Studying Crisis Communication from the Subaltern Studies ...
Crisis Communication from Below 1
Studying Crisis Communication from the Subaltern Studies Framework:
Grassroots Activism in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina
Mohan J. Dutta
Crisis Communication from Below 2
The dominant crisis communication literature has three limitations: its managerial bias,
functionalistic orientation, and the erasure of marginalized voices by focusing on restituting the
status quo. Due to these limitations, studies that aim to understand crisis experiences, interpretive
processes, and communicative responses of the politically less powerful and resource-poor are
scarce in the crisis communication literature. Drawing upon the Subaltern Studies literature, this
paper suggests an alternative approach (i.e., the Subaltern Studies framework) to aid crisis
communication researchers to (a) expand the scope of the literature to non-managerial contexts,
(b) speak to the discursive nature of crisis communication, and (c) attend to the issues of
structure and agency in the interpretations of and responses to crises. A case study of grassroots
activism in New Orleans is presented to illustrate how the application of the Subaltern Studies
framework can provide a theoretical entry point for conceptualizing crisis communication from
below and for facilitating academic self-reflexivity in crisis communication scholarship.
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Studies that aim to understand crisis experiences, interpretive frames, and communicative
responses of the politically less powerful and resource-poor are scarce in the crisis
communication literature in spite of the greater propensity of crises to impact resource-poor
contexts (Ulmer, Sellnow, & Seeger, 2007). Although marginalized publics who do not have
access to public infrastructures and resources are hit the hardest by the exposure to a crisis,
voices of these publics are largely absent from dominant discourses of crisis (See Coombs,
1999). In this essay, we argue that this absence of the marginalized sectors from the dominant
crisis communication literature is deeply intertwined with the fundamental premises of crisis
communication scholarship and with the managerial commitments of crisis communication
researchers that leave out the perspectives of marginalized publics.
Our critique of the dominant crisis communication literature is aligned with an increasing
impetus for critical public relations scholarship that calls attention to the taken-for-granted
assumptions in the field of public relations (e.g., Berger, 1999; Dutta-Bergman, 2005; Curtin &
Gaither, 2005; Motion & Weaver, 2005). In this paper, drawing on criticisms raised in the
broader public relations literature, we discuss three weaknesses of the current crisis
communication literature (i.e., managerial bias, functionalistic understanding of crisis
communication, and the erasure of marginalized voices). These weaknesses of the dominant
crisis communication literature underscore the opportunity for alternative conceptualizations
that explore possibilities of listening to the marginalized sectors that are often most impacted by
a crisis. In this paper, we offer a Subaltern Studies framework that opens up possibilities for
approaching crisis communication from below by centralizing the voices of those groups that are
traditionally marginalized by the very tools and strategies that are put in place by the dominant
actors in the mainstream crisis communication literature.
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To study crisis communication from below, we need an alternative approach that ruptures
the dominant logic of crisis communication by brining it under scrutiny; this rupturing creates
openings for listening to other ways of knowing and interpreting crisis. Emphasizing this
deconstructive turn, Cheney and Christensen (2001) ask:
Why do we not treat public relations itself as the message and expose its fundamental
cultural and ideological assumptions? What if we simultaneously de-centered the role of
the organization, seriously modified our ideas about technical rationality, and gave up on
some of our objectives to bring diverse audiences in line with a dominant view of the
organization? (p. 182).
In other words, the listening to other voices and interpretations has to be juxtaposed in the
backdrop of deconstructions of the dominant logic in the mainstream crisis communication
literature. The interrogation of the taken-for-granted assumptions in the mainstream literature
brings forth the contested nature of crisis communication situated within the realm of power and
The alternative approach we offer here ultimately seeks to aid crisis communication
researchers in (a) expanding the scope of literature to non-managerial contexts, (b) speaking to
the discursive nature of crisis communication, and (c) attending to the issues of structure and
agency in constructions of crisis. In this paper, we attempt to address these challenges from the
perspective of Subaltern Studies (Dutta-Bergman, 2004a, 2004b; Guha, 1988, 1997; Guha &
Spivak, 1988). The Subaltern Studies project concerns itself with erasures in history, constituted
in the realm of writing alternative histories from below that are co-written in journeys with the
marginalized sectors of the globe that have been systematically erased through the very acts of
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knowledge production. An emphasis is put on power and representation that are often left out of
discussions in the dominant literature.
In the following sections, we first provide an overview of the traditional approaches to
crisis communication. The Subaltern Studies framework is then introduced as an alternative
perspective from which we can study crises and crisis communication. Third, we present a case
study of grassroots activism in New Orleans with the primary tenets of Subaltern Studies in
mind. In doing so, our purpose is to broaden the scope of crisis communication scholarship and
call for studies that aim to understand crisis communication from below.
Traditional Approaches to Crisis Communication
Current crisis communication literature defines a crisis as a specific, unexpected event
that can potentially damage an organization’s reputation, image, material resources,
relationships, and profits (Coombs, 1999; Fearn-Banks, 2001; Seeger, Sellnow, & Ulmer, 2001;
Ulmer, Sellnow, & Seeger, 2007). Due to the potential damage the situation can yield, how to
prepare for and respond to a crisis effectively (i.e., crisis communication) becomes an integral
part of crisis management (Coombs, 1999; Wan & Pfau, 2004). The goal of crisis
communication is to protect organizations from damages and to allow them a greater control of
its image and profits (Benoit, 1997; Sellnow & Ulmer, 1995). Based on such conceptualization
of crisis communication, the dominant crisis communication literature is focused on the
strategies and processes organizations ought to take to secure favorable positions in times of
crisis. The emphasis is on restituting the status quo and fixing the damages posed to the
organization by the crisis.
