"You cannot approach a community without respecting in full who they are and their autonomy. If you can't approach it that way, it's going to come off as ingenuine, and they're going to read it right away, and that disengages people right off the bat." -Alma Bowen
SERIES: Role of the Non-Profit
In the event of a disaster, first responders receive calls beyond number, but only a small fraction of these come from communities that need help the most. Oftentimes, they are the last to receive assistance because of language barriers, documentation issues, disabilities, and lack of technical knowledge. Hence, this episode focuses on helping 3 of the most vulnerable groups build resiliency: the Latin X community, seniors, and undocumented immigrants. Tune in as Jennifer and Alma Bowen, the CEO and Founder of Nuestra Comunidad, discuss the best practices and most appropriate approaches to bring the culture of preparedness and resiliency into these communities. They talk about practical steps to address problems in communicating information, creating an alert system, power outage, evacuation plans, and transportation. In addition to helping communities, hear how Alma and her team launched a special project on training the younger generations to become Preparedness Ambassadors. As a former 9-1-1 Emergency Services Dispatcher, Alma also shares how first responders can cope up with personal losses and trauma as they continue to serve the community. Join the conversation and discover ways to strengthen your capacity to serve!
- 05:12: A Life-Altering Night
- 13:52: Helping the Vulnerable Population
- 25:07: Training Young "Preparedness Ambassadors"
- 30:06: Acknowledging the Bigger Problems
- 36:18: Meeting the Needs of the Undocumented Population
- 44:38: Helping the Senior Population
- 50:05 Building Capacity
- 53:04: How to Serve
16:32: "I need to take what I learned, what I saw, this sense of loss, and make something good out of it." -Alma Bowen
20:52: "Disaster hits everybody the same. But… not everybody recovers the same." -Alma Bowen
31:02: "You cannot approach a community without respecting in full who they are and their autonomy. If you can't approach it that way, it's going to come off as ingenuine, and they're going to read it right away, and that disengages people right off the bat." -Alma Bowen
41:51: "You don't have to be perfect, but you do have to aim for progress." -Jennifer Thompson
51:11: "Many gaps of opportunity exist, and it's not that people don't care. It's just that you don't prioritize something that hasn't happened yet." -Jennifer Thompson
53:11: "Make the partnerships now… so that when a disaster hits, those things are already in place and you're not trying to reinvent the wheel in the middle of a disaster that has not been thought through." -Alma Bowen
54:21: "If you want people to feel prioritize, you have to prioritize them." -Jennifer Thompson
54:49: "Don't ever assume that if you have a bilingual employee, that employee can translate. Hire a trained translator and have them all ready. Employees should not be tasked with duties that they're not trained to do." -Alma Bowen
55:31: "If you're missing the [code of ethics], you're opening yourself to liability and you're doing a disservice to the community that you're serving." -Alma Bowen
Alma Bowen is a life-long Sonoma County resident with deep ties to the community. Currently, Alma is the Founder & Executive Director of 'Nuestra Comunidad, a Sonoma County-based non-profit focused on disaster preparedness for all, with an emphasis on under-served communities including our Spanish-speaking population and low-income seniors. Prior to starting 'Nuestra Comunidad' Alma served Sonoma County for 18 years as a highly distinguished, 9-1-1 Emergency Services Dispatcher. The 2017 wildfires taught us that disaster preparedness is a shared responsibility. Alma worked the night of the fires and has first-hand knowledge of how disaster preparedness can make the difference between life and loss. Now, Alma is out in our community promoting & teaching the importance of disaster preparedness.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the podcast, How To Disaster. In this podcast, we try to help communities figure out how to recover, rebuild and reimagine. In this podcast, we bring you people who've done really cool effective things for their community. Today's a very proud day to bring you a person that I've been working with for about two years. His name is Alma Bowen. Alma founded a group called Nuestra Comunidad. It's a nonprofit that serves vulnerable communities, primarily the Latinx and Senior Communities. She has been one of our major grantees over the past two years of her organization. We have given her support so that she can go into Senior Living Communities and teach them how to build resilience into their systems, and really reduce the anxiety of that very vulnerable population.
A big gap that Alma fills, though, in our community is with the Latinx population. You really need people who are boots on the ground in every disaster. And one of the first rules of disaster is to ask the question, what do you need? And how can I help? And if you do that, you'll actually serve the community that's in front of you. That's been a really big problem for the public sector and the nonprofit sector. I think that too often we actually serve the community, we feel like serving as opposed to asking the community what they need, and then directing our program and our funding streams from there. I really admire the fact that Alma gave up a career of 18 years with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department as a dispatcher because she knew, after the fires in 2017, that there was this huge gap of service in recovery and resiliency for our Latinx population and our seniors. She works really hard. It's definitely a grassroots startup nonprofits, and we've been very proud to support her. She pivoted easily during COVID because she already had those relationships on the ground. And as she was learning COVID, she was also learning how to serve. We were very proud to help her and support her in that work. And at the same time, when I needed something done right and done in Spanish, I turned to Alma.
During COVID, when it opened, there was a little bit of a lag time in getting things out in Spanish at the same time as English. This is something that should be in every single county, city, state no matter what. If you have a population that speaks a language other than English, it's really important in your emergency services that you provide that information at the exact same time. You can imagine how scary it is to go through a disaster, and then double that if you're going through a disaster and you don't speak or read the language that all the information is coming into. We also know from working with the Latinx population and working with Alma that there are ways that are most appropriate to serve the population in front of you.
