Emergency management is a critical function of local government. As emergencies increase and evolve, the methods for which we prepare, respond, and recover from emergencies must adapt as well. Public managers need to look at this work in new ways, identifying the intersectional nature of emergencies and expanding opportunities to create a more equitable and safer environment for the entire community.

Emergencies Are Intersectional

Emergencies can be defined as natural, human-caused or technological. These types of emergencies can include acute shocks categorized by sudden events, such as earthquakes or floods. Emergencies can also be systemic. Many human rights issues that are created and upheld by social, economic, or political practices are chronic stressors that impact us daily or in cycles, such as unemployment or violence.1

Acute emergencies often reveal existing conditions and increase institutional and systemic inequities. For example, longstanding disparities in housing and transportation were exacerbated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane (a natural disaster) caused the levees to break (a technological disaster), leading to disparities in housing and transportation (a systemic disaster). These intersections are factors that contributed to Hurricane Katrina being classified as one of the costliest and deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history.2

These emergencies are devasting to our communities. Within this devastation, we can disrupt harmful patterns and procedures and create new opportunities for our communities.

Racism Is a Public Health Emergency

This year, intersections within emergencies have become increasingly visible to some people while becoming increasingly traumatizing to our communities. Studies show that “getting killed by police is a leading cause of death for young black men in America,” and that “police killings of unarmed black men were associated with an increase in mental health problems such as depression and emotional issues for black people living in the state where the killing took place.”3

Structural racism, such as a lack of access to adequate healthcare and food systems,4 has led to an increase in health and economic disparities for African Americans, including dying at disproportionately higher rates compared to all other races during the COVID-19 pandemic.5 Racism has a cumulative impact that can lead to additional dire outcomes, such as the development of coronary heart disease.6 In these emergencies, the impact on African American communities is compounded.

Experiencing the impacts of inequitable education, housing, and healthcare are all examples of chronic stressors. When another human being is murdered when driving, walking, sleeping, or doing other daily activities, we experience this as an acute shock.7 Acute shocks become or intersect with chronic stressors when people continue to experience the stress of oppression, violence, and loss of life because of racism. Racism is a human-caused, chronic, systemic intersectional emergency with acute shocks. Racism has become a public health emergency.

Opportunities can arise within emergencies to develop new and creative ways to address long-standing issues. The compounding effects of COVID-19 and systematic racism to African Americans has led to increased public awareness of these disproportionate and severe impacts. This awareness can translate into action, including activism, an increase in data collection and sharing, and shifts in practices that recognize these disparities and work to address them. Public managers can build upon this increased awareness to create positive change in their communities. For example, using resources that disaggregate data by race, like the City Health Dashboard,8 can help managers find areas in their community that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. This information can be applied to develop data-driven strategies or to partner data with other creative strategies, to increase resources, to craft messaging that promotes access and addresses disparities, and to develop engagement strategies for emergency response.

A Key Challenge to Community Recovery in Emergencies

Intersectional emergencies such as systematic racism need an integrated emergency management approach. Multiple studies and articles discuss the importance and challenge of public involvement in emergency management. George D. Haddow and Jane A. Bullock share a study by the New York Academy of Medicine that reports emergency management planners must engage the public in the planning process in order to fully understand the public’s needs and concerns, and that the public is vitally interested in getting involved in this process. An article from Government Technology shares that a report by FEMA reveals that they have not been able to reach any of their goals in preparing individual households and communities for emergencies for the past two decades.9

These studies reveal some core challenges throughout various types and phases of emergencies: Plans developed without the involvement of those intended to utilize them can lead to inaccurate assumptions about public behavior that can have severe consequences. Increasing gaps between the needs of the public and the plans made without their input can have disastrous results. In ICMA’s 2019 Disaster Resilience and Recovery Survey, 60 percent of responding managers said they had not created a post-disaster public engagement strategy inclusive of the whole community.10 Developing processes to close this gap is crucial to effective and integrated emergency management.

