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Student Profile: Sarah Samdin

Sarah SamdinCan you tell us a bit about yourself?
S: Certainly! My name is Sarah Samdin, and I use she/her pronouns. I’m currently based in Los Angeles, California. For my undergrad, I went to UC Davis, where I studied Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning. Outside of pursuing my graduate degree at UW, I am a Senior Adaptation and Resilience Planner at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research in California.

What motivated you to pursue a master’s degree and why UW?
S: After working for about two years in the field, I realized I needed a graduate program to complement my work and undergrad experience. I wanted something different that would directly apply to my job and vice versa, and this led me to the Master of Infrastructure Planning and Management (MIPM) program at the University of Washington.

When I first started my job, I had little experience working with Federal funding and even understanding the nuances of FEMA’s hazard mitigation assistance funding programs, but I knew that if I wanted to continue working in this space finding a graduate program that complements my work experience and education was important. I ultimately decided that I didn’t want to go to a traditional planning school because I felt like I already gained those skill sets from my undergraduate program. I wanted something different and more applied. What I’m learning in my UW classes is really applicable to my day-to-day job of working across sectors and partners to build resilience and thinking about the intricacies of planning for adaptation and resilience. I have been able to expand my knowledge of infrastructure planning throughout the MIPM program which has been great because I often feel like I’m one of the youngest people in the emergency management and climate resiliency field. I’m also usually the only person of color because emergency management is, I feel like, historically, an older and white space. I’ve always found this challenging to navigate, but I’m so appreciative of the MIPM program to continue learning on the job while getting my master’s.

What led you to pursue a career in urban planning and environmental policy?
S: After graduating, I wanted to understand how my studies could be applied in a work setting, particularly in state and local government. This led me to the Executive Fellowship through California’s Capital Fellowship Program, where fellows are placed in executive-level offices across state agencies for 11 months. I was placed at the California Strategic Growth Council (SGC).

Can you tell me about your experience during the fellowship?
S: The California Strategic Growth Council is a coordinating body consisting of public agencies and publicly appointed members. SGC focuses on driving funding related to sustainability, economic development, equity, social and health equity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and promoting climate resilience. Working at SGC provided me with hands-on experience in understanding how funding operates concerning planning and implementation.

In my role, I had the opportunity to work across SGC programs including the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities (AHSC) grant program. AHSC is California’s largest affordable housing program. This program acts as a gap funder, providing support at the end of the funding process for communities. It aims to prioritize community needs, providing resources, capacity, and funding to build more resilient communities.

The fellowship took place in 2019-2020, and with the onset of the pandemic, everything shifted to a virtual format. How we coordinate and work with communities also changed as we navigated the challenges of virtual engagement, particularly with vulnerable communities that often face barriers in accessing the internet or shared spaces. Despite these challenges, the focus remained on finding opportunities to uplift and support these communities.

What are you doing now?
S: After the fellowship, I joined the Office of Planning and Research, California’s comprehensive planning agency. In my role as a Senior Adaptation and Resilience Planner, I serve as a project manager overseeing FEMA partnership grants related to aligning state climate resilience funding with federal hazard mitigation funding programs. I get to manage a portfolio related to a lot of the work that I’ve been passionate about throughout my undergrad and post-grad work. Thinking about aligning state climate resilience funding with federal hazard mitigation funding, how do we better prepare communities to build resilience against disasters and emergencies when it comes to preparing resources and planning, thinking about planning and implementation?

The Office of Planning and Research (OPR) is California’s Comprehensive Planning Agency. Within OPR, I work on the integrated Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program (ICARP). ICARP is charged with advancing California’s statewide climate adaptation, and resiliency efforts by coordinating investments, partnerships, and climate science. I manage over $800,000 of FEMA partnership grants focused on advancing ICARP’s charge through aligning state and federal climate and disaster resilience funding. I’m essentially a liaison to California’s Office of Emergency Services, which is a state equivalent of FEMA in California. I’m usually the person who coordinates and facilitates working groups, and advisory boards and works with other folks in more senior roles at these different agencies and organizations to bring together all of our different goals and priorities. We essentially get this funding out the door to communities that need it the most.

How has being a young woman of color impacted your work in emergency management?
S: Emergency management is historically not a space common for a lot of young people of color, especially women. So, it can be challenging, working through dynamics where people may not think that I’m a subject matter expert or the right person that they should be talking to in my office. Over time, I’ve become more confident with what I do know, and I think part of that was letting go of some of the biases that I think people were holding about me. Now that they see the work that I produce, that I am someone that they can depend on and that they can trust, we can work together to achieve shared goals. I worked hard not to be transactional in this role, and to figure out where our goals and priorities align. What is the common goal we are trying to achieve? And when we find that alignment, it makes pushing forward this work much easier. I still do get a little bit intimidated when I’m on panels at conferences in front of hundreds of people. But I have found that a lot of people are open to hearing what I’m thinking about because it is coming from a different perspective of addressing and looking at how we’ve been doing things for decades and how can we improve that because that’s what my job is trying to improve things like transparency and the access to Federal funding. Historically, it has been challenging for a lot of people of color and low-income communities to navigate, and it often results in them not getting the funding and being less prepared during a disaster, and then chronically impacted afterward.

