HURRICANE KATRINA. These two words that have impacted my life in countless ways. Throughout my professional experience spanning more than 20 years, 30 countries, and four continents, this one disaster has deeply impacted my personal and professional development. The recovery work from this disaster is not over and lessons continue to evolve.
Serving in New Orleans helped me develop a deeper understanding that emergencies can lead to opportunities. One of the most precious opportunities is to rebuild community with people gathered around an emergency who were once strangers and become family. These relationships are one of our greatest community assets.
Experience in emergencies has propelled my ongoing exploration of the intersection of arts, community development, and emergency management. Through years of hands-on work and research, I saw a need for an extensive network, expansive field, and central resource to support those working at this particular intersection. Through my self-designed interdisciplinary master’s degree, I examined the traditionally independent systems of art and emergency management, researched collaborative approaches toward sustainable community development, and created a new integrated system that displays how artists play a key role in emergency management. This lays the foundation for what I call Emergency Arts, a resource to advance community resilience through the arts. Today, I consult, write, speak, and organize projects related to Emergency Arts from presenting at the International Award for Public Art, Cities of Climate Change Conference in New Zealand to managing the Creative CityMaking Minneapolis program fostering partnerships between local artists and government staff to develop innovative approaches to address disparities. I continue to work towards identifying and creating opportunities within multiple emergencies, navigating the intricacies of those emergencies, and championing relationships that will build common ground and increase creativity for communities in crisis.
1. WITHIN EMERGENCIES ARE OPPORTUNITIES. Emergencies not only create new problems but compound existing issues. They also offer opportunities to create new solutions. We do not welcome disasters, but when disasters strike our communities we can transform chaos into change. Disasters reveal historic and systemic issues in new ways, raising our awareness and urgency to address them. For example, longstanding inequalities in housing and transportation were exacerbated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Disruptions that challenge everyday patterns and procedures offer opportunities to confront the status quo with innovative community-based practices. When systems are broken open, new possibilities emerge. We can challenge conventions in how we relate to one another and systems to collectively address issues impacting our communities. The dynamic state of disaster stirs movement, whether it is flood waters on the land or protests on our political landscape. In emergencies we have opportunities to rebuild ourselves, our communities, and our local and national systems.
2. COMMUNITIES FACE MULTIPLE EMERGENCIES. To maximize opportunities within emergencies, we need to understand the emergencies themselves. Professional and governmental emergency management agencies administer systems to decrease communities’ vulnerability to hazards and increase communities’ capacity to recover from disasters. A primary step for emergency management is to identify the type of hazard a community is currently facing or may face in the future. Types of hazards range and evolve depending on the emergency management entity, community involvement, and other factors. For example, according to the Department of Homeland Security, there are three types of hazards:
(1) Natural. Natural hazards include earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. (2) Technological. Technological hazards include airplane crashes, train derailments, and power failures. (3) Human Caused. Human-caused hazards can be a chemical, cyber, or violent attack at a school or workplace.
I find the two definitions included in the 100 Resilient Cities framework pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation useful: emergencies can be (1) Chronic Stresses; or (2) Acute Shocks. Chronic stresses impact us daily or in cycles such as chronic unemployment, violence, or water deficiencies. Acute shocks are sudden distressing events such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes or floods.
Hazards can interact with one another such as in the case of Hurricane Katrina, which was a natural, human-made, and technological hazard. A storm, engineering, and related policy failures, led to the breaking of the levees which caused fatal flooding. This combination of hazards contributed to Katrina being identified as one of the strongest, costliest, and deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history. The impacts of a hurricane, a natural disaster, are compounded for those living in poverty, a chronic stress.
Understanding types of hazards and how they impact each other helps to develop and implement plans to address emergencies. This is crucial to maximize opportunities in emergencies.
