Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Where I was on September 11th & how GRI helped

It was a terrible morning that most people won't ever forget. I recall arriving at work around 8.30am at the Tellus Institute in Boston (where the GRI spent its formative years - Ceres shared office space at the Tellus building back then!) and being aware immediately that something was wrong as I could feel tension, concern and confusion in the air. Some of us crowded around a TV screen in the meeting room and watched with horror as the events of that morning unfolded.

Most of us went home early in shock. Some of the planes took off from the Boston airport which set the city into a state of panic, and many of us knew people that would have reported for work around that time at the Twin Towers in nearby New York and were concerned for their safety.

The next morning Allen White (co-founder and acting Chief Executive of the GRI at that time) called myself and my colleague Mark Brownlie (GRI's former Communications Director) into his office. We were supposed to fly out on September 15th for a meeting of the so-called Measurement Working Group (MWG) - a group of nearly 100 people from all over the world and all backgrounds (corporate, investment, NGO, labor, accountants, you name it) in London where we would facilitate their talks on the development of the 2002 version of the GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines. Allen told us that the meeting was not canceled, that he had decided he would go, but that we could back out if we were not feeling secure. We both decided to join Allen and fly out on the 15th - just a few nervous days after 9-11-2001.

We eventually found ourselves in London along with nearly 100 MWG members from over 40 countries who had made the same decision as we did. Many, including Allen and I, had to incur major difficulties and travel itinerary changes to get there due to airport shut downs and new security measures. We were surprised that we had nearly 100% attendance, very few people chose not to come and very few refused to let long queues and fear stop them from traveling to this unique gathering.

I will never forget the way Allen White opened up that meeting. He reflected on the difficulties and risks that all had taken in order to be there and play their part in the development of the 2002 Guidelines. He said that our little microcosm of 100 participants committed to working together to achieve something - despite different languages, cultures, religions, citizenships, beliefs, and professional affiliations (not to mention opinions on how to measure environmental and social issues!) - was even more important post-9-11 than it was pre-9-11. Why? Because as long as we, as a global society, refuse to break down barriers and at the very least respect one another - if not try to understand one another - our future would never be a secure and sustainable one.

Maybe our group was just a drop in the bucket, but it was a start, and we were building something that would help standardize communications about important economic, environmental, and social issues globally which we felt could help break down barriers and misunderstandings even further.

GRI working group consensus-seeking processes are always incredible experiences for the participants as people learn (sometimes for the first time) to reach out across boundaries to try and understand one another - but the meeting in mid-September 2001 in London was an exceptional example of that. It was one of those experiences that changed my life both personally and professionally. I think of it every time I come across the stamp in my passport that marks my arrival at London Heathrow on 16 September 2001.

In memory of Carlton Bartels, climate change innovator.

1 comment:

Teresa Fogelberg said...

Dear Alyson,
Well written! An impressive tale.
I was on the phone with a very good friend who worked at the State Department. He and I worked on both side of the Ocean on the issue of climate change, he for the US government, and myself for the Dutch government. My friend was riding on the train from Washington to New York and we spent at least an hour on the phone, discussing cross Atlantic views on climate change. I heard him get off at Penn station, and heard him gasp.... then we were cut off. For many hours. I donot recall any meeting like yours. My memories of that time were mostly great worry about the sharpening of the political climate and our fears for less openness and understanding for non Western cultures and religions.
Indeed, GRI has only blossomed since then. And that´s a piece of consolation.
Teresa Fogelberg