Co-Founder of La Maraña, Sofía Unanue Banuchi having initial conversations with community members after Hurricane Maria to discuss recovery planning.

The Unique Role of BIPOC Frontline Environmental Justice CBOs in Disaster Resilience

What is Community Disaster Resilience?

In the first blog of this series, we discussed why there is no such thing as a “natural disaster.” All disasters from hurricanes, floods, and other climate hazards are a result of human response to these threats. On the bright side, this also means that we can take actions and decisions to reduce the likelihood of disasters and instead promote resilience against disasters.

Community resilience is the capacity of communities to prepare for, respond to, recover from and learn from chronic and acute adversity. Community resilience is a an nonlinear process, not an outcome, and the process of building this capacity can result in limiting risk to future events, reducing inequities that exacerbate disasters, and generally making communities robust to multiple stressors. This definition of community resilience is particularly useful within the environmental justice context because communities who face chronic stress from environmental hazards are also susceptible to acute stress from climate disasters.

It is important that Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) understand community resilience because they play a big role in it. Community resilience to disasters is different from traditional emergency management and disaster recovery models that focused more on reducing physical damage from disasters and building back faster. Instead, community resilience looks at all aspects of a community (its social fabric, physical infrastructure, local economy) and aims to build relationships and systems that make the whole community more self-sufficient and adaptable to stress. Thus enters CBOs.

An example of processes in community disaster resilience building. Source: Front Earth Science

Why CBOs role is important in Disaster Resilience?

It is well known that community-based organizations are key in disaster resilience efforts. However, BIPOC frontline CBOs working on environmental and climate justice are particularly essential because they;

  1. maintain key systems and resources,
  2. hold relevant relationships, and
  3. have a deep understanding of communities most susceptible to disaster events.

The role of CBOs in communities is to maintain service systems and resources – a critical role in disaster response, recovery, and overall community resilience. Useful for disaster response includes pre-existing CBO programs in housing and rental assistance, health, volunteer, and food services. For disaster recovery, programs in economic and environmental justice, education, and community-based planning and policy are particularly essential. Furthermore, CBOs often play a key role in distributing disaster aid, donations, and volunteers in disaster relief.

Building resilience requires a whole-community approach based on relationships and partnerships. CBOs often mediate the relationship between community members and local government and services such as the health department, EPA, and city level programs. This relationship places CBOs in an important role during disasters because they are critical for disseminating emergency and disaster information from official sources to communities and voicing community needs back to institutions who make mitigation and disaster recovery decisions. In addition, CBOs participating in coalitions are key for building multi-sector collaborative spaces to push for environmental justice and disaster resilience policy and accountability.

Finally, BIPOC CBOs in the environmental and climate justice movement are key for disaster resilience because of their deep relationship within the community they serve. Low-income, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian communities are disproportionately burdens by day-to-day environmental inequities. Unfortunately, these are the same communities that also face acute stress of climate disasters and chronic stress from climate change and the pandemic. CBOs deep relationship with these communities are key for addressing social, racial, and economic inequities that are exacerbated in disaster response and recovery.

In short, BIPOC Frontline CBOs addressing environmental and climate justice are key for disaster resilience and community resilience overall. Usually these emergency and disaster services, such as translating emergency alerts and organizing donations, are done by CBOs without additional financial or capacity support on top of running ongoing programs and facing disaster impacts themselves. Although CBOs are critical and uniquely positioned to build community resilience to disasters, the barriers of compensation and capacity building need to be addressed.

Just Solutions Collective aims to reduce these barriers by highlighting environmental justice BIPOC CBOs already doing resilience work and identifying policy and program solutions that help CBOs get credit, funding, and capacity building to create and scale those efforts.

Co-Founder of La Maraña, Sofía Unanue Banuchi having initial conversations with community members after Hurricane Maria to discuss recovery planning. Source: La Maraña

How can CBOs benefit from incorporating disaster resilience in their programming?

When CBOs incorporate disaster resilience in their programming there are benefits to the organization, community, and the movement. These benefits include;

  1. CBOs gaining access to funding for existing programs,
  2. Communities obtaining new knowledge of service gaps, and
  3. The movement gaining a new arena to push for environmental and climate justice.

At the organizational level, CBOs can benefit from new funding opportunities for disaster resilience. Because community resilience is a holistic approach, disaster resilience can be a new funding source for CBOs to fund existing programs and expand on them. Programs that address housing, food, utility, education, and green space inequities, among others, could be eligible for disaster resilience funds because these services are essential during disasters as well.

At the community level, CBOs participating in disaster resilience coalitions directly translates to better outcomes for the communities they serve. First, disaster resilience coalitions are inherently made up of diverse fields which creates space for new partnerships. In addition, many of these coalitions take inventory of resources in the community and determine where there are existing service gaps and opportunities. This kind of knowledge can help the community, as well as the CBOs, identify new partnerships or programs to meet community needs.

Finally, there are benefits to the environmental and climate justice movement. Events like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria are exposing the limitations of traditional emergency planning and mitigation approaches which lack social, racial, and economic equity considerations. On the other hand, BIPOC environmental justice organizations have a history of advocating around these inequities. Thus, the disaster resilience space can give these CBOs a new arena to make progress for the environmental justice movement and work with new stakeholders to inform policy and practice.

Next Steps for Building Disaster Resilience

When the COVID-19 pandemic affected communities worldwide, CBOs were found in the precarious situation in which staff were risking their personal health to keep services running and the organizations financial security was uncertain, further reducing CBOs capacity right when the communities they serve were most in need. Climate-related disasters, whether acute fast ones like tornadoes and floods or chronic long ones like droughts and pandemics, inevitably compound ongoing needs for the communities CBOs serve. That is why CBOs often act as first responders, whether they have had formal training or not, and will continue to be relied on in the future as climate change worsens and climate disasters become more frequent. Therefore, CBOs that are able to be proactive in integrating disaster resilience into their existing program and understanding will have an easier time serving as first responders while leveraging funds, resources, and partnerships more effectively.

Follow the Disaster Resilience Blog series at Just Solutions Collective, which will go into more details, case studies, and guiding information for how CBOs can incorporate disaster resilience programming and bring additional benefits to the organization, community, and environmental justice movement.