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The call's coming from inside the house

My World's on Fire
The call's coming from inside the house
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #28 • View online

My World’s on Fire is a newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. My goal is to help you feel a bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and spread the word!
Note: This edition talks a lot about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). If you want a bit more background before jumping in, I suggest checking out this earlier edition.
In 2018, former FEMA Administrator Brock Long revealed a months-long internal investigation had found a “systemic problem” of sexual harassment and misconduct within the agency. In at least one department, there was a “toxic” environment, as he described it. It was unclear how much this toxicity had spread across the agency’s nationwide offices, which employed nearly 20,000 employees at the time.
“One of the things that they wanted to do was to improve the situation and get a sense for how pervasive it was,” Carra Sims, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the non-profit RAND Corporation, told me by phone Thursday. “So, they approached us.”
The agency commissioned RAND researchers to conduct their own survey of FEMA employees to “assess employee perceptions of leadership and workplace climate.” The resulting research, published Wednesday, includes responses from nearly 9,000 FEMA workers.
It shows that the 2018 incident was not isolated.
According to the report, co-authored by Sims and RAND senior behavioral scientist Coreen Farris:
  • More than one in four FEMA employees were harassed or discriminated against based on their gender or race/ethnicity in the past year
  • 20% reported experiencing sexual harassment
  • 21% told no one about these incidents
Other statistics point to the concerns women and Black employees, in particular, had about trusting senior leadership to “respond appropriately” to reports of harassment. “Retaliation was also frequently reported.” The paper is more than 200 pages long, so there’s a lot more research to dig into – you can also read a more time-friendly breakdown of findings here
Graphic from RAND Corporation
Graphic from RAND Corporation
When I spoke with Farris and Sims by phone on Thursday, both noted how rare it is for an organization like FEMA to allow this sort of external, public report – nothing came to mind for them in terms of comparison. This transparency is unique, according to Farris, and helpful.
“It gives you something to measure against, so you can see whether or not progress has been made,” she said.
Their report offers a series of recommendations on how to make that progress, ranging from improving the process for reporting misconduct to conducting further surveys on a regular basis. The agency has already pledged to follow some of those suggestions in its response, which includes a “Culture Improvement Action Plan” that lays out immediate and longer-term steps.
The bigger picture
Aside from the obvious newsworthiness of the survey, I wanted to feature it this week because I think it’s an important piece of context to keep in mind when reading about our disaster system. Disasters disproportionately impact communities of color and women in the United States, in part due to the policies we have in place and institutionalized biases. This survey offers insight into how some of these same issues manifest within the agency responsible for leading operations in this realm.
While I mentioned above how FEMA responded to this survey, it’s also worth noting the other ways the agency already addressed inequality concerns this year. This summer, FEMA issued a Civil Rights Bulletin in response to COVID-19, offering additional guidance and resources for providing a more inclusive response to the pandemic. It was the first of its kind released during a disaster, Administrator Peter Gaynor said, and he now expects it to become “standard” (though it hasn’t been so far for other disasters this year). 
The agency also published a “Guide to Expanding Mitigation” in September, which focuses on factoring equity into conversations about hazards and risks. When I spoke with disaster expert Monica Sanders for a previous newsletter, we talked about this guide, for which she provided input.
“They look at things like financial resources, they’re talking about cultural heritage in a way that has been done by other institutions, but now it’s something that’s going to be moved into programming operations at FEMA, which is great,” Sanders said.
As we transition into a new administration and new FEMA leadership, priorities and plans are certain to shift. Guidelines and guidance will likely change. But, as Farris and Sims pointed out, we now have this data starting point to hold FEMA accountable to moving forward.
“Figuring out how to change your culture or climate is challenging,” Sims summed up. “But you won’t know if you’re making progress without this type of data.”
As always…
Thank you for being a part of this community. My World’s on Fire is 100% funded by readers like you, so if you’re able, donations are very much appreciated.
Or, spread the word on social media to get a shout-out in future editions. This week’s goes to Scott Knowles, host of the incredibly informative COVIDCalls series – thank you so much for sharing!
Scott Gabriel Knowles
Check out this disaster reporting/research newsletter by @colleenhagerty--great reading!
Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end.
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