A Key Component to Community Recovery in Emergencies

How do we increase public involvement in planning and supporting community recovery? How can we apply these lessons to address the public health emergency of racism?

Through more than 20 years of work across four continents, I have found a key to increasing public involvement in planning and implementation of community recovery efforts—art. One of the most overlooked yet vital roles in emergency management is the role of artists. Integrating arts and emergency management is essential to addressing various types of emergencies. Government entities can experience challenges with public-informed plans due to various factors, including a history of extracting information or dictating policies that create distrust and compound trauma for communities.

Artists can:

• Implement creative strategies to gain, record, and share community insight to inform emergency management plans.

• Facilitate opportunities for engagement in which community members can define their own needs to inform their own prevention of or recovery from a disaster.

• Overcome social barriers, such as language and culture.

• Create communication and build solidarity11 to overcome inequities and increase racial equity in public health.12

After leading disaster recovery work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I saw how intersectional partnerships among government, art, community, and emergency management can be successful. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, many without personal transportation were left stranded in the midst of a disaster.

The city of New Orleans has a city-assisted evacuation (CAE) plan, a public evacuation option for those without transportation. Through community outreach with the organization Evacuteer, who manages volunteers to assist in CAE, they learned that people were unaware of the pick-up points throughout the city to safely evacuate via public transportation.13 A partnership among Evacuteer, FEMA, the Arts Council of New Orleans, and the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness worked to increase visibility and use of the CAE pick-up points. They developed the first-of-its-kind public art with an emergency management function, commissioning 17 public art pieces named Evacuspots to serve as identifiable markers designating gathering locations for public transportation during a mandatory evacuation.14

While working in New Zealand after they experienced several earthquakes, I saw how artists were critical in a public health campaign aimed at normalizing conversations about wellbeing and mental health. The campaign launched in 2013 to support the recovery of community members following the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.15 The campaign reached 70 percent of the disaster-impacted population, and of those who were surveyed 93 percent shared that the campaign helped them think about their wellbeing, and 85 percent commented that they had done the activities suggested in the campaign to improve their wellbeing.

In Minneapolis, artists are on the frontlines of the public health emergency of racism. Artists lead in a multitude of areas, including the Black Lives Matter movement, protests, memorials, and honoring the lives of George Floyd and many of our community members who have died from police brutality and murder. We have experienced the power and beauty of images and murals across the city that scream for justice, honor our communities, and express grief as boarded-up buildings provide space for many who are underrepresented, underserved, ignored, and traumatized by the racial inequities in our cities. This work radiates throughout the world and many artists are leading the way in their respective communities. The Urban Art Mapping George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art database16 documents street art from around the world that has emerged in the aftermath of the horrific murder of George Floyd as part of an ongoing movement demanding justice. The database describes street art as transformational: “...in the context of a crisis, street art also has the potential to transform urban space and foster a sustained political dialogue, reaching a wide audience and making change possible.”

These examples show how art is one key to increasing public involvement in community recovery. Beyond the beauty of murals, this art is capturing history while it is being made, changing the landscape of our cities, increasing public representation in our communities, conveying the realities of racism, increasing attention to social issues, and increasing accessibility and providing space to create, connect, and discuss critical topics. Art continues to be a way to build solidarity, heal communally, and advance community recovery.

To address intersectional emergencies, including the public health emergency of racism, we need to increase public involvement in both planning and response. Working with artists to implement creative strategies for community recovery can result in publicly informed plans and actions that address the emergency of racism.

The Public Manager’s Role

Public managers can practice integrated emergency management in a multitude of ways. First, work to align internal and external practices. Have resources been prioritized toward community recovery for African American communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and racism? Have resources been allocated toward African American staff for their own recovery and to directly address internal workplace disparities such as pay, career advancement, and developing a healthy work environment? How is every individual working on internalized racism? ICMA’s creative placemaking guide is a resource for more information on how artists can play a larger role in your organization. My Grandmother’s Hands is a resource for learning and practicing embodied racial justice and learning how trauma and resilience interact. Pair training or reading with dedicated and consistent practice individually and collectively with anti-racism groups to increase accountability and action. We cannot overlook the halls within ourselves or our own government buildings when addressing this emergency.

