northeastern university seal

This past Friday, Northeastern University’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute hosted a screening and community discussion of the film Cooked: Survival by Zip Code, produced and directed by Judith Hefland. The film details the conditions of the 1995 Chicago heat wave, where underlying social inequities amplified the tragic outcome of the disaster. The screening was followed by a panel discussion, which included GRI Founding Director Steve Flynn, where participants explained the importance of community resilience that works towards social advancement in order to better address social injustices. 

The film begins with images from the 1995 Chicago heat wave, where hundreds of people died after extreme temperatures plagued the city. The geographic distribution of deaths, however, displayed the underlying cause was not just a natural phenomenon that led to the extremely high number of deaths. The majority of people who died were low income, minority residents of neighborhoods experiencing high levels of poverty. These people could not afford to purchase or run air conditioning, giving them limited options to address the heat. Many people were forced to choose between their safety or health, as they felt it was unsafe to leave their windows open in their neighborhoods, risking someone breaking in. The film continues to show how similar conditions played out in later natural disasters. During Hurricane Katrina, the health disparity was similarly evident when looking at the race and social class of many of the victims. As the filmmaker notes, residents have to be stable enough in the present to think about the future, making disaster preparedness a luxury that those impacted by social inequality unable to afford. One person interviewed in the film explains, “Did they (the victims) die of the heat or did they die of the social conditions in their neighborhood? Both.” The film reaches the conclusion that while preparing for natural disasters is an example of resilience, addressing these human-made social issues first can be even more beneficial in minimizing the disastrous effects of these events. 

Community panel moderated by GRI Founding Director Steve Flynn (source GRI/Julia Borgida)
Community panel moderated by GRI Founding Director Steve Flynn (source GRI/Julia Borgida)

The panel afterward featured various Boston area community members. Professor Daniel Aldrich, a GRI Affiliated Faculty member and Director of the Security and Resilience Program at Northeastern, began the discussion by stating: “What really makes us able to bounce back from a shock is if we work together.” Professor Aldrich explained how recovery can be more than federal government spending or individual efforts. Local expertise can help prepare those most affected by a disaster. Dr. Atyia Martin, GRI Distinguished Senior Fellow and the former Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Boston, stated that recovering from a disaster is not just “bouncing back,” but bouncing forward, as disasters uncover the problems we already have in our society. Efforts should work to address social advancement and not just respond to the immediate and short term effects. Courtney Grey, from the Boston Public Health Commission explained a shortcoming of using the term “resilient”, as it implies that no follow up health is needed. The discussion also featured reactions from local students from Boston Public Schools who attended the screening. One student claimed the problem is “blissful ignorance,” as most people don’t take the time to think about how the problem can best be addressed, and simply respond to the immediate impacts. The discussion and findings of the film displayed the challenges of coordinating effective response, but showed how we can redefine our perception of disaster effects and use community efforts to instill resilience.