Maria’s family on an afternoon hike above the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in Salt Lake City. Credit: Maria Estrada

Topic: Communications / Outreach Preparedness Resilience Type: Best Practices

Engaging Diverse Communities in Disaster Resilience

Author: Maria Estrada

Editor’s Note: Several FAC Net members have expressed interest in learning how they can better engage all of the communities that they serve, including immigrants, racial minorities, and English as a Second Language populations. To understand what’s at stake, see this post about the 2014 and 2015 Washington wildfires. FAC Net staff asked The Nature Conservancy’s Maria Estrada to help us identify key issues and promising approaches to engaging diverse communities in disaster resilience. To kickoff this project, Estrada shares her best practices from working with a group in Salt Lake City focused on preparing for earthquakes.

Maria in Zion National Park

Maria Estrada is Associate Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at The Nature Conservancy. Her work includes building capacity across the organization to work more effectively with a diversity of communities. Credit: Bill Ramsay

My family and I love living in Salt Lake City. It is a fun, vibrant, global and diverse city with breathtaking landscapes. For my spouse and me, it is important that our 10-year-old daughter grows up comfortable and competent in a multilingual community, where a diversity of cultures interact daily across linguistic and cultural boundaries. To that end, we enrolled her in our neighborhood bilingual and multicultural elementary school, and I became the chair of a group of volunteer parents who partner with the principal, teachers and staff to improve the school.

At a 2013 meeting for this group, Salt Lake City’s Emergency Management Team presented on a then emergent initiative: the Schools Aiding Families in Emergencies (S.A.F.E.) Neighborhoods program. The initiative trained volunteers on how to open and operate Red Cross-supported temporary shelters in neighborhood elementary schools. The intention was that this training would enable communities to recover from a catastrophic seismic event more effectively, together. Scientists believe that there is a one in seven chance that Salt Lake City will suffer a 7.0 or greater magnitude earthquake in the next 50 years, so this program was taking a community based approach to building the capacity needed to recover from such an event.

Schools Aiding Families in Emergencies (S.A.F.E.) is a program of the Salt Lake City Emergency Management Team that uses schools as hubs of support to create a culture of preparedness.

I was intrigued by the S.A.F.E. officials’ approach.  They looked at our community through an asset-based lens and saw our bilingual school as an important resource in their efforts. They sought to have the help of a group of Latinx* parents early in their outreach process to ensure that it was as inclusive as possible. Cory Lyman, director of the Emergency Management Team, knew from the get-go that cross-cultural work required much more than correctly translating their materials and marketing slogans into Spanish. His team wanted to make information and resources accessible and relevant by doing a transculturalization. A transculturalization is an accurate translation that also addresses the many cultural nuances within a diverse community. Furthermore, being married to an immigrant, he knew that immigrants could not be lumped together under one category, given the differences that exist between first, second and third generations.

Even though the effort was not without drawbacks, I was moved by S.A.F.E.’s affirmative approach to bringing everybody along, so I joined its steering committee. Some of the challenges the team faced then are still pertinent. For example, it is difficult to motivate communities to act in the event of a hypothetical catastrophe when many individuals and families are struggling to meet the most basic of needs. Further, the concept of stockpiling and rotating food, water and emergency supplies typically appears out-of-reach when a family has barely enough money and storage space for day-to-day supplies.

Nevertheless, we worked on developing appropriate materials, including: a bilingual informational video, a Spanish language door hanger and a PowerPoint presentation with an accompanying train the trainer manual. Leaders who shared social, economic and cultural characteristics with the targeted communities would then use these materials to perform outreach and education. A key element to competent message delivery was that the leaders understood the communities beyond pure language. For example, knowing that providing childcare and refreshments during trainings will allow more Latina women and their families to participate.

S.A.F.E. developed a PowerPoint presentation in Spanish to increase access to its disaster preparedness resources. However, engaging diverse communities in disaster resilience requires much more than just translating materials, as Maria explains. Credit: S.A.F.E. archived PowerPoint presentation slides

Eventually, we came to understand that creating relevant materials and a culturally responsive outreach program for multiple schools (and tens of thousands of people) was a full-time job. With the help of the steering committee, Lyman secured funding, and we started a search for the right person. And we found her! She was a local journalist who had worked for local, Spanish speaking media, both in radio and television. She had a reputation of being both charismatic and trustworthy, and she came with already strong relationships in the community.

I no longer serve as a volunteer for the group, but I continue to be an enthusiastic supporter. Below are some of the Emergency Management Team’s best practices that FAC practitioners may consider applying:

  • Make a genuine and earnest effort to enter communities respectfully;
  • Focus on building relationships and establishing trust first;
  • Be proactive in producing and distributing lifesaving content, resources and assistance to neighborhoods in ways that make cultural sense; and
  • Understand existing social capital within communities. I see this component as central to resilience. There are plenty of local assets that can amplify recovery efforts in the event of a catastrophic event. The strength of relationships and social networks, the goodwill among neighbors, as well as the individual expertise and collective resources block by block are all invaluable and irreplaceable resources. It is through the logic of relationships that efforts are able to secure aid and assistance effectively.
FEMA representative hands a flyer regarding disaster preparedness to a community representative.

Disaster preparedness efforts are more effective when they are accessible and relevant to a diversity of communities. In this photo, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) representative provides information translated into Arabic to a community representative. Credit: Samir Valeja, FEMA

Additional Resources: 

*Author’s Note: “Latinx” is the gender neutral alternative to “Latino”/”Latina” or “Latin@”—which attempted to include two genders. “Latinx” is a concerted attempt to be even more inclusive in considering gender neutral and gender non-confirming people.

3 thoughts on “Engaging Diverse Communities in Disaster Resilience”

  1. Guy Duffner says:

    This is great information, Maria! Your suggestions of respecting communities (and the differences among them), building relationships, and establishing trust as first steps are cornerstones to the way we work in the FLN/FAC Net, and they are immensely important best practices when truly engaging our stakeholders. Thank you for sharing this story.

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