This week, Staff Writer Monisha Gunasekera attended a talk with Fatima Mann, J.D., Flow Director of Love and Healing Work.

On March 3, Columbia Climate School hosted a virtual talk on culturally-minded disaster response led by Fatima Mann, J.D., Flow Director of Love and Healing Work. Mann has been engaging in culturally mindful, healing, and human-centered relief efforts since 2016 when she assisted people impacted by the flooding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

“I am here guiding this session for a culturally-minded disaster response because I come from an area where people would call vulnerable communities and underserved communities,” Mann stated. “I’m a first-generation college graduate. I’m a first-generation lawyer on both sides. And when Hurricane Katrina happened I was eighteen years old, and a freshman in college. No one told me what to do and I had no idea what to do. All I knew was that there were a bunch of people that looked like me on the TV suffering because of a hurricane and I’m in college with all of these resources and no one is telling me what to do.”

Mann said that, like many people, she watched the disaster unfold in front of her on the television screen. When she saw people who looked like her suffering, she cried, pulled herself together, and said to herself that she would never let this happen again and that if another disaster were to occur, she would do everything in her power to help.

In 2016 when the Baton Rouge flood happened, Mann was at law school at Southern University Law Center. Impacted by the flood herself, Mann helped gather supplies and resources and set them up in the middle of her law school so that people hit by the storm could get what they needed.

Unlike the typical disaster supplies, Mann “got mostly diapers and feminine hygiene products because people forget about women and children, people who able differently, and the elderly. People forget about those people on a regular day. So when there’s a storm outside people really forget.”

The year after the Baton Rouge flooding, Hurricane Harvey happened. It was only then that Mann realized that people who were in underserved communities weren’t really thought about in natural disasters. Instead, they were put into shelters that were inhumane.

“Any type of shelter you think about doesn’t really think about the entire human or living entity at all,” Mann said. Later on in her talk, Mann touched upon the first time she ever walked into a shelter. It was an elementary school gym. In addition to sleeping on the floor, people hadn’t showered and hadn’t eaten well for days. Mann was horrified.

This experience of hers shows the importance of improving the current disaster response.

“Why am I here talking about humans? This human-centered approach?” Mann questioned. “Because it’s what’s missing in disaster recovery and disaster relief,” she said.

Mann went on to discuss trauma. When people talk about natural disasters, people don’t want to start with trauma first. However, Mann starts with trauma because disaster itself is traumatic. Disaster is traumatic to not only those who experience it but also those who are helping administer services and resources to those experiencing it. 

 Mann believes that if people advocating, creating policy, and administering resources and services for those impacted by climate change do not understand that their trauma is impacting how they do business, “then how they do business will always have a traumatic impact.”

So why does this matter in the long run? Because, at the end of the day,  it is a human who is behind policy-creating and advocacy. “What kind of experiences is that human having? Probably a terrible one. Is that human getting access to resources and care so that they can be regulated in the job they are doing? Yes or no? If it’s a no then the impact of the work is going to be traumatic. It’s not going to be culturally mindful. It’s not going to be human-centered. It’s not going to be healing-centered,” Mann said.

The issue with the current infrastructure of disaster relief is that there’s no infrastructure to take care of the people who are taking care of the people in need. “The current infrastructure treats people like robots,” Manning said, “as if going to rescue somebody who has been sitting on the roof for five days isn’t going to be a traumatic sight. As if you’re not going to need some decompressing after seeing something like that.”

To prove her point, Mann brings up FEMA admins and how there is no conversation about them being up for days in order to make sure that sites of disasters get the resources and support people need. “Now you have human beings who aren’t sleeping for days, that are listening to traumatic stories and then they’re supposed to and expected to turn out the best recommendations,” Mann said. She questions how. How is someone who is tired, hungry, dehydrated, and with no emotional or mental support expected to make these decisions? Ultimately, their decisions are going to hurt underserved and vulnerable communities

Mann believes that in the world of disaster relief, humans should come first. “Human-centered disaster relief provides space for humane relief efforts, mitigates burnout, creates buy-in with frontline workers, people needing assistance, and those [in] administration,” she said.

The individuals Mann works with are all considered impoverished. They’re on food stamps and government assistance. “I’m not going anywhere else, because everyone else got out,” Mann said.  “Everyone else had the resources to do something different. I’m working with the people who don’t have resources.”

An integral part of improving disaster relief practices is changing the policy. To Mann, the best way to go about this is through storytelling. A lot of people write policy from a place of making it “sound good.” However, sounding good does not equal having a good impact. Mann’s advice to policymakers is to find people who have been impacted by disaster and talk to them and ask them questions for the sake of understanding and implementing what they said. At the end of the day, these are the people who are going to tell you how they want to be treated and how they wish they had been treated when disaster struck. 

Because people who are a part of marginalized communities are often overlooked when it comes to disaster relief, they are the people who suffer the most when disasters occur. For example, when Mann talked to Black women impacted by Hurricane Katrina, they told her they wished they had shampoo and conditioner because people weren’t donating shampoo and conditioner that Black women use. When people donate and collect supplies for disaster relief, there are many people who are forgotten about. Other examples include people with allergies and dietary restrictions. These people do not get aid.

Mann believes the solution to this is human-centered training for everyone. Volunteers specifically should be aware of people’s needs based on their cultural norms and the needs of people who are “forgotten about.” Mann also believes in trauma consciousness training. She believes that people should have access to mental health support before, during, and after disasters.

“There should be resources for everyone,” Mann said. “Period.”

After Hurricane Ida via Wikimedia Commons