That Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, started just like any other day—many of us remember where we were when we heard that a plane had struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. We then watched as the South Tower was hit, a plane flew into The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and a plane was brought down in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The tragic events, the searing photos, the stories of those 2,977 people from 92 countries, senselessly killed, and their family and friends left behind, are central to the response that followed and the story that continues today.
On this 20th anniversary, we commemorate the heroics and the selflessness of those who ran into the burning towers instead of away from them, those who ran from one part of the building to another to pull people from the rubble, and those in the air who took over the plane from the hijackers to prevent it from crashing into The White House. All are heroes whom we hold up on this 20th anniversary of the attack on the United States.
What is not as well remembered is the story of neighborhoods coming together across the United States and around the world to help in any way they could, when often the actual crash sites were hundreds or thousands of miles away. This sense of caring, of helping others, the strong sense of community, was all part of how the nation grieved and then healed.
What is less remembered is the vital role that companies played, often behind the scenes, in that healing process.
Twenty years later, we are in a global health and humanitarian crisis larger than anything most of us have experienced in our lifetime. There are lessons learned after 9/11 that corporate America can implement, today and in the future, to help the world grieve our losses from the pandemic. We need to heal, we need to unite, as we have a lot of work to do tackle some pretty daunting social and environmental challenges facing the planet.
This essay reviews the steps that companies took in the wake of 9/11 and offers four practical ways that companies can apply the lessons of that time to today’s pandemic-driven health and humanitarian crises. These suggestions are simple, straightforward, and relatively easy to implement by corporate citizenship departments.
The Immediate Corporate Response to 9/11
As with any disaster, after 9/11 companies stepped into action by working with governments and nonprofits. Contributions were made to relief organizations and food was delivered to first responders. Managers spontaneously took boxes filled with volunteer T-shirts to building lobbies and passed them out to anyone evacuating the area to cover their faces to protect against the toxic dust that filled the streets around the World Trade Center. A family resource center was set up by the City of New York on an empty pier to provide a one-stop location for services and benefits to the families of those killed, where companies provided everything from products, including clothing and toys for the kids, to hand-writing checks from their foundation directly to next of kin (a daunting logistical challenge undertaken with care).
Longer-Term Efforts Aimed at Fostering Community Service
Four months after September 11, Congress passed, and then President George W. Bush signed, a bill titled the Unity in the Spirit of America (USA) Act. It was intended to help address such questions as: "What can I do? I've given blood. I've donated to the relief efforts. But I want to do more. We all shared in the horror. Now everyone wants to share in the healing. But how?” The USA initiative established a program to name national and community service projects in honor of victims who lost their lives as a result of the terrorist attacks. Many of those projects were done working with AmeriCorps. The intent of these living memorials was to help create a sense of healing across the United States while continuing to improve local communities.
In June 2002, President Bush called a group of 18 CEOs to The White House to discuss how corporations could help the nation come together and heal. Out of that meeting, Businesses Strengthening America was created, “a self-directed, long-term effort to engage hundreds of America's business leaders in helping corporations, employees and consumers answer the call to service President Bush made during his State of the Union Address.” This effort was coordinated in conjunction with a new White House office called USA Freedom Corps. Freedom Corps’ mission was to fulfill the president’s call to “all Americans to serve their communities, their nation, and their world.” Businesses Strengthening America was housed at the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation Corporate Citizenship Center and at Points of Light.
Looking Forward, What Did We Learn, What Can We Do Now?
Our experience with 9/11 provides lessons and insights for what companies can do, now and in the future, to respond to the pandemic.
1. Companies can support volunteering as a way to address isolation, improve mental health, and help people cope with their fear.
The 9/11 attacks created fear: fear of other attacks, fear that once safe places might no longer be safe, fear of how the attacks might change lives. Similar fears are present today: fear of new COVID-19 variants, other pandemics, not being safe, of living in a world without a “new normal” but only “no normal.”
