The 'Ground Sense' from Ground Zero

Strategic Philanthropy
Thursday, September 1, 2011

I am sitting in a dark theatre and suddenly am aware all the doors are locked – how did they get locked and what am I doing here? The theatre didn’t seem that big but now seems vast – row after row of people all fixated on the stage from which emanates a cacophony of voices and rapid-fire images - beamed directly at me or at least so it seems.

At first I don’t understand but then it hits me – on the stage is a kind of play about 9/11 that projects every image ever recorded from that day until today, includes every word that has been written, every movie and TV show that has shamelessly stolen from the soul of that moment, and every self-serving non-book, Op Ed, presumptive speech, by every pundit and politician.

It’s the tenth anniversary you see,

 and the School of Drama must have had this ‘brilliant’ idea that if it was all put together in one place at one time, and the doors locked, audience unable to leave, we could put the terror behind us. Everything in one room, force feed the experience to everybody – yes everybody - and keep us there until we have come to our senses, and moved on.

I am very disturbed by what I see and hear – quite frankly it’s a mishmash - can’t really follow – overwhelmed -  I have had enough – don’t want to hear another word – don’t want to see another video – I want to leave this theatre - want to move on - where can I go?

The surfeit of response to the end of the ‘anniversary’ decade since September 11, 2001, is testimony to how we have not moved on, and that there is no place to go. Yet, the last thing we need is more rhetoric. William Carlos Williams has a poem about teaching townspeople how to perform a funeral and writes “for you have it over a troop of artists – unless one should scour the world – you have the ground sense necessary.”[1]

Do you need experts (artists) to tell you how you feel, how you ought to feel, and what you should do about it? I don’t think so. The ‘ground sense necessary’ from ‘ground zero’ is evident.  Let’s say we have been diverted - let slide - not taken advantage of – allowed others to subvert - the lessons we individually and collectively ‘learned.’

I am not alone in these reactions but can feel the pressure building, a powerful restlessness in the audience. The volume of sound from the stage increases – almost ear-shattering, the images whirling in a violent blur. I don’t think I can hold it together much longer... And then the theatre goes totally dark – and there is only silence.

Someone turns on the lights, soft at first, and there is a palpable sigh of relief, and a quiet murmuring, as people turn to one another, as I do to the person next to me. I look around and the theatre is transformed. Where the audience had been is now a broad circular stage that extends beyond my line of sight – there may be millions of people – I don’t know. The assembly is buzzing with passionate expression. There is crying, and laughter, and everything in-between.

The School of Drama must be immensely pleased. Each of us in the audience-turned-actors has overcome the truth inherent in all plays that “no one really listens to what anyone else is saying”[2].  Somehow we were listening to the person next to us, and those beyond, and beyond.

In this ‘theatre’, in this moment, we have achieved “the resonance of the opposite”[3]- able to express ourselves “with full tone and complete imaginative intensity…while still catching the resonance of the opposite” - and we are with strangers, with others we do not know! There is no ‘other’ - we are one. It is remarkable. It is the public commons we yearn for!

In December 2001, I wrote an article for World Link – the magazine of the World Economic Forum – that attempted to predict the impact on philanthropy from the terrorist attacks of September 11th.  In reviewing the article I tried to get a sense of the changes that have occurred – in our society, in our world and in the field of philanthropy – since that fateful day.  I wanted to see where we stand 10 years later. Looking back I was struck by this part in particular:

There are many questions hanging in the air but there is one discernible theme that has elements of redemption, even hope. It is the overwhelming expression of community, of oneness and the remarkable solidarity of a society. America prides itself on its pluralism, its cacophony of voices, and we work at it - sometimes to a fault. September 11 has brought the Congress together with a President who previously had little chance of achieving consensus.  There has been a reaching out, a holding on to each other.

Oh, how far we have moved away from that oneness, that solidarity, that hope. Society today seems to be increasingly – impossibly – polarized; but what about the business of philanthropy?

In the article I propose ways that philanthropy could play an important role in shaping the post-9/11 world. The potential for long-term collaborative efforts - to promote safety, security, peace, tolerance, protection of civil rights - is palpable.  Strategies and themes include:

  •  Fostering tolerance and understanding among individuals, communities, ethnic and religious groups within and among nations.
  • Promoting global peace, security, harmonious relations, and conflict resolution.
  • Protecting civil liberties, privacy, and other democratic principles.
  • Recognizing and supporting unsung community heroes, and other opportunities to support and build community and a global civil society.
  • Helping established religions and religious leaders find common ground in their moral positions relating to violence, terrorism, justice, and strengthen their voices.
  • Building support for education, economic development, and alleviation of poverty throughout the world; and supporting debate about foreign policy and other activities that directly or indirectly affect people in other countries.
  • Sorting out and coordinating important roles to be played by corporations, individuals, religious leaders, philanthropic and non-profit entities, government and indigenous populations.
  • Facing squarely the issues of globalization and encouraging and supporting true dialogue among the parties at interest.

So, where do we stand now?

Over the past ten years, more foundations, more donors, and more NGOs, have increasingly focused on addressing many of these strategies and related themes, and that does represent progress.

 U.S. philanthropy is more global than before.

 Since 9/11 the intersections and linkages between issues facing the U.S. and the rest of the world have become clearer, and public perspective broadly reflects that change, even if what to do about these issues has not.

 With philanthropy, there is, and always will be, a relevance question.

 Is philanthropy’s role material to the scale of issues that are rooted in massive social, cultural, and religious disruptions – the answer today is no.

Could it become so in the future? I believe the answer is yes, but only in combination with others – Civil Society, corporations, social enterprises based on the market economy or hybrids, and government. Multi-sector collaborations and vehicles bring diverse perspectives, and new ways of working together, and do create synergy, and greater impact, but in themselves they are not enough.   

Philanthropy’s greater relevance lies in its moral dimension, and the moral heat is rising world-wide – around civil unrest, around the wealth disparity and poverty, around health, around the environment and development. If we are to achieve increased “oneness and solidarity” – without which no real progress on any of these issues can be made – we need an actor on the world stage with the opportunity and the freedom to unlock that potential. Philanthropy could be that actor.    


I now live in the ‘theatre’ and do not ever want to leave. Our numbers have been growing, but there is much work to do.      

[1] William Carlos Williams, from the poem Tract, Al Que Quiere! New Directions, 1917, Penguin Selected Poems, 1976

[2] From Prospero’s famous speech that ends Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest

[3] The phrase resonance of opposites is from Kierkegaard