A Creative Leap for New Orleans
by Anna Katherine Montgomery
When Hurricane Katrina slammed through the city of New Orleans during the summer of 2005, it shattered the very bones of this famously vibrant city and wrought unspeakable havoc on its loyal population. As a city whose echoes of homegrown jazz, blues, zydeco and a host of other native sounds were before the oft heard song of this sprawling town by the Mississippi River, now the need for help was a cry so loud and deep it seemed to reverberate around the world.
Millions watched in horror as film crews depicted the city drowning in waves of displaced river, ocean and flood waters which had catapulted over the broken levees into the very heart of the city and beyond, carrying the rubble of destroyed buildings and homes, killing over a thousand people and displacing over a million. Imagine facing the consequences of the costliest natural disaster in American history ($81.2 billion/Wikipedia). How would this city, its people, and their culture be recovered, and who could help reverse the effects of a disaster of this magnitude? The American Red Cross' Southeast Louisiana Chapter (SELA) led the way in answering the call, and when their own extraordinary efforts needed support, they reached out to George Washington University’s (GWU) Institute of Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management and to Creative Leaps International for the resiliency tolls they needed to face this crisis.
In the aftermath of the catastrophe, another crisis loomed. With accusations flying and people huddled in mass camps like survivors of an all out war, there was controversy over the government’s ability to apprehend the situation swiftly and surely. Care poured in from multiple avenues as the National Guard, Special Response Teams, and scores of volunteers from universities, churches and special care teams arrived to sift through the horror. Yet, the city was broken on every level, and is still recovering today. While the exiles of a city that was 80% underwater are slowly returning, its heart is still battered, and the culture is in danger of extinction, a culture that is truly one of a kind as an indigenous spirit of joy, fusion, and hope.
Heroes have been needed
A legendary source of relief, the American Red Cross demonstrated heroism in its efforts to stabilize New Orleans. The efforts were enormous, the needs and wounds gaping far beyond even the worst of disasters. As caregivers pushed themselves to extraordinary levels of performance in saving lives and communities, the strain on the Red Cross staff itself became dangerously high. The caregivers themselves were facing burnout. As the official report from the Southeast Louisiana Red Cross stated, "not only individuals, but organizations responding to this catastrophic event became its victims." Even the heroes were in trouble now; more help was needed.
GWU’s Institute of Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management was the first on the scene to assist the Red Cross with its own internal challenges. GWU, in the months that followed, called upon CEO John Cimino of Creative Leaps International to help with the creation of a capstone Resilience and Renewal Retreat to serve as a culmination and final synthesis of the Institute’s own intervention by then called the Southeast Louisiana Resilience Project. The retreat’s design, steeped in the performing arts and cross-disciplinary approaches to learning and personal growth, was to establish an impressive benchmark for this healing work in the months to come.
What does it mean to be a resilient organization?
The final report on the Resilience Project, prepared by research scientist, Laura Olson of GWU’s Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management, clarifies the cultural elements that characterize resiliency in organizations, sourced from MIT expert Yossi Sheffi’s book The Resilient Enterprise:
- Continuous communications that provide staff with both a general state of the organization and with real-time situation reports, so actions can be taken quickly and are appropriate to the immediate context
- In time constrained situations, there is deference to expertise, whether or not that expertise comes with a title, and strong teamwork, helping to identify the right response without a delay.
- These organizations are conditioned to be innovative and flexible in the face of low-probability/high impact disruptions through frequent and continuous small challenges.
Rightly or otherwise, the common expectation of the Red Cross has long been that of a super-resilient organization. Indeed pre-Katrina, the SELA chapter of the American Red Cross had in place many of the attributes needed to be very resilient. However, Hurricane Katrina’s astronomical demands, relentless in scope and longevity, created unprecedented levels of strain on the chapter’s capabilities.