Although traditional approaches to crisis communication put forth theoretical
perspectives and practical guidelines for organizations to effectively manage crises, limitations
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of this dominant crisis communication literature are rarely explored. Based on the growing
critical/cultural public relations literature that critiques the dominant, post-positivisitic theoretical
perspective in the field (e.g., Curtin & Gaither, 2005; Motion & Weaver, 2005), we present three
major criticisms of traditional crisis communication approaches, and offer an alternative
theoretical framework to study crisis communication that can address such criticisms.
The Managerial Bias
That public relations research and practices have a managerial bias has been pointed out
by many scholars (e.g., Curtain & Gaither, 2005; Duffy, 2000; Holtzhausen, 2002; Karlberg,
1996). The widely accepted definition of public relations as a management function has led to
the production of applied, corporate-focused lines of research. The area of crisis communication
is not immune to this criticism (see for instance, Waymer & Heath, 2007). Based on the
conceptualization of crisis as a threat to the organizational survival, the central focus of dominant
crisis communication theorizing, research, and practice has been on avoiding or remedying such
threats and, therefore, maintaining the organizational status quo. In consequence, “effectiveness”
of organizational “messages” or “strategies” of crisis communication has been the primary
subject of crisis communication. For example, best practices for effective crisis preparedness
speak to the premise that crisis communication is a management function: Identifying and
segmenting the publics in order of importance to the corporation, devising crisis management
plans for each key stakeholder, and maintaining an overall open and honest corporate image are
“management” strategies to support corporate goals in protecting profits (Fearn-Banks, 2001).
This premise that crisis communication is an essential “instrument of commerce”
(Karlberg, 1996, p. 266) limits the conceptual boundary of crisis communication within the
parameters of powerful corporate players in society, and privileges organizations (primarily
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powerful multi-national corporations and state agencies) in their public communication
capabilities. The objectives of crisis communication are to promote capitalistic corporate values
and to suppress challenges in the marketplace that might offer openings for disrupting the
dominant power structures in social systems (Duffy, 2000). The maximized freedom of operation
with decreased public dissent as a result of effective crisis communication is most beneficial for
the organization’s survival and profit-making (Coombs, 2001).
Functionalistic Understanding of Crisis Communication
The prevailing managerial bias in the crisis communication literature is inherently
connected with the field’s functionalistic understanding of crisis communication. The linear
transmission-based model of communication is rooted in this functionalistic orientation where
the emphasis is on messages that would diffuse the crisis (Curtin & Gaither, 2005; Karlberg,
1996). Here, crisis communication is essentially a one-way process of communication where an
organization sends strategic messages to its publics. Publics are viewed primarily as receivers of
the information that is sent out by the organization in order to optimize organizational benefits.
Crisis communication literature consists of normative theories that provide organizations
with “how-to” strategies of crisis communication, and the efficacy of such prescriptions is
validated by its economic logic of ensuring profits. Publics are viewed as objects to be assessed
through pre-crisis monitoring and evaluation, and are controlled by relationship building and
post-crisis image restoration strategies (e.g., Benoit, 1997; Coombs, 1999; Liu, 2007). In this
sense, publics are conceived as static entities to be measured through formative and evaluative
research and to be targeted through messages.
From the critical/cultural perspective, the dominant crisis communication literature in its
functionalist orientation takes a top-down approach where messages flow from the dominant
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sectors of social systems to the less powerful sectors. Corporations have the power to shape the
communicative agenda, whereas publics are at the receiving end of the communication (Motion
& Weaver, 2005; Karlberg, 1996). The strategic nature of corporate crisis communication entails
information control in engineering public consent and marginalizing oppositions to the dominant
framing of events (Gandy, 1992). The role of public relations in times of crisis, therefore, is to
regulate information relevant to the crisis in order to influence the decisions of others and to
structure the information environment in which those decisions are made (Gandy, 1992; Sellnow
& Ulmer, 1995).
Erased Voices of the Marginalized
Drawing the boundaries of crisis communication within the context of organizational
management has lent the theoretical development of crisis communication to overlook another
side of crisis communication: the interpretations, practices and communicative strategies in crisis
communication from the perspective of the publics, especially those publics that are
marginalized in mainstream crisis communication responses (i.e., crisis communication from
below). Because a crisis is understood from the perspectives of corporations, a crisis as
experienced by marginalized sectors of a society is largely left unexplored. The dominant crisis
communication literature does not address those sectors of social systems that are not capable of
serving as means to corporate profit-making. Unless they are key stakeholders of the business
sector, the publics who cannot attract corporations to initiate and maintain relationships with
them are nowhere to be found in the dominant crisis communication literature.
In contrast to the managerial and functionalistic conceptualization of crises, crises can
also be understood as opportunities for the public to demonstrate its agency. From issue
activation, through grassroots mobilization, and to the exercising of power to draw desired
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responses from the industry, there are many more aspects to crisis communication than a
business management function. Publics experience and cope with crises under very different
conditions, and utilize a wide variety of strategies in order to respond to crises; these alternative
strategies are often sharply different from mainstream strategies and offer entry points for
change. For instance, comparatively powerless and resource-poor individuals (e.g., poor African
Americans in New Orleans) do not have the power to control information like big corporations
do; they do not have established crisis management plans; they do not have the agenda-setting
power; and they do not have access to the platforms of public sphere. However, these conditions
by no means imply that the marginalized do not engage in crisis communication. As we
witnessed in the grassroots movement in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,
people’s agency pushes them to engage in crisis communication. It is only that the dominant
crisis communication scholarship chooses not to listen to their voices.
