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Equity and Social Justice Applied to Emergency Management

A topic we will be reading about for years to come.

As I look back on my career in emergency management, I think the topic of equity and social justice and how it fits into our work and how we will apply it within our individual communities will perhaps be one of the more difficult concepts to understand and to achieve. If you are looking for a conference topic that people need to hear about — this is it!

I was in Portland, Ore., last week for a two-day Disaster Recovery Workshop. I was able to only attend one day, but I had the opportunity to hear and take notes on the talk that Alessandra Jerolleman, Ph.D., gave on the subject below. She of course talks much faster than I can type and the PowerPoint slides flew by. I apologize for the cryptic nature of my notes. Alessandra and I first met virtually due to our mutual interest in disaster mitigation. I recommend her as a speaker on this new subject area. See also her book, Disaster Recovery Through the Lens of Justice.

Equity and Social Justice

It is sometimes easy to see things that are unjust. Building a program to make for equity is much harder.

Definition of equity: Freedom from bias or favoritism, dealing fairly and equally with all concerned.

Access to networks, supports resources and opportunities. The things people need to survive and thrive; to get where they want to go.

Equality and equity graphic. Equal access does not lead to equal outcomes. It is not the height of the people, but the starting point, the height of the fence (referring to a well-known graphic).


What is justice?

  • Distributive goods
  • Procedural, access
  • Participatory, full and informed
  • Capacities, well-being.
What do we mean by a human rights framing? Rights due to all individuals such as a right to food, clothing, health, etc.


  • Rituals
  • World view
  • Food
  • Law
  • Beliefs
  • Nature
  • Religion
  • Morals
  • Art
  • Customs
Groups that can experience inequity, e.g., low-income households

Disparate outcomes

  • Permanent displacement
  • Access to assistance
  • Framings of deservedness [this is a new word to me]
  • Recovery timeliness
  • Administrative and policy bias
  • Examples: Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria

  • Promote social and inter-generational equity in recovery
  • Draw attention to existing problems with policies
  • Influx of resources
Equity in EM

Equity, justice, inclusion, transparency and accountability, human rights and civil protections

Principles for Just Recovery

  1. All community members can exercise their agency through free and informed choice
  2. Any different or unequal treatment must be justified by the discriminator
  3. Harness community transformative an adaptive capacity, while honoring community definitions of resilience.
Within EM and Government

  • Cultivate relationships
  • Hire staff who are representative of the community
  • Establish core values
  • Assign clear responsibility for adhering to those values
  • Build and use assessment mechanisms
  • Design aid formulas that prioritize assistance to those with the greatest needs.
Partners and Community Organizations Can Help

  • Identify needs and assets, as well as pre-existing vulnerability and resilience
  • Include vulnerable populations in the planning process
  • Communicate with a diverse constituency
Portland Ore.'s Approach:

City Asset Managers Group

  • Coordination group organized by City Budget Office to share data and best practices
  • Published annual report
  • Resilient Infrastructure Planning Exercise
  • Two day-long workshops focused ion infrastructure recovery
  • Hosted by Portland State University
Worked within bureaus and the across bureaus.

Governance to bridge — emergency powers and business as usual

  • When and how to transition from state of emergency
Looked at Community Center Resilient Oasis

  • Solar power-battery backup
  • Seismic strengthening
  • Planning for recovery function
Next Steps in Portland:

Formalize the group. Who should own it

Add staff/budget to do this work

Engage port, utilities, community advocates

[Here at this workshop … lots of references to the Oregon Resilience Plan.]




Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.