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Monday, June 24, 2024

HSToday Q&A: DHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Director Marcus Coleman on Outreach and Building Resilience

"One of the best things you can do as an organization that wants to continue to practice your faith in a way that honors safety and security is to make sure that the entire team in your organization is trained."

Marcus Coleman serves as the Director for the Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (DHS Partnerships Center), one of several centers of the White House Office of Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships. Coleman has served at the intersection of building public private partnerships with faith-based and nonprofit organizations for more than 15 years. Coleman began his career at FEMA in 2010, where he was a program manager for the Individual and Community Preparedness Division. With faith-based communities facing a range of challenges including targeted violence and impacts from disasters, Homeland Security Today asked Coleman to discuss the center’s mission and vision along with how partners can come together to tackle myriad threats.

Q: How have you seen the interagency and stakeholder relationships grow as a result of efforts to broaden and foster partnerships through the DHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships?

Coleman: Since February 2021, the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has made it a priority to serve people in need by collaborating with interested faith-based and community organizations. This includes engaging with people who are working toward the common good, regardless of their background. At my office, the DHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, we have seen growth in three areas.

  1. Our work with federal agency partners to identify some practical ways to engage faith-based organizations on how to advance climate resilience.
  2. Partnering with non-government organizations and people representing historically underserved communities to support disaster survivors or people who are impacted by disasters.
  3. Doing everything we can among the emergency management community and among our faith-based and community partners to raise awareness around preventing human trafficking. According to the Administration for Children and Families, incidents of human trafficking have been reported after numerous disasters, including hurricanes Katrina, Irma and Harvey.

Q: What are the first steps for a faith-based institution that wants to assess its vulnerability to crises including extreme weather or targeted violence and start to improve resilience?

A: Many faith-based and community-based organizations have different special observances year-round and we encourage five ways to help them protect their place of worship and community space. An important first step is having a relationship with your local emergency management agency and local first response agencies, even if it means starting with signing up for local alerts and warnings. At my church, for example, my pastor has ensured his team is connected to our local firehouse and police precinct, and that they also receive direct information from the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency Interfaith Preparedness and Advisory Group.

When we talk about assessing risk, one of the biggest risks may be a lack of that same kind of connection and relationship that my church has with community responders. Having that connection allows for actionable and practical information to be provided from government to the faith community and, when appropriate, from the faith community to different government agencies.

Additionally, my office has worked with FEMA and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency  to develop a number of resources available for protecting places of worship, such as a security self-assessment. The assessment is a simple checklist that people can work through as a team, or with their local first responders, to assess the different vulnerabilities and risks they have to their physical facility, and also as it relates to their organizational readiness and continuity.

Q: Faith-based communities see attacks such as those that targeted Emanuel African Methodist, the Episcopal Church in Charleston, and the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh and understand that both were communities that welcome the stranger. How can houses of worship and faith-based facilities feel more secure while maintaining open arms and open doors?

A: What I’ve learned from faith leaders across the country, including Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who formerly served as rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, is that one of the best things you can do as an organization that wants to continue to practice your faith in a way that honors safety and security is to make sure that the entire team in your organization is trained. We can’t allow vigilance to only be left to the professionals. It’s everyone’s responsibility to be diligent and also to be friendly.

One of the tools developed by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is the Power of Hello. Used effectively, the right words can be a powerful tool. Simply saying “Hello” can prompt a casual conversation with unknown individuals and help determine why they are there. The OHNO approach – Observe, Initiate a Hello, Navigate the Risk, and Obtain Help – helps employees and volunteers observe and evaluate suspicious behaviors, and empowers them to mitigate potential risk and obtain help when necessary.

This tool and others like the Mitigating Attacks on Houses of Worship Security Guide provide some guidance for any organization to have a subtle, yet important, way to engage people who may be unfamiliar with their facility, while also honoring and respecting the type of safe environment you want to create.

Many people spend time in churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, gurdwaras or other places of worship and public spaces. People should feel safe when they gather to express their faith or serve their community. Another way to improve the safety and security of your place of worship is through the Nonprofit Security Grant Program. This program provides funding support to nonprofit organizations, including houses of worship, that are at high risk of terrorist attack. The funding can help your organization implement physical security enhancements and activities. Grants are awarded to nonprofit organizations to fund activities such as:

  • Safety and security planning, training and exercises
  • Contract security guards
  • Access/entry controls
  • Closed circuit security cameras
  • External lighting
  • Security fences/gates and bollards

Before applying, it’s recommended to review all previous year materials at Nonprofit Security Grant Program | FEMA.gov.