With few exceptions (see Durham, 2005; Henderson, 2005), grassroots movements in
response to crises are not included within the parameter of the current crisis communication
literature. Such lack of attention to the marginalized voices is in and of itself a process of
marginalization. Crisis communication with its corporate-centered managerial bias further
relegates the less powerful to the periphery of academic discourse, thus participating in the
silencing of those who are also silenced through mainstream crisis response strategies deployed
by dominant social actors.
In this section, we outlined the weaknesses of the dominant crisis communication
literature: Due to the managerial bias in the field, the literature typically serves corporate
interests; the functionalistic orientation provides researchers with the lens of powerful corporate
players in studying the phenomena of crises; and the crisis experiences of the marginalized are
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absent. In the following section, we will introduce the Subaltern Studies framework which opens
up other possibilities for researchers to address the weaknesses of the current crisis
communication literature. An emphasis is put on power and representation that are often left out
of the discursive space in the dominant literature.
Subaltern Studies Framework
The word subaltern, referring to the status of belonging to the “inferior ranks” of society,
is “a name for the general attribute of subordination in […] society whether this is expressed in
terms of class, caste, age, gender and office or in any other way” (Guha, 1988, p. 35). This
subordination is most fundamentally reflected in and achieved through erasures from dominant
epistemic structures where knowledge is articulated, debated, circulated, and reified (Guha,
1988; Spivak, 1988). Such erasures are most visible in historical metanarratives built around elite
control, subsuming the agency of the subaltern. Subaltern consciousness is omitted out of
dominant discursive frames, and subaltern agency is substituted by the treatment of subaltern
resistance as natural phenomena or as being triggered by causes outside the realms of meaning
structures and interpretive frameworks located in subaltern communities.
Therefore, the critical response of the Subaltern Studies project seeks to write history
from below. The Subaltern Studies project interrogates the system of history making and
knowledge production as acts of erasure by asking how and by whom history is written and
enunciated and whose voices are represented and whose are erased. Beyond its interrogation of
dominant epistemic structures, it seeks to articulate the ways in which subaltern classes enact
their agency as they engage with dominant structures. In this sense, the Subaltern Studies project
is both deconstructive and constitutive. It is through the interrogation of the dominant epistemic
structures and the assumptions within these structures which we typically take-for-granted that
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the Subaltern Studies project creates openings for listening to subaltern voices, and for engaging
in meaning making with subaltern communities through dialogues. In its constitutive emphasis,
Subaltern Studies offer alternative lenses for understanding phenomena through journeys of
solidarity with the subaltern spheres.
Subaltern Studies have often worked with the marginalized sectors such as impoverished
peasants in South Asia, Andeans in colonial and postcolonial Latin America, factory workers,
inner city African Americans, and poor rural women with the goal of interrupting mainstream
discourses of knowledge (Guha, 1997; Guha & Spivak, 1998; Rodriguez, 2001). Aligned with
other streams of critical scholarship in its emphasis on power and control in epistemic structures,
the Subaltern Studies project differentiates itself in its commitment to exploring forms of
consciousness in subaltern contexts that are otherwise exhumed of agency in mainstream
theorizing and praxis. Three primary tenets in Subaltern Studies offer an alternative perspective
to the study of crisis communication.
Recognizing the Subaltern
The fundamental starting point of the Subaltern Studies framework is the recognition of
subaltern existence (Beverly, 1999). Traditionally, subaltern voices have been largely absent in
public discourse due to the subaltern’s lack of access to mainstream civil society platforms where
knowledge configurations are articulated, implemented and circulated (Dutta-Bergman, 2005).
As a result, the nature of subaltern experiences (i.e., their struggles and agency) has often been
omitted from both popular and academic discourses. The Subaltern Studies framework disrupts
this omission by making note of it; furthermore, it calls for researchers to acknowledge the
existence of the subaltern and of the context in which they co-exist with diverse agents, including
the scholars and researchers who participate in the production and circulation of knowledge.
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The structural environment of the subaltern existence is characterized by extreme lack of
resources (e.g., poverty, inaccess to social infrastructures, disenfranchisement). Crucial basic
needs such as food, housing, and health care are unmet and the subaltern livelihood entails
concerns about day-to-day survival (Dutta-Bergman, 2004a, 2004b). It is important to note that
such structural inaccessibility in the subaltern experience is juxtaposed in the backdrop of
capitalism that drives dominant societal discourses and reproduces the marginalization of the
subaltern. For example, as shown in the case study this paper presents, the experiences of inner
city African Americans in New Orleans are situated in the context of historical racism and
exploitation that are furthered by the neoliberal political economy of the region.
Recognizing the subaltern existence involves not only the study of their material realities
but also the uncomfortable realization of our privileged positions as researchers in our co-
existence with the subaltern. Academia is one of the most powerful sites of knowledge
production; knowledge produced in academia reflects and shapes the nature of practice in the
world. As exemplified by the dominant crisis communication literature, systematic erasure of the
subaltern voice from the academic discourse not only signifies researchers’ failure to recognize
the subaltern existence, but also indicates that academia has been an active participant of the
oppressive system, as its primary interest lies in protecting the interests of the exploitative
corporate enterprise. Even when the subaltern voices are recognized, their participation is co-
opted to sustain the status quo and in order to serve the needs of dominant social actors (e.g.,
Beverly, 2004; Roper, 2005). This is why the recognition of the subaltern existence is
uncomfortable for researchers: It requires us, the researchers, to admit (a) that our engagement
with the subaltern can further marginalize them and (b) that we often try to fit the subaltern
narratives into our agendas, knowledge structures, and methods.
