Addressing Inequity in Disaster Preparedness

As part of the FLOWS radio series, KGNU’s Hannah Leigh Myers attended a resilience workshop in Boulder where community members were invited to play a Game of Extremes to assess impacts from a changing climate and co-develop strategies for action. But as we find out, preparing for a climate-related disaster in an equitable fashion is a challenge our community and communities nationwide continue to face.

Listen to the story below: 

The Front Range is no stranger to natural disasters and the research is clear, climate-related disasters are only expected to become more frequent and more severe. Local communities are trying to prepare themselves in a variety of ways, including playing one very unique board game, called Game of Extremes.

CLICK HERE for more on information on the USDN Game of Extremes training

Senior Sustainability Policy Advisor for the City of Boulder, Brett KenCairn, explains, “one of the best practices demonstrated in many different settings is just to take people through a simulated experience, scenario planning if you will, so Game of Extremes is really a kind of a community-based version of a scenario planning exercise where we take some of the most common natural hazards and threats and community members get to play them out on a board game that was developed by the amazing team at the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.”

At a play-through of Game of Extremes in Boulder, hosted by the City’s Climate Initiatives Department, some real-life issues quickly began to emerge once the climate-related disasters began to hit the imaginary city of Muggytown.

In one game, real-world money was offered to the game’s mayor by a player representing a wealthy neighborhood in an effort to ensure his community was prioritized in the city’s disaster resilience planning

Over the next hour, the players continued to wrestle with real-life questions climate change and urban planning inspire. Do you protect the needs of low-income communities or protect money-generating tourist destinations? Do you invest in small steps towards protecting against climate disasters or large expensive leaps?

Despite the fact that in the real world, most of the players at the table expressed concerns about equity, in the game marginalized communities struggled most.

When game-play ended, game facilitator and Director of Resilience programs for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, Kristin Baja, shed some additional light on why the games turned out the way they did.

Director of Resilience Programs for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, Kristin Baja, explains some game rules

“Who is not here? Which roles were not a the table?” Baja asked. “So, we had one community advocate right? Can that one community advocate really advocate for community? So the point being, that a lot of times when we’re thinking about community gatherings and community meetings, who isn’t in this room right now and who is and what does that mean as far as decision making and when we’re working on plans and making decisions around things? It’s important to be intentional.”

Andrew Notbohm, a Coordinator with the Boulder Office of Emergency Management, attended the event and shared some of the steps the county is taking towards more equitable emergency response.

“One thing we really tried to improve is our alert and warning system to be more inclusive, to be available in multiple different languages, not just our initial notification but our website communication, access to resources and how we get information to people,” said Notbohm.

And Notbohm says with the help of a network of culture brokers his Office is trying to flip their former “top-down approach” to disaster preparedness and, before disaster hits, establish a better connection to communities they’ve struggled to connect with in the past. “A cultural broker is defined as someone who builds a relationship or bridge with a community we normally don’t have access to or have a good understanding around. A cultural broker is going to come to government and say here’s a need we have but we can also go to them and go help me understand with this need is.”

Some social justice advocates had expressed concerns that, although well-intended, the event didn’t do enough to draw a more diverse crowd

As the Game of Extremes players left the room, Kristin Baja acknowledged the reality that that evening’s resilience training, despite its efforts, took place in the Boulder Courthouse, over multiple hours into the not-so-early evening on a weekday, was led by government officials and although partially intended to point out equity issues that arise in climate disaster response, had not drawn a very diverse crowd. “If we’re asking low-income communities of color to participate in this, there’s a lot of distrust that’s already established through these broken systems. So what are we doing to actually go to people instead of holding meetings like this in buildings where they don’t trust and they don’t go to and nobody would because of that just trust? We need to get out to the communities.”

She added, “actually, I firmly believe that the members of the community should be the one sitting at the table and that government and other folks that are there and in consulting positions should be on the outside and only talking when asked, and that is just a small shift in how we are looking at power and who has power in the room, one tiny little step in the direction of all the big, massive change that we have to do.”

Baja believes government needs to have more empathy when thinking about properly involving the community. “I think with any meeting, whether it’s this game or any sort of interaction, we need to be valuing people. We need to be valuing people’s time. We need to be valuing the fact that they’ve been held down so most of them are working more than one job or are not able to come to a community meeting or have kids at home. So how are we removing those barriers to engagement and thinking about it not as community engagement but as partnerships?”

Baja and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network promote a type of resilience that focuses on building strong communities, increasing community cohesiveness, social connectivity and capacity before disaster strikes because a community that is humanized and strong before disaster can better weather the storm and is better off before and after the crisis.

This FLOWS radio series was made possible by a grant from Boulder County