In 2001 and 2002, President George W. Bush signed a series of Executive Orders which in part, established the Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, provided equal protection under the law for faith-based organizations and importantly, increased their access to federal grants. While this action was significant and preserved in different forms throughout other administrations, procedures and compliance tasks were addressed without confronting many of the underlying issues that have enshrined disconnects between federal government agencies and communities in need – disconnects that have made disaster recovery and resilience less accessible, particularly for minorities, economically disadvantaged populations and Indigenous groups.
The positionality of land and land use is a crucial example of the many disconnects between federal government agencies and communities in need, because it demonstrates completely different interpretations of and value for property, especially among Indigenous and minority groups. In addition, it is important to problematize the differences between faith and government interpretations of land and land use because the government’s view of land as a commodity and object has maintained preeminence in the design, implementation and evaluation of federally-funded programs. Partnerships between federal agencies and faith-based organisation have not unseated this view.
For example, federal agencies assess land loss and property damage through economic value, commercial use and cost estimates. Treaties are invalidated and land and property are reclaimed, ceded, reallocated and otherwise dispensable in this context. Further, emotional attachments to ancestral, consecrated or contested land may be misrecognized by federal officials as irrelevant or irrational because they react to land loss and property damage with arduous logistical requirements, improper valuations and confusing bureaucratic procedures, which themselves consist of inaccessible channels of communication, complicated eligibility criteria and individualized care. These realities are prohibitive, denying the value of testimony, ceremonial significance and community recovery, while also minimizing opportunities for disaster-affected populations to problem-solve together in a shared, familiar and high-vibrational space.
Conversely, many minority and Indigenous groups often view land as a living being, to which they are stewards and caretakers, in accord with a spiritual guide or authority. The relationship to and with the land may be central to their identity, mental health, cultural practices, language and responsibilities to tribe and others. Faith-based organizations affirm these expressions and preside over consecrated land to convene them – with an eye toward solidarity and resource-sharing.
In the context of a disaster, the loss of land and land use for minority and Indigenous groups often disrupts the ways in which elders, past and purpose are acknowledged, because the flurry of activities relative to renovation, relocation, family reunification and survival is deeply requiring. In some instances, the search for and administration of federal disaster resources coincides with these activities and reduces further the time available to be convened or sustain cultural ties. As a result, new agency-created identities as individual claimants take priority among the poor and at the same time, prohibit cultural currency. Thus, loss of land and land use is further embedded in the collective imaginary, where it is weathered as a spiritual experience with long-term cultural implications.
Federal agencies acknowledged the efforts undertaken by faith-based organizations in minority and underserved communities, however they have not relinquished the view of land as a commodity and an object from which resources are extracted or adopted alternate perspectives of land and land use toward a national, irrevocable and enforceable public policy. In fact, they allocate disaster resources according to this dominant view. Perceptions of federal disaster response and partnerships between federal agencies and faith-based organizations – from the ground – are necessarily affected. For example, federal agencies may be viewed as either promoting isolation and transactional engagement or dismissing the sacred.
It is more challenging to create trust relationships in this context or compel minority and Indigenous faith groups to partner, register for programs or have confidence in disaster assistance. Therefore, as a result of different perspectives about land and land use between federal agencies, minority and Indigenous faith groups – federal disaster response has not been as coherent, relevant or effective as it could or should have been.
The difference in perspectives about land and land use is among many issues and disconnects for which federal agencies should be concerned. Yet, faith leaders are able to address this particular disconnect, because they are trusted by community members and usually understand land and land use in both the government jurisdiction and culture in which they are a part. Efforts to bring faith leaders and emergency management organizations together have been reported. However, the deliberate recruitment, retention and deployment of faith leaders as members of the remunerated emergency management workforce, has not been firmly situated as a policy priority – vis a vis integration into the public workforce system. In fact, faith organizations are often recognized for participating in workforce networks which support other people’s career goals, without regard for the career aspirations of their (unpaid or underpaid) leaders.
