Tapping the strengths of Chinatown-International District to reach the most vulnerable

First Person ImageHere’s one thing experts in disasters know: the communities that recover the most quickly are the ones where people within neighborhoods help one another. The Chinatown-International District–with its strong social networks, breadth of community organizations, and existing communication channels–has the makings of a neighborhood resilient to disasters.

At the same time, some residents of the I.D. have greater vulnerability to everyday health disparities due to  language barriers, immigration status, advanced age, and lack of income. During health emergencies (like boil water orders or heat waves), if we aren’t successful in reaching these community members with critical health and safety information, we can amplify the risk they face.

Hannah Van Den Brandt and Robin Pfohman meeting with a leader at Fa Sheng Temple.
Hannah Van Den Brandt and Robin Pfohman meeting with a leader at Fa Sheng Temple.

That’s why Robin Pfohman, Hannah Van Den Brandt and I are trying to improve Public Health’s ability to reach the most vulnerable members of the Chinese communities. For the past year, we’ve met with staff from human service agencies and community organizations in the I.D., faith leaders, heads of Chinese language schools, and Chinese media who have helped us understand the communities’ strengths and needs.

These conversations highlighted the capacities that already exist:

  • Communication channels within the Chinatown-International District are already robust with daily Asian-language television broadcasts and weekly newspapers and radio programs, use of Chinese language apps and social media, as well as informal communication networks of key community leaders.
  • Apartment managers in the I.D. have the ability to reach residents who don’t understand English and may not have interaction outside of the neighborhood.
  • People who work and live in the I.D., as well as Chinese community leaders, are ready and willing to assist in disaster preparedness and response.

Concrete steps to make the neighborhood stronger

So what can Public Health and our partners in emergency management in Seattle and Bellevue do to support these existing strengths and improve our emergency communications to the Chinese communities?

    • Offer training. We held a training for apartment managers for buildings in the Chinatown-International District to learn about key safety issues for their residents and what role they can play in warnings and notifications.
Alan Lai demonstrates safety vest use at a training for apartment managers. Trainees received the vests and emergency signage to post in their buildings.
Alan Lai demonstrates safety vest use at a training for apartment managers. Trainees received the vests and emergency signage to post in their buildings.
  • Establish an emergency network. We convened a meeting of 63 local Chinese leaders from all the sectors we interviewed; together, we agreed to form the Chinese Emergency Communication Council that will work together to rapidly disseminate emergency messages and notify emergency managers about the needs within the Chinese communities.
  • Develop a “neighborhood hub.” The City of Seattle Office of Emergency Management will assist the Chinatown-International District in organizing the neighborhood so that they are ready to provide assistance to each other during disasters.

The project also confirmed how important relationships are in planning for disasters. We are grateful to key individuals who helped us navigate and connect to others in the community, especially Alan Lai of the Chinese Information and Service Center, Donnie Chin and Kerry Taniguchi of the International District Emergency Center, and Jamie Lee at SCIDpda.

Meredith Li-Vollmer is a risk communication specialist at Public Health.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.