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Bridging the Gap Between the Under-Privileged and Preparedness

Traditionally, preparedness planning efforts have been defined and driven by those with privilege, namely socio-economic privilege. Privilege that many reading this article possess, without being consciously aware of it.

by Charisma Williams / October 29, 2019

Earlier this year, the American Red Cross held its first annual Disaster Preparedness Summit at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C. What they envisioned as a small gathering of emergency managers ended up as a cavalcade of EM professionals of all stripes (both literally and figuratively) converging for a conversation on the state of preparedness in the National Capital Region (NCR) and beyond.

In addition to emergency managers, there were representatives from academia; the medical community; the private sector; local, county and state governments; police, fire and EMS; and of course the Armed Forces.

There were two panels of speakers, one representing the government sector, the other the private sector. The panels were moderated by Kimberly Dozier, of CNN and Daily Beast acclaim. The panels were just under one hour each and featured professionals from varying industries and locales.

As the first panel discussion got underway, several things became immediately apparent. First, there was no diversity. None. The only woman represented on the panel was the moderator. There were also no persons of color representing the government sector on the panel, and representatives from several important partner industries were missing altogether. There were no representatives from the public health or the medical communities.

There was also no one present from academia, higher education or even the K-12 community. Ironic, given that during his keynote address, American Red Cross Vice President of Operations and Logistics Brad Kieserman stressed the important role that educational leaders play in integrating emergency preparedness into our schools, especially with the alarming uptick in school shootings.

As the discussion continued, it became evident that there was also no representation from the Prince George's County, Md., Emergency Management Office on the government sector panel. This is notable because there are several counties that surround Washington, D.C., and constitute the NCR. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the NCR is defined as "… the District of Columbia; Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Frederick Counties in Maryland; [and] Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William Counties in Virginia."

It was disconcerting that the county that houses one of the largest minority populations in the area, (not to mention, one of the most affluent African-American populations in the nation) was not represented at all on this panel. While representatives from the county’s Emergency Management Office were invited to the summit, and were confirmed among the list of attendees, it is alarming that not only was Prince George's County not represented on the panel, they were not even mentioned once during the panel discussion.

The government-sector panelists spent a considerable amount of the conversation patting themselves, and each other, on the back for their response to 9/11; waxing poetic about how well response agencies in the District, the commonwealth of Virginia, and Montgomery County, Md., worked together. In the midst of all of the back-slapping, however, they seemed to have forgotten their neighbor to the south/southeast.

This oversight reflects a sad but commonly held belief that preparedness is inherently an activity by, and for, persons of “privilege.” We’ll define and discuss that further in a moment.

During the second panel discussion (which was considerably more diverse, with one African American and one Asian American panelist, respectively), there was a question raised about this very issue. The panelists were asked what the private-sector and small business communities were doing to incorporate underserved communities into emergency management planning and practices (a question that was initially intended to be asked of the first panel, but due to time constraints had to be relegated to panel two). Unremarkably, the panelists' responses centered around the provision of funds for ambiguous preparedness programs and initiatives.

Their responses were unsurprising; it is not the responsibility of these businesses to lead the charge of incorporating minorities and underserved communities into emergency preparedness planning. That responsibility lies with local and county governments, supported by community leaders and related advocacy groups.

It is also worth mentioning that the individual who posed that question was, himself, not a “minority.” One might even say that he fit the same demographic profile as many of the presenters on the government panel.

Why is that detail important?

If there was any glimmer of hope resulting from these otherwise redundant discussions, it was the fact that someone outside of the minority community recognized the oversight and outright omission of this population from these important conversations. Additionally, with no minority representation on the government-sector panel, the panel that arguably would have benefited from it most, this was likely the only other way that this oversight would have ever been addressed during this summit.

With an overwhelmingly homogeneous composition of leadership in the emergency management community (at least as reflected by these two panels), the hope of otherwise addressing this glaring oversight seems slim. This highlights the need for more diversity, inclusion and representation in emergency management.