Q: FEMA has emphasized disaster preparedness and climate resilience for underserved communities through its measures to advance equity. Tell us about what this means for houses of worship that may be prone to damage in severe weather events or feel they may be unable to prioritize measures to better prepare for the changing climate.

DHS Director of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Marcus Coleman and his team meet with the pastor and local volunteer organizations at the Tchoupitoulas Chapel in Reserve La on Sept 25 2021 to assist to assemble food and supply kits and boxed lunches for those affected by Hurricane Ida FEMA photo by Keith Jones

A: In February 2023, we brought together faith leaders, community leaders and many others from the private sector to talk about how we focus on climate resilience for historically underserved populations.

It was there I was reminded of three things that are particularly important for any emergency manager looking for a place to start within this conversation.

The first thing I learned is that community leadership and community knowledge on how to best respond to certain hazards already exists. It’s the work of International Director of Disaster Services for the Full Gospel Baptist Church Bishop LaTresa Jester that reminded me that many of the churches throughout the South are very engaged in knowing what to do after a disaster. However, they welcome more direct support and partnership opportunities to build capacity with emergency managers. They know there are topics that some people might not consider as part of their preparedness plan, like when and how to have a conversation with the local insurance agent on what kind of risks are insured to their current insurance policy and understanding the importance of having flood insurance for homes and places of worship.

The second thing I learned is from the work of people like Vincent Davis from Feeding America. We spoke about the outreach and engagement capability of faith-based and community-based organizations. One of the places that we can look to find that capacity as emergency managers is with the food banks. Food banks often partner with faith-based and community-based organizations to help distribute food for the day-to-day emergencies, and that same network can serve as a conduit of trusted information that helps people impacted by disasters.

The third thing I learned is from Atyia Martin, PhD, CEM, a co-founder of the Black Resilience Network and a former chief resilience officer for the City of Boston. She is keenly aware that it’s important for every community to have people who know and understand their risk. At FEMA, we have a few tools, including the National Risk Index, to help people understand their risk from all natural hazards and give them a place to learn more about some of the other hazards that might impact their communities.

Working together, emergency managers who listen and lead from a place of humility are able to work with grassroots leaders on how to build alliances or climate action. This includes sharing resources and insights about how we strive toward becoming a more climate resilient nation.

Q: Your long history of service with FEMA began in 2010 as a program manager with the Individual and Community Preparedness Division. How have you seen the culture of resilience evolve in that time?

A: I continue to be inspired by all of the people I work with across the agency and the field of emergency management. From Emergency Manager Manuel Soto in Orlando, Fla., to the FEMA Voluntary Agency Liaisons, we are a team focused on making sure that whatever we develop and deliver, we do it with our own friends, neighbors and loved ones in mind.

As we talk about the evolutions of the culture of resilience, one thing that continues to ring true is that trusted relationships with trusted messengers are key to achieving positive outcomes for people before, during and after disasters. If there is a disruption or something that happens that’s beyond the scope of existing planning assumptions, those same relationships help ensure we keep people first in the delivery of our programs, especially people who are historically underserved.

One recent example is the work that we’re seeing where organizations like the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the United Way, the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, All Healers Mental Health Alliance and United MegaCare are coming together. They are not just helping people in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and other current disaster areas, but they are also thinking through some of the longer-term recovery strategies that can help build new roads to resilience in California, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

To become the agency that our nation needs and deserves, we need to continue to recruit people who bring creativity, innovation and ingenuity. It’s the reason why I’m hoping that anyone reading this considers applying to FEMA or encouraging someone else to apply. We are, and always have been, only as good as our people. If you are interested in learning more and getting involved in resilience work here at FEMA, consider continuing or starting your career by helping people before, during and after disasters: Careers | FEMA.gov

Q: What are some challenges in outreach and building preparedness in faith-based communities?

A: Some challenges have been identified in tools such as the National Household Survey, which helps us assess how prepared individuals are if disaster strikes.

Some of the things that I’ve learned from faith and community leaders is to build practical, small preparedness steps into the normal course of operations. For example, many faith-based and community-based organizations have some form of a board governance structure. If the organization meets quarterly, they might have a 15-minute discussion at each meeting.

At the first meeting, they could discuss what their current insurance policy says and ensure that people understand how to safeguard critical documents and valuables.

At a second board meeting they could include a presentation from a local law enforcement official to protect their place of worship.

The third meeting might be a more specific discussion about the historically underserved populations in your own facility. You could invite somebody from the youth ministry or someone who works with people with disabilities to share a little bit of insight on what they know that would be helpful as it relates to that organization when considering making investments for people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs or with unique needs.