This is especially important, because many Indigenous and faith leaders are servants of small congregations or groups, offer unpaid labor or are underpaid and have never participated in a disaster-related career pipeline or received an industry-recognized, emergency management credential. Further, they may change roles and affiliations with the group or even limit their engagement on disaster-related issues because they have to work full-time, paid jobs elsewhere.
Notably, federal agencies typically operate through different policy mandates, separate leadership structures and designated funding mechanisms that have created a disparate array of disaster activities, in a system where no single agency is necessarily responsible. In fact, the Department of Labor (DOL) partners with workforce development boards, which typically neglect emergency management and other fields to support recruitment, training and career pipelines for in-demand, emerging or otherwise high-priority industries. These industries comprise financial services, healthcare, information communication and technology (ICT) manufacturing and construction, education, hospitality, transportation and logistics. Thus, the career pipelines the DOL supports most often, have connected many women and minorities to jobs in these in-demand industries, yet have not kept pace with the labor shortage in emergency management; and they have not been leveraged to ensure the people deployed to underserved communities in disasters, can best represent their interests and concerns.
This is significant in part, because federal agencies have experienced labor shortages at the same time disasters increased in severity and frequency. They have also lacked an adequate workforce development plan, sufficient connections between workforce development agencies and supportive service programs and; a solution to the underrepresentation of minority personnel in the federal laborforce. Thus, providing access to emergency management careers for Indigenous and minority faith leaders especially, is an activity that could be helpful to both understaffed federal agencies and disaster-affected communities.
Faith-based organizations and their allies should therefore move with speed, posting and sharing public statements in support of paid training and an accessible career pipeline for faith leaders in the emergency management sector, including persons from economically-disadvantaged, underserved, minority and Indigenous groups. It is critical for these statements to illustrate the instances in which faith leaders have supported communities in geographies without emergency management departments, rural and low-income areas and instances where the federal response to disasters is typically slow and minimized by pay gaps, economic disinvestment, unemployment and underemployment. Indigenous groups and faith-based organizations may also note their local knowledge, cultural competence and degree to which their leaders could combat the discrimination experienced by women and minorities in federal agencies, through their demonstrable commitment to equity and inclusion.
Conceivably, these statements should persuade federal officials to support disaster resiliency through a collaborative, multi-agency career pipeline, because collaboration was a main recommendation recently delivered to the United States Congress by the Government Accountability Office, along with reports which detailed knowledge deficits and a low degree of cultural awareness that minimized the relevance of federally-funded programs.
Faith-based organizations and federal agencies should also move quickly to establish and fund an advisory group. The aim of the advisory group is to develop a process through which faith-based leaders apply for, enroll in and complete paid training and career readiness activities. The advisory group would collaborate with federal agencies and faith-based organizations to deploy trained faith-based leaders in underserved communities; and provide a central location for agencies to share information with each other, ensure consistency of processes and activities and avoid duplication.
The advisory group should be convened bimonthly by an external diversity, equity and inclusion specialist, who will ensure the paid training, career pipeline and deployment to underserved communities are accessible to a broad coalition of the faith-based population. The diversity, equity and inclusion specialist should record meetings, publish proceedings and draft impact statements that help these agencies monitor the performance in real-time. Thus, through the advisory group, federal agencies will experience complementarity and sustain the mechanisms needed to resolve a persistent disconnect. The pathway to an improved federal disaster response relies in part, upon the inputs and equitable involvement of faith leaders, and the recommendations noted here describe the program infrastructure needed to initiate it.
Dr. Kara Whitman is a Program Manager at the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management (I-DIEM). She leads I-DIEM’s engagement in global networks, including faith-based networks and is utilizing her experience in workforce development, emergency education and volunteerism to address disparities in disasters. Further, Whitman is a diversity, equity and inclusion strategist who also supports equity assessments, partner outreach and program development at I-DIEM. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are attributable to Dr. Whitman and do not necessarily reflect the views of I-DIEM, its partners or donors.