“Nothing that I can do will change the structure of the universe. But maybe, by raising my voice I can help the greatest of all causes – goodwill among men and peace on earth.”                                                                                         – attributed to Albert Einstein

The National Communication Association (NCA) holds its 97th convention this week in New Orleans.  The convention theme?  “Voice.”

The NCA folks say on their convention web site that this theme “calls our attention to those in the NCA community (and beyond) who may want to discuss issues, themes and, areas of concern related to marginalized and underserved populations.”

Of special interest to readers of this blog is a preconference set for this Wednesday entitled Communicating Coastal Risks and Crises: Creating Partnerships and Giving Voice to Stakeholders, Scholars, and Scientists.

Kathy Rowan of George Mason University and Gina Eosco of Cornell University co-chair the session. Here’s how they describe the day: “Factors distinctive to Southeast Louisiana make it vulnerable to hurricanes, flooding, and oil spills.  Many have noted that the region is essentially a large geographic punchbowl, prevented from flooding only by the current best efforts to manage the levees and discourage wetland loss.   But to assume these challenges are faced only by Southeast Louisiana would be a mistake.  More than half of all Americans currently live on or near a coast–a proportion expected to rise over the next several decades (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2005).   This rising coastal habitation places an ever-increasing number of people in the path of potential harm from hurricanes, tropical cyclones, flooding, water contamination, mold, disease, and property damage.

Given this challenge, the goal of the proposed preconference is to create opportunities for partnership and giving voice to (a) stakeholders in Southeast Louisiana from whom we can learn; (b) meteorologists who, through the American Meteorological Society, are reaching out to NCA members for help in risk and crisis communication, and (c) scholars studying  risk and crisis communication in coastal areas.  This preconference follows a 2011 meeting of the American Meteorological Association in Seattle, WA, where several dozen communication scholars presented their research.  Jointly sponsored by NCA, and the AMA, its longterm goal is to construct effective research and outreach partnerships among stakeholders, social scientists, humanistic scholars, and scientists for managing coastal hazards.”

The session organizers have found a sweet spot. The topic brings together a full range of local New Orleans concerns: coastal resources, environmental degradation and a range of hazards. Think fish and offshore oil; the loss of coastal wetlands and the BP oil spill; the hurricanes of the past decade and the Mississippi riverine flooding of this past spring. But these apprehensions aren’t confined to Louisiana alone. They extend along the entire length of the Gulf- and Atlantic seaboards. They’re national – even global.  

So it sounds like a great session…and that’s before looking at the list of speakers, which includes Bill Read, the Director of the National Hurricane Center, Shirley Laska, a distinguished sociologist known for her paradigm-breaking research on natural hazards, and a raft of up-and-coming communication scholars, including a number who added so much to last January’s AMS Annual Meeting in Seattle and its communication theme.

Just a brief thought heading into the pre-conference. The three major challenges: natural resources, protection of the environment and ecosystems, and safety in the face of extremes of nature? They certainly hit hardest at society’s margins and those most vulnerable. Take the poor, ethnic minorities, the elderly, the ill. Their voice needs to be heard!

But these issues are critical to everyone’s future. And today’s national dialog could stand some improving. We’re generally inattentive – more concerned about jobs, health, education, and other problems that hit us every day, not just intermittently. What discussion there is – in the mass media, in the halls of our Congressional and state-level leadership – is often oversimplified, shrill, one-sided, and at times downright mean-spirited.

That can leave virtually all of us feeling marginalized and underserved. We want our leaders to give these issues priority. We want ways to plug in…we’re eager to contribute our energy and effort to solving these problems, but we want to see policy and regulatory frameworks that will make our labors productive.

But as we’re asking this much from our leaders, you and I have to hold up our end as well. We want to address, not exacerbate our problems. Our responsibility? In every communication, make it our purpose to maintain Albert Einstein’s focus – goodwill among men and peace on Earth.

Seems appropriate as we enter this holiday season.

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