I wrote the letter below on 9/17/2001 to the generative leadership learning community, since I was in New York on 9/11, and in the World Trade Center minutes before the first plane hit. It’s reflections of the change and challenge of 9/11 still ring true for me…

Thank You for Your Care

I extend my thanks to the many of you who contacted us with concern for me during the tragedy in New York. It was touching and grounding to know that those in our network were reaching out to us, and this was a welcome support to my family as I was separated from them last week.

I was in New York City for a conference for Chief Learning Officers, which opened on September 11th in downtown Manhattan.  I was staying with Helen Miller, the sister of my friend, and collaborator Jan Irene Perkins in Jersey City across the river from the World Trade Center. We took the ferry across the river to the World Financial Center, and I walked through the mall underneath the World Trade Center Towers to get to the subway about half an hour before the first plane hit. I was struck by the sheer mass of people that were walking through the facility. There were lines at the counters for tourists preparing to tour the towers.

I was at my conference at mid-town in Manhattan by 8:50 am and didn’t know about the attack until it was announced after the first speaker at 9:45 am. Helen, who works at a Wall Street location, evacuated her building and was walking back to towards the towers to get the ferry home when the first tower collapsed. She was two blocks away and had to run for her life. She eventually made it home at 6:00 pm after taking the Staten Island ferry.

I watched the televised reports and my gut sank with the buildings as they fell, and something immense beyond buildings broke in our world. I watched until early afternoon and then walked to the ferry station on the west side of Manhattan. There was about a five-hour line to the ferries when I got there, and the line grew steadily behind me. The subways, bridges, and tunnels had been closed, although one bridge was open to foot traffic. For many, this was the only way they could get back to New Jersey. The people in line were calm and extremely civil. I eventually took a bus to a location where cruise liners had been enlisted to ferry people. I wound up taking a tugboat with 70 other people, as many crafts were being used to ferry us.

As I walked from the ferry terminal, a mile to Hoboken, a group of blue-collar workers were gathered on the sidewalk, offering people drinks of water in paper cups. I felt ennobled by their acts, and more so by their spirit of support and solidarity.

Helen came to pick me up in Hoboken and we returned to her apartment. She had invited Miguel, a worker from her company’s mailroom, to stay because he could not get home that night. Since Miguel spoke little English, Helen expanded her dish-TV subscription to include Spanish channels so that Miguel could also have news. We alternately watched the news in Spanish and English. Miguel lives in Queens and left the next day, successfully making it home that night.

As for most of us, I experienced shock, grief, sadness, isolation, anger, hate, desolation, compassion, pride at the courage of others, and anxiety in the first days after. I wondered what I could do, how our future has been shifted, and what we will face in this new future. I have been reflecting on how we will rebuild our future, and believe this is a question for a design that challenges us all to participate in.

I was able to get a flight back from Newark to San Francisco on Saturday morning and found that people were serious and calm.  The flight crew was in an extraordinary mood of openness and care. I see that air travel, although a vehicle for the attack, is being made safe with the precautions that are being taken.

Our tragedy can lead us to fear, to anger, even hate, and to contract in our living. I believe it is a time to extend, not contract, to connect with others, and to explore how we will respond to this event, personally, communally, and nationally. I believe that the work that we do is needed even more, now that we must learn to design in a world with increased danger. We must learn to build a new level of trust, new practices for prudence, and to connect to a world that can no longer be ignored.

These are not times that are beyond our own individual actions. Our personal interpretations and actions will determine how we will live and experience living, and shape our relationships with others. If we are not to drift in fear and reaction, we must review and perhaps redesign the Selves that we are, how we will relate to others, and how we will relate to our world.

I plan to continue to travel as part of our work and to include in our concerns, learning, and design the challenges of facing a changing world, and rebuilding our future together. I invite you in your participation in our community of leadership and learning to explore deeply the issues and challenges of our new future and the opportunities for the design of how we will make a world in which we can live together with others.

With resolve and love,

Bob Dunham