Some people may one day look back on their career and wonder if they made a difference. Yolanda Jackson, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 10 Field Leadership Directorate Federal Coordinating Officer, won’t have that problem. It has been a personal mission, something engrained in her DNA, to ensure that all people across the country receive the resources and support they need.
At FEMA, equity is defined as the consistent and systematically fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals. Jackson’s commitment to ensuring this definition is “realized in everything FEMA” has been the foundation of many initiatives she has been a part of. At every point in her career, Jackson has engaged in agency level equity initiatives.
“Since joining FEMA in 2009, I was immediately intrigued by how our mission impacted communities,” said Jackson. “It feels natural to look across all of our program areas and find ways to collaborate better in an effort to support people and their communities in their greatest time of need.”
In addition to identifying ways to improve the agency’s programs, Jackson is passionate about training FEMA’s workforce. Although it can sometimes be challenging to explain what equity is, to her it’s important to have these candid and productive conversations.
“The biggest challenge is explaining what equity is, then having uncomfortable conversations about why the way we have always done business isn’t yielding equitable results,” Jackson explained. “It’s really about discussing and listening to people digest facts about equity that they believe to be true or untrue.”
Jackson, was born in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma and raised across Mvskoke and Choctaw Nations (Eufaula, McCalister, Okmulgee, and Tulsa), often hears comments like, “advancing equity for an underserved group will build a divide.” But facts prove that isn’t true. She believes it’s important to remember that we can’t solve a problem that isn’t acknowledged and by focusing on equitable outcomes in underserved communities we can actively see unification, growth, and most important – healing.
“These outcomes impact everyone,” she said. “Like a small pebble can make a big ripple across a pond – so can equity.”
Below are a few of the many initiatives Jackson participated in throughout 2020:
- Leading the Equity in Disaster Recovery: Evaluation and Analysis Working Group
Under her leadership, the Equity in Disaster Recovery: Evaluation and Analysis Working Group was established in October 2020. The idea to form this working group came from FEMA Recovery leadership listening sessions with employees. The goal of the group is to promote equitable disaster recovery, incorporate an equity lens when creating new policies and services, as well as identify, address and correct any potential imbalances caused by disaster policies.
- Founder of the Equity Coalition of the Willing
A founding member and co-chair of the Equity Coalition of the Willing, FEMA’s voluntary community of practice, Jackson now serves as a partner liaison focusing on engaging Field Leadership and Operations workforce, facilitating discussions and providing field level perspective to support program or policy changes to advance equity. The coalition purpose is to serve as a voice for the workforce, so candid discussions can be shared without concern of reprimand.
- Identifying Vaccine Deserts during Operation Vaccinate our Workforce
During Operation Vaccinate our Workforce (OVOW), Jackson led an inter-agency team which created a framework to support Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) workforce members in areas without ready access to vaccine. In its first delivery, the team executed a mobile vaccination effort along the southwest border, delivering 175 COVID-19 vaccines to OHS staff in Donna, Texas. This strategy paved the way for an additional 32 mobile vaccination events across the country in under 30 days.
- Making Changes by Documenting Best Practices and Lessons Learned
As the Deputy Federal Coordinating Officer for the 2020 Oregon Wildfire disaster, Jackson supported the development of four white papers, each highlighting best practices and lessons learned to ensure equitable delivery of programs and services to survivors, promoted opportunities for new equity tools to be used to support external partners, and collaborated with internal partners to establish an equity focused Lunch and Learn series.
Why is equity important?
Jackson explained equity is something everyone should be aware of and without equity, we are unable to see or acknowledge patterns of existing discrimination.
“You should care because we all face obstacles, but all our obstacles are not the same,” she explained. “Equity will ensure that barriers placed in front of some based on race, gender, class, ableism – are addressed. Equity makes sure we see and acknowledge the discrepancy so we can work together towards a solution.”
To Jackson, the work she is doing isn’t about receiving an award or verbal commendation. This work is part of who she is.
“This work is important to me because I want to serve in a way that is meaningful to my community and to my family,” Jackson explained. “I want [FEMA] to be a place that affects change in our communities because we represent our communities. I am so humbled and honored to receive the DHS Secretary’s Champion of Equity Award. I did not do any of this alone – there were so many wonderful people that supported, empowered, and encouraged me along the way.”
Visit the Recognizing DHS Excellence page for more stories about this year’s awardees.