The impact of the Bill Anderson Fund for students of colour and marginalised communities

15th April 2020

Author: Melissa Villarreal, Department of Sociology & Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder; Bill Anderson Fund Fellow

The Bill Anderson Fund (BAF) was set up in 2014 in memory of Dr. William (Bill) Averette Anderson; scholar, researcher, and policy-maker who deeply understood the issues related to how disasters exacerbate existing social inequalities. 

Marginalized racial/ethnic groups are among those who suffer the worst consequences when disasters strike; however, those working in these fields are rarely representative of the communities most vulnerable to disaster events. Consequently, the unique post-disaster needs of these communities are not effectively met1. Bill championed that those attempting to serve these communities be representative of those communities. As such, the mission of the BAF is to expand the number of underrepresented professionals in the field of hazards and disaster research and practice. The BAF is the only disaster-focused fund whose sole purpose is to provide doctorate students of color with support and advocacy as they pursue their terminal degrees. 

Fellows of the BAF participate in webinars and in-person workshops that focus on a range of skills including overcoming hurdles in graduate education; honing graduate students’ research presentation, organisational, and planning skills; and facilitating engagement with other graduate students and established scholars in hazards and disaster fields. The BAF holds a summer workshop that coincides with the Annual Natural Hazards Workshop (NHW) whereby Fellows are invited to participate and share their work and perspectives through panels with established scholars, poster presentations, and a BAF-led session where Fellows present their own research via “lightning talks.” This exposure-and opportunity to increase social networks-has led to several Fellows initiating research collaborations and meeting current employers.

One of the key BAF objectives is to also work with vulnerable and underrepresented communities in a long-term and reciprocal fashion. Fellows are working on projects that will provide tangible outcomes and benefits to distressed communities and inform hazard mitigation, recovery, and resilience needs in an inclusive manner2. Projects include Fellow Jennifer Blanks working to bring attention to historically African American cemeteries impacted by flooding; Alum Dr. Olumide Abioye has worked on several projects involving the development of statistical models that take socio-demographic characteristics into account and facilitate emergency evacuation planning; and Fellow Nancy Contreras is focused on a longitudinal, qualitative study of a culture-specific program addressing structural violence and the needs of Black youth.

These unique projects provide Fellows with academic and professional experience, as well as opportunities to address needs in vulnerable communities. For instance, Jennifer’s research is part of a larger project, entitled The Texas Freedom Colonies Project, an initiative that facilitates historical and cultural preservation for communities. One such way is through the launch of their crowdsourced mapping project-Black Settlement Atlas-where they map the locations of and provide historical information on Freedom Colonies in Texas, many of which had previously been left behind as “ghost” settlements. They also invite descendants of Black settlements to add to the map themselves via an online application and survey, allowing these individuals the ability to partake in the creation of this important tool. By increasing the representation and retention of underrepresented scholars, the BAF demonstrates that this type of work can be conducted in other vulnerable communities across the United States and internationally.  

The BAF Fellows and alumni are committed to diversifying the hazards and disaster field to ultimately increase the resiliency of marginalised communities in the face of environmental hazards and disasters.

At the time of its inception, the BAF consisted of eight Fellows. Today, there are thirty-four Fellows and twenty-five alumni from a variety of disciplines in the field. On its fifth anniversary in 2019, the BAF established a flagship at the University of Delaware’s (UD) Disaster Research Center, and Associate Professor Monica Sanders joined the BAF as the new director and leader at UD. This partnership has moved the BAF forward in its endeavors, and the subsequent impact of its efforts on hazard and disaster mitigation for marginalised and underrepresented communities will be tremendous.

For more information or to apply, please visit

[1] Dixon, Benika. and Hans Louis-Charles. 2015. “A Blue Print for Change: An Emerging Initiative Paves the Way for Increased Diversity in Hazards Mitigation.” Natural Hazards Observer 39(6).

[2] Bill Anderson Fund Report. 2018. "The South Bridge Community Assessment." Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware.

A special thanks to Norma Anderson (Founder), Monica Sanders (Director), Paula R. Buchanan (Fellow), and Viviane Clement (Fellow) for providing feedback and edits to several drafts; and Olumide Abioye (Alum), Jennifer Blanks (Fellow), and Nancy Contreras (Fellow) for graciously allowing me to highlight their work.