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As an alternative, the Subaltern Studies perspective argues that the subaltern are to be
recognized not as a subject of study but as conscious subjects of history in their own right, as
owners of their narratives, and as the co-constructors of knowledge. It is in this sense of creating
alternative entry points to knowledge that the Subaltern Studies project emphasizes the role of
dialogue between the researcher and the subaltern communities. Such dialogues provide entry
points for imagining communicative practices that challenge the status quo and offer
opportunities for envisioning alternative social and cultural spaces based on subaltern
Power, Representation, and the Academic Self-Reflexivity
The quintessential concepts in Subaltern Studies are power and representation. Beverly
(1999) states that “Subaltern Studies is about power, who has it and who doesn’t, who is gaining
it and who is losing it. Power is related to representation: which representations have cognitive
authority or can secure hegemony, which do not have authority or are not hegemonic” (p. 1).
From the perspective of Subaltern Studies, academia as a principal site of knowledge production
is believed to be situated within broader social systems of power and is complicit in creating
subaltern spaces at the margins. In other words, the subaltern are who “cannot speak” (Spivak,
1988) because subaltern voices are not adequately represented in the dominant discursive spaces
that constitute knowledge. Dominant forms of knowledge production silence the subaltern
through their very forms of representations and discursive enunciations.
Our very discussion about the subaltern (or lack of the discussion) in academia
constitutes knowledge about the subaltern and continues the “othering” process of the subaltern.
For example, in their study about the Hurricane Katrina crisis communication, Waymer and
Heath (2007) claim to address the voices of the marginalized publics. Their analysis however
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focuses on the statements of senators who framed the crisis as a national security problem and
pointed to the responsibility of the Bush Administration. Nowhere to be found are the “voices”
of the subalterns in this context: Rather, the subaltern voices are considered to be spoken for
through the voices of the powerful players who take up the task of representation (e.g., senators).
That the seemingly critical statements of the senators mask the reality of structural racism,
concentrated poverty, and disaster capitalism remains unaddressed by Waymer and Heath, who
continue to participate in the marginalization of subalterns through their representations of
representations that are far removed from the subaltern voices in the marginalized sectors of New
Orleans. Therefore, the subaltern voices remain unheard, the “othering” process continues, and
the marginalization is furthered. As Beverly (1999) puts, “academic knowledge is a practice that
actively produces subalternity (it produces subalternity in the act of representing it)” (p. 2).
This realization leads us to the issue of academic self-reflexivity. The Subaltern Studies
project suggests that researchers need to engage in reflexive critiques of the dominant knowledge
structures in which they willingly participate; this is particularly the case when crisis
communication researchers clearly align their interests with mainstream corporate interests. In
part, the subject of study in Subaltern Studies is dominant knowledge (e.g., crisis communication
literature in this case) that is produced and enunciated in mainstream discursive spaces.
Deconstruction of the very knowledge we have created and rupturing the knowledge structures
provides a starting point for Subaltern Studies scholars to create spaces of transformation.
Solidarity, Not Objectivity
Subaltern Studies is a project of “writing in reverse,” and therefore begins with an
acknowledgement of subaltern agency that is otherwise ignored in mainstream structures of
knowledge (Beverly, 1999). Finding absences, erasures, and the invisibles in dominant discourse
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is a process of inversion, for the lower (the subaltern as a subject of study) becomes the higher
(the subaltern as active protagonists of their narratives). Such inversion allows us to see the ways
in which the subaltern experiences society and the envisions the possibilities of social change;
co-scripting these alternative narratives with subaltern participants lays bare the taken-for-
granted assumptions in dominant knowledge structures and guides us toward other
epistemologies that exist in resistance to dominant structures of knowledge. As Beverly (1999)
claims, “Subaltern Studies is not only a new form of knowledge production, then; it must also be
a way of intervening politically in that production on the side of the subaltern” (p. 28).
What is called for, then, is the “desire for solidarity” and not the “desire for objectivity”
(Rorty, 2003). Due to the functionalistic orientation to crisis communication, objective distance
is maintained between crisis communication studies and their sociopolitical implications.
Whereas the traditional approaches to crisis communication call for researchers’ objective stance
in studying crises, it is the desire for solidarity that the Subaltern Studies project aspires toward.
Solidarity requires a sense of openness, trust, the ability to listen, and the ability to be self-
reflexive. By deconstructing the truth claims in academia, and by realizing that subalternity is
created by those very truth claims in which we actively participate, new possibilities emerge that
guide our reading of texts, interpretations of the systems of power, and our relationships with the
It is in this framework that we analyze the Hurricane Katrina case in the next section. As
we study the crisis from the Subaltern Studies framework, different possibilities emerge in terms
of how we might be able to (a) expand the scope of crisis communication literature to the non-
managerial context, (b) speak to the discursive nature of crisis communication, and (c) attend to
the issues of structure and agency in the realm of crises.
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A Case study: Grassroots Activism in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina
In this section, we will briefly introduce a case of grassroots activism in New Orleans in
the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. First, we provide an overview of the structural background of
the city before the hurricane. Then, a story of the Common Ground Collective is shared to
illustrate the ways in which subaltern agency is enacted. Reflecting upon the current crisis
communication literature that is void of subaltern experiences and voices, we believe the story of
the Common Ground Collective will shed light on another side of crisis communication: crisis
communication from below.
