Social Cohesion Means Survival | Sustainability

While many view natural disasters as levelers—events that do not differentiate based on ethnicity or economic status—this is not the case. Low-income citizens are often hit harder by extreme weather events, due to everything from poorly constructed or aging housing to housing located closer to flood plains.

Rebekkah Smith AldrichTwo-thirds of the United States, 195 million Americans, recently suffered through a dangerous heat wave in mid-July, bringing to mind the 1995 Chicago heat wave that caused more than 700 deaths due to heat-related illnesses. That heat wave, at its peak, resulted in a heat index—a combination of heat and humidity—of 120. This type of weather is predicted to occur with more frequency and increased severity in the coming years.

“Climate change and its consequences are already manifesting in the form of deadlier storms, rising sea levels, droughts, wildfires, and floods,” the Union of Concerned Scientists stated in its “Killer Heat in the United States” report, released this year. “Yet the heat extremes forecast in this analysis are so frequent and widespread that it is possible they will affect daily life for the average U.S. resident more than any other facet of climate change.”

Eric Klinenberg, most recently known for his tribute to public libraries, Palaces for the People (Crown, 2018), chronicled the heat-related deaths in Chicago in 1995 and what led up to them in Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disasters in Chicago (University of Chicago Pr., 2002). Through his study of this event he surfaced societal patterns among those who died.

“Hundreds of Chicago residents died alone, behind locked doors and sealed windows, out of contact with friends, family, and neighbors, unassisted by public agencies or community groups. There’s nothing natural about that,” said Klinenberg in a 2002 interview with the University of Chicago. “The heat wave was a particle accelerator for the city: It sped up and made visible the hazardous social conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive.”

While many view natural disasters as levelers—events that do not differentiate based on ethnicity or economic status—this is not the case. Low-income citizens are often hit harder by extreme weather events, due to everything from poorly constructed or aging housing to housing located closer to flood plains to a lack of amenities such as air conditioning or transportation to move their family out of a danger zone.

Systemic racism in our country has disproportionately relegated distinct ethnic groups to economic insecurity, meaning they often populate those areas in our communities that are most vulnerable during natural disasters.

Economics, the environment, and social inequality are just some of the ingredients in determining the fate of a neighborhood. There is another critical ingredient that transcends the triple bottom line of sustainability to help a neighborhood defy the odds: social cohesion. Klinenberg identified vulnerable neighborhoods that had a higher survivability rate than others where there was a stronger social cohesion. “The social ecology of abandonment, dispersion, and decay makes systems of social support exceedingly difficult to sustain,” said Klinenberg.

Social cohesion is an ingredient that libraries can cultivate by actively fostering connection and activating our commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in new ways, as each piece connects to the next. Libraries have, for many years, focused on economic development—helping residents find jobs or start small businesses, and supporting the creation of a trained workforce to attract employers to an area. As much of our focus, if not more, needs to be put on social cohesion.

I often describe social cohesion as the “fabric” of a community. Fabric that is more tightly knit together is stronger, whereas loosely woven fabric often leaves gaps that people can fall through. It is a matter of life and death.

Ensuring our neighbors have a high level of empathy and respect for one another, particularly for others who don’t look like them or come from a different culture than they do, should be one of the strongest parts of our legacy. As we think through our emerging role as sustainability leaders we must cultivate and celebrate our commitment to EDI, for those are key ingredients necessary to tighten the social fabric of our communities.

To strengthen your personal, professional, and institutional commitment to infusing EDI into your work:

  1. Review the definitions of equity, diversity and inclusion provided by the American Library Association’s (ALA) Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the ALA Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services (ODLOS):
  2. Seek out cultural competence training opportunities.
  3. Ensure that your library boasts a culturally diverse staff and board that reflect the community served.
  4. Encourage community partnership programs with and promote services to underrepresented and unacknowledged community members.*
  5. Sponsor programs for your community that foster meaningful and respectful dialog.*

As a stakeholder in a library, regardless of role, you can take personal responsibility for increasing your own cultural competence and bringing that to your work. Your actions will speak louder than your words, and I encourage you to think about your own legacy, not just that of your library.

*From the ALA Resolution on Libraries as Responsible Spaces, 2017.

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