As director of external affairs for the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Adria Crutchfield, AB ’03, spent six months helping to funnel aid to communities that were hammered by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. It was an enormous undertaking: Congress approved more than $50 billion in emergency funds to be distributed across a whole clutch of federal agencies, from the Federal Emergency Management Administration to the Small Business Administration. But Crutchfield had spent much of her life preparing for it.
A John B. Ervin Scholar, Crutchfield majored in architecture and Spanish and worked after graduation at Housing California, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing. In 2005, she moved to Washington, D.C., as a legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (N.C.), whom she advised on issues ranging from housing to health care. She then became director of special projects for the Congressional Black Caucus, focusing on legislation aimed at helping the Gulf Coast region recover from Hurricane Katrina.
By 2007, Crutchfield was supporting and advising newly elected members of Congress as deputy director of member services for the House Democratic Caucus. When her boss, Rahm Emanuel, was appointed as President Obama’s first chief of staff, he offered to help his own staffers move over to the executive branch; Crutchfield, eager to return to her roots in housing and community development, transferred to HUD. As a congressional relations and legislative specialist, she promotes the administration’s agenda on low-income housing and related issues by reaching out to other governmental agencies, lobbying Congress, and helping congressional staffers extricate constituents from piles of red tape.
It’s the sort of work that Crutchfield first encountered in “Community Building, Building Community,” a course led by Associate Professor Bob Hansman as part of WUSTL’s Hewlett Program in Architecture. Students researched and visited various St. Louis neighborhoods, talked to residents, and designed their own ideal communities based on what they learned about architectural design and public policy. The experience taught Crutchfield that communities aren’t just buildings and infrastructure, but the people who use them — people like the ones she helped at HUD.
Crutchfield put all of that academic and professional experience to good use as a member of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. On the one hand, she helped explain to members of Congress how the emergency funds would be used. On the other, she helped create and manage an advisory board of state and local officials to ensure that the needs of those affected by the hurricane were being met. Feedback received from small-town mayors, for example, helped focus attention on mold remediation, an important issue for many homeowners following the storm. The task force developed a series of recommendations to help build stronger than before.
Crutchfield herself was moved by a visit to the badly damaged neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn. There she met a restaurant owner who, having regained his footing through a combination of government assistance and community support, was committed to staying in the neighborhood. It was the kind of story that first drew Crutchfield to her career: how government can support individuals and strengthen communities. “That’s why I’m in this work,” she says. “That’s what I find most rewarding.”
Her experience on the task force sharpened Crutchfield’s desire to do more work at the state and local levels. And she is getting her chance. As of August 2013, she joined the Homes and Community Renewal Agency in New York as director of external affairs for the Community Development Block Grant Recovery Programs, which seek to provide resources to residents, small-business owners, and neighborhoods that suffered physical damage as a result of Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Irene or Tropical Storm Lee.
Alexander Gelfand is a freelance writer based in New York City.