3. EMERGENCIES ARE PARADOXICAL. Opportunities in the midst of disaster do not negate, minimize, ignore, or otherwise discount the suffering of an emergency. Opportunities should not take advantage of those impacted by an emergency. Communities are priorities in emergencies. Disasters challenge and change communities, forcing them to live with permanent loss. Any effort to respond must honor the ongoing challenges of rebuilding communities in crisis. To navigate these fragile situations and work effectively in communities, we must hold both the trauma of an emergency and the triumph of surviving that emergency; the reality of daily pain and the reality of daily actions needed to relieve that pain; the recognition of destruction and the respect to rebuild.
It is important to hold the complexity and compassion that are requirements for this work. We can be part of the solution not only to immediate needs but to chronic problems by working together—artists, emergency managers, funders—to identify the types of emergencies we are facing and opportunities within them to make great change.
4. CRISES NEED CREATIVITY. Artists with skill and experience in participatory, collaborative work can hold a central role in building community relationships. To develop effective emergency management plans, community involvement is crucial. Emergency management planning without the input of community members it claims to serve runs the risk of unintended consequences. These outcomes may be lack of community participation in services, initiatives that address secondary or tertiary community needs, or programs that do not reach their goals. In addition, many communities have histories of distrust with external forces entering their neighborhoods to extract information or dictate policies that compound trauma. Artists can implement creative strategies to gain, record, and share community insight to inform emergency management plans. They can facilitate opportunities for engagement in which community members can define their own needs to inform their own prevention of or recovery from a disaster. Art can overcome social barriers such as language and culture. When artists invite community members to co-create, collaborative processes that reflect community values, perspectives and life experiences become possible. Crises need creativity to increase community participation in their own plans for emergency management.
5. INTERMEDIARIES BUILD COMMON GROUND. Intermediaries are bridge builders who facilitate collaborations between artists, agencies, and community members to effectively serve disaster-impacted communities. Intermediaries can act as a “translator” between artists and agencies to communicate their common interests and goals. Such services are needed to connect organizations that function separately from one another in emergencies, increasing their capacity to reach and serve people. Disconnection increases misunderstanding, fear and distrust. In my experience, potential collaborators can overlook one another. Intermediaries recognize the power of cooperation between individuals working within systems and those working outside those systems who share the exact same goals. Intermediaries help foster relationships, revealing and building on the value of working in non-traditional collaborations in times of crisis. We can help artists navigate systems and help agencies work with artists in a way that amplifies assets for the benefit of our communities. Intermediaries identify common ground and maximize resources to increase community impact.
6. INTERMEDIARIES WORK THEMSELVES OUT OF A JOB. Intermediaries are dedicated to introducing, supporting, and advancing relationships. Facilitating collaborations between people and organizations with varied resources can increase the tools and potential we have to address shared goals and outcomes. Intermediaries eventually work themselves out of a job with agencies on the ground as they foster sharing of resources and build a foundation strong enough for intermediaries to exit and agencies to sustain the work. They move through emergencies with the aim of leaving partners in good working relationships to advance their own communities. Intermediaries’ work is part of building a field in which artists, agencies, and communities can work effectively with one another in emergencies.
Effective development of this field includes building relationships, policies, procedures and structures that support artists at every level of emergency management. Collaborations in this field will change the future of emergency management. I envision a time where there will be no emergency management plans that do not have dedicated arts policies and procedures. There will be no emergency management agencies that do not have artists as part of their leadership team. There will be no community organizations that do not recognize and support the value of artists in addressing emergencies in their communities. There will be Emergency Arts.
We live in times that need solutions to the rapidly growing number and type of emergencies. To plan and respond effectively, we need to look at art as an integral part of solutions that can repair community trust as well as infrastructure. I envision Emergency Arts as an intermediary resource that can facilitate a collaborative, cross- sector network that addresses a multitude of disasters facing our communities.
Whether these disasters are natural or human made, the integration of arts within emergency management is essential to building community resilience. My experience with emergencies has influenced me to identify and create opportunities to support relationships, our greatest community assets. This is an especially important consideration for communities that have been historically left out of decision-making processes in building their own communities. Through Emergency Arts, we can champion relationships that build common ground and foster resilient communities together.