Interview with Atiya Martin, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Boston

By Lily Yumagulova, Editor, HazNet 

Dr. Atyia Martin brings a diverse set of experiences in emergency management, intelligence, and homeland security to her position. Prior to becoming the CRO for Boston, Dr. Martin was the Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Boston Public Health Commission, where she helped coordinate services for survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings. Her previous professional experience includes the Boston Police Department’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center; the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management; the Federal Bureau of Investigations; and active duty Air Force assigned to the National Security Agency. She has a Doctorate of Law and Policy from Northeastern. She lives in Boston with her partner and five children.

Some of our readers will be familiar with Dr. Martin’s research. In our previous issue we published her article called “INCLUSIVE EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS.” See Vol.6 No.2 Spring 2015 pp. 10-13

Lily: As a Boston native, who worked for the City for quite some time, how would you characterize the spirit of Boston and how does that play into resilience?

Atyia: The spirit of Boston is really about overcoming, the spirit of Boston is rebellious. I think we saw that after the marathon bombing in “One Boston” and “Boston Strong.” I think that is fundamentally the bigger spirit of Boston. It’s almost like data: when you look at data for an entire city you might say that everything is alright because you’re looking at it for the entire city. However, when you begin to stratify data at different levels and start looking at race and social factors and all those other pieces, then you start to see trends and patterns that you would/could never had seen if you hadn’t gone in for a deeper look. I think that with “One Boston” and “Boston Strong” what we saw was potentially this disparity. The criticism from a lot of community members after the marathon bombing was around the issues of obvious inequity and inequality in the way that services were coordinated after the bombing, in contrast with community stressors and emergency stressors that were occurring immediately afterwards. Within the first 60-65 days after the bombing we had about 67 shootings, so it created this immediate backdrop to draw comparison and in that moment – in terms of communities that are truly disenfranchised – you begin to see a comparison in the way communities are treated differently.

Lily: How do you think the “100 Resilient Cities” process will address these issues?

Atyia: As part of this process we are choosing to focus on social resilience and issues of equity, specifically issues of racial equity. This will allow us to be able to have a thread across Boston that really brings us together to be ‘One Boston’, to feel like every neighbourhood is part of Boston and every- one is able to get what they need and that all of the different stakeholders that are important to the well-being of this city are awarded the same opportunities. I see this as an opportunity for us to come together as a city. This is not the City of Boston’s plan from the government, it’s the city’s plan across all of these different stakeholders who are working to address these complex issues together because government won’t be able to do this on its own, non-profits can’t do it on their own and so on. It really requires us to put our heads together and create an effort that provides a clear direction towards addressing the inequities in our city. There are a lot of challenges that we face around having conversation about race and racism. It’s uncomfortable, we don’t talk about it openly, and we use a lot of coded language that perpetuates fear from having the real conversation. I think this is an opportunity for us to get right to the heart of these deep disparities that are in this city by addressing the cause of these inequities to be able to truly have the ‘One Boston’ that we aspire to be.

Lily: You have a unique practitioner-academic background. What are some of the core principles that you think will guide your resilience work in this city?

Atyia: The #1 core principle is humility – we are all willing to come to the table to do this hard work together without allowing egos to get in the way of work being/getting done. There are times when organizations feel like they own issue areas and it’s theirs as opposed to this is an issue the community is dealing with and it’s unto us to solve it. Humility is not just for me when I’m facilitating a process, but also in terms of city government, community organizations, individuals, that we are able to have the humility to come together and really work on this and be honest and get to the place we want to be. As a part of humility I also see Boston has so many resources, it’s an amazing city, we have the highest density of hospitals, we have a high number of higher education institutions, we have so many community organizations and foundations, people who are passionate about and committed to the work. The challenge is collaboration and bringing people together to work on these issues together.

We need to address this great wealth of resources and leverage collaboration as a way to channel the resources into the places where they are needed most.

Related to the principle of humility is collaboration – if this is to truly become our resilience strategy that belongs to the entire city and not just the government, the idea of meaningful collaboration is what drives this and allows us to be respectful of the fact that communities understand the best what their needs are and for us to respect that and work together across different organizations and community members to be able to come to some clear action plan to address how we can work together on these issues.

Finally, recognition of the moral and the economic imperative that is important to the ability of our city to thrive. There’s this moral piece that we tend to lean on but there’s also this very practical economical reason why we need to do this work this way especially given our population base. When over half of the city are people of colour that means that with these inequities more than half of the city are lost out of the opportunity to move forward together. By tackling these issues we open up the door to be able to build on this, not just from a moral perspective, but an economically competitive city that can be a healthy, innovative, thriving city that our Mayor has talked about and that the people of the city want. In order for us to be competitive we really have to dismantle the issues of inequity.

Lily: What advice do you have for other professionals in this field that are in similar positions trying to achieve a city- wide resilience planning initiative but do not have the RF funding?

Atyia: It’s important in public service to remember why we do this – public service exists for the public for people who live in our community and when we frame it that way we begin to look at questions like: What does our community look like? What are the situations that our community deals with on a day to day basis? The reason this is important for emergency managers is because when it is time for them to spring into action we have the tools and the knowledge and the partnerships in place to be able to meet those needs. If we focus on people that we serve then it makes it easier to relate/understand and if we keep equity as a front foundational principle then we make sure that we do it in a way that doesn’t perpetuate the inequities. When you start to look at the world from that perspective ‘who are we serving’ and how can we be equitable it also gives way to ‘what about people with disabilities’, what about people with ‘limited English speaking proficiency’, ‘what about people with low income’ and ‘people who have lot of kids’, people who live in apartments that are really small – even if they could get [preparedness] stuff they don’t have anywhere to put it. So it really helps us think more practically.

Lily: What advice do you have for young people in this field?

Atyia: Understand the community that they’re a part of, even if that’s not the place they end up doing the work. Learn the language of emergency management in practice through volunteering, internships and other opportunities. I think a big part of the challenge for a young person getting into the field is that what’s written on paper and how things play out in real life are so radically different. There are nuances to it, and to understand what some of those nuances are means having real world experience. I see a huge gap between academia and practitioners: there’s a ton of research happening in the social sciences, engineering, psychology, psychiatry and social resilience and all of these different areas. People have been researching and doing this for decades, but there is a disconnect between all of those ‘lessons learned’ on the academic side and how valuable they could be to practitioners. It takes someone who understands both to be able to see the value in academic frame- works/models and the ways they could be tweaked to meet the more practical challenges of the real world.

Leave a Comment