All in Our Backyard - social justice in disaster response | MIT Center for Civic Media

All in Our Backyard - social justice in disaster response

One of the hardest lessons and ongoing challenges in digital disaster and humanitarian response is how to connect with a local population. While many digital response groups deal with this by waiting for official actors (like the affected nation's government, or the United Nations) to activate them, this doesn't always sit well with my political viewpoints. Some of these affected nations have governments which are not in power at the consent of the governed, and so to require their permission rankles my soul. But to jump in without request or context is also unacceptable. So what's to be done? It's from this perspective that I've been diving into how civics, disaster, and humanitarian tech overlap. And it's from this perspective that I've been showing up to Bayview meetings for San Francisco city government's Empowered Communities Program. ECP is working to create neighborhood hubs populated by members already active in their communities. Leaders in local churches, extended care facilities, schools, etc gather about once a month to share how they've been thinking about preparedness and to plan a tabletop exercise for their community. This tabletop exercise took place on October 20th in a local gymnasium.

The approach of ECP is generally crush-worthy and worth checking out, so I won't dive into it too much here. In brief, it is aware of individual and organizational autonomy, of ambient participation, and of interconnectedness. It has various ways of engaging, encourages others to enroll in the program, and lightens everyone's load in a crisis by lightening it in advance. I am truly a fan of the approach and the participants. It's also possible to replicate in a distributed and federated way, which means digital groups like the ones I work with could support efforts in understood and strategic ways.

Here is what doesn't necessarily show through in their website: how grounded in local needs and social justice these community members are. There is a recognition and responsibility to the vulnerable populations of the neighborhood. There is a deep awareness of what resources exist in the community, and of historical trends in removing those resources from a poor neighborhood in a time of crisis. We've had frank conversations about what they'll do about debris, and how the Department of Public Works parking and storage in their neighborhood is suddenly a positive thing. About what to do with human waste, and what a great boon it will be to have the waste water plant in their neighborhood. The things that wealthier parts of the city have vetoed having near them because of noise, pollution, and ugliness (NIMBY, or "not in my back yard") will make Bayview resilient. They're preparing to take care of themselves, and then to take care of other neighborhoods.

There's a plan in NYC now to knock on every. single. resident's door in the next crisis. It's an approach other cities might also consider. But it's one which is nearly impossible to implement. Who is doing the knocking? What are they doing with the information they gain? ECP's approach is to apply their own oxygen masks first, and then to check on their neighbors, to know what the local Hub can take care of and what is needed for external support. When/If a city employee comes knocking on their door, they can then speed up the process of getting aid to where it's needed ("I'm ok, but Shelly up the street has our 7 disabled neighbors there and they need a wheelchair, medication, and no-sodium food.")

The end of the tabletop exercise had Daniel Homsey, the gent who heads up this program, talking about how we didn't devise plans while together, but we did learn how to suddenly have to work at another role with people we'd barely or never met before. And I, as a digital responder, listened to what the community's needs were, how they organized themselves, and considered the smallest interventions which could be maximally applied.