I, we learned during 2017, during our wildfires, and we learned again during COVID. It's really important that if you want to serve the next community, one of the things to look at is how to get information to them. It may not be in your traditional way. One thing we learned was fund PSAs on the radio. In our case in Sonoma County, we have people who speak Spanish and don't speak any English, and we have people who speak indigenous languages and don't speak Spanish or English. KPBS in this case, run by the amazing Alicia Sanchez serves those communities. So instead of trying to recreate something for us, we found it better just to make sure that we were funding and supporting the communities and organizations that were serving those populations. So I asked Alma to come on here today to tell you her fire story and to talk to you about best practices on how to serve vulnerable communities, in particular seniors and Latinx. Thank you.
So again, welcome Alma Bowen to How To Disaster. Alma, I would really like you to start today by telling the audience about your fire story. What were you doing the night of October 8, 2017?
Alma Bowen: That night is a point of reference that there was before the fire and then after the fire. So the night of the Tubbs Fire, actually that time, I was a 911 dispatcher. So I was on a day off, or at least I thought it would be my day off and got called in. So interestingly enough, I'd been there over 16 years, almost 17 at the time when this happened as a dispatcher. And we had what's called an all hands page. In 17 years, I had never seen it. We've talked about it, we knew what it meant, but I had never seen it happen. That night, my phone went off with a page from the dispatch center with an all hands page. And I thought somebody up there made a mistake and sent out this page, because what that page meant was literally all hell is breaking loose. Anybody that's not currently working needs to come into the center. So I put on my uniform and left the house thinking I'll be back home in a couple hours, or obviously, something's happening, and walked into a night that changed my life forever. So I clocked in at 11:00 o'clock that night exactly my clock in time. And I worked all through the night and into the next day. What was happening is that the Tubbs Fire had just rolled over the hill into Sonoma County, into the Santa Rosa area. And at the dispatch center, we were receiving thousands of calls literally from community members trying to figure out what was happening, trying to put their mind around this unbelievable fire that we were witnessing.
And in the dispatch setting, it was really confusing because we were getting calls from all over the county. From what we could see, it felt like the entire county was on fire because they would jump literally from one area to the next without a connecting point. So it was like this firestorm was happening. And for the first time as a lead dispatcher, as a communication center training officer, we were navigating an area that we had never trained to navigate so we didn't have protocols in place. What do we tell people that are calling us that are completely surrounded in fire, what do we tell community members about evacuations? We all had to rely on our best instincts as seasoned dispatchers and respond to a circumstance we didn't fully understand. It literally was call, after call, after call. What it sounds like when a community is not prepared for a disaster, everything from people just asking a question like, is there a fire? I smell smoke. People say, I'm completely surrounded by fire, how do I get out of here?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: If I may, one of the things that I would like the audience to hear is that, prior to this fire in 2017, we hadn't seen fire behavior like this. So not only was the county not prepared, but even CAL FIRE had not seen behavior like this. And it really ended up changing the entire scope of how they responded to wildfires. And most people did not have alerts on their phones so it was definitely an emergency situation, but in a way that was so unprecedented. We have learned since then, but it was just, I mean, think about the first responders. I hope that everyone also considers that dispatchers were first responders in unchartered territory when 11 fires broke out, and 6,000 units of housing were burned on the first night alone. So I want to get context for people who don't know what happened here. Go ahead.
Alma Bowen: Absolutely. And it speaks to the magnitude of what was happening that night, there wasn't a precedent in how to fight the fire. But at the dispatch level, there wasn't a precedence in how to deal with the calls that were coming in. The fire was literally moving sideways. So one to illustrate how confusing and crazy that night was, the fire was on one side of a four lane freeway. And the next thing you know, we start getting calls on the other side of this four lane freeway whose houses were burning down. And as we're dispatching them out, units are coming up and going, that's impossible. The fire was just on the other side of the freeway. Can you check the location? I think you have the location wrong. But in fact, there were fires on the other side of the freeway, that fire had crossed four lanes of freeway and was now burning down the entire neighborhood.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Overpass. Like how rude is that? It took the overpass inside the ember cast. It took the overpass, which is crazy. Go ahead.
Alma Bowen: Again, when you're behind a computer screen, and as a dispatcher creates what we call an event or a call, it pops onto all of our maps. So as I'm sitting there in front of my own personal consoles, I see red dots popping up all over everywhere. And literally, at any given point, we had what looked like hundreds and hundreds of active fires. So looking at this screen, it was unbelievable. It was hard to wrap our minds around the magnitude of what's happening. And then what you have to keep in mind, like you said, 911, dispatchers are also first responders. So what we're hearing are cries of help, chaos, confusion. But also we are experiencing the disaster along with our communities. We all live here. So at one point of the night, it all blurs because it was so hellacious, the volume, the speed of everything that was moving. And then at the same time, I'm thinking, I left my family, my husband and our two young twins at home, and the fire looked like it was moving towards our town too. So you're thinking about your own family, you're thinking about the community. And at one point, I'm working.
I look over, and the dispatcher next to me, my co-worker has tears just streaming down his face because it was really stressful. I was thinking, the stress is getting to all of us. And what he had just learned was that his house was burning down at that moment. So as he was working at the dispatch center that night, his house burned down. And that story is not unique to us in a dispatch setting. We had doctors, paramedics, firemen, who as they were working to help the community, their own personal houses, their families were in jeopardy. So they're serving the community, and also taking personal loss at the same time. So it was just a crazy night that I will never forget, because it completely changed how I looked at my future and what I wanted to do with it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So you go through this really terrible experience. I don't love the fact that there was trauma inside of the dispatch. But I do think it's so important that people understand that first responders often lose too in these situations, and they're traumatized, and that we have to take care of first responders as we take care of our community. It's got to include the entire community, including post traumatic stress therapy and release interventions to help take care of them. I'm so glad that you mentioned that. Because often, the tourism public sector, and they say you fix this, and I'm upset. You have to also take on all of that, and people who are taking on all of that are also holding their own trauma in their own experience, and often their own loss.
