Written By: Sue Miler
During the past few months, I have been reflecting on parallels between this time of COVID-19 and our experience following the tragic and frightening events of 9/11/2001. More recently, the outpouring of calls for justice following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor has led to further thought—and discussions with others—about how we
can find better and more effective solutions to addressing the effects of racism that continue to plague our country and our world. It is definitely a time of big challenges in an environment that seems to change daily.
When 9/11 happened, my husband and I were living in the DC area and working downtown. At my office, staff went to the rooftop and saw smoke rising from the fires at the Pentagon. Thousands of people crowded into the streets as organizations and businesses closed for the day, but there was great uncertainty about whether to get on the subway or a bus—were there going to be other attacks following the initial ones? As the national capital, Washington could certainly be a target for terrorists wanting to make a statement. On that day it took courage to get on the subway.
In the days that followed, we were urged to take measures to be ready in case another incident should occur: have sturdy walking shoes, water, and a supply of instant food in your office in case you had to shelter in place, or walk home due to public transportation being shut down. (That would have been an 8 mile walk for us.) Later some officials were urging residents to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting for windows and doors in the event of a dirty bomb. We thought that might be overkill.
I was in charge of national programs for the AARP Foundation, and in the subsequent days, leadership met to see how we could respond to the crisis. Our Grief and Loss Program had hundreds of volunteers who would typically lead local support groups for people experiencing the death of a family member. I went to NYC to meet with some of the human service providers there and was so moved to hear their personal stories of watching from their offices as the Twin Towers fell, changing lives forever. We created a grief hotline, directed particularly at families of those impacted by 9/11 deaths. The hotline was staffed by our volunteers from all over the country and was important to those grieving in the many months that followed that terrible day.
Then as now, I was so struck with the kindness and compassion shown by fellow citizens: all those people in the street on 9/11, talking to each other and forming ad-hoc carpools with strangers to help each other get home. Those who rushed into buildings to save others. I am heartened now by how the groundswell for racial justice has come from people of all races, ethnicities, ages, religions, economic classes, geographic areas, as well as from businesses and organizations, large and small—far more than ever before. Those who in the aftermath of horrendous events have the courage to move ahead with small steps and then bigger ones to deal with a new reality.
All of these experiences resonate with me as we face the challenges of addressing COVID-19 and building racial justice: initial shock and concerns give way to practicalities of dealing with a new reality; extended periods of uncertainty test our patience and ingenuity; thinking about new ways of doing critical work to help others.
This is what we are called upon to do today—we don’t know how these tests will play out for the next months and years, but with resilience and courage we can face these challenges, just as we did in 2001.
About Sue Miler
Sue is a retired nonprofit executive with more than 25 years’ experience with local organizations in Minneapolis and with large national programs through the AARP Foundation in Washington, DC. She has a special passion for the immense contribution volunteers can make in our society. Sue recently concluded the effort that raised the funds for (over $750,000 for) JCC’s capital campaign.