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To Reduce Impact of Natural Disasters, Strengthen Social Ties

By Risa Wilkerson on September 20th, 2017

Layered deeply in the process of healthy community work, so integral they can be overlooked, are two key factors that impact our ability to survive and thrive: trusting relationships and connections to neighbors. The floods, fires, and earthquakes during the last couple of weeks are vivid reminders of how vulnerable community health can be. The social ties that develop through community change efforts improve health outcomes and are critical for surviving, and recovering from, natural disasters like these.

After Hurricane Harvey hit the small town of Tivoli, TX, neighbors went door to door to make sure people survived the night.

A study following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 showed that residents of neighborhoods with low levels of social cohesion—as measured by how much people said they trusted their neighbors—reported longer recovery times.

And, stepping even further back in time, sociologist Eric Klinenberg studied the 1995 heat wave in Chicago. As expected, mortality rates were highest in poor neighborhoods. Yet when Klinenberg compared two neighborhoods with similar rates of poverty and a majority of older and black residents, he found dissimilar outcomes. While one community, Englewood, had high mortality rates, people in the Auburn Gresham community fared better than many wealthy, mostly white neighborhoods. Auburn Gresham’s tight-knit social fabric made the difference; it was equivalent to having an air conditioner in each room.

In an interview with NPR, Klinenberg said, “Auburn Gresham is a neighborhood that has poverty, yes; and it’s segregated, yes. But it has small commercial establishments that draw older people who are vulnerable to heat waves out of their homes and into public life. It has a viable social infrastructure.”

After a disaster, it is tempting to wonder whether investing in the long-term work of prevention is a diversion from the urgency of survival. But while we, as a nation, provide the vital life-saving and recovery support to people who are rebuilding their lives and communities, I urge healthy community leaders and funders to remember the important contributions you are making to social resilience, which support long-term and immediate needs.

As we work to improve community health, we must intentionally increase social cohesion with essential practices like community engagement and facilitative leadership. To do that, local leaders, funders, and their partners can:

  • create structures that enable full participation by all;
  • encourage and lift emerging leaders’ voices and help these leaders build networks;
  • prevent and, when they arise, address dysfunctional power dynamics;
  • form authentic relationships with (and among) groups of people who are often overlooked and at greatest risk for health disparities; and
  • explore and implement other approaches outlined in our Lessons for Leaders.

Strategies that expand networks and trust advance our ability to solve community-level problems, including unexpected natural disasters and other complex issues. We address challenging health problems through collaboration, which is ineffective without trust in one’s partners. Furthermore, initiatives that elevate resident engagement and shared power foster a sense of belonging and strengthen personal networks. Our work can and must enable people to bridge social divides and develop meaningful connections. We never know when our lives will, quite literally, depend on it.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.