Collaboration in Crisis

I’ve been having lots of big and inspiring conversations recently. In March, I think there was a period for many of us with a slow-dawning realization of how serious this crisis is, followed by a blitz of activity. It took a bit of time to fully step into gear. Most of the people I’ve spoken with in leadership and nonprofit positions have felt the same way. When our survival feels threatened, there’s a physical reaction (the fight-or-flight response) that pumps adrenaline and prepares you to act—but it can make it more difficult to think. The flood of hormones released during a fight-or-flight response can be a bit wearing on your poor brain, which then has trouble focusing on the problem at hand. So that was a challenge I think many of us faced as we assessed our resources to help our organizations survive this crisis.

One thing I noticed is that even in the absence of errands and other day-to-day tasks that always occupy a corner of my mind, there remains a lot of mental clutter. My email inbox has been full of emails from businesses I don’t remember patronizing—places I had completely forgotten about that are now sending me their COVID-19 updates. It’s sobering to think about how this has touched so many lives and businesses.

Alongside those dispatches and the mental space they occupied, I felt almost overwhelmed by all the questions that were running through my mind and conversations with others. How can we help children and the elderly? What’s the best way to connect with our peers? What’s the best way to reach out to friends? What do I have to offer and how can I help? One idea that I kept returning to was story, and how it’s touched my work in peacebuilding and conflict resolution; my experiences of working with communities and individuals in distress; and the personal dark spots that have helped me become more resilient during my 43 years on this planet.

I also meditated on the question of how I can be kind to myself, an idea I wrote about a few weeks ago. I gave some thought to the things, material and otherwise, that I need for personal comfort. How can I create a home space that’s comfortable? I immediately reconnected with my brother (with whom I’d had a falling out last year), which was a priority. I also started to think about writing personal journals, writing diary-like entries out for myself to process. I enjoy keeping a journal in a judgment-free zone where I don’t feel stressed about the quality or writing process. Just free-flow writing. It’s a habit I’ve been dipping in and out of since I was six. I have journals about meeting cows on the streets of India, documentation of old breakups, and the reflections I had in the weeks after my mother’s death.

I’m not journaling every day at the moment, but I do try to reflect as often as I can. Writing these blog entries for social media is a different kind of a journal, and that that can be helpful, too, though perhaps in a different way. Writing can help you process your thoughts and feelings because you have to articulate them to yourself before you can communicate them to others.

One thing I’ve reflected on is the work I did many years ago in Northern Ireland, using my personal experience with racism and violence to support a community dealing with sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants. In that work, I met with many courageous people who made themselves vulnerable, sharing stories to find common ground. The pandemic has made me think about all the different meanings of “common ground,” which doesn’t have to be physical or geographical. It can be the common ground of a shared experience, as well as the universality in the human experience we share: joy, suffering, pain, and sorrow.

I reached out to some colleagues—other Rotary Peace Fellows, about 1,300 of us, who are spread out around the world. We live in more than 115 different countries and come from all different backgrounds, but we share a common belief: we care about the world and we want to make a difference. All of us have at some point lived in a country other than our home country, because Rotary teaches us to explore the cultures of “other.” Rotary also uses a great model for leadership, where we all share duties in rotation. Sometimes we lead, and other times we step back in a supporting role. Sometimes we need help, and other times we offer help. That’s the way life is, if you think about it. So I reached out to some colleagues at Rotary (some of whom I knew already, some of whom I’d never met) and asked: What can we all do to help each other?

The response was great. A few days later, one of my colleagues set up a series of Zoom video conference calls. It was a great way to connect. At one point, there were three different one-hour sessions in a single week, spaced across different time zones so people from around the world had options to participate. The format was open, designed to let us talk about whatever was on our minds. In each session, I led a brief storytelling-related overview to talk about how we can best share our experiences. We talked about our personal challenges, how we could support one another, and ultimately how we will help the wider world, but underneath those big questions was a good opportunity to share our stories and our experiences and see which ones resonated. We listened and learned from one another, and it was a great way to be exposed to other people’s experiences in a way that’s more raw and personal and interesting than what we see on TV or other forms of media. There’s something about a story told directly from its source. It has a certain power to create a sacred space, in person or virtually. And it was a good way to think about the crisis without getting overwhelmed by its scale and scope, which is honestly at a level that none of us has experienced.

Here are a few snapshots from around the world. A colleague from Colombia told me about working in a community where she’s using art (especially illustration and graphic design) as a way to support families. She talked about how many young kids find their safe space at school, not home (a problem that we have in the United States as well). She talked about mental health and how it’s impacted when our lives are flooded with conflict and tension.

Another colleague who works with First Nations peoples in Canada told a folk story about a bear in hibernation: when a bear has done its work, it goes to sleep, hibernating for winter. She referenced how communities were using this folk tale to help children understand and cope with the quarantine, and wondered if it could be implemented on a broader scale. There are many similar stories can we turn to for comfort and wisdom in these strange and unsettling times.

An Italian Rotary Peace fellow talked about what it’s like to live in Italy, one of the places in the world where the virus has been most concentrated. One thing he had noticed was that certain people, especially people from certain ethnicities, had faced many challenges and stigmas. We learned a lot from what he had to say, but he also said it helped him to share. Listening without judgment is a powerful act.

The thing about coming together as Rotarians, as peace fellows and as friends, is that we’re now embedded in all kinds of humanitarian organizations around the world. Rotary itself is the second-largest humanitarian NGO in the world. In almost every town and city, you’re likely to find a Rotarian, and many Rotary Peace fellows now work with the Red Cross, the CDC, in health care, government, law enforcement, the arts, and more. As we contribute as individuals to these important fields, we can also come together and share our stories. We can create platforms and resources to share with others. And we can network with each other, seeking out a binding force of friendly faces who are facing similar challenges with a shared agenda of making the world a better place—a cause that we can all agree is very valuable.

All of this has really helped my own thinking about the work we’re doing at ISC. How can we better adapt and share our toolkits and playlists and lesson plans? How can we share our work with social workers to heal trauma, and build new toolkits to foster resilience and connection with frontline healthcare workers? How can we use the lessons we learn as this new work moves forward to help other organizations who are rethinking their programs and services? Already, ISC is collaborating to develop a pilot program that we hope to extend into Australia. 

It was an incredibly valuable series of sessions. While the pandemic has been disruptive and difficult in so many ways, I can feel how it has also opened doors to new forms of collaboration and mutual support. This form of open-ended group strategizing may be something to consider in your own life and work. What can you share with, and learn from, others in your personal and professional networks? We can all use our own stories to heal and help others amidst all the upheaval.


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