Alma Bowen: That is so true. And I think that the important element is that this goes on for a long period of time. Because the first few nights of the fire, we're in that mode. But for the month and a half, two months afterward, our dispatch center did not work like it normally did. And then people started feeling and processing their trauma at different times. So we had as a staff, as a dispatch center, we had to be able to not only continue to serve the community, but bounce back and try to make do with what we had. Because at different points, people had to take time off because of mental health. People had to take time off because they lost their property. And at the same time, we're still continuing to do our job that we did every day. So it was layer on layer of having to learn to cope.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So talk to us then about how do you turn that fallacious experience into something so useful? In the intro, I talked about how you went on to leave a career that you really loved to start this organization to serve vulnerable communities, in particular, the Latinx and senior community. So did you go home and talk to your husband and say, this is what I want to do. Take us like, I think the human story is so important in the direction of How To Disaster because it's all done by humans.
Alma Bowen: It is. I think at first, I didn't really know what was going to come a bit. I always kind of wanted to look at it as a phoenix rising moment in my life, where out of the fire, this beautiful thing arose. So I felt like, what we talked about that trauma of it, afterward didn't really hit me personally until a month later. So what had happened that day that it really hit me in full and I started kind of, I felt like I gave birth to this thing, but I didn't know I was in labor yet. So that first month, I kind of started feeling this thing in my stomach and my gut, this like churning and I was like okay. But I felt like it was the emotion of everything that was happening. There was part of a road that was shut down that overpass that you were talking about that they had the nerve to overtake. Well, there was a mobile home park that burned down right there in that corner, and it was called Journey's End Mobile Home Park, of all the names, right? But it was a senior mobile home park and as a dispatch center. We took calls from there all the time for 17 years prior to the fire. There were calls there daily, people are older, they have issues.
So I had a relationship to that community that I didn't really even know I was aware, I had seniors vulnerable, a lot of health issues. The first time they opened that road, prior to that, I'd had to drive to work, what I called the long way. I had to go around and I didn't get to see that area for about a month. When they open that up the first night, I drove to work and actually drove in front of the park, and sigh, completely burnt down. All these houses, rows and rows of houses were gone, burned to the ground. And something happened when I saw that park that I barely was able to roll into our dispatch parking lot, which is only a block away, and I completely had a meltdown. For the first time since the fire, I had overflowing emotions that I couldn't control. I was crying. I called my supervisor and said, I'm in the parking lot, but I need some time. And what hit me was, here was this vulnerable population, that for 17 years, I felt I had been protecting and helping. And that night, there was nothing I could do for them. There weren't even resources that I could send them because everybody was busy with the fire and other emergencies.
"I need to take what I learned, what I saw, this sense of loss, and make something good out of it." -Alma Bowen
And what I realized that night is that I was not in that chair just to witness this event, but to do something different about it. To make a change, to move the needle so that this particular level of preparedness and chaos did not happen again for all of our community, especially our vulnerable. That I believe was the catalyst, that night, that realization that I need to take what I learned, what I saw, and what I'm feeling right now. This sense of loss, I need to take it and make something good out of it. And so I started thinking of an organization, I started thinking about wanting to do this type of work. And right away, almost instinctively, I wanted to do a nonprofit where I can direct the work in the way I knew it needed to go. So I kind of chewed on it for a few months, and then I finally got brave enough to approach my husband. Because like you said, I was in this wonderful career almost 20 years in, that I love serving the community. So now, I wanted this bright idea to stop doing that, that I've been doing, and start this new thing, which I wasn't even sure if it was going to work or how it was going to go. But this is what I wanted to do.
So I approached my husband. And surprisingly, he almost already knew it was coming because of the torque. And because of what he saw, kind of this metamorphosis happened in front of his face. So when I said that I want to start a nonprofit. I want to do disaster preparedness to all communities, especially our vulnerable population. I want to do 911 awareness. I want to teach the community and give them the tools that they need for not just disasters, but other safety and health events because this is what I feel like I need to do. I'm guided to that. So we spent most of the year forming the nonprofit at which time we started doing the work, doing the bylaws, forming the board, doing all the things we needed to do. And then we received our 501c3 in November of 2018. And in February, on my birthday of 2019, I resigned my position as a dispatcher at that point, almost 20 years in, and walked away from that, but to fully embrace the work I was doing through Nuestra Comunidad. And that's why I've been.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So if Nuestra Comunidad, tell us how you decided on your bucket, specifically. Because when you say vulnerable, there's so much need in a vulnerable population. I like to say that we were early adopters, and your vision, because we've been big believers and you see great people with good ideas that you believe that you should invest in. And you were an easy decision for us because of your passion and your experience of it. Tell us like, tell the audience how did you decide what particular vulnerable populations, and what is the population here in Sonoma County that, not the only work here, but primarily you work here, what exactly did you want them to know in order to help them stay safer and be more resilient?
