From "What Does Rebirth Look Like?," New Orleans' Jamar McKneely shares three lessons for leading through a crisis.
"I'll never forget August 25th," said Jamar McKneely, who was teaching when Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005.
'That date was left on every chalkboard in the city. Every classroom was empty." He paused, recounting the loss and trauma that Katrina wrought on his students and their families. "And those classes never came back."
"Now there's a second date in my mind: March 13th." This is the day that Louisiana announced school closures related to COVID-19 - now extended through the end of the school year.
For McKneely, the similarities between Katrina and COVID-19 are striking. New Orleans has been hit hard by the current pandemic, with over 26,000 cases and 1,600 deaths thus far. The longer-term effects of the economic recession also will be more devastating here given the city's connections to the struggling energy and hospitality industries.
'This is the crisis now," McKneely emphasized in dealing with the disruption and challenges brought on by the pandemic.
“In many aspects we’re always in crisis,” noted McKneely. “Our work always has been about trying to facilitate learning and transform community amidst people falling victim to gun violence, dealing with substandard health care.”
With leaders in every sector and every corner of the globe being called to help their people navigate challenging times, McKneely shared three lessons that we all might do well to heed.
lead with the heart before the mind.
"Have a compassionate heart. These times are all about the care we show. Look into people's hearts and talk about how we care for them personally. Connect with their families, even if we can't visit them in person," McKneely urged.
McKneely's community was dealt a particularly painful blow last month when legendary Louisiana football Coach Wayne Reese Sr. passed away from complications from COVID-19. Reese had been a coach at InspireNOLA's McDonogh 35 High School for 17 years and was a rock within the New Orleans community, influencing thousands of young people and families over five decades of coaching.
In a city that typically honors those who have passed away with uniquely personal celebrations of life, Reese's loss hit families and community members hard. McKneely had to lead the way for their people despite stay at home orders that had scattered their children and staff all over the city.
"Give people downtime and space if needed. Reach out to influential people in their circles - make sure there's a web of people helping those who are struggling the most, not just one person," he explained.
"Take it day by day. Be there for them."
stabilize, normalize, and keep hope alive.
As important as the care and outreach InspireNOLA is doing for their families and community, McKneely is clear that a key role of the leader in crisis is not just to be there for people, but to frame these challenges they face and build a shared mindset of resilience and optimism.
Something particularly important McKneely learned from Katrina:
"We have to help people build resilience. Offer counseling and support - don't let them struggle alone. Build compassion. Help them see that together, we can overcome this."
Part of building hope and resilience is also about spreading joy.
On the day we spoke, McKneely and his team were distributing meals to families in the parking lot of an InspireNOLA school - but not jut any meals. They were sharing creole cooking from Dooky Chase's, an institution that's been serving some of the best food in New Orleans for seventy years.
InspireNOLA has worked through different channels to reinforce community and lift spirits, running PSAs on radio stations encouraging students to keep pushing through. They also have worked to spread joy and connection, doing Zoom happy hours, hosting a virtual DJ night, and virtual spirit weeks.
And as he thought about what comes next, McKneely offered another unique paradigm.
rebirth: envision a better future, and focus on building it together
As he leads nearly 5,000 families and the InspireNOLA team through the COVID-19 crisis, McKneely sees this moment in a different way, one true to his New Orleans experience:
"Instead of just saying 'how do we hanldy all this and make it through to the other side,' we need to be asking: 'What does Rebirth look like?'
"We're already started on this even though the current crisis is not over. First we start with rebuilding. Individual by individual. Then neighborhood by neighborhood. Education is not enough. We're being called to do more - time to stand tall on what else we can do."
McKneely and the InspireNOLA team already have launched a Recovery Task Force aimed at creating the architecture of a new normal for their students and families - one that puts the emotional toll the crisis has taken first and creates opportunities for the community to process their grief as they move forward.
"This is a call to action for everyone. The crisis has hit hard in our communities who already have so little. This opportunity for rebirth shows who we really are as people," he urged.
McKneely shared a little-known fact: this year's high school seniors at InspireNOLA were in pre-K when Hurricane Katrina hit. It's hard to imagine a group of young people who have had to be more resilient on the path to college and into adulthood.
"Anybody out there who believes in students, who believes in our families - we need to capture this moment and step up. Everyone matters and deserves an opportunity. We have preserved and it is time to show humility and humanity to all of our people."
With that, McKneely had to go - he was busy doing exactly what he described, handing boxed meals to families in the parking lot of their school, smiling, asking people how they were doing, bringing joy and reminding people that he loved them and that they would get through this together.
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We're in this together.
Never believe that you're struggling alone or that you're powerless because you are part of a community that must support one another. This is an extraordinarily trying time, so take a deep breath, take care of yourself, and reach out to others.