Politics of Exclusion: Creation of Vulnerability in New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina victims were put into the conditions of structural vulnerability long
before the storm hit their neighborhoods (Dyson, 2006). The distressed communities owe their
current circumstances to decades of politics and policies that have perpetuated racism and
exclusionary political and economic practices (Berube & Katz, 2005; Lavelle & Feagin, 2006).
New Orleans has long been an intense battlefield of racial (in)equality and integration.
Organized white violence was prevalent (e.g., the Canal Street Fight), and economic and political
power has always been held primarily by the white elites and their selected few lighter-skinned
black colleagues (Lavelle & Feagin, 2006). The city went through increasing racial segregation
with suburbanization, which made New Orleans blacker in the latter half of the twentieth
century. Whites fled the city to newly-developed suburban areas, leaving African Americans
residents with fewer resources behind. In 1960, the city was 37 percent black; in 1970, it was 43
percent black; by 1980, it grew to 55 percent black. In 1990 the proportion reached 62 percent,
and by 2000 more than 67 percent of the city’s population was black (Dyson, 2006).
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As the city got blacker, it got poorer: the decentralization of economic and residential life
constructed dividing lines of wealth and opportunities in the metropolitan area, exacerbating the
concentration of racial and ethnic poverty in the inner-city neighborhoods (Berube & Katz,
2005). In 2000, New Orleans had 47 “extreme-poverty” communities (i.e., communities in which
at least 40 percent of residents have family incomes below the federal poverty threshold, Berube
& Katz, 2005), meaning that one out of every four neighborhoods in the city suffered from
extreme poverty. Racially, African Americans experienced greater level of concentrated poverty:
nearly 43 percent of the city’s poor African Americans lived in these extreme-poverty
Once America’s third largest city with thriving port industry and mighty river system,
over the past two decades New Orleans has become a city of obsolete industries, declining
residents and few jobs. In the wake of the city’s economic downturn, tax revenues plummeted
and unemployment rates skyrocketed. The market was especially harsh for the black residents
whose unemployment rate stood at nearly 20 percent higher than the national unemployment rate
of African American workers (Holzer & Lerman, 2006). Large numbers of New Orleans’
workers cycled in and out of low-wage jobs. The low-wage, low-skill employment market
plagued many New Orleanians, making it difficult for them to find and keep a job.
Almost any social and economic measure demonstrates the severity of deprivation these
vulnerable communities had to endure. The city’s housing situation was one of the nation’s
worst. According to a 2002 survey (Maximus, 2002), some 42 percent reported at least one major
housing defect such as faulty plumbing or rodent infestation; 27 percent of families had fallen
behind in their housing payments in the past year; and 16 percent had had their heat, electricity,
or water cut off at some point. The city’s health care system also had a bleak picture. Although
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Louisiana ranked one of the lowest in the nation’s state health rankings – with high infant
mortality, cancer deaths, premature deaths, cardiovascular and infectious diseases – the state’s
uninsured rate was among the highest in the nation (Zuckerman & Coughlin, 2006). In addition,
many were food insecure. According to a 2002 survey, a significant number of people reported
that the food their family bought did not last and they did not have money to buy more; couldn’t
often afford to eat balanced meals; there had been times when they had to cut the size of meals or
skip meals due to lack of money (Maximus, 2002).
A long history of white flight, disinvestment in poverty-struck neighborhoods,
deprivation of life chances, and continuing shortage of governmental aids perpetuated the city’s
segregation and inequalities. The rampant neglect and callosity in discriminatory politics and
policies created extremely vulnerable communities of poor, less powerful, and mostly black New
Orleans residents who endured their suffering with appalling invisibility and under-
representation. Katrina was a tragic but predictable crisis due to cumulated inequality and
The Subaltern Agency: A Story of Common Ground Collective
Amidst the calamity that hit poor African American residents in New Orleans, Common
Ground Collective was established in the first week after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city.
Started with three volunteers and fifty dollars, the Collective has grown to a community
organization that has over forty fulltime organizers and hundreds of volunteers including health
care workers, community organizers, skilled laborers, technicians, legal and housing rights
advocates, gardeners and more (Common Ground Collective, 2006). With the mission to build a
more just and sustainable city in order to ensure that the historically neglected communities are
able to come back together, the Collective has been on-the-ground since, and accomplished
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numerous must-needed works while government responses lagged and remained void. The work
of Common Ground Collective has consistently demonstrated subaltern agency in their efforts of
solidarity, resistance, and reconstruction from below.
Solidarity. Gergen, Gergen, and Barrett (2004) state that dialogue has a generative
function that constructs a sense of the real and the valuable: That is, in the backdrop of emergent
collective actions are the process of generating agreements on ontology and ethics of our
experiences and the process of connecting such agreements into action. For Common Ground
Collective, it was the dialogue of solidarity that bound people’s understandings of the world to
activist organizing (McClure, 2006). McClure defines solidarity as “working with people who
are struggling for their own liberation in a way that means my future gets bound up with theirs.”
The dialogue of solidarity that creates a commitment to share risks as well as a common ground
to struggle together persists in the emergence and the development of Common Ground
Common Ground Collective emerged as a result of the subaltern agency. Appalled by the
enormity of the situation and governmental hostility, and angered by the structural violence that
culminated in the form of Hurricane Katrina, community organizers and few survivors in
impoverished New Orleans communities began working to gather material aids, volunteers and
money, while putting out calls to their comrades, friends, allies, and concerned members of
society across the nation to support the devastated communities in New Orleans (Crow, 2006a).
