Last night as I watched President Obama announce that U.S. Special Forces had taken out Osama Bin Laden, I felt transported back to September 11, 2001. At the time, I was the Vice President of Government & Public Affairs for the National Community Associations Institute (“CAI National"). Our offices were located in Alexandria, Virginia which is a suburb of Washington, DC and a stones throw away from Reagan National Airport and the Pentagon.
Barbara Byrd Keenan, then CEO of CAI National, was convening our weekly Executive Team meeting when we heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. We thought it was odd and assumed a propeller plane had hit one of the towers. Minutes later, we received word that planes had hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Several of us ran up to the patio located on the roof of our high rise building and could see black smoke billowing out of the Pentagon. There was no doubt about it – the United States was under attack.
After receiving word that more planes were potentially incoming into Washington, DC, Barbara convened the entire staff of CAI National and with great leadership and compassion announced that the entire building was being evacuated and we should make our way home as safely and calmly as possible. A communications system was quickly set-up to ensure that everyone made it home.
Sitting in a traffic jam watching fighter jets patrol the bright blue skies over Washington, DC, I knew our lives had dramatically changed. For the first time, we all began planning evacuation strategies from the city as we watched missile launchers being placed on the National Mall and braced ourselves for potential chemical attacks. It was a time of great unity and collective fear.
At CAI National, we were looking for a way that community associations could participate in this tragically unifying experience. We launched Operation Old Glory – which urged all associations in the United States to relax any rules against flying flags and to permit residents to fly the American Flag as an expression of their collective patriotism and support for the victims of September 11th. Immediately, communications began flowing in from associations across the country letting us know they were proudly participating. The feeling of unity brought to these communities was palpable. Forgotten were the petty differences that can sometimes be present in associations.
Looking back on the months following September 11th, I have to wonder when and why many associations lost the sense of collective unity. Do we need to experience a tragedy to get past our petty differences? Is there a way to keep our sense of community even in good times?
We invite you to share your memories of September 11th and thoughts on how we can build and maintain a sense of community in associations.