Alma Bowen: That's a great question. When I saw vulnerable populations, I looked at historically who's most affected in disasters, and that was reflected in our own loss. We lost people during that fire. And historically, it's the older people because they're by themselves, they have mobility problems, they're not connected, they weren't aware of what to do. So the senior population was somebody, that right away, and especially with my experience with that mobile home park, it brought it home to me that that's where some serious loss happens. And then I thought, in the moment of disaster, where did I see the holes? And interestingly enough, one of the biggest holes that was like screaming out at me is that, although we did receive calls from Spanish only speakers, proportionately, we were receiving a lot less calls then what we should have received for the impact that it had on that community, and it spoke to the bigger problem that they were afraid to access the 911 system. So as much as the people that did access, how can I help them better understand how to prepare, connect and make sure they're getting alerts with, like, who isn't accessing and why? What are the fears, the walls that I can break down so that they're not afraid to use a system that's here to help them. And so that Latinx, primarily Spanish speaking community and the seniors were my first two groups that I knew from the impact that I saw that night that I wanted to outreach to and make sure I was reaching.
"Disaster hits everybody the same. But… not everybody recovers the same." -Alma Bowen
But then, the community as a whole, because when disaster strikes, it doesn't matter from Fountain Grove which is a more affluent area, to Coffee Park which is middle to middle upper class that disaster hits everybody the same. But some of the other holes I saw were in recent disaster recovery, not everybody recovers the same. And so being able to help them prepare, but then look at what you can also do to make sure that you build your resiliency so you can recover from disasters. So part of what we teach along with disaster preparedness, it's also what can you do to make sure you have maybe some funds put away for disaster, time, renter's insurance, so that if you lose everything you own during a fire, but you don't actually own your property, but you can get moving and go on with your life. A lot of the people that I learned of after the disaster never recovered, and had to actually move out of the area were renters that did not have renter's insurance, or any kind of savings. So when that disaster hit, they just couldn't lift themselves out of that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And then though they don't, people go on with their lives, and we're normal so we hope for the best. We don't always prepare for the worst. But renter's insurance can be as little as $10 a month, and you can do it on your phone.
Alma Bowen: Yes.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I just have to put that plug in there. If you are a renter and you are hearing this, or you have friends that are renters, you've got to tell them to get renter's insurance because it is the difference, and also videotape your home. You can do it in pictures, that's fine. But if you walk around for 10 minutes and just videotape your home at the beginning of each fire season, you'll be so much happier at the end if you lose your home. I just want to plug that. Keep going, keep on rolling, you're doing great.
Alma Bowen: No, that's true. Even the simple things. Another thing that's so striking is that disaster preparedness is not particularly labor intensive or difficult. But yet, so many people, even now, I still get shocked. Three years into doing this work, I'm out in the community. Even during COVID, I remained out in the community as much as I could doing outreach around COVID, but also continuing disaster preparedness, awareness and outreach. And people, we're for fires in Sonoma County. And some people are still not prepared. They don't have a communication plan. They don't have a disaster plan. They don't have an evacuation plan. They don't have their go bag. They don't have their stay home box. All the essential elements, they still don't have it. So how do we encourage and motivate, or even help get community members from point A knowing that they need to do this to point B and actually doing it. And I believe that takes continued engagement and building relationships. Also the bigger picture, one of our hashtags is disaster, resilience minded, that's one of them. And also a culture of preparedness.
I believe that becoming prepared, being prepared is going to be a cultural shift that needs to happen. I do a lot of work at schools, everything from kindergarten up to high school, different levels of disaster and 911 awareness. But I think that if we start getting it in when they're children, I want to build a culture of preparedness where conversations around preparedness actually preparing, taking the steps necessary is just part of what we do. And so we don't think of it as this weird thing on the side. We think of it as just something we do.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We're not talking bunkers. I mean, if you want to bunker it out, we're not stopping you. I don't think it's really going to help you in a wildfire. So I think that there was almost like a stigma attached to being prepared, that somehow, they were all hoarding guns too. And we're not talking about that. It's actually not even true that in the midst of a disaster, people pick up guns and start shooting each other, and hoarding their food. Actually, they start sharing their food, they put down their guns, they help each other out. And COVID was a bit of a misnomer. But the rest of it is true. I thought that when you were talking about schools, I just remembered sitting with you in my office a couple of years ago. You're talking about how you also wanted kids to go home to their families and say, Hey, what's our disaster plan? How are we prepared? Can you talk about that a little bit because that's a double bonus. They're changing the code, but also using kids as a pathway in a good way for better safety preparedness with their parents
Alma Bowen: Absolutely. A naive and would sweeten the pot a little bit, and it doesn't take much with kids. I would get water bottles or an item. So when I would do a presentation in a class, I would give them a draft of a disaster plan. I would say, the first 10 kids that bring this back to your teacher, I'm leaving these with her or him, and then the first 10 students that come back with a copy of their plan will go home, talk to your parents and tell them you need to sit down and make a plan. And then you're going to get a water bottle, or I would get a cold lunch box that they could use for their little kit, things like that. So I had teachers involved in it. And the smallest thing, our little water bottle, radio, anything that they feel is a prize or acknowledgement. And then we'd always have a commitment certificate. I would have them sign a little pledge that they were going to become preparedness ambassadors to their families, and I would put a sticker on it.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I like that. Preparedness ambassador.
