After I published my first Demystifying Disasters
post about the role of emergency managers, I received a note from Susamma Seeley asking if I was interested in doing an issue about the efforts to make the emergency management field more inclusive. It was an easy yes, both for the subject matter and the opportunity to speak with Seeley, who has an impressive background in this space and is currently a PhD student at the University of Delaware focusing on who has the power to make decisions in emergency management.
We ended up having a long and wide-ranging conversation, touching on everything from getting beyond performative diversity initiatives to her very personal experiences being an advocate for more equitable emergency management. I’m grateful to Seeley for her time and for being so open. Our Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Colleen Hagerty: To jump right in, I would love to hear a bit about your background and what you’re working on now.
Susamma Seeley: I started getting to know about emergency management with my master’s degree. I had gotten out of the military, I finished my bachelor’s degree, and I was kind of floating around not knowing what to do. And so I just happened to find this program through a colleague, and I got into it not knowing what it was.
Then, as I was doing my master’s, I got a job working with Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens. At that time, it was the largest nonprofit, faith-based social service provider in New York City, and that taught me about service, delivery, and how those who serve are very often the ones who need service. But also that there’s this variation between what is acceptable, who is acceptable, and who gets to make decisions.
When we talk about emergency management, I think the assumption is that we’re just talking about how to do emergency management. I want to look at it from the perspective of who gets to make decisions and who has discretion. Having discretion means that you’re given room to maneuver in any kind of space where you get to make a choice based on how you feel and how you think. You know, they don’t come out and say that, they’ll use words like ‘guidance,’ or ‘we ask you to rely on your judgment.’ From right there, there’s a personal responsibility for everyone in this space.
And I just want to take a second to say that depending on who you speak to—an emergency manager who focuses at the local level with jurisdictional authorities or obligations, or somebody who works in some sort of affiliate space where their title may not say ‘emergency management,’ it may say anything else—ultimately, we’re looking at folks who are responsible for the physical infrastructure, which ultimately is all about supporting social infrastructure.
And so we can see with the pandemic, there was a disconnect between the public health space and the regular—I’m doing air quotes, you can’t see me—‘emergency management community.’ So, as I got further and further into this field, I also started noticing not just that siloing between sectors, approaches, or job responsibilities, but there’s also a space where not everybody was actually invited to the table. I think over the years, I always saw myself as somebody who looks like the people who we’re going to be serving but doesn’t necessarily fit into the group of the people who get to make decisions. It’s not just about being a female, but also being a Brown woman, you know, being all those things that are not considered the higher standard.
So, my goal in my PhD program and all these other spaces is trying to get people to understand that inclusivity isn’t just one thing, it’s an entire spectrum. I am trying to expand the idea of inclusivity to include neurodiverse thinking and to include non-heteronormative people and approaches. I want to try to reduce the stigma of saying hey, all of your sources and all of the people and anything and everything involved with this particular process came from one way—or in most cases, white people—who may not have, you know, that lived experience.
Colleen Hagerty: I’ve spoken with a number of people over the last year in the emergency management space about the way the pandemic and the new administration have shaped and changed their work. So I’m curious about your perspective of how, if at all, these factors have impacted the work you’re doing to advocate for a more inclusive emergency management field?
Susamma Seeley: It’s given a space from which to have conversations. It’s also opened up this larger space where you recognize the entitlements and privilege of others. A large part of the reason why I’ve been so vocal is that when we have these performative diversity and equity group meetings, people forget the power dynamic. Yes, you can invite students or you can invite emergency managers or whomever to come in and join these spaces, but if the people in power still don’t represent all of the people involved—or at least some attempt at it—and if the people in power also don’t recognize their personal views affect what they do, then we’re not really making as much progress as we think.
I’ve had to learn how to take this message and share it in a less fearful way. In a more—I don’t want to say appetizing, but the truth is, yeah, appetizing. Is this something that somebody can take a part of, take a little bite out of and still feel like I didn’t call them racist? Because if you look at all the incredible scholars out there who are talking about anti-racist approaches or how the white-centered view isn’t enough and is harmful, they come back and they say most people are afraid of being called racist. And so we get stuck; we’re still stuck in that space.
So yes, there are changes being made, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough. We really have to look inside, and the way I figured out how to do it is that we have to look at specific acts or really applying specificity in our dialogue. I did a couple of presentations last year where I talked about how dialogue isn’t just the talk, right? It’s who gets invited to the meeting. It’s who gets to sit at the table. How do we approach this? How do we get out of our lens or filter—whatever word you need, it’s how do you not apply your way of thinking and doing and being as the ultimate way to guide everyone else’s.
Colleen Hagerty: What sort of response are you getting within the field when you ask these questions or present your work?
Susamma Seeley: So, I want to say it’s kind of mixed. I don’t know if you saw on Twitter
my article on MSNBC