The central role of community centers

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images, 2013

At Homa Reto, we put communities at the center of disaster risk reduction. Often underestimated places, where communities can connect, are cultural centers, such as libraries. These provide a community center and play a vital role during disasters by offering valuable resources and information during troubled times. Yet, public libraries are often underfunded and community or cultural centers suffer from a lack of investment from local authorities, sometimes forcing them to close down. Through our situational awareness software, we intend to provide visibility and engagement for these essential actors.

The Human Network recognizes that crises start and end at the community level. Local libraries and community centers offer the possibility to communicate effectively with local partners and stakeholders when managing emergencies and sustainable development. During disasters, decisions about the recovery must be taken not only at the council level but also in concert with the local population. Libraries, as well as community centers, can provide a venue for meetings and discussions on these occasions. There, current community issues and concerns can be communicated and important public information distributed. As we aim to engage community members in crisis response as much as possible, taking this dialogue into consideration helps us tailor communication efforts to local needs.

Libraries have recently taken a developing role in disaster response. They are generally found in well-constructed buildings, and their locations are known to most of the community. Coupled with the fact that they provide fast internet access, it makes them a place of choice to turn to for many residents during local emergencies. After Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, small-town libraries on the edges of the devastation continued to operate normally. They could provide temporary daytime shelter, information, and basic humanitarian aid to residents. Hence, because of the local nature of the response they provided, they often reached members of these communities more effectively than national or state-level responses. In these spaces, communities can meet and grow closer together in times of disaster. Homa Reto promotes similar actions to improve crisis outcomes by making the needs of communities visible and connecting social care needs and resources.

One of the key functions of libraries in times of crisis is being an information hub. The flexibility of the library facilities and the sense of duty of their staff makes them valuable actors. The knowledge of their community allows them to address crises at the most local level and participate in recovery efforts. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, although libraries were not designated as essential services, local leaders recognized that many libraries were at the center of information during the recovery. They could for example alert about emergency services, renters’ rights, and debris removal. By including public libraries as resource centers in our maps and offering them a platform to display their services and understand the needs of their community, we want to facilitate this exchange of information.

A librarian and community volunteer (Photo by: Kampus Production)

In addition to providing a trustworthy space during crises, libraries also play a role in making communities more resilient before and after disasters. As respected community and resource centers, libraries are well-positioned to mobilize citizens to learn about the climate emergency and take action. In the face of chaos and uncertainty, they have taken initiatives to teach climate science, self-regulation practices, deliberation skills, and kindness for one another. Committed librarians who listen, engage, and are prepared to respond to the needs of the communities they serve also help reestablish stability after periods of disruption. In Baltimore, after the death of a young black man at the hands of the police in 2015, the local library became a place to gather for the affected neighborhood. By banding together and sharing resources on this subject, libraries are becoming powerful actors in disaster risk reduction. 

Libraries create vital public spaces for knowledge exchange (Photo by: Rafael Cosquiere)

Despite having proven to be a vital part of crisis response, public libraries and cultural centers often lack resources. Public libraries have been representing a safe space. In 2015, Ferguson Municipal Library faced community turmoil due to the riots happening in the city. Sensing the fear and concern of the community, the library remained open throughout this challenging time. This demonstrates the importance of libraries for all residents. Libraries have also been playing an important role in training emergency responders and rebuilding institutions and communities. Yet, they have been overlooked as contributors to disaster planning, response, and recovery. They suffer both from a lack of recognition and resources, which contributes to the loss of their status during times of crisis. Community and cultural centers that are deteriorating are also often abandoned by authorities, who consider their cost too high. One example is the Ops Community Center in Toronto’s region where, because of the lack of funds that have been invested to upkeep the facility, the roof system has failed, and the building is now in a state of disrepair and needs demolition. To address this issue, our App provides a platform to make their actions and resources visible and engage them in the disaster relief process. If you want to find out more about what we are doing, visit the ‘how it works’ section of our website or contact us directly!

Author: Suzon Mazataud

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