Traditionally, preparedness planning efforts have been defined and driven by those with privilege, namely socio-economic privilege. Privilege that many reading this article (including the author) possess, without being consciously aware of it.

•    The privilege of safe, stable, secure and affordable housing.
•    The privilege of not having to choose between buying food or life-saving medication.
•    The privilege of not having to wonder where your next meal is coming from.

Underserved communities have been historically excluded from preparedness planning, and it's not hard to see why. Preparedness activities have generally been regarded as exclusive to people with the financial means and resources to participate. It poses quite the challenge, then, convincing a population that already has difficulty making ends meet to take on an additional financial responsibility by purchasing “emergency” provisions and resources that they may likely never use.

In the last several years, there has been an industrywide shift from victim culture to survivor culture, empowering communities and citizens to support and care for themselves and their neighbors until help (in the form of government assets and resources) arrives. However, a significant portion of this nation's population is not sufficiently armed with the information, tools and resources that it needs to effectively prepare themselves and their families.

Diversity in preparedness planning allows for a variety of informed perspectives to be presented and provides an opportunity to think outside oneself and one’s own individual circumstances, opening the door wide for new, creative and cost-efficient solutions to help a broader swatch of the community become partners in preparedness. This allows for the incorporation of more socially and economically vulnerable populations into preparedness planning initiatives.

What should be done?

First, there must be more seats at the table. Those seats should be occupied by sectors of the emergency management community that have been previously overlooked. With regard to the summit, there should be a separate panel with seats reserved for educational leaders, the medical community, as well as advocacy groups representing underserved communities and vulnerable populations. Subsequently, since all disasters are local, these organizations should also be included in local, county and even state-level emergency preparedness planning activities. Additionally, targeted messaging should be developed and strategically delivered to these specific populations in order to provide tangible, actionable solutions to people in underserved communities.

Here’s an example of what that would look like: Let’s suppose that there is a segment of residents in a particular city that lack the financial resources to afford bottled water to sustain them during an incoming storm or other impending emergency. Why not encourage those residents to use items such as plastic soda or juice bottles, or any other type of clean, food-grade receptacles they have at home, to store water in instead? Why is no one reaching out to these communities and suggesting that residents visit their nearest Dollar Store, or similar discount retailer (which will likely be less crowded than supermarkets) to purchase a few large plastic pitchers, and then fill them and store them in lieu of buying bottled water? It is an equally practical, tangible and arguably more cost-efficient solution.

Here’s another: Instead of stocking up on 72 hours’ worth of nonperishable food, or buying prohibitively expensive dehydrated disaster meal kits, why not encourage these same residents to bake items such as breads, muffins, cookies and similar goods at home ahead of a forecast emergency? It seems silly at first, baking cookies to prepare for a disaster, but while you are chortling, consider the words of Kieserman during his keynote address: “Preparedness is about survival."

Admittedly, this is not the most nutritionally sound recommendation, but in the interest of keeping someone alive, it will do in a pinch. The most important thing is teaching people to survive within the confines of their own resources. Basic kitchen staples such as butter, flour, sugar, baking soda, eggs and milk are some of the most affordable food items one will find in the supermarket. These staples are also highly likely to be in the homes of most individuals, regardless of their socio-economic status or income. Moreover, the aforementioned baked items fit the nonperishable bill, as they often do not require reheating or refrigeration, are easily transportable, and do not require any special mechanisms to open or to eat.

Not quite such a silly notion now, is it?

Unfortunately, ideas like these will never see the light of day as long as those who come from a place of long-standing socio-economic privilege continue to make up an overwhelming majority at the planning table. Moreover, without the valuable insights and perspectives of women, minorities and other segments of the community that were blatantly omitted at this summit, preparedness planning will continue spinning its wheels. Proposed solutions will continue to miss the mark if the preparedness community continues trying to apply homogeneous solutions to a problem that impacts communities in diverse and drastically different ways.

Charisma Williams is an emergency management consultant based in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed in this article are her own, and do not reflect those of her employer, Accenture.


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