A Creative Recovery

Posted on by Elizabeth Murphy, Director, Creative New Jersey

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This month we mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Sandy crashing upon New Jersey and our neighboring states.  While it was painfully obvious that Sandy was a monumental storm of the highest magnitude, I don’t think any of us realized in the days after the water subsided, that one year later we would still be dealing with relief issues and still have thousands of families all over the region who are not back in their homes.  Friends and colleagues who live and work in communities that were not impacted by the storm are shocked to learn that our “Sandy communities” are still struggling with accessing recovery dollars from the State; insurance claims; FEMA registrations; SBA applications; the new Base Flood Elevation maps; dune construction; beach replenishment; reduced tax base for municipalities; coastal and urban planning challenges; and the high stress and anxiety that comes from losing your home, your neighbors and in some cases, your entire community.

Image by award-winning illustrator Yuko Shimizu

One year later, I am reminded of the very sobering statistics regarding Sandy’s impact on New Jersey:  preceding the storm, more than 116,000 New Jerseyans were under mandatory evacuation.  Immediately following the storm, more than 2.7 million households and businesses were without power, as well as over 1,000 schools.  127 shelters were open at the height of the storm’s sheltering effort with an estimated 7,000 residents.  There were nearly 600 full or partial road closures.  New Jersey’s regional mass transit operations and infrastructure were hard hit, causing system-wide disruptions of NJ Transit and PATH service, including impacts to Hudson River/NYC crossings.  All New Jersey schools were closed for two days, and hundreds more remained closed beyond that.  More than 8,000 jobs were lost in November – mostly in our leisure and hospitality industries.  Nearly 1,400 vessels were either sunken or abandoned in our waterways during Sandy.  Through early January, the State of New Jersey and its contractors removed over 2.5 million cubic yards of debris.   More than 263,000 households, across all of New Jersey’s 21 counties, registered for FEMA assistance.  The estimated damage to housing in NJ is nearly $5 billion.

Image by award-winning illustrator Yuko Shimizu

So….what does this have to do with creativity?  It has everything to do with creativity and its siblings’ innovation and sustainability.  In theory, we’re all in favor of creativity….right?  Corporations tout the benefits of employing a creative workforce—President Obama talked about the need to think and act more creatively when dealing with climate change—countless authors and scholars have penned examples of innovation that comes from embracing our creative capacities (remember the breakthrough innovations that came out of NJ’s Bell Labs, especially Telstar?). However, even though the idea of creativity has entered the mainstream, many of us still don’t think of ourselves as being creative.  However, if our beloved Garden State is going to fully recover from the devastation of Sandy, we need all New Jerseyans to open their minds to the notion that each and every one of us are inherently creative.

What might a creative recovery look like for us?  The New Jersey Recovery Fund (an innovative funder collaborative led by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the Community Foundation of New Jersey) believes in the importance of creativity….of transcending traditional ideas and rules in order to design resilient and sustainable systems, processes and communities.  Representing an original proposition for us in New Jersey, the NJRF leaders brought their grantees together in order to foster a collaborative approach to carrying out our discreet recovery projects.  This encouraged all of us to develop new relationships, to create new methods and to embrace different interpretations of our work.  Our goal then and now remains the same:  to have the greatest positive impact for the people of New Jersey.

For all of us involved with our Creative New Jersey movement, our own work has expanded as a result of forging new partnerships with many of our fellow NJRF grantees, and we are launching our creativity community engagement model in six Sandy communities.  Also, we were pleased to be a part of WHYY and the PENN Center for Civic Engagement’s community conversations on “Ready for Next Time”, and we are taking part in the Citizen’s Campaign’s upcoming journalism workshops in two Sandy communities.  Our new, long-term recovery partners include our friends at Sustainable Jersey and New Jersey Future, (in cooperation with the community planning division at FEMA), and we are adapting our cross-sector, community engagement model to support the important processes they are undertaking in several of NJ’s hardest hit communities.  We continue our ongoing relationships with our arts and cultural leaders who are working on the recovery (such as Monmouth Arts and Young Audiences of NJ and Eastern PA) and are developing new ties with Rutgers University’s NJ Climate Adaptation Alliance and environmental organizations such as Clean Ocean Action and American Littoral Society.   Our collaborative approach will hopefully magnify all of our efforts.

Albert Einstein (a remarkable New Jerseyan) once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved with the same level of thinking we used to create them.” Our work in communities gathers people “at the intersection” of seemingly disparate disciplines, allowing for a host of diverse ideas to combine with others, thereby encouraging an explosion of potentially groundbreaking, creative ideas.

Our Creative New Jersey community believes that:

  • Imagination is the foundation of human creativity;
  • Creativity is innate in every human being and can be nurtured and developed;  and
  • Creativity and innovation bring about transformation and a shift in the worldview towards sustainability.

Our mission of championing creativity, innovation and sustainability through cross-sector collaboration has never been more important as we play a small, but hopefully transformative role in our state’s recovery.  May the creative force be with us all.

Elizabeth Murphy is the part-time Director of Creative New Jersey.  Her consulting practice serves several nonprofit and philanthropic clients, including the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers where she coordinates their efforts related to the Post-Sandy Philanthropic Response in NJ.

Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.

All images provided by Creative New Jersey.

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