Alma Bowen: Yeah. And they loved it because it's like, oh, I'm gonna do that. And then I would say: "If you're my preparedness ambassador, then you're going to get a price. Plus, we're going to put your certificate up on the wall." Just little things like that. So teachers would say like, their kids would totally do it. So that's all it took. It's making them a part of it, making them an ambassador, giving them a role, giving them a responsibility. You go home and you teach your family, they love it. If we're talking kids as small as kindergarten, they're totally able to reach into their own family and talk to them. And if you have a language barrier, normally like primarily Spanish speaking only parents, that children are, and I know this from growth, from my own lived experience. When we were in school, we were the ones that brought all the information home to our parents, because my parents to this day only speak Spanish. So we actually were the ones bringing the information home. It works for any, whether you're a Spanish speaker or not. But in those certain situations, those parents are actually relying on the students to bring home the information. So all the kids became really active in it. I could see that growth just in the years.
COVID totally put a kibosh on my school outreach. But in the years I did it, from kindergarten to first or second grade, after a while, the kids can start telling you the elements of preparedness. Or they'd see me and they're like, oh, it's the emergency lady, or the 911 lady. So they started relating who I was into what we were going to talk about. It was exciting, developing curriculums that were age appropriate. But then also, we were trying to crack the nut of how we engage junior high and high school students because they're a totally different beast than elementary school. So we're bringing on a resilience leadership component where we're going to engage with high schools with their juniors and seniors around preparedness, around resilience work, but also connect them to EMFs so that they find out about careers and EMFss. So fire police, EMTs. Right now, it's a program that we're looking to fund. It's brand new, but that's going to be a really good way to engage with college, with high school age students because they don't want to hear that somebody just come in and talk to them. They want to be involved, and they want to see how it relates to them.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Everybody likes to be somebody in front of somebody else. So I love that, and I love that you're going to go into junior high in high school. Because certainly, they too can be ambassadors and very engaged in it. I think one of the reasons why we've always really liked what you do is we felt like you really meet people where they're at. So much of our disaster word has to be to say, what do you need? How can I help? And then you decide what your programs will look like. We think a lot of philanthropy is a little bit broken in that sense. And instead, it's like, here's what I think you need. So here's what I'm going to fund, and so created from there, and we liked your approach to going into why culturalism is incredibly important. The Spanish speaking is incredibly important, really pushing to make sure that all public entities release information in Spanish and English at the same time, that that's a priority, and in ways that can actually be delivered because it's not always the same. So if you could just talk to us about, first, your approach with the Latinx community. And also understanding why Latinx communities and just like, one block with one answer, that's just not the case. There's tons of diversity there. But how did you decide your programming, and what's really important for people who may not know anything about that community and they're trying to figure out how to serve a community. There's bicultural and bilingual, we'll start there. And then we're going to go to seniors.
"You cannot approach a community without respecting in full who they are and their autonomy. If you can't approach it that way, it's going to come off as ingenuine, and they're going to read it right away, and that disengages people right off the bat." -Alma Bowen
Alma Bowen: Absolutely. I think it's having a feedback loop. You have to have that ability. And one of our philosophies is what we call a push in a pool. So there's always information that you're trying or training you're trying to push out into the community. But just as if not more important is what you're pulling back the information you're pulling from that community. So even though I, myself, am a Latina that came here to the United States as a very small child, I recognized early on that my experience was different even though I had a lot in common, and we're talking specifically about servicing the Latinx community. So Latinx doesn't just mean you only speak Spanish or English. There is a gamut of indigenous languages that I, myself, don't speak. So even for me, that's been enough that I'm trying to still actively not only understand, but respect. You cannot approach a community without acknowledging who they are respecting in full, who they are, their autonomy. And if you can't approach it that way, it's going to come off as genuine, and they're going to read it right away, and that disengages people right off the bat.
So coming in with that humility and being humble enough to say, look, I don't fully understand how to approach your culture. Can you please help me understand? What is it that you need? How can I meet that need? That you asked, I was surprised early on how off I was even with what I had was understanding some of the times how off I could be in what I thought people needed, and missed. Was blind as to what some of the needs are. An example of that, as I started doing, when COVID hit, I started doing these tailgate trainings, talking to vineyard and field workers about COVID safety because we had a huge outbreak in our Latinx community. A lot of which were our farm and vineyard workers, and we were trying to help with that.
So one of my first training sessions, I was giving him all the information. And then at the end, I always asked for feedback. So this is, again, that feedback loop and that taken away with you as much as what you bring. And I said: "Can somebody share with me what are the obstacles for you to stay safe from COVID?" And this gentleman raised his hand and said: "I don't have enough cloth mass, they give me this disposable mask at work. But when I go home, I don't wear it. I've been wearing it all day at work, and it's dirty. And I don't have money to go get masks so I need cloth masks I can rewash and wear." Here I am giving this presentation with materials and stuff, and I don't have a mask to give them. So I had obviously missed the ball on that. So after that, I left, went and got some masks, came back to that crew and gave them the mask. And then from then on, every time I did COVID outreach or training, I made sure I had PPS with me. Masks, sanitizers, everything that somebody would need to stay safe, and acknowledge that maybe access to these things were actually a bigger problem than inflammation. They understood it, but they didn't have access.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I remember talking to you about this. While this was going on and you said that you learned something really important that they weren't putting the masks on until they got to work. It's very common for farmworkers to carpool. It's more common than not, so they were picking each other up, and then riding to work, and then putting their masks on. Meanwhile, they've been in close contact for that entire period. And they were able to figure that out through your feedback loop and address that concern. So I want to be props. I don't want to miss that prop because I was like, oh, yeah, me too.
