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Research to Mitigate the Impact of Disasters on Underserved Communities

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Heather Kirkland

Heather Kirkland is not a traditional Ph.D. student. She works full-time as a budget officer and trainer at American University while pursuing a Ph.D. in Anthropology. As a daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Heather is deeply interested in emergency and disaster preparedness. “Because my parents grew up on an island surrounded by water, they were painfully aware of the impact of hurricanes on human life,” she says. Heather’s mother was a nurse practitioner and first responder in emergency helicopter care. Her work sparked Heather’s interest in issues of public health and illustrated the unequal access to resources that can exist based on functional ability, race, and class. Heather’s dad grew up in an economically poor region of Jamaica and the homes did not have the infrastructure to withstand heavy winds and rain. Sadly, her father became an orphan at the age of two.

Meaningful Research

Heather is currently conducting research on her dissertation entitled, “Key Force Multipliers in Emergency Management: Understanding the Experience of Under-represented Groups in the Field of Disasters.” The goal of her research is to bridge the gap between theory and practice by utilizing the ethnographic approach to call attention to the need for a more robust understanding of diversity and inclusion. Heather states, “As an anthropologist, at the micro level, I bear witness to the human experience with and around disasters. At the macro level I would like to contribute to the development of policy addressing underserved communities and human rights in hazard mitigation, response, and recovery plans.”

Heather’s preliminary research findings indicate that diversity is increasing in the field of Emergency Management but there is a lack of inclusion, especially in leadership. There is also a lack of mentorship for diverse individuals starting out in the field. Heather believes that key force multipliers in this field are essential to diversity and inclusion efforts. Key force multipliers are people who encourage collaboration and information sharing among stakeholders, setting the stage for dialogue and relationship building. “There is a need for systemic change that allows for interaction across agencies and disciplines. There is a lack of safe space to have conversations about diversity and inclusion,” Heather states.

Research Recognition  

Heather has gained widespread recognition for her research. In 2012, she received an honorable mention from the National Science Foundation. In 2016, she was selected as a Fellow for the William Averette Anderson (BAF) fund for Hazard & Disaster Mitigation, Education, and Research. She also collaborated with a FEMA program manager to publish a paper on inter-generational communication in emergency management.

Real World Application of Research

Heather’s long-term career goals are in higher education and she looks forward to continuing her career at American University. “Utilizing my training and research skills, I aim to nurture students and staff traditionally under-represented in higher education. Creating forums for community members at AU and beyond to actively engage and talk with one another,” Heather states. She would also like to create online courses and service-learning projects that foster collaboration with other offices, universities, and practitioners. She plans to continue her work with the emergency management community with an interest in public/private partnerships that support mitigation and recovery efforts.