Goodness Prevails in Our Stories of Hope and Hardship
November 16, 2012
November 16, 2012
On November 3rd, over 1,300 Rotarians, UN officials, representatives from worldwide international development organizations and guests gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York City to explore ways to advance world peace, conflict prevention and resolution.
This annual event celebrates the relationship between Rotary International (RI) and the United Nations, which dates back to 1945, when Rotarians helped to develop the United Nations Charter. Today, Rotary holds the highest consultative status possible with the United Nations as a non-governmental organization. This year, as a Rotary Peace Fellow, I was invited by the RI representative to the United Nations to give a keynote address discussing my work and ideas about how to use the arts as a force for social change with my special focus on the idea that telling stories does matter in community development.
Despite transportation challenges, flight cancellations, and blackouts following the impact of Hurricane Sandy, news arrived that the UN event was to happen. I also managed to get word that I should find a way to New York City any way that I could. At the same time, I still had to finish preparing my UN talk that I would give that coming Saturday at the UN headquarters.
As I flew into NYC that Thursday night, two days after the storm had hit, at first glance I thought that I was flying over the sea. But then I noticed the flickering lights down below and realized that I was not over water. I was flying directly over the outskirts of the city itself, blacked out by the storm. Down below I thought I could see candle lights flickering and I imagined people gathered together.
Upon entry into the city, I sensed an atmosphere overwhelmed with weariness. Faces tired but determined to get through it all. There was a sense of solidarity as city residents were returning home, having been stranded in other parts of the country or abroad. Two Brooklyn residents who had been stranded in Texas offered to share their taxi ride with me as the taxi driver revealed his own story to us. He went on to tell us the stories of others he had given rides to that week—stories of being stuck on bridges for hours between Manhattan and Brooklyn and of city workers and volunteers desperate to lend a hand to others most affected by the storm’s impact. He relayed his own fears about not being able to work once his half empty tank ran dry.
Arriving two days after the storm allowed me to connect with strangers and become immersed in their community, connecting through people’s stories on personal levels. Businesses, shops, and cafes that managed to remain open welcomed people in as I partook in the day-to-day activities of life alongside others. I shared an evening meal in a Brooklyn apartment with new friends and we drank tea on their Brooklyn rooftop, the New York skyline encircling us in jagged lights.
The next day I ventured into central Manhattan and discovered my hotel was one of the places affected by the power outage. The hotel proprietors of the Americana Inn on 39th street, despite the loss of business, were kind enough to offer me suggestions for other hotels in the area, although they said it would be unlikely I would find anything. I offered my thanks and wished them well.
It seemed half of Manhattan had migrated to the areas with working power grids, and I was starting to realize that I might have to sleep outside that night. But eventually I found the last room left in the city, a room on the Lower East Side, powered by one generator.
Entering the Lower East Side felt like going from West to East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The contrast between the grids which had power and those without was drastically different. The storm had swept away houses and taken out power to an extreme degree testing the human spirit, but what I saw was human creativity connecting people to people.
In the areas where there were blackouts, all communications went out and generators provided by volunteers powered cell phones. FEMA trucks lined parking lots, and kids took up the chance to skate down the middle of Broadway as NYPD officers looked on and smiled. Passersby would stop and ask, “How’s your family? Do you need anything? Can we help?” People with access to power, lights, and generators offered food, shelter, and clothing. Volunteers offered to be communication channels so messages could be passed between families. A diverse crosssection of the city’s people came together to share and distribute food, to clear debris off the city streets, and to help sort through the remains of devastated homes and local businesses. People worked through the night to raise NYC and the surrounding areas back to its feet.
As media interest starts to fade, we must also remember the people of this region, and remember all the regions of the Northeast and the Caribbean that continue to be affected by the longer term impact of this storm. We must remember them as they face further difficulties, lack of warmth, and lack of shelter as the cold weather of winter and sets in.
On Saturday, the day of the UN event, I woke up at 2:30 am and walked the streets of New York City, finally finishing the final revision of my talk. Later that day, I spoke at the UN headquarters as planned, an experience I will never forget. I dedicated my talk to the people of the city who took me in and offered inspiration, truly Telling Stories that Matter.