Alma Bowen: No, and it was. And if you think about it, there would be, at any given point, four to six men or women in a vehicle from four to six households all sharing that space, and then going back and sharing with their family when they went home. So hello? Talk about a fast way to spread, you're going to that. That was a big contributor too.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And there was no intention. They were like, oh, we don't care. It wasn't that at all. Sometimes, you just need somebody to be like, hey, you need to put it on, it would actually help if you put it on before you got in the vehicle because you were just trying to live and survive. That's just an example where I once, again, meet the community exactly where they're at. Not tell them what they should need, but you heard it, you listened, and then you pivoted and met the moment. So I love that. Can you talk to us about one thing before we move to seniors. Because I think seniors are so important, especially in disasters. But with the Latinx community, there's always an issue of sheltering during a disaster. Never worse, vendoring COVID.
But let's take COVID out of the equation for long term disaster for how to disaster. And let's say that we won't have this horrible pandemic forever. What we found was that a lot of the undocumented life of Latinx population, Latinx population wouldn't go to our shelters because they actually thought, well, ICE will be there. And they weren't wrong in 2017 because the head of ICE got on national television and said that an undocumented person started our massive wildfires, which is completely not true. And our Sheriff had to actually respond to that. Sheriff Giordano did a beautiful job basically saying that's a complete lie. However, it's an ongoing issue. And recently, I had anti brown from the county of Sonoma talking about the signage that they created for all the shelters. And one of the things that we talked about was, well, that's great. But they have to get all the way to the shelter before they would know that immigration won't be there. So you've already made that decision. So if you're meeting them where they're at, then you probably need to figure out a way for them to have that information in advance, that sort of thing, so can you talk about the special needs of the undocumented population?
Alma Bowen: Absolutely. And one of the things that I think is often missed is that, in a lot of households, we have mixed documentation too. So we have miss, miss, mix statuses. So the majority of the family could have some type of legal status, but they have the one relative, or the one person, or just somebody in that household that is not. That actually puts that whole family in that stance because they're afraid for their loved one. So that whole family would make the whole choice even if most of them didn't feel threatened by ICE or not. I think understanding that most households have some level of mixed status when it comes to immigration is important, because that is actually more accurate.
But also, I think that making at least for NC part of what we talk about during disaster prep, in general, when I'm talking to a Latinx community, knowing your audience and making sure that I'm addressing that fear ahead of time, and telling them that in California, it's illegal for ICE to come in and do their ICE duties in a shelter. Now, although there is no guarantee ever, because we cannot guarantee that it would never happen, but we do advocate for life during that time, that's still the safest place for you to be at. But also on the other side of it, what we have to recognize and plan for is that, normally, places that are not designated our shelters, but are places that the Latinx community feels comfortable that this is where they're going to show up during disasters, whether it's a designated shelter or not. So how about we make sure that those places are ready to receive the population and work with them, and maybe have those even if they're unofficial, well equipped, well trained shelters, that people can feel comfortable going to, and that we can receive them in the way they need to be received.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I want to give an example of how it's been horribly wrong in Sonoma Valley, both verbally right and horribly wrong, because we obviously hadn't, we were surrounded by fires, we had to create our own food systems. And there were three shelters downtown Sonoma, when two of them were occupied by very physically compromised, disabled people from Sonoma Developmental Center. And then the third one was a general one. But there was nothing in the Springs where I live. Nothing. In fact, official people other than police in fire wouldn't even go out there except for Congressman Mike Thompson. So I'm always going to give him that props if we were left very much on our own. And there are 15,000 people, and over 50% of them are Latinx, and about 27% are undocumented. That means that many of them live in mixed status households. But what we found is many of them sheltered in place, so we had to figure out a trusted organization. So churches are good. I'm on the board of La Luz, and La Luz is a resource center. So they can push out information and they opened up like essentially a care station where they can see and provide diapers, diapers are always a good idea. Don't send your old clothes, send diapers so they can have that.
But then at the same time, there was another school in our district called El Verano Community School. And [inaudible] who is one of my favorite people on the planet. She is a trusted leader. She has a Family Resource Center. We helped her and she opened a care center where people could come get what they needed. The school district shut it down after about three days because they didn't want to deal with it. It was infuriating because if they had this opportunity, there was a commercial kitchen there, they could have easily served a large portion of the vulnerable population. And it was just, no, I don't want to deal with it. And it was incredibly disappointing. It was a missed opportunity. And now, we have three schools in the springs that are certified. You can get your school certified by the Red Cross and the counties in advance. Because you cannot expect people to go to places especially in a place like Downtown Sonoma, it's mostly white, well resourced and wealthy. It's where people go to work, and it's not where people go for comfort. I just want you to know, maybe some people don't like it that I'm being so frank about that, but get certified now for your trust, and churches. Churches, resource centers, schools, have to be said.
Alma Bowen: It does. I think it's really important. I think that there's a point where we can work together on this. For example, during the Kincade Fire, Healdsburg Community Center was the first evacuation center. Corazon Healdburg who says an organization that does a lot of work with the Latinx community in that area is already housed there. They have daycares there, so they were already on site. So when Red Cross came in, I got pulled in as a partner of Corazon and we actually had a presence there and worked alongside with the Red Cross to provide, when they walked in the door, there was a whole table of Spanish speaking volunteers to welcome, 95% of the people that showed up at that center where Spanish only speakers. So being able to welcome him with a trusted face that they knew made all the difference where people were coming in and staying.
"You don't have to be perfect, but you do have to aim for progress." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We learned that between October 2017 and October 2019, so that was progress. And so you don't have to be perfect, but you do have to aim for progress.
