Viable support networks and social connections, which are part of the larger theory of social capital, are protective factors that decrease risk and enhance adaptation (Norris et al., 2007). Social capital theory suggests that “the more people connect with each other, the more they will trust each other and the better off they will be individually and collectively, because social capital has a strong collective aspect” (Mathbor, 2007, p. 360-361). Social capital encompasses the concepts of social contacts, social cohesion, solidarity, social networks, and social interaction (Mathbor, 2007). Hausman, Hanlon, and Seals (2007) indicate that communities with high social capital have strong social networks, high civic participation, and high levels of trust, which are helpful to setting norms and disseminating information.
SOCIAL CAPITAL, RESILIENCE, AND DISASTER PREPAREDNESS
Research has shown that social capital reduces community distress after disasters (Mathbor, 2007). For example, Mathbor cites a 1999 study of the Red River flood in Canada, which found that communities with higher levels of social capital were “better prepared and more effective in responding to natural disaster” (p. 364). Similarly, Hausman et al. (2007) found a direct relationship between perceived social capital in the community and household disaster preparedness. Furthermore, Hausman et al. argue that a social capital perspective may indicate community forces that can help foster community norms for disaster preparedness. These studies suggest that building social capital in communities prior to a disaster, may increase their likelihood to become better prepared for disasters and more resilient after disasters.
Maximizing the participation of vulnerable populations in disaster planning and preparedness initiatives and increasing their social capital through organizational linkages and social supports appears to be crucial to increasing their resilience (Blazer & Murphy, 2008; Mathbor, 2007; Norris et al., 2007).
USING SOCIAL WORKERS TO INCREASE SOCIAL CAPITAL OF VULNERABLE POPULATIONS
The federal government could partner with the National Association of Social Workers to engage in a national disaster preparedness awareness campaign for social workers and social work agencies. Here are some suggested elements for such a campaign:
1. Social Workers can play a crucial role in micro, mezzo, and macro level interventions during mitigation and preparedness phases of the disaster cycle. Social Workers already work with vulnerable populations on a regular basis and during all phases. Disaster preparedness education and awareness could be integrated into agency programming or added as a goal/task in clients’ individualized service plans or treatment plans. Agencies do not have to create curriculum or hire new staff to engage in such activities; they can utilize existing local resources. In NYC, for example, the Office of Emergency Management and the American Red Cross both offer free workshops to assist people in becoming prepared for disasters and emergencies. Social Workers should be made aware of such local disaster preparedness resources. Agencies that may be especially suited for incorporating disaster preparedness curriculum into their programming are ones that address oppression, since vulnerable populations are oppressed groups, and/or ones that address trauma, since trauma may be caused by or exacerbated by disaster experiences.
2. Social Workers can enhance individual and community disaster preparedness by connecting vulnerable groups to disaster preparedness resources, assisting vulnerable groups in having their voices heard by emergency management and disaster planning professionals, advocating with and for vulnerable groups to influence policy changes that may reduce social vulnerability factors, and building social connections and community cohesion to increase resilience.
3. Social Workers and Social Work agencies should be connected to local, Regional, and Federal disaster preparedness and planning efforts, not only to be aware of such plans but also to actively provide input and advocate for the inclusion of vulnerable populations in planning efforts. Otherwise, we may miss countless opportunities to ensure that vulnerable and marginalized populations have full access to information and services during disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. An easy step to getting connected to existing disaster networks is to become a member of the local Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) or Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD). By joining this group, the agency gains access to disaster preparedness knowledge and resources to increase their own capacity, while the VOAD or COAD gains the unique perspective of that agency – and the Social Work perspective – as well as access to the vulnerable and marginalized populations that the agency may serve. Those Social Workers who are already involved in disaster preparedness efforts should encourage their agencies and disaster planning networks to target vulnerable populations and engage them in the planning process.
- Julianne Pannelli, NYC