Marcus T. Coleman, director of the Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has worked for over 15 years to bridge the gap between disaster preparedness, relief, and underserved communities. As we enter a time when climate change and ecological disasters are upending the ways that neighborhoods of color live and interact, it’s essential for government entities to partner with relief efforts on the ground. Some people may have a negative outlook on FEMA because of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Still, Coleman and his department work daily to restore confidence by doing the work.
Currently, FEMA has made individual assistance available to 26 Florida counties. Disaster Survivor Assistance has gone door to door and interacted with 34,700 individuals. The Root spoke to Coleman about what he saw in Florida during the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, how FEMA strives to help communities of color, and continuing their mission no matter the result of the midterm elections.
The Root: Some people may not be familiar with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Can you provide some insight into how your department helps those on the ground who need disaster assistance?
Marcus Coleman: This particular center is one of 11, and we all report to the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. I’m the director of the Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-Based Member Partnerships, and I report directly to the FEMA Administrator. With the structure of DHS, my office system fits in FEMA. For historical context, my center was created in 2006. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, there were many lessons to learn and things that we had to do better as a government entity. One of those was a direct connection between the Administrator of FEMA and some leadership that leads on disasters and many communities and faith-based organizations that engage people. I’ve been around the center and in different capacities since 2010.
A big pillar that we focus on is to listen and listen with the intent to act. Our department works with various organizations, including the NAACP, National Urban League, Islamic Relief USA, and the National Latino Evangelical coalition. We’ve listened with the intent of addressing some of the systemic issues on the preparedness side. Just like with Hurricane Ian, we’re constantly checking to see where we can help fill some gaps. Our department also listens where we can be partners in collaboration to make sure that important information is getting out to communities. We must lead with listening because communities often know where the needs are. They often see where the conditions may emerge before the government might.
TR: I understand that you recently surveyed the damage from Hurricane Ian in Florida. Can you tell me what you’ve seen? I know you work with many Florida churches and local organizations to assist those who have a more challenging time accessing shelters and things they need considering the damage.
MC: I was. And this is a continuation that we’ve been focused on for a few months. We’ve worked with the national coalition of partners leading up to the start of hurricane season in June. From there, we did a few activities—including a briefing—right at the peak of hurricane season in August. On a call, our department spoke to many groups like the NAACP and the ones I mentioned earlier. There, we discussed some of the changes we’ve made as an agency and ensured that we had an open door for a relationship if a disaster did occur.
Shortly after Hurricane Ian made landfall, we provided life-saving information about evacuations. Those groups provided information on where residents were suited and made an impact, in addition to staying in touch. I was then able to join faith and community leaders and neighborhoods. This included Pastor Givens of Mount Olive AME Church and citizens in the Dunbar neighborhood to ensure we were continuing to build up our support of the state and those counties facing this disaster.
In Collier County, we had disaster assistance teams working alongside the Collier County NAACP to meet neighbors where they work. Not just forcing folks to go to the disaster recovery centers because we know not everybody may be able, for whatever reason, to get there. In addition to Dunbar and Harlem Heights, we continue to work with a broad coalition of partners throughout the state. They help ensure that we’re getting to all different populations. This includes people with disabilities and those with access and functional needs.
We understand some of those folks may not be very trusting or have concerns about coming to the government. I’m currently at a National Emergency Management Conference, where we’re talking about the emergency management community and what we need to do to meet the needs of those most historically and disproportionately impacted by disasters.
TR: Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at the Leadership Forum about some racial inequalities with disaster relief. Cities that are majority Black in Florida, like Dunbar and River Park, said they felt that more affluent white neighborhoods were getting released first in terms of like getting the shelters and aid. Given some of the red tape that may happen, depending on the makeup of state governments, how does FEMA fight through those issues?
MC: The National Emergency Management Association has a diversity and inclusion committee. Right now, the committee is coming up with viable solutions. These state emergency managers and other emergency management practitioners from all walks of life collectively acknowledge your point. The disasters are increasing in terms of intensity and impact. Some of the practical things that we’re doing at FEMA, I say, are threefold.
Goal one is instilling equity in emergency management. We want to keep people first, especially those people who’ve experienced any sense of discrimination or discrepancy. Through our FEMA Office of Civil Rights, we have recourse for people to report any concerns they may have. One of the things that we continue to work on through our Office is that we become much more forward-leaning on making sure people know their options in the event space agreements. We also work with the NAACP, and some of the other partners are in the civil and human rights space. This is to help make sure that if there are any decisions and guidance, that would be helpful.
The second piece is the political division you spoke about that might occur. What’s true is, you know, when disasters occur, we have folks that are disproportionately impacted, and it’s the responsibility of all levels of government to meet that need. One of the things that was helpful for me to see on the ground was that we had the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in emergency management along with Florida helpers from the state. Then we ask, do we co-create solutions that meet the immediate needs of survivors and some of those communities I mentioned earlier? Also, where do we go from here to ensure that we’re developing the next set of recovery policies to help mitigate impacts from future disasters? This means encouraging collective community action at the personal and neighborhood level.
For National Preparedness Month, for example, we had a concerted focus on Black and African-American communities. I think there’s an honest acknowledgment from many in the emergency management community that we can’t go in alone. We may have practitioners that have some expertise in emergency management policies. Still, we need the people to ensure that we’re rounding out our approach and engagement in terms of recovery, preparedness, and mitigation.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that we still have a long way to go. However, we know that the best way to get there will be by working with a coalition of partners. And that’s what we will be committed to doing every day in this administration and for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
TR: In three weeks, we will have a crucial midterm election to determine party control in the House and Senate. Given who holds power, some people may feel uneasy regarding the disaster, economic response, and aid. We have Hurricane Ian and the ongoing water crisis in Mississippi as examples. What do you say to the people who feel as these ecological storms and disasters increase, FEMA’s responsiveness will change depending on the party in power?
MC: As someone that’s worked in now or worked around three different administrations, Democrat and Republican, I’d say. First, FEMA’s mission will always be to help people before, during, and after disasters. Under FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, our vision is to become the FEMA our nation needs and deserves. I was in Jackson, Mississippi, shortly after the President declared the emergency declaration for the water crisis. We were doing the things that we needed to do to work with a coalition of partners to address those immediate issues. We still have folks in FEMA working alongside the mayor of Jackson and state partners.
I think we recognize there’s going to always be some form of volatility politically, particularly among legislators. While I can’t speak to that, I know FEMA’s mission continues. That must be done with a coalition of partners. When it comes down to it, these disasters continue to impact community-serving communities more than others disproportionately. While everyone is affected, we know that the road to recovery will be long for some. It’s essential to make sure that we continue to do everything we can to jumpstart the recovery for as many people as possible and keep that coalition strong.