The shared experience of the structural violence, the common belief that the tragedy of Katrina
was a result of racism and poverty, and the realization that the problem is not recognized by
others and ought to be handled by people themselves (Stallings & Quarantelli, 1985) were the
basis of solidarity on which Common Ground Collective emerged.
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The co-founder of the Collective, Malik Rahim, explains the connection between the
name “Common Ground” and the dialogue of solidarity, as he states that:
While we were together, we—every evening—used to have these dialectical
discussions… on why progressive movements have always started with such a bang and
then end in such a frizzle. And we kept coming up with that we allowed our petty
differences to stop us from working together… The thing that we need to find is the
common ground, and so… we took that name (Rahim, 2006).
Since the inception of the Collective, local residents, volunteers and community
organizers across the country rejoined in New Orleans under the Collective’s slogan “Solidarity,
Not Charity” and organized their fight for a just and sustainable society against structural
violence. One distinctive characteristic of and challenge for Common Ground Collective is the
political and socioeconomic differences between its white volunteers who are not familiar with
the context of New Orleans and the local black residents who lived through the legacy of
marginalization historically and presently. Another co-founder of the Collective, Scott Crow,
notes the significance of the horizontal, yet organized, nature of communication within the
Collective to acknowledge such differences and to facilitate the dialogue of solidarity for people
to identify a common ground of struggle:
Common Ground is a largely white activist organization.... Malik Rahim and some of the
core leadership of NOLA, however, come from a radical black political culture with
fundamentally different experiences and approaches. The organization incorporates many
decentralized characteristics… This is where much of our ‘solidarity’ comes from. Long
term and difficult commitments in complex political/socio-economic landscapes within
NOLA… We have cast a wide open net to anyone with honorable intentions to come and
Crisis Communication from Below 21
do hard work. We don’t need just radical subcultures to change society we need people
from all walks of life (Crow, 2006b).
With emphasis on the dialogue of solidarity, therefore, the differences between the people
involved in the organizing of Common Ground Collective become the very foundation of the
struggle. Through the dialectical conversations and shared experiences, volunteers and residents
introduce alternative perspectives to each other and shift the thinking in marginalizing political
culture to that of transformative politics. In this sense, Common Ground Collective is not an
entity with a defined set of answers to problems, but an environment which is “led by asking”
and is open to more questions based on self-reflexivity (Crow, 2006b).
Resistance. In the opening statement of his chronicle, Crow (2006a) quotes Audre Lorde
that “within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious
or not—I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.” This quote succinctly expresses the
Collective’s commitment to resistance from the standpoint of the marginalized public. Situated
in the context of historical marginalization and oppression, engaging in reflexive communication
to understand the political, cultural context of the community and collectively organizing
consistent efforts of resistance become both a method of and a goal for the social transformation
the Collective envisions.
Crow (2006b) emphasizes that without understanding the context of New Orleans “help
becomes another form of oppression” as he states that:
Historically, ‘white middle class’ or ‘folx with privilege’ and many good intentions have
aligned themselves in good faith to work in communities such as these, only to co-opt the
work, abandon the issues when it wasn’t a ‘hot’ anymore or take over the work being
done for their own gains. These concerns are some of the ‘baggage’ that we ALL bring to
Crisis Communication from Below 22
the table in working… So we…strive to overcome this by a strong self critique in all the
work we potentially engage in… walk the tenuous tightrope of ‘equilibrio”… between
horizontal and more centralized organizing, personal experience in balance with the goals
and needs of the communities we serve.
The emphasis on reflexive communication and democratic, yet focused, organizing
shapes Common Ground Collective’s resistive undertaking. One example of the Collective’s
initiatives to facilitate the reflexive communication among volunteers, organizers, and
community residents is the anti-racism training program. The Collective’s anti-racism program,
organized in collaboration with People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, addresses the
violence of racism through extensive discussions among participants. Over 1200 individuals
have participated in the “Undoing Racism” training (Common Ground Collective, 2006),
discussed the political, cultural context of New Orleans, and were encouraged to engage in
reflexive communication as to how individuals in our society involve in the (re)production of
hegemony. McClure (2006) reflects upon her experience with the anti-racism training as she
We—mostly white healthcare providers and activists in a hurricane-ravaged poor Black
town—stood to profit off our time in New Orleans, either socially through gaining
“activist points” or professionally by writing papers or books about our experience. [The
training session organizer] asked us how were we going to be accountable to that fact,
how we were going to make sure that the people most affected by this tragedy would also
stand to gain and not be profited off, as they so often were by the organizations and
institutions that were supposedly serving them.
Crisis Communication from Below 23
McClure’s reflection indicates that reflexive communication is not only a means to resist
the structural violence that perpetuates in the community, but also is a form of resistive act in and
of itself that brings about social change: It facilitates social members’ thinking about their overt
or covert participation in the creation and sustenance of the system of marginalization, guides
them to make informed, critical decisions in their everyday lives, and sheds light on the
Collective’s strategic organizing of resistance.
