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Five Lessons Learned Working on Disaster Recovery

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By Maria Diaz, 2018 Disaster Recovery Legal Corps participant who was hosted by Boat People SOS – Houston

Photo of Maria Diaz
Photo of Maria Diaz

Following the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017—of which many communities are still recovering—Equal Justice Works recognized a strong need for legal services and created the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps (DRLC), mobilizing 23 Fellows across Texas and Florida. I learned many things during my time in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, but these five indispensable lessons stand out.

Lesson 1: Seize Opportunities

Prior to my Equal Justice Works Fellowship, my host organization, Boat People SOS – Houston (BPSOS – Houston), offered me a position as a staff attorney overseeing disaster legal services stemming from Hurricane Harvey. I was excited to accept the opportunity, but also intimidated, as it was my first position in the public sector. Less than two months later, the DRLC was created, and BPSOS – Houston allowed me to shift from staff attorney to Legal Fellow. Taking the chance and seizing that opportunity has opened so many doors, not only for me and my career but also for my clients and community.

Lesson 2: Make Meaningful Connections

Seizing the opportunity to participate in the DRLC led to some invaluable introductions to very committed and passionate people, within the public and private sectors. Some of these individuals have been people who donated their time, experience, and knowledge to the DRLC by conducting training sessions on various disaster legal issues. The training sessions afforded us the chance to create a network of peers that we could call on for mentorship and advice. These meaningful connections have taught me the true value of networking, and the importance of cultivating meaningful connections.

Lesson 3: Engage with the Community  

As a native Houstonian, I have seen more than my fair share of natural disasters and the havoc they can create. My time in the DRLC has taught me that it is not necessarily the disasters themselves, but rather their aftermath and recovery that is the true devastation. More importantly, I learned that recovery, no matter what it may entail, is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Community engagement is vital to understanding the needs of your community and their expectations. Disadvantaged populations suffer various issues, but they do not suffer the same. That is why reaching out to your community and its leaders is critical to recovery. To understand your community is to help your community.

Lesson 4: Communicate Effectively

In addition to legal skills, the DRLC Kick-Off Training also included sessions about public speaking. I believed myself to be articulate, but knew going in that I was uncomfortable with public speaking. We received tips and tricks to help us become great public speakers, as well as effective ways to communicate in uncomfortable situations. I learned about the effect of tone and how to properly convey our thoughts and opinions, both publicly and privately. I carried those lessons with me throughout my time in the DRLC, and encountered various situations with clients and colleagues where empathy, compassion, and understanding led to satisfactory results for all parties involved.

Lesson 5: Do it for the People

My time in the DRLC reminded me why I decided to study law in the first place: people. My passion, however, was so much more than helping people—it was seeing people, understanding people, empathizing with people, and listening to people. All too often, disadvantaged populations are overlooked, ignored, and even silenced for voicing their disparities. Members of our community desire to be heard and seen. My position has shown me that we cannot always help everyone, but if we can listen to them and offer guidance where we can, clients and communities will feel served.

This was one of the most fulfilling and challenging years of my life, allowing me to forge strong bonds with my colleagues and make a difference in my community.

Maria recently ended her service in the Disaster Recovery Legal Corps. Click here to learn more about the Fellows working on disaster recovery.

The Disaster Recovery Legal Corps has received philanthropic support from the American Red Cross, Bigglesworth Family Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Florida Bar Foundation, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, Sharon and Ivan Fong Family Foundation, and the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow