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Northeastern alumna works to strengthen Boston’s ‘social resilience’

When you think of resiliency, planning for and recovering from major natural disasters is what most likely comes to mind.

But there is another type of threat that communities need to prepare for—everyday problems such as neighborhood violence, high unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure.

As the city of Boston’s first ever chief resilience officer, Northeastern alumna Atyia Martin is focused on integrating social resilience measures into the city’s emergency preparedness planning.

“The interesting thing about resilience is that it fills a gap between connecting day-to-day life with what happens after different types of emergencies in a way that emergency management or homeland security hasn’t done before,” Martin, CPS’14, said.

Martin began her new role in August and immediately set out on a listening tour around Boston, meeting with city agencies, community organizations, and private businesses to find opportunities for partnership and collaboration.

“This is not just a city agency’s plan, it is the entire city’s plan,” Martin said. “So the only way for it to truly be that is through this legwork now and making sure the clear opportunities for partnership are identified early.”

Her two-year appointment is part of Boston’s partnership with 100 Resilient Cities, created by the Rockefeller Foundation to build urban resilience in 100 cities worldwide. Martin, who is a U.S. Air Force veteran, previously served as director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Boston Public Health Commission. She has also worked on intelligence and homeland security within the Boston Police Department and the FBI.

The interesting thing about resilience is that it fills a gap between connecting day-to-day life with what happens after different types of emergencies in a way that emergency management or homeland security hasn’t done before”
—Atyia Martin

Martin noted that one of the reasons she was excited about the CRO position is Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s focus on social resilience and addressing issues of inequity—such as housing, wealth, and crime—most of which data shows are disproportionately burdensome to people of color.

“If we know those daily stressors impact people of color the most, we know that in order to develop robust strategies to address those challenges we have to address the issue of racism,” Martin noted. “We know that the people who suffer the most after a disaster, regardless of the source, are the folks who suffered the most before.”

This challenge dovetails with Martin’s research at Northeastern, where she received her doctorate in law and policy from the College of Professional Studies. She focused on socially vulnerable populations, designing strategies for partnering with the community to enhance social resilience.

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Martin’s Social Determinants of Vulnerability Framework, which shows the 63 social factors most vulnerable during an emergency. Contributed image by Atyia Martin

Through her research, Martin learned that there are more than 60 different socially vulnerable populations in urban environments that could be most affected during an emergency. Using a network analysis of Boston, Martin found that the majority of the top 12 most vulnerable groups—including English language learners, low-income earners, older adults with chronic illnesses, and people of color—are concentrated in the Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester neighborhoods as well as parts of the South End, East Boston, and Hyde Park.

“It begins to illustrate this story of inequities in Boston,” Martin said. “And it generates this level of urgency around what we can be doing differently in order to begin to create this level playing field that allows access to opportunities in a meaningful way. It is also an opportunity for building on the strengths within communities to enhance resilience.”

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