The fourth meeting can be a celebration. I usually recommend that if your meeting is in September, you do the celebration during September, which many HSToday readers know is National Preparedness Month. It’s the opportunity to talk through how you can help celebrate and increase preparedness around your congregation or community. It can be as simple as encouraging the congregation to download the FEMA App or as robust as having a community fair in conjunction with your local emergency management or first responder agencies. There are a lot of examples of what this looks like for local emergency managers who are looking to connect.

For emergency managers who are looking to get their foot in the door with faith-based and community-based organizations, I have three recommendations:

  1. The most common reason most people begin preparing is because something has happened in the world or in their community. One way to approach this is to structure your message and engagement on a current event of interest and then work to bring together more resources. I’ve seen this done well in places like New Hampshire; Chatham County, Georgia; the District of Columbia; and Pasco County, Florida. We covered some of their best practices in a recent webinar that we hosted, Building Partnerships to Promote Secure Communities.
  2. Again, find that person within a particular faith- or community-based organization most interested and aligned with your goals as an emergency manager. I recognize that not every pastor, rabbi, imam and other faith or community leader may have the time, but it could be the facilities manager. It could be the trustee or the person who’s responsible for finances, or it could be somebody who runs a particular aspect of the organization or who works with children and would like to be some part of the initial conversation to build momentum to get the whole organization to focus on preparedness. Our FEMA independent study course Concepts of Religious Literacy for Emergency Management provides some additional insights.
  3. Finally, don’t feel like you have to start from scratch. Visit gov/faith and dhs.gov/faith to find a number of resources to help you and your interested counterparts engage with faith- and community-based organizations. You can download guides and find planning considerations for engaging with faith-based and community-based organizations.
DHS Director of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Marcus Coleman and his team meet with the pastor and local volunteer organizations at the Tchoupitoulas Chapel in Reserve La on Sept 25 2021 to assist to assemble food and supply kits and boxed lunches for those affected by Hurricane Ida FEMA photo by Keith Jones

Q: What is your vision for the future of the DHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and for interfaith dialogue as a means to increase community resilience?

A: My vision for the DHS Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships’ contribution to increasing community resilience consists of three areas of focus:

The first area is continuing to shine a light on the emergency managers and emergency manager organizations expanding the way we work alongside organizations like the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD) and Interfaith Power and Light. Partnership opportunities should exist beyond Emergency Support Function #6 and the National Response Framework. These organizations and others are poised to be great collaborators to advance mitigation and recovery outcomes and offer value as partners for research, capacity building and communications.

The second area is working alongside diverse partners like Interfaith America, Multi-Faith Neighbors Network, Buddhist Tzu Chi, Islamic Relief USA, Adventist Community Services, Send Relief, Jewish Federations of North America, Catholic Charities USA and many others to develop more useful emergency management tools. Some emergency managers are meeting communities where they are and finding new approaches to building community resilience. I think improved planning considerations, trainings and other tools can help inform planning, organizing, training, exercising and evaluation activities.

I’d say the third area and more practical piece is placing more emphasis on using grant dollars and other sources of financial investment in emergency management personnel who are vital to community engagement and outreach. FEMA recognizes that outreach and engagement work cannot happen solely through volunteer or low-cost investments. Increasing the number of paid positions in emergency management organizations and the mid and senior level and making other efforts to enable programs to directly invest in people and organizations that have expertise in community engagement will be key to addressing current and emergent threats. As an agency, we are taking some important steps including a 3 percent minimum spend on “Enhancing community preparedness and resilience” in the Homeland Security Grant Program or the increased funding for the FEMA Nonprofit Security Grant Program.

I’ve seen more jurisdictions at the county and local levels invest in people to continue to conduct outreach and also maintain healthy relationships with faith-based and community groups. It’s going to take continued investment in positions at the state and county levels to help sustain non-government partnerships long term. This includes making investments in personnel at the state level in positions like the state voluntary agency liaisons in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and a few other places. Designing job descriptions that help build and maintain partnerships are key in making sure that those efforts to work with faith-based and community-based organizations sustain at all levels of emergency management.

Q: You’ve given us a wealth of information for faith-based communities and partners to digest. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

A: I know some readers of Homeland Security Today are much, much smarter than I am on the possibilities of where partnerships can be expanded between emergency management and non-government organizations, but who may not know where good sources of information are to inform their work. One place I recommend starting is with the Resilient Nation Partnership Network. Other sources of interesting data and conversation for those curious about building partnerships with faith-based organizations specifically include the Center for Religion and Civic Culture (usc.edu), Humanitarian Disaster Institute – Wheaton College, IL, The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, and the Religion & Society Program – The Aspen Institute and the U.S. Religion Census.

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Homeland Security Today
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.
Homeland Security Today
Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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