Second, we learn from New Orleans that listening to the most underserved and underrepresented communities provides pathways to improved emergency management and community recovery. Develop cross-sector partnerships among local government, neighborhood, arts, and emergency organizations. Combine expertise and assets to advance community recovery.

Third, we learn from New Zealand that artists have an important role to play in community representation, communication, education, engagement, and translating all of this into communal action. Hire and partner with artists to develop and advance all aspects of government communications. There are many benefits to this partnership, including increasing the ability to reach people that have been harmed, hold legitimate distrust, and have been severely underserved by government entities. This benefit is not solely to advance the message of public managers, but to understand and advance the messages of the communities we are responsible for serving.

Fourth, we learn from Minneapolis that artists are on the frontlines of community recovery, creating space and methods to increase public engagement, while helping community members process trauma and build resilience. Public managers who seek to support community recovery in intersectional emergencies must face multiple layers of trauma.

Artist Láolú Senbanjo shares how art helps process trauma: “Every time there is a new senseless death, or blatant manifestation of harmful white supremacy, art can help us to instigate, remember, imagine, discuss, and express these complex experiences and feeling states.”17 In working through the layers of trauma, we also need embodied anti-racist action. Local government leaders can dedicate resources and develop processes to support the work that artists, specifically African American artists, are already doing in community recovery. City and county managers can also develop partnerships with artists to create new ways to increase public engagement. Hiring an intermediary or consultant grounded in anti-racist practices that specializes in managing the process of working with local government leaders and artists can increase the impact of this critical work.


Emergencies are intersectional and they call for innovative and integrated approaches to emergency management. Racism is a critical public health emergency. Integrating art into all phases of emergency management can increase the impact, effectiveness, and equity of community recovery, and can help generations of communities recover from the public health emergency of racism.

Copyright © 2020, Emergency Arts LLC.

 AMELIA BROWN is a coach, consultant, writer, speaker, and artist with more than 20 years of community development experience spanning four continents. As the first creative city-making program manager for Minneapolis, she partners artists with city staff to address equity goals. She is the founder of Emergency Arts, providing resources to transform crises through creativity and support community resilience. (https://emergencyarts.net/contact/)

With support from ArtPlace America, ICMA is developing a guide on opportunities for local governments to solve problems through creative placemaking partnerships. Look for this guide’s release in late fall 2020.

Endnotes and Resources

1 http://www.100resilientcities.org/resources/

2 https://www.kiplinger.com/slideshow/business/t019-s001-most-expensive-natural-disasters-in-u-s-history/index.html

3 https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2019-08-15/police-shootings-are-a-leading-cause-of-death-for-black-men

4 https://civileats.com/2020/05/05/people-of-color-are-at-greater-risk-of-covid-19-systemic-racism-in-the-food-system-plays-a-role/

5 https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/05/health/coronavirus-african-americans-study/index.html

6 https://www.npr.org/2017/10/28/560444290/racism-is-literally-bad-for-your-health

7 https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/07/07/ 485114263/philando-castile-is-remembered-by-st-paul-public-schools-kids-loved-him

8 https://www.cityhealthdashboard.com/

9 https://www.govtech.com/em/preparedness/Report-Weve-Failed-Miserably-at-Preparedness.html

10 https://icma.org/sites/default/files/Disaster%20Resiliency%20and%20Recovery%20Survey%20Summary_0.pdf

11 https://springboardforthearts.org/additional-resources/community-emergency- relief-fund/

12 https://arts.ufl.edu/sites/creating-healthy-communities/resources/evidence-based-framework/increase-health-service-equity-and-access/

13 https://evacuteer.org/

14 https://evacuteer.org/evacuspots

15 https://www.allright.org.nz/about

16 https://georgefloydstreetart.omeka.net/

17 https://www.cnn.com/style/article/george-floyd-mural-social-justice-art/index.html

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