To assess the stress, GWU’s Crisis team established task forces charged with identifying the root problems by then festering among the staff:
- Dealing with emotional, physical and material fragility and/or scarcity
- Organizational divisions hindering internal relationships
- Lack of validation of worth reflected monetarily, in job satisfaction, and in appreciation
- Lack of effective communication and relationship-building among staff and management
For most of the staff, these issues were simply too overwhelming for individuals to discuss head on. As the final report pointed out, “When stressed, and especially when traumatized, it is often quite difficult to coherently state what is happening in one’s inner and outer world.”
Creativity as the breakthrough agent for recovery.
Approaching the issues more obliquely, GWU consultants engaged staff members in a symbolic activity known as “The Sandtray Process”. Simply by manipulating miniature objects in a sand tray, participants are often able to explore scenarios and feelings otherwise too difficult to deal with directly.
It quickly became apparent that relationships between staff and management were deeply troubled at virtually every level. There was deep seated anger toward the National Headquarters for lack of effective and timely support. Local staff was accustomed to receiving commands and directives from the National Headquarters in classic fashion (a dependent relational style). When clear directives failed to arrive in the crucial moment, the result among staff was passivity or worse, a paralyzing reliance on non-functioning systems.
It also became apparent that staff and volunteers were not able to listen to one another. Misunderstandings abounded at every turn, documentation of basic needs had slipped out of control, and constructive discussion was nearly nonexistent.
In response, Laura Olson, established what she called The Listening Project, a painstaking process through which each person in the organization was given the opportunity in real time to vent his or her frustrations and hopes. Though extremely time intensive, the process ultimately produced clear benefits. Next, however, was the challenge of responding to that input and directing focus toward goals that the group shared. This proved daunting and the prospect of somehow pushing through the quagmire to implement change appeared a real impediment.
Another Call for Help
It was at this juncture that Creative Leaps International was brought on the scene. It was time to see what the arts could do to help heal the wounds and internalize the learnings that were gradually being clarified.
The plan called for a two-day Renewal and Resilience Retreat. Creative Leaps CEO John Cimino worked with SELA staff members and GWU Research Scientist, Laura Olson, to get as clear a picture as possible of the situation at the individual and organizational levels. The stakes were high. People’s lives and well-being were on the line.
The retreat began with what the Creative Leaps team called a “Concert of Ideas”, a specially contoured performance celebrating themes of courage, imaginative vision, compassion, community and leadership. Three decades of experience had taught the team to how to work with music, poetry and theater caringly, inventively to open people’s hearts and minds. Their performance was buoyant, engaging, full of imagination and a personal connection with the audience. Though a few of the SELA participants were reluctant at the start, soon everyone was fully invested. Spirits lightened, smiles and laughter erupted in the sheer fun and dazzle of the performance interactions. Moist-eyed glances were passed around the room as the uplifting resonances of the concert hit home.
When the performance was over and while the experience was still fresh, participants were gathered together into Facilitated Conversation Circles, so everybody would have the chance to share some of their thoughts and impressions. As Cimino later commented, “the inner work of art was about to begin”.
After an hour in their small groups, the Conversations Circles were summoned back to the auditorium to report on their group discussions. The Creative Leaps facilitators were buzzing with anticipation of what the groups would choose to share. But the room became strangely silent, no one quite ready to say publicly what had been held inside for so long.
Then, suddenly, one fellow stood up and moved quickly to the front of the room. He was a young man and physically by far the largest person in the group, someone it was revealed later, who against orders had repeatedly led heroic rescues house to house into the night in his boat when the flood waters were still raging. He looked out at the group - everyone knew who he was - and he just started to talk. He spoke plainly from his heart about what he and everyone else had seen, of the pain and isolation each of them had felt. He never mentioned the word courage or hope, but they were in his eyes for all to see. He did say something about determination and healing up and moving on because it was in them to regain their strength and get back to work for the people and the city they loved. Then, just as quickly as he had risen, he returned to his seat and the applause began. Other speakers followed, each one heartfelt and brave, some speaking in quiet voices, some tearful, others nearly raising the roof with their voices, but to a person, each speaking his and her truth and pledging their willingness to rise from their pain.
