Suzanne’s story and mission
What if I told you there was a simple, yet overlooked, idea that could help us build a world that is resilient against any challenge it faces?
That idea, in fact, exists.
Every person in our communities must be included.
Putting that idea into practice has been my whole life’s experience, and the mission I’ve built my career on.
How Suzanne went from the corporate world to disaster recovery and emergency management
I grew up in Alabama, under the dueling shadows of the civil rights period and the Huntsville NASA community’s attitude of “let’s create the future together.” I cared deeply about ending racism and poverty and about the continuing work for the civil and human rights of all people, and worked towards equity and justice.
But after graduate school, I quickly got disillusioned with the tight confines and narrow focus of the corporate world, so I signed up to volunteer for the Red Cross.
On my first day of training, I met a leader from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who was intrigued by my professional cross-cultural communications experience. And before I knew it, I was on a plane to the FEMA field office on Guam as a public information officer.
“From the beginning, I saw the importance of reaching every person in a community and making sure everyone is included, involved, and served. And in order to do that, you have to innovate constantly, think critically, and be nimble.”
Learning emergency and disaster management in the field
My team was responding to a supertyphoon that had torn apart much of the Micronesian island states of Yap and Chuuk in the western pacific. The main islands contained numerous outer islands, where there was no electricity, no traditional method of outreach or access, and no way to communicate except single sideband radios and word-of-mouth from people on fishing boats. But we needed to get information about relief and humanitarian assistance to the people in need on these outlying islands.
After seeing the challenge and learning about the islands, their culture, and their people, I quickly decided the best outreach method was to have children take our recovery assistance messages back on the fishing boats to the smaller outlying islands from the larger islands where they attended school. We distributed flyers about our humanitarian assistance through this outreach from schools to homes.
Learning cross-cultural communication strategies needs constant innovation
For a first field assignment, this was a real initiation in creative cross-cultural communications strategies designed to reach the people who were essentially unreachable by traditional communications tools.
From the beginning, I saw the importance of reaching every person in a community and making sure everyone is included, involved, and served. And in order to do that, you have to innovate constantly, think critically, and be nimble.
I thought this kind of holistic approach that uses innovative methods to reach every person in a community was just the obvious way of doing business.
But I learned that is unfortunately not always the case…
“This was my first real wake-up call. I saw what happens when there’s a Blind Spot and community resilience efforts don’t include all of a community’s stakeholders. It can create a Fail Point.”
Cultural communication blind spots in emergency management and disaster mitigation
In 1997, working recovery from a flood in a small city in north-central California provided my first face-to-face encounter with the breakdown that happens when people and organizations do not communicate with the whole community.
After past flooding, the city had developed flood retention basins and drainage ditches to safely channel rains away from development. This region has one of the largest populations in the United States of the Hmong people, an ethnic group from Southeast Asia. But the Hmong weren’t involved in the planning efforts and saw the drainage ditches as open spaces to plant crops.
As a result, the planned runoff didn’t happen, and downtown businesses were flooded, causing extensive, costly damage.
This was my first real wake-up call. I saw what happens when there’s a Blind Spot and community resilience efforts don’t include all of a community’s stakeholders. It can create a Fail Point.
Eight years later, the entire country would see a disaster unfold into a preventable catastrophe for this very same reason.
“The problem is that a lack of complete inclusion of every person is preventing us from building communities that are truly resilient, not just when disaster strikes, but every day.”
The avoidable fail points of social vulnerability
In July 2005, I was at a small meeting with forward-thinking professionals and academics who were concerned about another potential Fail Point, if a high category storm hit New Orleans, the African-American and low-income populations would either not be able to get out or not have anywhere to go.
Hurricane Katrina hit the very next month. I was brought in by local business leadership to advise on the recovery. I was on the ground. I went through the Ninth Ward and other deeply shattered communities. Over 1,800 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, and created major diaspora that still exists today. This is possibly the most prominent disaster of social vulnerability and failure in the history of the United States.
Bringing stronger emotional intelligence to the field of disaster and emergency management
When most people hear about the work I’ve done, they focus on the disaster aspect because I’ve worked in one way or another on the mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery related to virtually every type of natural and manmade hazard and disaster, from earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, and floods to terrorism, school shootings, and infectious disease.
But no matter where I go or what I do, I keep seeing a fundamental problem repeating itself over and over, and it’s not that people everywhere have to face disasters and challenges.
The problem is that a lack of complete inclusion of every person is preventing us from building communities that are truly resilient, not just when disaster strikes but every day.
Because this isn’t about disasters or about emergency management. This is about every person who is part of a shared effort to create stronger, safer, healthier communities, who is working to end or prevent needless suffering and death, and who is working to build a better world for our kids and grandkids.
“Our shared mission is clear, we have to build a resilient world together. But we can’t do that without making our communities culturally inclusive.”
Our shared mission
✓ Helping our business and tech communities fulfill their social responsibilities to the communities that support them.
