Graphic recording of the wrap-up of the 47th Annual Natural Hazards Workshop. Image created by visual recorder Alece Birnbach of the Graphic Recording Studio.
This year, we had 640 registrants at our 47th annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop, making it the fourth largest in our Center’s long history of convening this event.
Our theme focused on Changing Climates: Equity and Adaptation in a Warming World. As always, the participants helped bring the theme to life and give it texture as they shared their stories, knowledge, and expertise.
Part of my responsibility as the director of the Natural Hazards Center is to capture the collective wisdom of our participants in a wrap up and call to action delivered at the close of the Workshop. To create this summary, I attend every session, viewing the keynote address and plenary sessions in their entirety and splitting my time evenly between each of the concurrent sessions and other events. As I watch and listen, I write down quotes from panelists and other participants. I also make note of the key ideas and try to capture the spirit of the exchanges taking place. Then, on the last day of the Workshop, I wake up very early and begin sifting through the scraps of paper where I’ve scrawled my notes. I identify the themes and patterns, and then I sit down to write this closing summary.
As has now become tradition, I am sharing a print version of that summary in this latest edition of the Director’s Corner. Thank you for taking the time to read this and to honor the insights shared by the diverse participants who are the beating heart of this Workshop.
Please take care of yourself and others.
Lori Peek, Director
Natural Hazards Center
Where do we begin, when it sometimes feels like the whole world could end?
Climate change, yes.
And, also, co-occurring and compounding disasters, including an ongoing global pandemic that has led to more than one million lives lost here in the United States alone. Many millions more have been left bereaved and suffering, too often in silence and the shadows.
Climate change, yes.
And, also, outrageous and morally reprehensible levels of economic inequality, where a handful of billionaires hold more wealth than nearly five billion people around the planet.
Climate change, yes.
And, also, mass shootings, unprovoked military interventions, and mass incarceration of the poor and people of color.
Climate change, yes.
And, also, assaults on our core institutions, science, democracy, and truth itself.
Where do we begin, when the wicked problems we face are so complex, all encompassing, and deeply interwoven?
We come together, as we have every July for 47 years, to recommit to our shared purpose to reduce the harm and suffering from disasters and to remember just how powerful we are as people.
Before his keynote address on Monday morning, Professor Robert Bullard, a veteran of both the Marines and the civil rights movement, said, “In the 1960s we were fearless because we didn’t have power in institutions, and we were fighting to change that.” He paused, and then observed, “What’s different now is that today’s young people are fearless because the problems they face are so urgent and they recognize just how much power they do have.”
What do we mean when we talk about power?
On Monday during one of the concurrent sessions, Ben Hirsch of West Street Recovery said that often when we talk about capacity—who has it and who doesn’t—what we actually are talking about is power—who has it, and who doesn’t?
Nearly 60 years ago, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Now, power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change.”
Let me say those key words again: “power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose.”
Dr. King went on to write that although some people have “problems with power… there is nothing wrong with power if it used correctly.”
When working from this definition, it is clear that power is not inherently good or bad. But as A.R. Siders of the University of Delaware reminded us during one of our plenary sessions, “Power, when concentrated in the hands of a powerful few, is often used to keep the status quo and to champion incremental change.” Yet, what we need is radical transformational change in the face of a warming world that is increasingly on fire or underwater.
How do we get from here to there, to move from the status quo to the just and equitable futures that we have envisioned? How, as Shalanda Baker of the Department of Energy questioned, do we ensure that we “do right by the communities on which this country was built?”
If we want to “do right,” we need to build our collective power. Here are some of the lessons that we learned this week from our community about how to do just that.
Slow Down. First, and this is going to seem antithetical given the pressing nature of the problems that we face, but we need to slow down. As Simona Perry of c.a.s.e. consulting said yesterday during one of our community forums, “We need to set what we know aside, slow down, and be intentionally humble. Even when it is hard to be humble, when you are afraid or nervous, when you disagree, you have to be humble.”
Listen. We need to listen and then follow. Angela Gladwell of the Federal Emergency Management Agency underscored that they are transforming their mitigation programs through listening first. And Julie Maldonado of the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network picked up on that theme and reminded us that we need to do that listening work—and it is work—through a “lens of love and compassion” because everyone has a story to tell. To put an exclamation point on these valuable ideas, Angela Chalk of Healthy Community Services in New Orleans emphasized, “If you live in a community, you are part of that community. Don’t be a spectator. Get out there and listen and learn about what is going on.” In addition, as others reminded us throughout this Workshop, we must make sure that we follow through and keep our commitments.
Build Trust. In order to have power, you must build trust. Trust, as several of you noted, is not an end point. It is an ongoing process. And as doctoral student and Bill Anderson Fund Fellow Carlo Chunga Pizarro emphasized during his lightning talk, “trust cannot be built quickly.” This is especially true among immigrant communities and other groups who often find themselves pushed to the margins, struggling to respond to an overwhelming array of hazards.
Stay Engaged. We heard over and over this week that we build trust best when we stay engaged for the long-term. Kristen Marcell of the Climigration Network called on people who currently have power to consider the following: “What if you got to know community members well? What if you co-created your approach from the very beginning?” She continued, “When you focus on building the trusting relationship, first, and understanding the story and history and context, then you can better understand the problem and what you might actually do about it.”
Demand Accountability. There were forceful calls during this year’s Workshop to demand accountability from the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and government agencies. This accountability in meeting risk reduction goals emerges best from inclusive data, rigorous scientific analysis, and tireless advocacy.
We are at a pivotal moment right now, where the small window that we have to act on climate change and the radical inequities that we face is rapidly closing. As William Solecki of Hunter College emphasized during his remarks, this moment is historic, too, because social science concerns and equity and justice have moved front and center in terms of climate action and hazards mitigation. As he noted, this is not just a moral position, “there is now clear, assessed scientific evidence that adaptation actions are most effective when the process is inclusive, transparent, and co-generative.”
Broaden Our Coalitions. Perhaps most importantly of all, if we want to build power, we must broaden our coalitions, work together across boundaries, and ensure that what we are doing leads to systemic change. This is something that this community knows how to do, but we have to go bigger, bolder, and broader than we ever have before because the challenges we face demand it.
Casey Zuzak of the Federal Emergency Management Agency shared that in his 11 years of government service, he has seen more connections and coalitions being formed across government agencies and around equity and climate change than ever before.
Similarly, we heard from researchers throughout this meeting about how we are broadening disciplinary networks as well as community-based collaborations in new and innovative ways that are leading to tangible differences in people’s lives.
But there are still gaps. We have to continually ask ourselves, as Kristina Peterson of the Lowlander Center underscored, “Who is not in the room?” When we pose that question, we can start to identify where there is an opportunity to build literal and figurative bridges to get people to where they need to be.
To quote Shefali Lakhina of Wonder Labs, it is through developing these elaborate “networks of care” that we have an opportunity to advance the systemic change that we so clearly need to respond to the crises that we face. And, as Betty Lai of Boston College reminded us, “We cannot leave it on the individual to undo unjust systems and to advance equity. Telling a person to just ‘work harder’ does not work. An individual cannot undo systems of oppression.”
That is why we need one another to build our collective power, more than ever, right now.
As you go forth with the vital work that you do, please remember to take care of yourself and others.
With that, I declare your 47th Annual Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop, adjourned.
Please visit the Director's Corner Index to read other contributions in this series.