11/03/2013 06:03 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Hey Mr. DeBlasio, Want to Improve Emergency Services? Call a Community Activist

This blog was drafted with the help of Lisa Cowan, researcher and board chair, Red Hook Initiative

If the polls hold on Tuesday, New York City's next Mayor will be Bill DeBlasio. High on his agenda should be strengthening community "resiliency" -- the hot word of the day -- and addressing the underlying vulnerabilities in communities affected by Hurricane Sandy.

"No one is here. Not the government. Not the Red Cross. People are desperate." That was a refrain that North Star Fund heard repeatedly in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy from community organizers seeking to help New Yorkers trapped without power, water or basic supplies. Community organizing groups, and the activists who lead them, are more accustomed to arranging rallies than delivering clean water, but they filled the void to become the backbone of the region's relief effort. For example, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities became a hub in Chinatown collecting and distributing food, clothing and medical supplies. Members of El Centro del Inmigrante, a Staten Island worker center and immigrant rights organization, were leading clean up and sharing relief information within hours. VOCAL, which builds power among people affected by HIV/AIDS, drug use and mass incarceration, provided public health services for active and former drug users when local syringe exchanges and methadone clinics were shuttered.

With the likely election of Mr. DeBlasio, a committed progressive leader, it's time for New York City's government to embrace the key role that community organizers play in making our city strong.

Community organizers and grassroots activist groups were able to make a difference instantly because they brought something that no established relief organization could--a deep understanding of the impact of this short-term disaster on communities already suffering from the long-term effects of neglected public housing, poverty and failed immigration policies. Economic uncertainty, poor health care facilities, inadequate city services, vulnerable food supply - all of these were endemic in those hard-hit neighborhoods long before the first raindrop fell.

Using their knowledge of local geography, institutions, and communities, community groups not only responded in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy but are still working to ensure that future disaster planning includes the voices of residents who are low-income, immigrant and of color.

Even more important, they are using the resources available post-Sandy to advocate for a more just and equitable rebuilding of the city's infrastructure and services. They are monitoring how the $50 billion in federal aid is being distributed, continuing the recovery efforts in the hardest hit communities, raising the environmental justice issues that the storm brought to the fore and protecting the rights of low-wage workers who are employed in the clean-up and rebuilding.

It isn't easy. As frequently happens, when money is on the table organizers are not invited to the party. Instead they have to ask for, and more often demand, a seat. In a complex federal, state and city governed rebuild it is hard to even figure out whom to ask. Multiple commissions, agencies and intermediaries have developed myriad planning processes, meetings and forums and created an impenetrable process.

Where to Start?

As climate change continues, it is likely that Mr. DeBlasio will need to count on the network of community organizers and activists to ensure that remote and overlooked neighborhoods receive vital services. With that in mind, we interviewed dozens of staff at community organizations, government agencies and academia to learn how we can better prepare for the next disaster.

  • With the help of activists, organizers and service providers, New York City needs to map every neighborhood to understand which infrastructure might be vulnerable and which might be utilized in the wake of a disaster, and designate the spaces that can serve as hubs for relief efforts.
  • The next mayor needs to identify a senior official who reports directly to him to oversee and connect recovery efforts in both the physical and human infrastructure. In New York that responsibility is scattered across the city and state, making it difficult for community organizations to establish clear lines of communication. And we saw that the para-military relief infrastructure ended up turning to local leaders and institutions for help.
  • Community groups need to build their capacity to engage in climate-related planning. Groups need to learn how to best use time and resources, train staff in planning and get resources to amplify the voices of the most vulnerable constituents.

The deeply vexing part is that we knew this was going to happen. After Katrina, researcher Tony Pipa, working with the Aspen Institute, went around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region to interview staff of non-profits about role they had played after the storm. His conclusion then, which we saw borne out post-Sandy, was that much burden and responsibility fell on the shoulders of local community-based and faith institutions.

We should have heeded those lessons in New York and New Jersey. North Star Fund is working with community- based organizations like CAAAV, El Centro, and Vocal, and the many activists who mobilized through Occupy Sandy, to offer the wisdom of their experience to the next mayor. If he listens, we will all be better off.