Bouncing forward: An interview with Dr. Atyia Martin about equity, resilience, and climate change

Dr. Atyia Martin

CEO of All Aces and former chief resilience officer for the City of Boston

We’re already seeing the devastating effects of climate change, from increasingly severe hurricanes to more frequent wildfires. And since Hurricane Katrina, we’re starting to pay better attention to the disproportionate effect of these disasters on the marginalized communities who have neither the means to recover as quickly nor a voice in the rebuilding process. Disregarding the perspectives and experiences of the people most affected by climate change threatens to exacerbate disparities already pervasive in the US.

Dr. Atyia Martin has worked for years at the intersection of equity, emergency management, and climate change. She was the City of Boston’s first chief resilience officer and led the development and implementation of Boston’s first resilience strategy as part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative. She has since left this role and is now CEO and founder of the consulting firm All Aces, which works to advance equity and resilience.

Dr. Martin spoke with the Urban Institute about how to embed equity into resilience planning and disaster recovery and how to cultivate meaningful community engagement to ensure people affected by climate change are part of the decisionmaking process.

What does equity mean when talking about resilience and climate change?

The power of resilience is multifold. It connects the day-to-day circumstances of a community or household with what happens when there are disasters or shocks to the system. In previous iterations looking at disasters and climate change, there was a disconnect between those two things—the real-life, day-to-day stuff people are dealing with in their communities, and the stuff we do that just focuses on climate change and emergencies. Emergencies, including climate change, are going to have the biggest impact on issues that communities are already dealing with. It’s going to make those challenges worse. That’s the reality.

Equity in resilience challenges us not to just cope or adapt in a way that we’re tinkering at the edges. It challenges us to transform, to do the hard work of actually digging deeper and exploring new opportunities to evolve. As we’re making investments in climate change and resilience overall, we can use those opportunities to address day-to-day issues as well. If we’re going to make all these investments, we have to make sure we’re not perpetuating inequities by doing what we usually do.

People often say resilience is bouncing back, but the shift in thinking is that we should be bouncing forward. Bouncing back for many people is more marginalization; for our infrastructure, it’s more vulnerability; and for our economy, its more economic inequity. There are opportunities if we slow down and make sure we look at things in a more holistic way that challenges us to get outside of our comfort zone, which is usually status quo.

What is an example of bouncing forward after a disaster, rather than bouncing back?

We saw Puerto Rico get devastated by Hurricane Maria. When you’re starting basically from scratch with infrastructure, part of the analysis of the damage and the path of that recovery planning process is to look at whether there are ways we can do things that will be better for people.

There were several missed opportunities as Puerto Rico is rebuilding, a big one being the electricity infrastructure. It failed because it wasn’t adequate in the first place. Instead of doing things like decentralizing the grid, they rebuilt the same type of system. My understanding of what’s considered progressive in the area are microgrids—like a generator on steroids. Instead of just powering one house, it can power a whole neighborhood. The additional benefits go beyond what a generator can do, as the microgrid can offset the cost of electricity for folks connected to that grid. But instead, they haven’t made any progress in upgrading the system.

Had we thought differently and took the time to look at the promising practices, what the research tells us, and what our experience tells us, maybe we could’ve prevented the same types of impacts from happening again.

What principles do you employ when engaging communities not just around climate change, but around other issues as well?

There’s this expectation that people don’t know anything about climate change or they’re in the dark on all these different issues. A lot of folks in the community are very well versed on this, we just have to get to them and respect their knowledge and their expertise.

Before any engagement happens, there has to be some level-setting of folks going into communities. First, you have to see the community as partners, not as people you need to bestow your knowledge and expertise upon. What are the ways we can partner with organizations in the community doing good work who have already developed trust and relationships there? We need to respect their context expertise. They’re the ones who know all that there is to know about the neighborhoods.

Another thing to do is make sure we’re checking ourselves—checking our bias and our assumptions about communities. We have to be able to get past the bias and assumptions we make about people to create space to see their humanity and the humanity of the entire community and to see the shared struggles and hopes as being related to our own.

What strategies can local policymakers use to reach people who haven’t engaged before?

We have to go out into the community and go where people are. We have a tendency in all community engagement to go to communities and host a meeting or workshop or open house, and then when people don’t show up, we blame them and say it’s because they don’t care. The reality is that people are in the middle of real life, especially in communities that are marginalized. They’re going from job to job, taking two buses to child care, dropping the kids off, and somehow putting food on the table and getting ready for the next day. We don’t realize there’s a time-privilege issue. People are overburdened by a lack of good-quality transportation, low incomes, all the extra things you have to do to just survive.

We have to do things like use transportation as a way to connect with people. You can ride the bus or the train and talk to people. I’ve done it myself. It’s a good opportunity to get deeper qualitative data on what’s happening and where people really are on different issues and give them information that will help them take action in whatever way they can. There are also community events. Get a table and engage with people. Knock on doors. They do it for campaigns, but somehow, when people get in office, they don’t do it anymore. These things allow you to build trust in the relationship.

Equally important as engaging with people is the follow-up. People need to know they were heard and that you’re taking action on the things they shared with you. Whenever the outcome happens, whether it’s a report, an event, or a policy change, say, “Hey, we wanted to let you know we heard this from you and we wanted to make sure you were connected to the final resolution. We’re grateful for your time contributing to this.” Those are the kinds of things that make engagement and partnership more authentic and more impactful.