When the reports were finished, their SELA director and CEO, Kay Wilkins, cheered her colleagues and called for a break after which the Resiliency Task Force Groups would be asked to re-present their goals and achievements to date. Something had happened and it was time to channel this new energy to the tasks at hand.
Later in the afternoon, participants took part in any of five concurrent workshops lead by members of the Creative Leaps team.
- Leadership: Thinking, Perceiving and Judgment – Led by John Cimino, this workshop focused on our senses, perceptions and how we take in the world, and how our perceptions play into our behaviors, thought processes and judgments as leaders.
- Of Color and Courage – This workshop, led by Paul Spencer Adkins, invited participants into “celebration of differences”, a guide to realizing their individual potentials as leaders and managers by embracing diversity.
- Top Form: Risk, Focus, Flow – Donna Wissinger and Jon Klibonoff teamed up to examine the essence of peak performance, offering participants insights into the mental and emotional skills and practices used by high performance athletes and top performers.
- The Kinesthetics of Leadership – Dianne Legro helped participants become more aware of their mind-body relationship, exploring their ability to maintain a “still point” while operating under pressure in high stakes moments.
- The Hero’s Journey through the Bach Chaconne – Richard Albagli brought participants into the world of their personal archetypes, leading them through the stages of the Hero’s journey: the discovery of one’s gifts, undertaking a life-changing mission and answering the call to service.
The workshops were energizing and participants took to them wholeheartedly.
Afterwards, towards the close of day, the SELA staff joined in a ceremony to symbolically purge some of their collective pain. Each person wrote down on a piece of paper something of his or her horrible experiences of Hurricane Katrina and then, one by one, ceremonially tossed the paper into a fire pit. They stood together in silence around the fire until, almost imperceptibly, they found themselves stirred from their reflections by the familiar strains of an approaching “Second Line Brass Band”. The players were all young people, talented teens from one of the neighborhoods carrying on the tradition of their city. The band wailed and soared and eventually led the whole SELA group, dancing and swaying, across the university campus to a nearby church where they gathered for a sunset picnic. They had gotten through the first day.
The next morning, the Creative Leaps team offered second round of its workshops. Attendance was again animated, people emerging from their sessions seeking out friends and comparing notes on what one another had experienced in sessions up and down the corridor. Afterwards, Red Cross Chapter leader, Kay Wilkins, convened a second discussion of next steps for the Resilience Project and the SELA Chapter as a whole. Conversation was even more upbeat than the previous day and participants emerged asking for yet another round of the Creative Leaps workshops. The day’s schedule was amended and the Creative Leaps cheerfully obliged.
The retreat was drawing to a close and as a culmination Red Cross staff and volunteers joined the Creative Leaps team in designing and then performing together a celebratory Harvest of Learnings. A concert-of-ideas-style-event, the Harvest brought to life each person’s the take home insights. Some served as authors and designers, others as narrators, still others as on-stage performers giving voice to their realizations and dreams for the future. With the final number, “The Impossible Dream”, everyone in the room was on his and her feet singing with full hearts. The road to resilience was straight ahead.
Evaluation and a Next Step
Feedback on the Retreat was thoroughly positive, overwhelmingly so. “They had come to a place where their pain was no longer their only option”, Cimino said. “New possibilities appeared within reach and they decided to reach for them. This is what we strive for at Creative Leaps with every ounce of our energies.”
Creative Leaps International and the city of New Orleans are looking to a follow-up collaboration. Plans are taking shape to partner with the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic to create an opportunity for local musicians to train with Creative Leaps veteran artists to become fully certified teaching artists. As teaching artists, New Orleans musicians would be able to work in the schools to help the next generation of young people realize their dreams. At the same time, the meaningful work would offer a boost to the livelihoods of these invaluable American “tradition bearers”.
The song of joy, so long the hallmark of New Orleans, is sounding once again, to be heard, to be loved, and to be preserved for generations to come.