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A Recap of the 2023 Disaster Resilience Symposium: Building Community Resilience through Advocacy and Systemic Change

/ Blog Post

By Stetson University College of Law students Ariele Dashow and Megan Nickel-Martin  

Last month, Equal Justice Works partnered with the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Disaster Legal Services, and Stetson University College of Law to host a Disaster Resilience Symposium, as part of Disaster Resilience Awareness Month.

Held at Stetson University’s campus in Gulfport, Florida on March 15-16, 2023, the two-day event convened over 100 legal, academic, and community voices instrumental in disaster law to share their experiences, expertise, and delivery strategies for advocating on behalf of people affected by disasters, which continue to grow in frequency and severity. The Symposium also served as a valuable networking opportunity, giving attendees a chance to expand their connections and relationships in the disaster resilience movement.

The 2023 Disaster Resilience Symposium consisted of 10 unique sessions led by professionals from all corners of the disaster law profession and focused on an overarching theme: the interconnectedness of agency, legal aid, and other disaster-response actors.  From disability accessibility in the face of disaster to the climate implications of an octopus found in a flooded parking garage, each of the Symposium’s speakers detailed how their greatest successes and abilities to move forward came from the relationships they built with other disaster-response actors. “All disasters start local and end local,” noted Michelle M. Luckett, Florida Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters Board of Directors Vice Chair and CEO of Be Ready Alliance Coordinating for Emergencies, at a panel session on disaster response and recovery at the local level.

All disasters start local and end local.

Michelle M. Luckett /
Florida VOAD and CEO of Be Ready Alliance.

Themes of interconnectedness, networking, and community ran like a thread linking each session. At one session, panelists spoke about how legal aid attorneys in Florida were able to connect with each other and share resources in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in 2022, using strategies gained from lessons learned in prior disasters. These partnerships have allowed them to not only improve their ability to respond to disasters and serve the needs of their clients but also promote and build a community for lawyers within the state and across the country. Gathering resources and making connections during blue-sky times like at the Symposium has also been extremely valuable as it makes rapid mobilization following a disaster easier and more accessible.

The sessions also highlighted the importance of informing municipalities about the role of legal advocates in disaster response efforts. Legal aid often focuses on helping the client in front of you, but the importance of meeting emergency managers, other local leaders, and community organizations cannot be overstated. When we are known, we are able to serve more clients. The panelists that participated in the Disaster Response at the Local Level panel were asked “How do governmental and nongovernmental resources work together?” The resounding answer from the panelists: know your community and your cultural centers. By fostering connections with the communities we serve, we can strengthen our ability to function within the ecosystem of those communities, and in turn serve more clients.

On the second day of the Symposium, attendees participated in a disaster and poverty simulation where they were given assigned roles, including identities and a backstory. These backstories were primarily based on people from low-income and/or under resourced communities who are trying to get by in their daily lives when a hurricane strikes. During the simulation, individuals were further identified by colored dots that indicated how receptive disaster response services and workers were to the participants based on their character’s race, gender, disability (or lack thereof), and ethnicity. This interactive exercise allowed professionals to experience a disaster from their potential clients’ point of view and understand where disaster response falls short for the clients they serve.

This simulation was followed by a debriefing discussion, where participants spoke about their characters’ experiences and how they related back to real life scenarios. New ideas for outreach were sparked by what participants had experienced in the simulation. One participant shared the following: “Poverty charges interest,” which incited a conversation about how individuals in these situations do not have the luxury to plan long-term. Living at or below the poverty line forces individuals to only think of the short-term effects of their decisions, which is not ideal when trying to plan ahead for disasters. As the discussion wrapped up participants spoke about how they could be more proactive with outreach and education in their own communities.

To say the two days spent together were amazing and informative would be an understatement. The 2023 Disaster Resilience Symposium provided a space for professionals to get together, share ideas, and connect. Where better to start building partners and resources for disaster preparedness than at the first Disaster Resilience Symposium?

To access recordings of the sessions held at the 2023 Disaster Resilience Symposium, visit here.

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