See? We’re aware of our community because we cut and pasted from the American Community Survey!” Yes, include the numbers, but please know that you’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding community.

#2 – Understanding Vulnerability: Now, many emergency management plans add a touch more value to those above demographics because it is relatively easy to map vulnerabilities over your hazards. For example, emergency managers can identify the flood plain and then identify if households within it are low income or speak a language other than English. This has helped with understanding community.

#3 – Understanding Partnership: I still think that this is part of the basic stuff, but we are getting closer to the higher level now. Understanding partnership and how and why to engage the diverse populations within a community is standard stuff. That’s not to say it is happening everywhere and happening well anywhere, but it is expected, for the most part, hopefully. We’re 10+ years removed from the first utterances of the phrase “plan with not for” as one note. 

#4 – Understanding the “First Concerns”: Now we are in territory that some emergency managers and public servants at large might object to. A while ago, I tried projects in the city of Philadelphia to build relationships among voluntary, faith-based and community-based organizations to encourage preparedness and resilience. I saw firsthand that in some communities there were first concerns. First concerns are much lower on Maslow’s Hierarchy—and thus much more important—than building a kit and making a plan. Some communities need the first things addressed before the “nice to have” stuff. Emergency managers need to understand partners’ first concerns: food, clean water, shelter, safety and others. Be cognizant of these fundamental concerns, respect them and encourage social service oriented community capacity building to address those first concerns, which will improve resilience of the community at large. 

#5 – Understanding Historical and Ongoing Disparities: The past leads to the present and the present impacts the future. Too many times during my emergency management career I found myself in a county or city with marginalized groups not being served well by their public servants. This under-service didn’t start with the flood, hurricane or tornado. But the past under-service continues into disaster and continues well after the disaster. Understanding community involves recognizing this and breaking it. 

#6 – Understanding Empowerment: Emergency managers engage in many efforts to build community such as partnering, planning with others, engaging community leaders, etc. So although this is sort of a basic, the charge here goes further. At this level, the task is to practice the social skills necessary to meaningfully empower others—and to find the grace to accept that these others might not do things precisely your way, but you understand and embrace that you won’t always have control.

#7 – Understanding Cooperation: Like the above, this is both basic and complex. At this level, cooperation becomes about having the network skills that are missing in many emergency managers. True cooperation is often difficult. Understanding community involves investing in cooperation to the point that you are giving enough to lead toward the ultimate goals of social equity.

#8 – Understanding Action: We all know that actions speak louder. Here, for understanding community, we are hoping that emergency managers demonstrate actions for all of the above and that these actions are visible to the community.

These eight approaches can be used to assess and improve your emergency management organization. The next column in this series will explore the legal compliance driver. Though listed third, legal compliance should be considered a baseline driver for social equity. It gets a little complicated because it touches both internal organizational personnel administration and also the social equity concerns we are primarily focused on in this series.

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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