Alma Bowen: Absolutely. So now, one of the things is that, how do we get more, like you said, churches, resource centers, schools, designated as partners in sheltering people during disasters because that's where people are going to go that are not feeling comfortable in the regular. You can tell people, and I do make it part of my training and my outreach to let them know, hey, you're safer there than anywhere. Because we have had circumstances where people aren't safe, feeling safe, then they go off somewhere. And then they don't have food, they don't have resources, they don't have shelter. We don't even know where they're at. They could be at risk, and we don't even know. So that's not safe either. There's still a lot of progress. But I think, like you said, we're making progress, and we have to continue to move in that direction.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We do. So I'd like to turn now to the special needs of seniors. Seniors are possibly the most vulnerable. Besides the disabled in a disaster, they are the least likely to rebuild after a disaster. There are all kinds of issues. We tend to have our wildfires coincide with massive power shut offs for obvious reasons. During the 2017 fires, we didn't have power for 10 days. Other places have no power for up to three weeks. And then drinking or should have a cold snap, in addition to a six day PSFS, Public Safety Power Shut Off. So this is not an unusual co-morbidity, if you want to call it that. Seniors often have medication that has to be refrigerated. It's little things too, unfortunately in 2017, we had seniors who died in their homes, and often in their garages.
So California passed a law that my friend Cheryl Diem made sure happened through State Senator Bill Dodd's office. They said that anytime you buy a new home, it has to have a battery backup. But most homes, we don't build that many homes except during disasters, which means that for most of us, you can get out of your garage with your car. If you are a senior in particular, for anybody, pull your car out of the garage if you're in the middle of Red Flag Warning, if you are concerned at all, face it towards the road. And the seniors, your neighbors check on them. I wanted you to go into your wonderful work. I love your stories about working with senior communities. But I did want to make a plug for really, do not leave your car in the garage during a red flag running. Because maybe one of you can open up the garage without power, but maybe the other one can't. And when it's one, it's very important especially if you're a senior or you are disabled in any way. So can you talk about your work as senior communities because it's so awesome.
Alma Bowen: It's part of that jewel in your cap, the highlight, and it's interestingly enough. One of the best projects I've worked with you guys, you guys funded me to do some work around a low income senior facility in Santa Rosa. So they called, one of the tenants called and said: "We're a low income senior facility, but we're on our own. We just hit low income apartments, but nobody's here helping us." And she was afraid because what's happening is a lot of seniors are very isolated. Many of them, their families don't live in this area so they don't have people checking on them. They don't have people helping them prepare their kids, or even knowing what to do. And then there is the digital divide that we see, it's an issue with some of our Latinx community. It's also an issue with our senior community. Most of them, if they have a cell phone, only use it to make calls, many of them don't even text on it. They're learning more, and some of them are more adapted. But in general, I found that they were very limited in their access to technology.
So this woman named Sue Coleman said: "We're afraid. A lot of us survived, obviously, the Tubbs fire, but some of us were displaced at that time and ended up here. Nobody's helping us, we want information." So I went in and did a series of disaster preparedness presentations with disaster plans. And what started happening was pretty cool. I did a presentation. The first group of about 15 seniors showed up for the first one. And I had a series of six scheduled out the next series. The next time I did it, it was going to be the six same series six times to make sure everybody had a time slot they could attend. The second one, everybody that came for the first one came back again even though they'd already covered the information. And then we had maybe another 15 new people. So then we had 30. The next one, the room was full. The next one, people kept coming back. But beyond that, what happened is that they all did their plans. We've talked about communications. I helped them sign up to alerts and understand alerting. We talked about people that have medications that need to be refrigerated, things that we can do, how we work our way around that for PS when our parents are shut off for the PSPS. But then what happened is, I had a core group of about 12 to 15 seniors. This is 70 year old plus seniors that wanted to form their own version of disaster preparedness, like their version of code, which is citizens organized to prepare for emergencies. But they call that ROPE, Residents Organized to Prepare for Emergencies.
So every week, I would meet with them. They had a board, they had a committee. They formed this all themselves, I just facilitated it. We had a list of priorities of things we're going to cover from how to use a fire extinguisher. So I was pulling in the fire department to come in and help me train. But these people, these ladies and a couple of gentlemen, all 70 plus became so driven not only keeping themselves safe, but their neighbors safe. And making sure that everybody would be able to get out of that building. And we were addressing, like if there is an emergency because a lot of them don't drive. So they were like, how are we going to get out of here? They're not providing public transportation. So we were looking at what are you going to do, but it was incredible to see. And to me, it speaks to that whole culture of preparedness within this little community that was one time scared, anxious, anxiety ridden became this empowered community that had a plan. We're working together on helping each other. Now, that is fantastic. That's the dream right there is to have communities within themselves that can help one another. Because during disasters that are 72 hours, that's who you're going to rely on. If you cannot get out of your area, your neighbors, your friends, those are the people that are actually going to help you. So to see this in these older communities and to see their confidence level go from point A to point B was amazing.
So COVID kind of put a stop to the meetings. But now that things are getting opened up a little bit, we're starting to talk about reinstating the meetings and having them continue with their list of priorities. But that was a perfect example. And seniors oftentimes, their adult children don't live in the area. Some of them don't have adult children. They're all on fixed incomes. A lot of them don't understand the new language, the new developments so they feel really lost and dreadful.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I would like to make it, I would like to make a point of saying that I'm always a little bit amazed at how hard programs like yours are to fund publicly. You're not asking to become a multimillionaire of Nuestra Comunidad. I'm going to ask for you even though you're not saying it to say, it'd be nice if I knew where my next three to five years of funding was coming from. And if I could hire within the community to actually multiply my effects so that I knew, that we knew that every senior community, low income or not, but in particular, low income was actually prepared and there was some kind of plan. It seems to me that you should always be fully funded in that way. You are doing a service that is critical and builds confidence and resilience, like a micro community at a time. So you may not say it, but I'm going to say that you can follow a link to donate to Alma.