Based on this commitment of reflexive communication, members of Common Ground
Collective have consistently organized various activities that resist oppressive social structures
(Common Ground Collective, 2006). The Collective have fought for housing rights of poor black
residents. They have supported the residents of public housing projects in their struggle to open
up public housing, set up a protection plan in the Lower 9th Ward to ensure homes are not
bulldozed without consent. The Collective has also sponsored the Common Ground Legal Team
—a free legal clinic—in which hundreds of hurricane-affected poor residents of New Orleans
participated. The Legal Team monitors police harassment and abuse, supports litigation and on-
the-ground resident action to block evictions and to open up public housing. The Legal Team
also has assisted residents to access hundreds of thousands of dollars from FEMA and insurance
companies. In addition, Common Ground Media Centers aim to enhance area residents’ access to
the communication infrastructure by providing free access to local phone calls, fax machines and
the Internet. They also host a project to chronicle survivors and volunteer experiences (Common
Ground Collective, 2006).
These efforts clearly demonstrate the political orientation of the Collective: As an
emergent community organization, created by community organizers and historically oppressed
residents themselves, the Collective communicates messages of resistance with the society. Its
Crisis Communication from Below 24
response to the crisis of structural violence, which culminated in the form of Hurricane Katrina,
is the struggle to represent the voices of the marginalized public in their own words and
activities. Crow (2006b) writes that:
[We] fight for a better future in which communities have control over what happens in
their lives. This fundamentally flies in the face of what many sectors of the corporate-
state want. We know who we are politically and where we fit into the complicated
structures both historically and presently.
Untrusting of the powerful government agencies and corporate players, and unwilling to have
their voices appropriated and co-opted by external agents, the subaltern resist the structural
violence they have historically endured and continue fighting for their rights.
Reconstruction from below. When the people of New Orleans—many of them black and
poor—wanted schools that would better educate their children, food that would feed their
families, jobs that would revive their livelihoods, and neighborhoods where they once had
communities, outsiders stepped in. They were representatives of for-profit consulting firms,
engineering companies, real estate developers, and contractors. Just when people needed
reconstruction, a complete reshaping of the city was planned, and New Orleans after Katrina
became a wide-open new land for politically conservative and economically neoliberal elites. A
series of no-bid, cost-plus contracts to rebuild New Orleans began (Davis, 2006); the hurricane-
torn public services such as education, housing, and health care are being drastically cut and
radically privatized (Arena, 2006); and workers suffer from severe labor exploitation (Mohr,
2005). Deeply penetrated into local politics, the corporate players and local elites do not leave
room for poor black people’s voice in the reconstruction process (Davis, 2006). As Rahim (2006)
succinctly puts, “New Orleans is being rebuilt by them, but not for them.”
Crisis Communication from Below 25
In the milieu of neoliberal reshaping of the city, continuing efforts are put by the
Collective to rebuild the community in people’s terms. Rahim (2006) differentiates the dominant
reconstruction agenda from the notion of reconstructing communities from below:
Most of them looked at these developments as projects. But residents looked at them as a
community, as a neighborhood... [A]fter the hurricane, you’ve seen a sea of blue tarps
being put up everywhere, except for these areas where you have the poorest, who need it
the most. It was the same as during the hurricane, where the Red Cross came and put up a
food distribution center in the Garden District, the richest segment of New Orleans, while
people were starving in the Superdome… [W]e must now move to another level. We
must make preparations now for neighborhoods and communities.
The central themes of reconstructing communities from below, according to Common
Ground Collective, are self-respect, self-empowerment, and self-defense, which are the only
weapons of the subaltern (Palast, 2007). The Collective’s reconstruction initiatives are, therefore,
organized by and for the marginalized public. For example, the Collective has been operating
mobile clinics, since nine days after the hurricane when the city’s public health care system was
destroyed. The Common Ground Health Clinic is the first civilian run medical clinic. In addition,
thousands of homes, numerous schools, churches, and community centers are being cleaned and
repainted by the members of the Collective to rejuvenate the city. In conjunction with restoring
houses and buildings, special events and concerts are held with the Collective’s participation to
revive lively spirits within hurricane-ravaged communities. The Collective has also started to
operate an after school program for children with the support of area schools. To address poor
community residents’ mobility issues, over a thousand bicycles are donated or repaired through
the Collective. Furthermore, the Collective developed a strong connection with the city’s college
Crisis Communication from Below 26
students, who have mobilized volunteers and donations to support the city’s residents. A soil
detoxification project is being operated at over thirty sites including the Upper and Lower 9th
Ward. A number of community gardens, some specifically designed for organic produce, are
cleaned and restored to build more sustainable food system (Common Ground Collective, 2006).
These initiatives aim to address long-lasting problems within the subaltern communities
in New Orleans, such as (in)access to housing, food, transportation, and education. By defining
problems in their own words and by creating ways to reconstruct their communities through the
dialogue of solidarity, the Collective demonstrates the subaltern agency to communicate and
exercise self-respect, self-empowerment, and self-defense. Built upon the active participation of
the subaltern sectors, the Collective’s bottom-up efforts make small but significant changes in
reconstructing local communities and challenge the dominant neoliberal agenda of reshaping the
The managerial bias, functionalist orientation, and consistent erasure of marginalized
voices in the dominant crisis communication literature limit the scope of the field and hamper
researchers from looking at broader social and political implications crisis communication
scholarship has in society. In a nutshell, the dominant framework in crisis communication
focuses on the message, and in doing so, continues to propagate the status quo without offering
openings for interrupting it. The biases and inequities in social systems that become evident
during crises remain hidden from the discursive spaces of dominant crisis communication
strategies that focus on restoring the system back to normalcy. In contrast, the Subaltern Studies
framework creates new openings for alternative interpretations and meaning structures around
Crisis Communication from Below 27
crises through historically situated deconstructions of crisis strategies, and through explorations
of alternatives as constituted in the realms of subaltern agency in response to crises.
