Community Response

How Young Leaders Are Strengthening Community Responses To Disasters

Top nonprofit execs offer insights on nonprofit leadership & trends. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

Post written by

George Tsiatis

CEO & Co-Founder of The Resolution Project, building a generation of leaders with a lifelong commitment to social responsibility.

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In the aftermath of the recent record-breaking hurricanes that wreaked havoc across multiple states and nations, you may be expecting to read about the urgent need to invest in resilient infrastructure to safeguard cities facing increasingly frequent natural disasters. To be sure, those investments are necessary.

The Issue With Current Disaster Relief Efforts 

But the human capital sphere is one in which we too often underinvest, and it’s the key to seeding the resilient systems that enable effective responses before, during, and after disasters. Investing in human capital means training and supporting individuals and networks that can rise to meet challenges by assisting one another and filling unanticipated service vacuums.

Most disaster relief overlooks the importance of investing in people as solutions to crises, opting instead for short-term interventions like emergency foodstuffs and water supplies. Yet at its core, the treatment of disaster relief as a short-term play is a reactive strategy. The counterintuitive thing about disaster relief is that optimizing disaster-prone areas’ abilities to respond in the short term to the inevitable emergencies they face is actually a long-term game founded in support for future leaders. The frontline communities hit hardest by this year’s hurricanes exemplify that.

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Why Organizations Need To Invest In Young Talent

Investing in young leaders is a community development strategy that produces both long-term and short-term benefits. Identifying and training young people as social entrepreneurs enhance their capacity to problem solve for their communities throughout their careers. We’ve seen this repeatedly with our work at The Resolution Project, where we empower college students with fellowships and dynamic, hands-on support to implement social ventures and develop as socially-responsible leaders in their communities. Since 2007, we’ve invested in 357 young people from 69 countries whose social ventures have helped over 1.25 million people around the world.

What we had not anticipated were the innovative ways that our fellows would customize and deploy their social ventures to address critical unmet needs in rapid response to natural disasters. Here are three success stories we’ve seen:

The co-founders of Hearts for the Homeless, Jennifer Carvel, Alexis Ghersi and Andrew Aboujaoude, ages 21-22, realized before Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida that emergency storm warnings on tech platforms and news broadcasts weren’t reaching the city’s homeless population. “I couldn’t even sleep, thinking about homeless people out there who may not even know this hurricane was coming,” said Aboujaoude in an interview. Managing a team of 20 volunteers, Hearts for the Homeless built on its inroads with local homeless communities, for which it traditionally provided hypertension screenings, to warn 247 homeless individuals across the state of the storm’s imminent arrival, helping them get to safety in time.

In response to the earthquake in Mexico and hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, the Ladon Language Project stepped in to offer free translation and language support hotlines for disaster relief volunteers and first responders in Spanish, Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese. “Immigrants are especially vulnerable to exploitation and cannot access the critical services they may need,” said 24-year-old founder Anh-Thu Ho. “Because they cannot understand what is happening, they have great fear. We provide the most valuable first step — understanding — something that is critical to disaster response.” To meet the urgent needs of these communities, Ladon boosted its services and response rate significantly, ensuring an average wait time of only 24 seconds to reach interpreters by phone and of only a half hour or less for document translation — all for free.

In Puerto Rico, Wandile Mthiyane, the South African 23-year-old founder of Ubuntu Design Group is responding to Hurricane Maria’s destruction by researching affordable and resilient housing techniques to inform re-building strategies across the island to ensure that residents need never again choose between safe and affordable homes. There was Jean Emanuel Verdier’s Clean Water Project for Haiti which provided the only safe water for Les Cayes during Hurricane Matthew, Hussein Hassan’s rapid relief work following the devastating cyclones in Somalia, and Ton La, Jr’s plea for support for the victims of Hurricane Harvey in his hometown of Houston.

How You Can Get Started  

These examples illustrate the powerful ways that small investments in young individuals’ human capital have proven to deliver invaluable social, economic and profoundly human dividends in times of crisis. Having these leaders in place early is a critical pillar of disaster preparedness. Investments in human capital are not only a strategy for preparedness — they’re also an essential component of immediate response and relief. Disasters often serve as defining moments for young leaders and as catalysts for the paths of change they choose to pursue.

Organizations must recognize that top-down solutions are often ineffective and have low adoption rates. We’ve seen our Fellows, given minimal seed funding and strong mentors, step in with faster responses and longer-term service strategies than many of their centralized counterparts and formal leaders. Organizations need to invest in these excellent partners for identifying unmet needs and mobilizing unconventional solutions.

This is not a critique of the critical role that centralized and government actors do and must play in response to the natural and man-made disasters that have recently affected so many places around the world, but it is a call to action. We must recognize, enable and invest in the role that young people already play in building and re-building resilient communities around the world for today, and for the future.

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