UMass Boston Community Shares Partnership Opportunities with Boston’s Chief Resilience Officer

Colleen Locke | March 08, 2016
UMass Boston Community Shares Partnership Opportunities with Boston’s Chief Resilience Officer

Image by: Harry Brett



What we don't do that well is this idea of people, and we really need to be thinking about how people fit into the picture.



S. Atyia Martin Focusing on Social Resilience

As she develops a resiliency strategy for the City of Boston, Chief Resilience Officer S. Atyia Martin is receiving input from UMass Boston faculty, staff, and students about ways to make the city more equitable.

“When we’re talking about resilience, and we’re talking about resilient communities, we’re really talking about healthy communities and communities that we want to be a part of—where there’s affordable housing, where young children have access to quality education—so these aren’t rocket science-type concepts,” Martin said during a forum Thursday on the UMass Boston campus.

The Rockefeller Foundation is funding Martin’s position, and positions like it in 99 other cities worldwide, for two years. Since August, she has met with hundreds of stakeholders at meetings, workshops, presentations, and events to understand the challenges and opportunities in Boston. Her next step is to develop a resiliency strategy, which will be implemented starting this summer. Martin’s vision of equity in Boston has five components: household economic resilience, critical infrastructure and built environment resilience, community and civic engagement resilience, community psychological resilience, and racial equity and social cohesion.

“What we generally don’t do that well, and this is both in government and in institutions that are doing research on resilience, that are just starting to move this way, is this idea of people, and that we really need to be thinking about how people fit into the picture,” Martin said. “Do we understand the challenges of people living in our communities? Do we understand the strengths of people living in our communities? It’s not just a deficit-based approach, it’s also understanding where do we build when we want to support communities.”

It is this idea of connecting with communities that led Martin from a career that started in the Air Force, the FBI, and Boston Police Department’s Regional Intelligence Center to the City of Boston’s Office of Emergency Management and, most recently, to the director’s chair at the Office of Public Health Preparedness for the Boston Public Health Commission.

S. Atyia Martin with the three UMass Boston students who posed questions during the forum

Following her presentation, Martin answered questions from UMass Boston students Heena Gulam, Mena Majeed, and Kristen Halbert (above) about her career trajectory and her vision for resiliency. She then met with faculty, staff, and students at a roundtable where participants talked about their own work, posed questions, and offered collaborative ideas for Martin to consider in her work. Maureen Scully, interim director of the Office of Community Partnerships, served as moderator, encouraging participants to think of how their own work translates to the five areas on which Martin is focusing the resiliency strategy.

Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies and an associate professor of political science, says attention needs to be on day-to-day vulnerabilities, as opposed to once-in-a-lifetime events.

“Our focus is literally on people just trying to get by—to get food on the table, to get their children educated, to get their kids reasonable daycare, to go through the day without being harassed by police,” Watanabe said. “The City of Boston I think is classic for this, of assuming that problems in the schools, for example, are just part of life in Boston, to assume that inequities that exist in Boston are just part of life in Boston.”

Debra Butler (center)

Debra Butler (above), a fellow in the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program and a PhD student in the College of Management, experienced both Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 as a Gulf Coast resident. Her research has found that civil society basically breaks down after 72 hours, and that the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts don’t have protocols for internal migration. She also spoke to opportunities that arise out of stressful situations.

“To my experience, people who are under stress regardless of color or culture, are the most entrepreneurial I know,” Butler said. “If we can find ways to support that types of entrepreneurship and access to resources and to capital, some of that problem might take care of itself.”

At the conclusion of Thursday’s forum and roundtable, Martin says she looked forward to continuing this conversation with UMass Boston.

“I’m hoping that we can help model some promising practices for some of the other agencies. We have all of these silos of excellence of engagement, but how do we standardize it? Academia has to be at the table, especially an institution like UMass Boston that is right here doing all this amazing work. So I’m 1,000 percent in.”

About UMass Boston
The University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city's history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 11 colleges and graduate schools serve more than 17,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit www.umb.edu.

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