Challenging Injustice, Advancing Human Rights

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.

Learning Cohort of More than 40 Community-Based Organizations Introduces New, Innovative Framework for Defining, Addressing Disaster

A newly-released report expands the definition of disaster and provides concrete steps for public health officials, philanthropy, and government to adequately serve all communities.
For Immediate Release: May 6, 2021
Media Contact:
Michael Givens
Associate Director of Strategic Communications
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
Phone: +1-857-540-0617
Experts available for interview

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Over the course of six months, 44 community-based organizations across the nation worked collaboratively to understand local and national responses to disaster, how disasters are defined, and the efficacy of current efforts to allocate resources in the wake of crises. The dialogues culminated in the release of a new report, Moving from Disaster Preparedness to Disaster Response: Centering Community & Racial Justice for a Transformed Future.

The 16-page report examines the narrow definition currently used by entities like the United Nations that focus “on the impacts of so called ‘natural disasters,’ triggered by catastrophic events like hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and storms.” After a series of learning sessions between May and October 2020, the group formulated a new definition of disaster, one that includes a broader analysis of social inequities.

“We collectively recognized the need to move away from the traditional public health definition of disaster as a ‘natural’ occurrence, and shift to encompass the range of social, intentional, human-made disasters that community organizers and advocates are fighting against every day,” said Jenna Gaarde, the program director for research and training at the Praxis Project, the lead convener of the learning cohort.

According to the group, disasters:

  • Are often human made;
  • Expose and exacerbate existing inequalities such as racism and ableism;
  • Are experienced by some more than others;
  • Illustrate how ineffective our current systems are when addressing the needs of communities; and
  • Typically evoke temporary sympathy from the general public that vanishes after media attention moves on.

“We want to encourage people not just to go through COVID, but grow through COVID,” said Denisa Livingston, an organizer with the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance (DCAA), a New Mexico-based community health nonprofit prioritizing the health needs of Indigenous peoples. Livingston said that the pandemic has been a challenge for her community, but that having a new way of approaching disaster helped her better organize a collective response to public health risks. “We are grateful that the learning circles [helped us] get prepared. We’re still in crisis mode, but we are prepared to go forward.”

Tomás Aguilar, disaster recovery coordinator for the Texas-based Living Hope Wheelchair Association (LHWA), presented the learning cohort with a revised Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) that the institution implemented in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that took the lives of roughly 100 people and decimated parts of Louisiana and Texas in 2017. A COOP is a tool used by aid agencies such as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop and implement appropriate responses and infrastructure in the wake of natural disasters.

“The traditional COOP model was great, but didn’t speak to our realities as a community-based organization,” said Aguilar. “We already had a series of checklists, emergency response plans, volunteer lists—all elements of a good COOP. We started with what we already had to make a highly functional COOP. It has allowed us to keep our essential programs going during multiple disasters. We didn’t start over with a COOP, we built on what we already had and made it better for our needs.”

“UUSC is incredibly proud to have been a part of this learning cohort,” said Rachel Gore Freed, vice president and chief program officer for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). “Reports like this show just how invaluable the popular education model is as a tool for learning and change from the grassroots up.”

An often-used framework in the social justice movement, popular education “is a commitment to acknowledge the history and context of participants as well as their experiences and expertise and to design training sessions that honor this and holds spaces where we can all put our experiences and stories in dialogue to learn from one another,” according to the report.

A number of recommendations for philanthropic institutions, community organizers, public health workers, and public policy makers are presented at the end of the report. A few of the recommendations urge these stakeholders to:

  • Rely on grassroots organizers to offer disaster justice plans that center communities currently facing oppression;
  • Center racial and social justice in response efforts; and
  • Implement policies that are equitable and accountable to the communities in most need of help.

To read the full report, click here.


The Praxis Project is a national non-profit organization that works in partnership with national, regional, tribal, state, and local partners to achieve health equity and justice for all communities. Our mission is to build healthy communities by transforming the power, relationships, and structures that affect our lives and communities. Praxis supports policy advocacy and local organizing as part of a comprehensive strategy for change. We emphasize developing fields of work in ways that encourage multi-level, trans-disciplinary learning and collaboration across issues, across the country and across the globe.


Living Hope Wheelchair Association is a community-based non-profit organization formed by people with spinal cord injuries as well as with other disabilities working together to improve our quality of life and promote our rights. The majority of its members are not entitled to benefits, lack medical insurance, and do not have a stable source of income. Living Hope works at the intersection of disability rights, healthcare justice, and immigrant and workers’ rights providing medical supplies and equipment, as well as spaces for leadership development and a community where everyone can feel included, respected, and loved.


The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is a human rights and solidarity organization founded as a rescue mission in 1940 during the Holocaust. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and with a membership of more than 35,000 supporters across the United States, UUSC’s programs focus on the issues of climate change, migrant justice, and crisis response.