In this paper, we present the Subaltern Studies framework as a potential alternative from
which crisis communication can be studied. When juxtaposed in the backdrop of the Subaltern
Studies framework, we can see that the traditional approaches to crisis communication are
functionalist in nature and represent corporate interests and the interests of the dominant
coalition; the emphasis of this perspective is ahistorical and is focused on communication
strategies that would restore normalcy. Mainstream approaches offer a specified problem (i.e., a
threat to the business profit-making), goal (i.e., favorable corporate image and increased profit),
and solution (i.e., crisis communication strategies). Here, the publics become subjects of inquiry,
informants from whom we can obtain information; their narratives become information sources
from which we can devise management plans and strategize messages; and our agenda is
persuasion in order to serve corporate interests. The people’s lived experiences are turned into
cultural symbols, which are no longer theirs but mediated representations spoken through our
voices and filtered through our vested interests (Beverly, 1999). Their experiences become
vulnerable to consumption as we commodify their narratives (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002).
Hence, what is called for in the traditional approaches to crisis communication is to retain
objective distance from the publics for the accurate analysis of the problem, execution of the
solution, and for the achievement of the organizational goal, rather than the establishment of
politically-charged solidarity with the people that might offer entry points for social
transformation (Rorty, 2003).
In the context of the case study of New Orleans presented in this paper, a Subaltern
Studies framework deconstructs the dominant structures within which the crisis of Hurricane
Crisis Communication from Below 28
Katrina gets situated. A Subaltern Studies framework suggests that the hurricane and its
aftermath reflect histories of poverty, racism, and inequity that resulted in the lack of adequate
infrastructures in crisis-affected communities. As a result of this deconstructive move, the
Subaltern Studies project opens us up to interrogating the structural injustices and inequities that
often underlie crises.
Furthermore, the Subaltern Studies framework addresses the weaknesses of the current
crisis communication literature by recognizing the subaltern existence, acknowledging the issues
of power and representation, and committing to social change. The tenets of the Subaltern
Studies framework introduce different aspects of crisis communication and questions scholars
regarding whose interests they are representing. As shown in the case of the Common Ground
Collective in New Orleans, the Subaltern Studies framework opens up crisis communication
scholarship to non-managerial contexts where meanings are contested and discursively
formulated. For example, the meaning of the crisis was no longer a natural disaster or national
insecurity. In people’s term, the crisis was long cumulated structural violence that culminated in
the hurricane. The meaning of reconstruction also has competing interpretations in terms of
whether it means a complete reshaping of the city according to the neoliberal agenda or a
reconstruction of communities by people from below. We see the dialectics of power and the
subaltern’s struggle to enact their agency and represent themselves in the dominant discursive
A bottom-up framework articulated in the context of Common Ground Collective draw
our attention to the role of solidarity in the realm of subaltern agency. It is through the dialogue
of solidarity that subaltern agency is enacted in the realm of a structural crisis such as Katrina.
Rather than being passive recipients of aid and target audiences of campaigns as constituted in
Crisis Communication from Below 29
the dominant crisis communication literature, the subaltern sectors create their own meaning
spaces and interpretive frameworks built around the networks of associations that they form with
each other. From a theoretical standpoint, these networks of solidarity and the ways in which
they constitute spaces of structural transformation ought to be explored further in crisis
Along similar lines, in the realm of crises, subaltern agency is enacted in resistance to the
dominant structures that constitute the very basis of crisis. Therefore, resistance provides a key
theoretical lens for looking at the ways in which meanings are negotiated in the realm of crises.
The articulation of subaltern voices resists the dominant structures that otherwise silences
subaltern voices by presenting managerial interests, and through their presence, create
epistemological and ontological possibilities for exploring the ways in which activism emerges
Ultimately, the notion of reconstruction as co-constructed from the subaltern standpoint
suggests the relevance of rebuilding basic infrastructures such as health, education, and food
systems instead of fulfilling the neoliberal agendas of modernization projects. Most
fundamentally, listening to the voices of subaltern communities creates alternative problem
conceptualizations and solution configurations that resist the solution configurations imposed by
the dominant framework. In this sense, the Subaltern Studies perspective points out the
importance of engaging subaltern communities in participatory frameworks rather than imposing
dominant crisis-solution configurations on subaltern communities. The subaltern discourses and
communicative practices solidarity, resistance, and reconstruction discussed in this paper
suggests possibilities for future crisis communication scholarship that explores the intersections
of Subaltern Studies and crisis response in marginalized communities.
Crisis Communication from Below 30
Continuously overlooking the subaltern crisis experiences or appropriating their
narratives to advance corporate interests reproduces subalternity and sustains the system of
marginalization. As the Subaltern Studies framework calls for, it is important for researchers to
engage in academic self-refection. Karlberg (1996, p. 264) poses relevant questions to us: “What
are the premises shaping [crisis communication] research? Who has benefited from this
research? And how can the [crisis communication] research agenda be reconciled with
participatory, representative, and inclusive theories of public discourse?” If the traditional crisis
communication research primarily benefits corporate players in the capitalist system, the
Subaltern Studies framework sheds light on the future of crisis communication research that is on
the side of marginalized publics. As Dutta-Bergman (2005) notes, crisis communication
researchers can take activist role and participate in maximizing the opportunities for participation
of the voices of marginalized publics “by listening to them and documenting them in policy-
oriented forums” (p. 32).
Crisis Communication from Below 31
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