Sarah Samdin presenting in front of a group of people

What drives your passion for this work?
S: What drew me to this work and environmental planning in particular is my own personal background. As a DACA recipient and first-generation South Asian immigrant, having access to higher education has been empowering. I’ve always been passionate about the intersection of equity and environmental policy. I felt like there was common ground when it comes to the environment. Everyone is dependent on the environment; we all use it no matter where you’re from, your status, or how much money you have. However, communities are not built equitably. That was something that I found to be impactful when I was thinking about a career working in a space that we use every single day. I always thought it was strange that in my hometown there aren’t any bike lanes or abundant green space but in my college town, there are bike lanes and green space everywhere. Why is that? I’ve always been passionate about understanding how social and built infrastructure impacts people and how they interact with their environment. Through my job and graduate program at UW, I can play a part in reshaping how communities are designed through equitable funding opportunities, resources, and capacity to build climate-resilient communities. I’m continuously trying to find ways to expand my knowledge in this space while holding true to the values that I have been raised with and that are important to me.

I’m curious about the proactive versus reactive nature of your work in emergency management. Can you elaborate on how your approach differs from the historical reactive stance of FEMA, and how your office navigates funding to prepare communities for disasters rather than responding to them?
Great question and you’re right, historically, FEMA has been reactive rather than proactive. The shift in recent times is towards preparing for disasters rather than responding to them after they occur. This change is reflected in the increased funding at the federal level, such as through the IIJA bill and other investments, aimed at enhancing disaster preparedness. When I joined, my focus was on leveraging federal funding for California and equipping communities to access it. Coordination among various stakeholders at the state, local, and regional levels is crucial to building capacity for proactive disaster preparedness. We essentially serve as a think tank that guides state agencies, local governments, and nonprofits when it comes to planning for climate change. And so with actual funding, we were able to be on the other side and operationalize our guidance and tools into funding programs. It’s one of the first programs that we have in California that’s thinking about Federal funding in this light. And it’s due largely to the fact that it’s a flexible grant program that is meant to fill in gaps that communities, especially ones that have historically been left out or have not had access, have when it comes to planning for climate change.

We often think of emergency management through a quasi-military lens, where it’s seen as not accessible and easy to navigate for people of color and low-income communities. I am passionate about reimagining disaster resiliency and improving how communities navigate emergency preparedness and planning. I get to work on this daily and through my classes in my grad program as well. I think that’s the biggest issue that we see. From my own experience and research, I’ve seen a lot of the funding opportunities out there for individual assistance that don’t provide aid to undocumented folks once a disaster hits. so, even if the same disaster impacts you, you may not qualify for government aid or benefits. And so, really thinking about that inequity, how can we help build that community capacity at the forefront?

I’m curious about community engagement and readiness. Are communities receptive and prepared to engage in proactive disaster planning? Are existing non-profits or organizations actively involved, and can you highlight some projects your office is working on or funding?
Community engagement is crucial, and it varies. Some communities are ready and willing, while others face capacity, resource, and financial barriers. Community-based organizations and non-profits play a significant role, and collaboration with them is essential. I co-wrote a grant application for US EPA’s Environmental Justice Government to Government Grant Program for a project in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. We received a $1M grant, in partnership with the Office of Community Partnerships and Strategic Communication to address extreme heat adaptation planning gaps in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. This initiative aims to create an extreme heat action plan, addressing the needs of historically underserved and vulnerable communities prone to extreme heat and wildfires. We are working collaboratively with CBOs on the ground to create an extreme heat action plan that’s centralized, driven, and informed by the communities in these areas. This project is going to be one of the first of its kind to think about extreme heat planning from a regional perspective. The outcome will be a suite of tools and resources that local governments and residents can use to prepare, plan, and respond to extreme heat. And then eventually, this toolkit can be a model for the rest of the state, and be focused more across different regions.

What has your experience in the program been so far?
S: I have gained an amazing network of classmates and friends that I lean on every day. This cohort is one of the most diverse, and I think it shows based on all of our experience. My classmates are based all over the U.S. working on a variety of infrastructure issues, from planning, cybersecurity, engineering, and property developers, to non-profits. We bring a well-rounded perspective to the program and I think that’s what makes the program so much more rich. The support we have is also a plus. I have a WhatsApp group with a few of my classmates, and in that group, we’re constantly sharing resources and helping tie things back to our jobs, especially as we’re now in the beginning stages of writing our capstone. I wasn’t expecting to get a little community out of this program and I’m so glad that I did because it’s more fulfilling than being in a full-time, in-person program. There’s this richness that folks bring in when they’re working and applying their jobs to the graduate program.