We see resilience as the ability to adapt to changing times, including the ability to not just “bounce back” and restore discriminatory systems and inequitable access to services, but to “bounce forward” to a more equitable community.

For years, it has been evident that people of color and low-income populations face disaster more often and more acutely. Systemic racism in land use policies, like redlining and discriminatory zoning, has made it challenging for communities of color to invest in property and accumulate wealth. Disinvestment across community services–such as healthcare, food access, and broadband access–perpetuates inequities that are exposed and worsened after a disaster. When federal assistance is available, underserved communities may not have the resources to apply for programs with complex requirements. As resilience, environmental, and engineering professionals, we must recognize these inequities and what has caused them and then address resilience needs of a community equitably.

We see resilience as the ability to adapt to changing times, including the ability to not just 'bounce back' and restore discriminatory systems and inequitable access to services, but to 'bounce forward' to a more equitable community. Jane Frantz

Moving the Needle

President Biden echoed these sentiments with the Executive Order “On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” As part of our firm’s support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), we’ve helped to coordinate an examination of efforts underway to promote equity with FEMA’s programs and policies, where they fall short, and what more needs to be done. An effort called Justice40 will further support federal agencies acting on needed equity and climate changes. Justice40 mandates that federal agencies deliver at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

Over the past year, our firm has supported FEMA in examining ways to make mitigation grant funds more equitable. We hosted a series of listening sessions with practitioners working at the intersection of emergency management, resilience, grant making, and equity to learn about their first-hand experiences grappling with equity issues both in the context of FEMA programs and throughout the emergency management field. We also researched ways that local governments, scholars, and grantmakers are approaching equity in their thinking, planning, and decision-making.

FEMA is already taking action, such as developing a formal definition of equity, better assessing how grants are currently distributed, and strategizing how to more equitably distribute resources. This includes deep thinking about how to reduce the burden of applying for grants. For example, we supported FEMA’s External Stakeholder Working Group in exploring improvements with a lens of equity to FEMA’s Benefit-Cost Analysis tool (BCA). We’ve also been supporting discussions on developing wildfire policy with equity considerations at the forefront.

How We Can Continue to Foster Progress

  • Data: Equity is complex. The first step is to define what equity means in the context of the project and determine the baseline. Understanding the contextual equity of people impacted by the project is the first step—we need to know where people are at before we can identify how policies, plans, and projects can improve their lives. In the resilience and hazard mitigation context, that includes understanding how hazard risk exacerbates existing socio-economic vulnerabilities.
  • Enable nonprofits: Community-based organizations have been working for years to improve outcomes for underserved communities—they have the relationships and understand the context. All levels of government need to partner with them as a means of inviting diverse voices into the conversation and decision-making process around resilience. A great illustration of this is Resilience Hubs being championed by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.
  • Expand partnerships across sectors: Resilience and mitigation planning has expanded its focus to a more holistic view of social risk, future conditions, and a view to the entire disaster life cycle (from response to recovery). With that shift, there’s a need to adjust the kinds of organizations that have seats at the table. Rather than being a discrete aim, equity and resilience need to instead integrate into all related sectors. One way to consider which partners to include is to use the lens of FEMA’s Community Lifelines and focus on systems—including food, medical care, energy, communications, and transportation—outcomes rather than just the existing built environment.
  • Equitable distribution of resources: While we need to work towards designing programs that offer equitable access to resources, we also need to think about how program design, including project selection, influences how resources are ultimately distributed. Local, state, tribal nations, and territories can use that lens of equity when determining which projects to pursue, and the federal government and other grantors can use it when determining who to award grants to. Fiscal Year 21 BRIC and FMA grants have taken strides towards this. For example, BRIC’s eight technical evaluation criteria used in the national competition included Designation as an Economically Disadvantaged Rural Community.

Between the renewed funding, new grant programs, and focus on equitable projects, we are excited to work hand-in-hand with state, local, and federal agencies to promote equity in all communities across the U.S.