Equity is a cornerstone of FEMA’s work to ensure that everyone is prepared for disasters and has the support to recover from them. That’s the mission of Jo Linda Johnson, Director of FEMA’s Office on Equal Rights (OER), whether it’s working to shape a discrimination-free workplace for all FEMA employees, or equal access to FEMA services for all disaster survivors.
Johnson, who’s worked at FEMA since 2018, admits it’s a big job.
“Here at FEMA, I own responsibility for the civil rights of 22,000+ FEMA employees internally and 300 million members of the public who encounter FEMA-funded programs and services externally. During the pandemic, that was just about everyone in the country,” she said.
Johnson’s previous experience helped prepare her for leading the OER. She spent five years as Director of the Transportation Security Administration’s Civil Rights Division. Before that, she worked for 12 years with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Johnson has a law degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“Leadership matters, and trust matters. When leaders are upfront, transparent, and open to conversation and feedback, great things get done. Where there is low trust, poor communication, and poor accountability, hard problems are harder,” she said.
“FEMA has so many leaders—at all levels—who take extreme ownership of problems, pass no bucks, and get hard things done. The amount of responsibility FEMA is asked to shoulder—and the scope of problems FEMA is asked to solve—for the nation is enormous.”
Recently, Johnson's office has been involved in ensuring federally-run pilot community vaccination centers were in places where those most in need could reach them easily. The office also placed civil rights advisors in each of FEMA's 10 Regions and in Incident Management Assistance Teams. These rapid-response teams deploy within two hours of an incident to support local response.
For Johnson, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is a good reminder that incidents affect the whole community, even if only some members are directly impacted.
“When one house is on fire in a neighborhood, the whole neighborhood is at risk. The same is true in all disasters,” she said. “If we work to strengthen communities with food insecurity, housing insecurity, higher flood risk, etc., then the entire city or county that community sits in is stronger.”
This is especially important for disaster preparation, Johnson noted. Including underserved communities and those with limited English proficiency in preparedness is vital, she said.
“The emergency management community must remember that one size rarely fits all,” Johnson said. “In remembering that we’re all in this together, consider planning from the perspective of those with the least among us. What would those communities need? If we plan for them, those with more resources will automatically be included…and that rising tide will raise all sails, not just some.”
Learn more about FEMA’s Office of Equal Rights at Office of Equal Rights | FEMA.gov.
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