Abstract: Constructing Meaning in a Time of Destruction: Defining Civic Engagement in Disaster-Affected Communities (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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640P Constructing Meaning in a Time of Destruction: Defining Civic Engagement in Disaster-Affected Communities

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Phoenix C, 3rd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Helen Spencer, MSW, Research Assistant, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Denae King, PhD, Research Program Manager, Texas Southern University, Houston, TX
Suzanne Pritzker, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Houston, Houston, TX

More frequent and destructive natural disasters in an era of climate change expose historic inequities and have a disproportionately negative impact on marginalized communities. In Harris County, Texas, a diverse region of over 4.5 million people, civic assets including volunteers, community-based organizations, and donors became activated after Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed 97,212 homes in 2017. Numerous studies have linked civic engagement to positive individual, community, and policy outcomes. While there is wide agreement that disasters lead to a short-term increase in community engagement and connection, less is known about whether such increases are sustainable.

This participatory research study sought to better understand how residents in four diverse, disaster-affected communities perceive civic engagement in the years following a disaster. In 26 focus groups and 14 interviews conducted in five languages, participants reflected on ways they experience and define civic engagement. Here, we focus on the following research question: “How do community members define civic engagement?”


The study team partnered with four communities reflecting a range of racial/ethnic and socio-economic diversity using a CBPR methodology. Eight residents from the partnering communities served as co-researchers (Co-Rs), engaging in key decision-making throughout the study, including developing instruments, recruiting participants, analyzing data, and disseminating findings. The Co-Rs facilitated 26 focus groups and 14 interviews, capturing the reflections of 190 focus group participants and 14 key informants two years after their communities sustained damage from Hurricane Harvey.

Verbatim transcripts were analyzed from the ground up, coding participants’ words and phrases, in order to amplify participant voices. Core elements of thematic and qualitative content analysis were integrated, and regular peer-debriefings were incorporated to maintain trustworthiness. Analyses were subsequently confirmed with the Co-Rs.


Eight themes emerged from this study, which were then organized into three core ways in which community members defined civic engagement: 1) engaging in community actions, 2) community ownership, and 3) living and connecting in community. Themes related to community actions were “just don’t talk about it, do it,” “spread the word,” “appreciate what you have and give back,” and “let their voice be heard.” Community ownership comprised the following themes: “keep your community safe” and “we need to hold them accountable.” Living and connecting in community included “neighbors helping neighbors” and achieving goals by “coming together.”


As disasters become increasingly frequent, concurrent, and destructive, understanding how communities define and experience civic engagement in this context can be a critical step toward building equitable systems of recovery and transformative policies responsive to the needs of historically marginalized communities. These findings provide deeper insight into the forms of engagement that community members value, and the different types of individual and collective activities that can help support disaster-impacted communities. This presentation will include specific data-grounded recommendations that Co-Rs identified and shared with local community-based organizations to facilitate more meaningful engagement opportunities within their communities.