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In 2016, Cassandra R. Davis was working on a project studying North Carolina’s “lowest-performing” schools — a term she finds extremely distasteful. Often located in struggling socioeconomic areas, these institutions served mostly Black and Latino communities. She spent a lot of time with teachers and principals and would take walks in local neighborhoods. She learned how the lack of funding and support disheartened the community, making it nearly impossible for these schools to “perform” at the level expected of them.
A few months later, Hurricane Matthew hit eastern North Carolina. Davis couldn’t help but think about all the schools she had just visited.
“Knowing the before, and then seeing the after — it really affected me,” recalls Davis, a public policy professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I remember wondering how common this was.”
A tropical storm or hurricane has hit the North Carolina coast every other year since the mid-1800s — and Davis wanted to know what was being done to support schools and communities. She met with people from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, the governor’s office, the state legislature, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and even the U.S. Congress. Each group offered the same answer: nothing.
This wasn’t good enough for Davis, who has spent her entire life asking similar questions.
“I always got into trouble because I wanted to make things better or decided that there was a more efficient way of doing something,” she remarks. “And so I asked a lot of questions. My parents, teacher, coaches — they got annoyed a lot. Eventually, I realized that all I was trying to do was improve or change policy.”
Davis studied history and sociology at Wake Forest University and came to UNC-Chapel Hill in 2007 to pursue her master’s in education. And she’s been here ever since. She graduated with a PhD in education, culture, curriculum, and change in 2013, completed a postdoctoral research fellowship, and eventually became an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy.
Barely one month before Hurricane Matthew crashed into eastern N.C. in 2016, Davis worked as a research associate within the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina and as a faculty member in the Research Institute for Scholars of Equity at North Carolina Central University. She knew immediately that she wanted to research and address the lack of support given to these affected communities.
“I was learning about water levels, tides, and moons,” she says. “As a sociologist, educator, and historian, these are things I would never even think about.”
The front lines
Davis focuses on schools. Her most recent project included upward of 50 interviews and 4,000 surveys across 15 North Carolina counties. The goal: to uncover hardships faced by schooling communities in the wake of disasters.
This research illuminates just how important schools are to disaster relief. The physical buildings are often used as hubs for community recovery, transforming into emergency shelters or operational bases for organizations like the American Red Cross and Duke Energy.
Despite their vitality, school systems receive minimal aid — both in finances and labor — to help maintain the buildings after damages and provide the increased staff support required after a natural disaster.
The project opened Davis’ eyes to how disasters affect educators, not just students.
“That was something I was not expecting,” she says. “I thought I was going to collect information about students, but the story grew to be about the educators. They are like the first responders, tasked with doing so many things. And it’s just assumed that they will do those things.”
Her team observed many of the trends the world grew familiar with during the pandemic. In the wake of a natural disaster, students need routine more than ever. Teachers end up providing much of their mental and emotional care, and schooling networks act as a key line of communication to ensure families are provided for.
The results are increased rates of burnout, turnover, and relocation. In a way, COVID-19 revealed problems in the education system that Davis had been pointing to for the previous five years.
“You’ve got to look out for your educators because if your educators aren’t healthy, that’s going to affect the students,” Davis says.
Most recently, Davis has pivoted to a new aspect of disaster relief: inequity. She is using methodical and peer-reviewed studies to show how additional resources will help these communities achieve equitable recovery.
“Recovery is such a loaded word, and even I struggle with it,” Davis shares. “Recovery is when a person or group of people are brought back to the point in their life that was prior to an event. But if you live in a food desert prior to the event, recovery means you still live in a food desert after the event. We must rethink what recovery means, especially with an equitable and justice-focused mindset.”
A study Davis conducted in 2022 showed that marginalized groups — including low-income, elderly, and homeless populations, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color — are disproportionately affected by natural disasters. Among the main causes were existing structural challenges, disenfranchisement, systematic and historical racism, lack of resources, and poor communication from government agencies.
Davis and her colleagues have provided several policy recommendations to address these inequities, including more access to emergency funding and staff, a greater commitment to acknowledging diversity and racism, and building trust with communities.
Equality versus equity
Two concepts lie at the heart of Davis’ mission: equality and equity. And while it might sound counterintuitive, her research shows that equality can leave marginalized groups behind.
There is a key distinction between the two words. Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.
“We have to equally divide resources,” she says. “But the moment we jump into talk about equity, for some reason, people think that’s not fair. That it’s racist to provide more support to those who are more in need.”
Think of two people trying to reach cookies on a shelf that’s 10 feet tall. Person A is 6 feet tall and person B is 5 feet. Equality would mandate each person get the same size ladder. But if both receive a 4-foot ladder, person B still can’t reach the cookies.
Equity would mandate that person A receive a 4-foot ladder, while person B receives a 5-foot ladder. Equality dictates equal resources, while equity dictates equal outcomes.
Davis aims to create an institute of her own that focuses on equitable disaster relief. She imagines an academic space that communities and governments can access for recommendations and research — a place to facilitate conversation between the two groups, which are often disconnected, she says.
No matter what the future holds, Davis will always be focused on action.
“We know that certain communities, marginalized communities, will likely be more susceptible to climate change,” Davis says. “We can either sit on our hands and watch it, or we can be active and proactively work for change. I want to be a part of the process that gets us there.”