Why Is the US So Unprepared for Natural Disasters?
New BU School of Social Work researcher Darien Alexander Williams studies how climate change, disaster response, and urban planning intertwine with social justice and racism
Darien Alexander Williams’ peripatetic life began at an early age. When he was just a kid in the early 1990s, his family left Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots—lingering tensions and over-policing meant they no longer felt safe in their community, Williams explains. They spent the next decade bouncing from state to state before landing in north Florida when Williams was a teenager. He stayed there for high school and college, but didn’t hold still for too long—volunteering on a remote South African farm as an undergraduate and spending two years teaching English in Tokyo postcollege, before returning to the States for graduate school in North Carolina.
Now, he’s teaching at Boston University—and drawing on lessons he’s learned from a lifetime of moving around the US, and the world.
His exposure to vastly different living environments—urban, rural, individualistic, collective, coastal, inland—led him to question why each functioned the way it did. And not only that, but also to question who got to create things like a city’s grid layout or a state’s emergency response plan—and to whose benefit. Tokyo was particularly influential. A densely populated city in an island nation, Japan’s capital is prone to typhoons, flooding, and earthquakes. When it comes to preparedness for natural disasters, Tokyo is “so much better planned than anything I’ve ever seen in the States,” Williams says. After recent earthquakes rocked Japan, the University of Tokyo’s Toshitaka Katada told the Associated Press, “There are probably no people on Earth who are as disaster-ready as the Japanese.”
“It got me thinking: Why are things so bad in the US? Why did Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy happen?” Williams says of his time in Tokyo. “So, I came back to the States to study that, and lo and behold: race and capitalism are at the very heart of all of these things.”
Williams’ research straddles a wide range of disciplines: architecture, urban history, climate change, and community organizing with a focus on racial and environmental justice—and how the two intersect. He recently joined BU’s School of Social Work as an assistant professor in the macro practice department, which looks at issues that impact the public, like poor housing and healthcare availability.
His research has been twofold in recent years. First: studying how Black and Muslim communities in Boston and beyond have historically undertaken their own planning initiatives after being excluded from mainstream city planning. And second: researching the effects of climate change on marginalized communities. To that end, Williams has worked extensively with prison abolition groups in the South advocating for better prison responses to extreme weather and has also studied how historically Black communities rebuild after weather disasters.
Much of his work relates to the concept of spatial justice, he says.
“Those are the questions of, why are our cities arranged the way they are arranged?” explains Williams, who comes to BU after completing a PhD in urban, community, and regional planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Why are there so many environmentally condemned Superfund sites in Black neighborhoods downtown? Why is there so much investment in climate change–mitigation infrastructure in largely white neighborhoods, but not in Black ones? And why do these large planning conversations happen beyond the gaze of [marginalized individuals]?”
The Overlap between Urban Planning and Social Work
When people think of social work, they probably imagine caseworkers helping families secure safe housing and navigate bureaucratic welfare systems, or providing support through some of life’s hardest moments. But arranging cities?
To Williams, his arrival in the social work field both is and isn’t surprising. “I’m trained as an urban planner, and there’s some very obvious overlap between the worlds of urban planning and macro social work,” he says. Not everyone has necessarily “gotten” his work before.
“I feel like some of what I do is kind of hard to place, disciplinarily, even within urban planning,” Williams says, “and I’ve experienced instances of people challenging my work belonging within that field.” When he first discussed his research with social workers, however, “people were immediately like, ‘Yes, [we get it], and this is a form of social work. This is a place for you.’”
According to Judith Gonyea, SSW’s associate dean of faculty affairs, the social work profession’s code of ethics is rooted in social justice, and that puts the environmental issues Williams has tackled in his recent research at the center of the school’s work—and the job itself.
“We know that environmental hazards are not experienced by all populations equally; rather, exposure to water contamination, toxic waste sites, air pollution, flooding, and heat islands more often affect low-income and minority communities,” says Gonyea, who’s also a SSW professor of social research. “These communities that are most affected by these environmental injustices are also the places in which social workers are often engaged.”
Some of those injustices are perpetrated by the justice system, according to Williams. His research on prisons examines their lack of preparedness for increasingly frequent climate disasters.
“There’s no standard practice to evacuate incarcerated people for a hurricane, for example, even if the surrounding county has a mandatory evacuation order. It’s not uncommon for folks to be left behind in facilities in the event of hurricanes,” Williams says. One group he’s worked with, Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, organizes volunteers every hurricane season to watch storms approaching North America and map the facilities—prisons, jails, and juvenile- and immigration-detention centers—that could face wind impacts or storm surges. They then mount public advocacy campaigns to evacuate those facilities during a storm.
That’s the kind of community-engaged research he loves conducting and boosting. “I think this kind of work is really, really important for inviting folks in a community to think about their own connections to topics like climate change and the plight of incarcerated people,” Williams says. “That gets people thinking about our pressing need for alternative models.”
Gonyea hopes Williams will pass on his approach to social work to his students, too, training them “to gain a holistic perspective that emphasizes the interconnectedness of the social, built, and natural environments with people’s and communities’ health and well-being,” she says.
So far, Williams has taught a course on communities and organizations, giving students practical skills for planning and implementing change within a group. Next up: an additional course on community organizing.
The Importance of Community
Outside of his research, Williams is an organizer for Queer Muslims of Boston, a group that builds community for LGBTQ+ Muslims in the Greater Boston area. His identity as a queer Black Muslim has also been integral to his work, he says.
“I think the way society treats all of these different identities, especially in combination, makes me a target for very specific forms of violence,” he says. “And when in community with my own people, I’ve been positioned to witness a lot of violence on a day-to-day basis,” in addition to disenfranchisement based on decades of discriminatory policy and institutional bias excluding people from the right to live in safe, clean places.
“My work kind of chose me, in a way,” he says. “That didn’t really start making sense to me until I was years into my studies.”
Williams wants his work to show that climate change is one of the most pressing concerns of our time, and that it affects everyone. Addressing it requires all hands on deck, he says—not just the usual suspects. Another key message from his research and teaching: no one is, nor should be, an island.
As he puts it: “All of my work has taught me the importance of working in groups as a means to survive. Sometimes we’re so deeply embedded in our institutions, surrounded by these problems and questions that we wonder if we’ll ever find the answers to—but I don’t think students need to have the answers as individuals.”
“But as members of a community,” he continues, “I think we all have the capacity to play small but meaningful roles in making the world better. I hope we can decenter the myth of individual brilliance. And I hope that everyone I work with at BU—students, faculty, and staff—feels like they’re part of a community that is doing something really, really meaningful. And that the community needs them.”