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Keeping the Ball Rolling: Campus-Community Partnerships for Disaster Preparedness During COVID-19

This post accompanies three pieces in the current issue of Practicing Anthropology that describe a campus-community partnership between Japantown Prepared (a community based organization) and San José State University. Check out the Fall 2021 issue to read more!

By Gabbie Fall

Japantown Prepared is a community-based disaster preparedness organization and Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) that has been working since 2011 to get the historical Japantown neighborhood of San José, California prepared for disasters of all kinds. Every Spring semester since 2017, they have worked with Drs. A.J. Faas and Jan English-Lueck, and the Organizational Studies students at San José State University to help improve their organization’s operations (see Saito et al. in the Fall 2021 issue of Practicing Anthropology). I worked with them in Summer 2021 to keep the work going between semesters helping to bridge the gap between “academic calendars and nonacademic operations” as Ashkan Ghasemian and colleagues (2021) put it in the latest issue of Practicing Anthropology. Keeping these projects going helps ensure that the impact of what the students had been working on is sustained especially during a global pandemic that changed the way that the Organizational Studies program and Japantown Prepared operated independently and together.

The Organizational Studies Capstone that Japantown Prepared works with is the culminating class for students learning how different types of organizations work and how to problem solve in those settings.  In this class, they learn about Japantown and Japantown Prepared, propose improvements that this volunteer organization can take on, and work on implementing some of these improvements. In the Spring semester of 2021, they had the added challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. They met the challenge well, focusing their projects on creating ways to distribute information on power outage preparation, improving and increasing Japantown Prepared’s social media use, and finding records and informing residents about the possible need to retrofit their homes. At the end of the semester, I joined in the efforts to continue some of this work.

Japantown Prepared extended the same kindness to me that they had to the Organizational Studies classes in the past – trying to base their goals on what I needed for my education (Cowan et al. in the Fall 2021 issue of Practicing Anthropology). Once it was clear that my needs were based on theirs, they had some clear goals that directed my work (as well as my pestering of their volunteers). They wanted to distribute the power outage information that the Organizational Studies students designed and printed in the Spring 2021 semester, advertise, and deliver a presentation on wildfire preparation for individual residents and other CERTs, make preparation advice through social media more regular, and have an online tour of Japantown available for students, volunteers, and the general public. All of these goals required multimedia components, outside of endless Google Meet and Zoom meetings.

Wonderful door hangers designed by SJSU organizational studies students in Spring 2021 that include information on how to prepare for a power outage and how to get more preparation information from Japantown Prepared.

Another impact of the pandemic was that it changed the amount and type of content that could be posted to social media. Previously, the bulk of what was on Japantown Prepared’s social media was photos of volunteers doing community outreach or facilitating safety classes. Until the last two months, the only in-person activity that Japantown Prepared was participating in was their community patrols of Japantown to help mitigate and/or stop hate crimes against Asian Americans. Over the Summer, the focus shifted to using their social media accounts to advertise what Japantown Prepared was doing that people could participate in and inform people about disasters and disaster preparation.

Above and Below: Social media posts we created based on seasonally important topics (power outages, wildfires, and poor air quality) and other great tips from the Japantown Prepared website that more recent Japantown residents may need to know.

This change in social media use was also important because the COVID-19 pandemic has made community outreach for Japantown Prepared far more difficult. They had previously been able to rely on their interactions with residents in hotspots like Betsuin Buddhist Church and Roy’s Station Coffee & Teas. They had previously held in-person safety trainings and monthly meetings of the organization that everyone was welcome to join because public education is a key preventative tactic for them (Saito et al. in the Fall 2021 issue of Practicing Anthropology). During the pandemic, these trainings stopped, and meetings were moved online where it was more difficult for people who weren’t already involved with Japantown Prepared to join because of the concern over ‘Zoom bombing’ and the limitations of Google Meet. Because the Japantown community could not engage in monthly meetings, social media became the easiest way to continue public education and awareness.

The door hangers and flyers designed by the Organizational Studies students were good ways to make their continued presence in Japantown and on social media known to the community without having to be in unnecessarily close physical proximity with anyone. The door hangers in particular also served as a convenient way to advertise an online presentation about wildfire preparation. This presentation and Q&A were recorded so that they can be permanently available through YouTube and the Japantown Prepared website.

Together we created a presentation on wildfire safety helpful for residents and CERTS and created some digital handouts relevant to wildfires and compound disasters

The wildfire presentation attracted a lot of CERT members and people interested in starting CERTs for their neighborhoods. It is currently the first thing that appears on their website so that anyone who was not able to attend might find it easily. We also created digital handouts that give advice about and resources concerning compound disasters, power outages, wildfires, hazardous air, and preparing your home for fires that are available on the Japantown Prepared website and were posted on their social media pages. The pandemic forced Japantown Prepared, the organizational studies students, and me to consider how accessible our activities were for Japantown residents in a way that was not as relevant before. For example, the platform for this online meeting was Zoom because it could not be in person, we needed it recorded, and with Zoom, participants could attend without having Zoom accounts and without having a computer. Before the pandemic, this meeting would have been held in person and would have had a different set of accessibility needs to contend with.

These accessibility needs were also felt in the classroom. Prior to the pandemic, part of learning about Japantown and Japantown Prepared for the organizational studies students had been an in-person tour of Japantown. In 2021 that was not possible, so Dr. Jan English-Lueck worked with a few members of the Japantown Prepared team (Jeff Oldham, Rich Saito, and Jim McClure) to create an online tour so that the students could at least be somewhat familiar with the residents they were helping this organization reach out to. Unfortunately, the format for that tour was not sustainable because Google Tour, the website the tour had been made for and was uploaded to, was permanently shut down in July of 2021. We adapted the online tour into a series of YouTube video tours using Google Earth over the Summer. This resource would have been great before the pandemic but the need for it prompted its creation.

Gabbie Fall is a student in the MA Program in Applied Anthropology at San Jose State University, where she is developing a collaborative project on disaster vulnerability, wildfire, and multi-hazard risk.

Acknowledgments I am grateful for the constant help, direction, and advice from Jim McClure, Jeff Oldham, and Rich Saito from Japantown Prepared. I am also thankful for the guidance of Dr. Jan English-Lueck and Dr. A.J. Faas from the San José State University Department of Anthropology.

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