Unlike in 2001, however, COVID-19 has kept and is keeping people apart. Many natural support mechanisms—chatting with neighbors, going into the workplace, traveling—have vanished, creating a sense of isolation and causing various types of mental health challenges.
Beyond attending to the mental health of employees through internal programs, volunteering is an excellent way to help employees during this time. It was an important element of corporate efforts to address mental health after 9/11—and may be even more important now. The Mayo Clinic offers these six health benefits of volunteering:
- Volunteering decreases the risk of depression.
- Volunteering gives a sense of purpose and teaches valuable skills.
- Volunteering helps people stay physically and mentally active.
- Volunteering may reduce stress levels.
- Volunteering may help you live longer.
- Volunteering helps you meet others and develop new relationships.
Today, companies should review their employee volunteer programs, evaluate whether they are doing as much as they can given current health constraints, and make a special effort to promote the programs, focusing on employees who have been isolated and those who joined the company during the pandemic and may have never interacted in person with their fellow colleagues.
2. Companies can defuse discrimination, hate, and hate crimes through community engagement.
When the terrorists of 9/11 were identified as Islamic extremist militants, backlash developed against many Muslims, and/or those thought to be Muslim, primarily those of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. Many of those targeted were longtime residents active in communities, with jobs, children in schools, leading ordinary lives. The current situation has been exacerbated by social media that did not exist in 2001.
Interfaith community events and volunteer projects where Muslims participated in helping the nation heal were important elements in defusing the hate in the wake of the attacks.
Today, companies can use employee resource groups, which have expanded significantly in the last year, not only to defuse potential anti-Asian sentiment at the workplace, but also to learn how to best help communities. Companies should also consider whether and how funding Asian social justice organizations can fit with their broader philanthropic programs.
3. Volunteer projects done in the name of those lost bring people together.
In the aftermath of 9/11, companies supported volunteer projects to create a living memorial to those who had lost their lives. Often the projects were tied to a cause or passion of the deceased.
Today, companies can take the same approach with volunteer efforts that are in memory of, and advance causes tied to, those who lost their lives to COVID-19. The opportunities are endless. Initiatives can be short or long term; if long term, they should tie into the company’s overall citizenship programs. Activities can range from creating a reading program at a children’s hospital to planting a community garden at a senior center. Inviting the family, friends, and neighbors extends the power of healing to the community.
4. Company employees can support healing and compassion through messages of hope.
After 9/11, so many wanted to do something for those first responders and those who lost loved ones. That, in turn, gave birth to the New York Says Thank You Foundation. Members of the New York City Fire Department, survivors from the Towers, and others, were so taken by those who came to New York City to help, that after a devasting fire in San Diego County they went en masse to help with rebuilding. These efforts continued to support areas ravaged by tornadoes and other disasters.
But not everyone has the time or ability to travel to a place affected by a disaster. So “New York Says Thank You” led to an initiative called Stars of HOPE, which today provides myriad opportunities for volunteers to use art to convey messages of hope and healing to those in need, whether frontline workers, those experiencing homelessness, or others who have experienced violent crimes.
Today, companies can work with organizations such as Stars of HOPE, or can organize their own efforts such as including a personal note on a Meals on Wheels box, to enable their employees to provide hope—and a virtual hug—to those in need because of the pandemic.
An American Tradition of Service
Community service is at the heart of the American identity and democracy. In the 1830s, French aristocrat, diplomat, and chronicler of the United States Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “associating for mutual purpose, both in public and private” was America’s way to “overcome selfish desires” and nurture a “vibrant civil society.”
As in the aftermath of 9/11, companies can support employees in volunteering, community engagement, and offering messages of hope to those affected by the pandemic. In so doing, they will not only help those in need, but also provide their employees with a greater sense of connectedness and purpose—and help our nation heal and strengthen the bonds that underlie a civil and just society. As we recall those who lost their lives 20 years ago, and more recently in the pandemic, let’s honor their memory by getting to work in service to our communities.