Alma Bowen: No, thank you. And that's often the hard part. That's the rub. It's like, right now, with Nuestra Comunidad, we're really looking at building capacity because this momentum of disaster work is not stopping. If anything, it's increasing. So a thousand of those communities that need that, like you said, whether the low income or not, that community happened to have reached out to me because there was such a level of anxiety that they were talking amongst themselves. And they sought me out because they heard about the work I was doing. But there's thousand communities like that that need that level of involvement to get them on the right track, to help build the system that they can function in to become more resilient themselves. Because that's ultimately the goal. I can't be everywhere, the fire department can't be everywhere, the police department cannot be everywhere. During a disaster, guess what? You're on your own. And that is a reality that I learned in 2017. That was the hardest pill for me as a responder to swallow. And that's the stuff that keeps us awake at night as responders.
"Many gaps of opportunity exists, and it's not that people don't care. It's just that you don't prioritize something that hasn't happened yet." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And it's also shocking until you go through disaster, how many gaps of opportunity exist, and it's not that people don't care. It's just that, you don't fund what you haven't seen yet. You don't prioritize something that hasn't happened yet. If there's no history or memory attached to it, then it can be very difficult to be like, this is something we should do. But we are entering an era of pretty major disasters. Last year was the worst disaster year on record for FEMA. There were $21 billion or more disasters just in 2020. And they counted all of our wildfires across the Western United States as one of those 20. And that was at $16.5 billion in damage, and over 10 million acres were burned. I just was at a conference this morning, and 2021 is forecast to be perhaps even worse, and we are not people that we are not alarmist. In fact, we are people who stay pretty mellow in the face of disaster because we know that we have to be the leaders. But we want to encourage everyone to develop leadership in that area, and resiliency in that area into, if you can help to fund it, in some way participate, or at least make sure that you don't have to call 911 or don't think FEMA is going to come in and save you because they're really like, they need you to be on your own for about 72 hours. And even then, it's a very slow process. So I love the work that you do. I know that it's time for us to wrap up, but I'm hoping that you can leave us with some final thoughts on, somebody city like in Nevada, and they're thinking, oh, about wildfire, or another type of disaster. Or Idaho, for example, there are thousands of vulnerable communities and they're thinking, what small steps can I take to help my community be more resilient? Can you talk about that?
"Make the partnerships now… so that when a disaster hits, those things are already in place and you're not trying to reinvent the wheel in the middle of a disaster that has not been thought through." -Alma Bowen
Alma Bowen: Yes. I always tell because, oftentimes, people, when they hear this story, they ask like, well, what can I do right now? It's often hard to put yourself into disaster mode when you're not in it. But I would say that make the partnerships now, connect. If you're a government organization, or if you're with a disaster office in your area and you're involved in disaster response before a disaster hits, think of the connections, that community partners that you have already have maybe a contract and understanding with beforehand. So that when that disaster hits, those things are already in place and you're not trying to reinvent the wheel in the middle of a disaster that's been thought through, everybody understands the role. Because the community is the one that gets the better product in that situation, that community benefits from you understanding that you can't do it. So let me reach out, figure out who can and make sure that they're on board, and that they are partners in this, and that we all have a plan on how we're going to respond for the community.
"If you want people to feel prioritize, you have to prioritize them." -Jennifer Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And that you're ready to put out, if you have a significant population that is non English speaking, ensure that you have translators already on contract. That you are ready to push out the information at the same time, not two days later, not a week later, not an hour later. If you want people to prioritize, you actually have to prioritize them. And don't miss your opportunities with seniors. Alma, I've heard that story now probably six times, and I absolutely never tire of it because I just love it.
"Don't ever assume that if you have a bilingual employee, that employee can translate. Hire a trained translator and have them all ready. Employees should not be tasked with duties that they're not trained to do." -Alma Bowen
Alma Bowen: It's my favorite. When I look back at the work I've done this far? That's one of the projects that just makes me feel like I'm in the right space doing the right work. And to speak to that, making sure to respond to the language component. Don't ever also assume that if you have a bilingual employee, that that employee can actually translate. Please hire a trained translator and have them already. This is one of the contracts I'm talking about that you want to get in place beforehand. Employees should not be tasked with duties like that, that they're not trained to do. And then again, the community's the one that suffers. You put out information that is not correctly translated, it could cause a bigger issue already. And then making sure that you're going to train interpreters. There's an entire code of ethics behind interpreting. I was a medical interpreter also, and most of what I learned in that training was actually the code of ethics that comes with that. And if you're missing that, you're opening yourself to liability. And also, you're doing a disservice to the community that you're serving.
"If you're missing the [code of ethics], you're opening yourself to liability and you're doing a disservice to the community that you're serving." -Alma Bowen
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I'm a big fan. I'm a fan. And nothing about today has changed that, and I hope that this podcast creates even more fans. I really appreciate you as my colleague and my friend, and also someone that I know that I can always reach out to and lean on in times that are having disaster or not. So thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Alma Bowen: Thank you for having me here. And also, thank you for being one of the very first people in this county that believed in what we were doing and put your money where your mouth was, to be honest. When we came into it, it's the partnerships like your partnership that were critical in getting us on our feet. So thank you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: My pleasure. Are you kidding? We were fortunate to do it, so thank you. And this has been another episode of How To Disaster, thank you for spending time with us.
Alma Bowen: Thank you.