✓ Understanding at a deep level new markets and new consumer bases, being forward-thinking and on the cutting-edge of creating new culturally-competent solutions to drive social impact and help our communities overcome the challenges we face.
✓ Helping healthcare and public health develop the cultural competencies necessary to serve everyone in a community, especially the high-risk and underserved.
✓ Helping environmental and land-use management leaders prepare for and deal with the ever-changing, diverse landscapes of cities caused by climate change and shifting demographics.
✓ Helping schools create environments where every student can grow and thrive, and helping academia more effectively move research into human-centered practice.
✓ Everyone in every community working together to build a better world.
Becoming a Cultural Broker
I have spent almost three decades working across different countries, states and jurisdictions, island territories, and tribal nations, and helping people from hundreds of unique cultures from around the globe.
My life’s work is about seeing Blind Spots, helping others reach the unreachable, serving those who are high-risk and in the most need, being a cultural broker between groups who don’t understand each other, and building a partnership table crafted to create long-lasting collaboration.
Everything I do is about making sure every person is included so we can build safer, stronger, and smarter communities together. This is my life-long passion and my mission.
“The problem with Blind Spots is that they can lead to Fail Points. This creates social disasters on its own. Or it turns disasters into catastrophes, like we saw with Hurricane Katrina or more recently with the 2019 and 2018 California wildfires, where a lack of inclusive planning led to the deaths of highly-vulnerable people.”
Blind spots cause Fail Points in disaster planning inclusion for vulnerable populations
But here’s the truth – We all have Blind Spots. And how do you know you have a Blind Spot if you don’t know you have a Blind Spot?
This creates social disasters on its own. Or it turns disasters into catastrophes, like we saw with Hurricane Katrina or more recently with the 2019 and 2018 California wildfires, where a lack of inclusive planning led to the deaths of highly-vulnerable people.
Here’s another disturbing truth:
The best-case scenario is probably that you just lose out on resources or are working from one step behind and aren’t as effective as you could have been.
Ensure no one is left behind
It’s rare that people are intentionally excluded. Virtually all of us have the best of intentions. But we may not have the best of resources, or enough time, or we may just not know what we don’t know.
That’s why I want to serve you in our shared mission of building a resilient world.
Because when we build culturally inclusive communities, we can do more with less money in less time – we are better prepared on the worst days our community will face, and we’ll have a stronger economy and society to make our best days even better.
The urgency of inclusion in increasing climate change disasters and displacement
Throughout my career of working inside and outside the system for this change, I’ve seen the real-life effects of not being culturally inclusive and of not seeking out the high-risk and vulnerable – lost lives, lost property, lost jobs, organizational loss, lawsuits, and lost resources.
In this time of upheaval and climate crisis, we must have a sense of urgency to get this right.
It is far past time to set the precedent across every sector that works for positive social change that building a resilient world through culturally inclusive communities is how we’re going to do business.
Not just in emergency management and public safety, but in our business and tech industries, in health care and public health, in our schools and academia, and in the overall way we approach building our communities.
And, inclusive resilience is not only the right thing to do, it’s the most effective and cost-effective way to do it.
The evidence is clear.
✓ Inclusive communities are prosperous and innovative communities. Cultural diversity is a major driver of economic prosperity, vibrancy, and innovation.
✓ Being inclusive prevents lawsuits like those in New York City and Los Angeles.
✓ Inclusive communities are resilient communities. Research shows “people are more resilient when their cultural needs and values are represented, respected and supported.”
*Citations at bottom.
Plan with us, be inclusive.
If you don’t know where to start, I have an action plan for you. Because I deeply care about making sure everyone is working to build inclusive resilience, please join me for a free consulting session and discuss the unique problems you, your company, your organization, or your community are facing.
You and I both know there’s no sure thing in our line of work. But ensuring every person is included in our efforts to build and serve whole communities is our greatest hope to build safer, stronger, smarter communities that are resilient every day.
You could be missing invaluable ways to strengthen your resilience efforts, or be at outright risk of loss of lives, loss of property, loss of jobs, organizational losses, loss of resources, and lawsuits.
Please reach out to me today to discuss our mutual mission of saving lives and improving the daily quality of life for every person who lives in, visits, and invests in our communities. Remember.
Citations: Click to open in new window.
Christine Cox, Josh Davis, David Rock, Camille Inge, Heidi Grant, Kamila Sip, Jacqui Grey & Lisa Rock. (2016). “The Science of Inclusion: How We Can Leverage the Brain to Build Smarter Teams.” NeuroLeadership Journal.
Quamrul Ashraf, Oded Galor. (2011). “Cultural Diversity, Geographic Isolation, and the Origin of the Wealth of Nations.” National Bureau of Economic Research Program: Economic Fluctuations and Growth.
U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 2019. “Building Cultures of Preparedness: A report for the emergency management higher education community.” Washington, DC: FEMA. Citing Browne, 2015; Marino, 2015; Maldonado and Lazrus, et al, 2016.