Commentary: More on how to collaborate during crises

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates. 

On Friday, April 17, FreightWaves ran my Commentary: Grassroots organizations move faster in crises. In that commentary I argued that in order to effectively confront crises characterized by uncertainty, large, centralized organizations must partner with grassroots organizations in order to move fast.

While contemplating and writing that commentary, and even after it had been published, I worried that I might have missed something pretty obvious to someone with experience working in one of the agencies that I was critiquing. Nevermind that my commentary could be completely misinterpreted given how much pressure the people working in these large agencies are presently under.

But, I got lucky. Sandra Rothbard responded to a message I sent to members of The New York Supply Chain Meetup. We set up time to talk – by Zoom of course. I discovered that she would be able to help me fill in some of the gaps in my perception and knowledge of how such collaboration between grassroots organizations and large agencies functions.

COVID-19/SARS image
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Meet Sandra Rothbard – A former member of the NYC Emergency Management Team

Sandra Rothbard is a freight transportation planner and advocate. Having spent the last decade working for governmental agencies on goods movement, emergency logistics and solid waste management policies and project implementation, she now supports organizations as an independent freight consultant. Sandra earned a master’s degree in urban planning, reinforcing her passion for urban sustainability, resilience and community involvement. She is a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, TRB Freight Transportation Planning and Logistics Committee, is a founding board member of the Urban Assembly School for Global Commerce and served three terms as secretary of the Land Use Committee for Brooklyn Community Board 2.

Following is an interview between me and Sandra (SR). She recently moved to Amsterdam.

BLA: Tell me a little bit about how you came to be working for NYC Emergency Management (NYCEM).

SR: I’m an urban planner and was working in the freight office at the New York City Department of Transportation in the fall of 2012 when we were hit by Hurricane Sandy. Because of my expertise, I was asked to support the City’s Logistics Center, run by NYCEM, to route trucks and provide wayfinding plans for drivers bringing emergency supplies and equipment to the City’s Logistics Staging Area at Citi Field.

BLA: What did you do as the Director of Supply Chain Logistics for the agency?

SR: After Sandy, I joined NYCEM full-time and created a new group focused specifically on emergency supply chain logistics. I had a great team working on a number of programs to help supply chains before, during and after an emergency. We improved and expanded Logistics Center capabilities, coordinated the tracking of city-owned emergency equipment and developed plans to prevent and respond to breakdowns in supply chains and freight infrastructure. We partnered with multiple public agencies in New York City and surrounding counties, the state and federal government as well as the private sector.

A photo showing the backs of many first responders.
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

BLA: What do you do now?

SR: I’m an independent freight consultant. I focus on sustainable and resilient freight transportation and advise clients on master planning, support research efforts and develop strategies to incorporate the latest innovations in freight into last mile projects.

BLA: When we spoke earlier, we talked a bit about how hard it usually is for grassroots organizations and large, bureaucratic agencies to collaborate with one another. I explore that a bit in my article. Based on your experience, why do you think this is the case?

SR: It’s important to note that many large agencies already work well with small organizations. Governments know they can’t do everything on their own, which is why they often turn to Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) and Mutual Aid groups for help. But collaboration can be difficult. Large agencies and institutions have a lot of rules and procedures to follow. There are more liability concerns around staffing, spending and safety than there are with smaller organizations, as well as a higher level of accountability from stakeholders. Small grassroots organizations are more agile and can respond faster. Also, they often focus on one very specific goal while large agencies and organizations are tackling an enormous number of initiatives. And it’s hard to collaborate when groups don’t know what others are doing. Small grassroots organizations that tend to pop up organically during disasters are often not aware of all the public/private sector plans and procedures already in place to help, whether that’s moving supplies and equipment, housing workers or feeding vulnerable populations.

The opposite is true as well. Large organizations and the government might not be aware of all the activities taking place at the grassroots level and there aren’t enough staff to coordinate efforts. Finally, there’s often a sense of mistrust between large and small organizations. Large groups can find it difficult to work with small groups that lack experience and scalability, while grassroots organizations can be skeptical of institutions.

Trucks lined up ready to deliver supplies. Sign says: "Wait for Escort."
(Photo credit: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

BLA: What should grassroots organizations know about working with large, government agencies and other large organizations?  

SR: It’s really important that small grassroots organizations know what the government and other organizations are already doing so they can help complement efforts without unnecessary duplication of services. It’s also critical that grassroots organizations think through the entire lifecycle of their efforts. It’s during emergencies that we see the best in others and watching people come together to help is inspirational. And while their hearts are in the right place, their actions might not be. Unsolicited goods/services can actually do more harm than good. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in past crises, physical donations have themselves created another emergency. When people donate items they think are necessary, they don’t always get the right thing to the right place at the right time. As a result, a large institution can become overwhelmed with goods and then must spend time, money, staff and space to house and organize the items, and often dispose of the goods in a landfill if they aren’t used. Most of the time, cash is the best way to help in an emergency because the groups that have experience responding to disasters already have relationships with governments, suppliers and other organizations, and can get the items most needed to those that need it most.

COVID-19, however, is different. In this crisis, the public has been asked to help donate money, food, space and supplies. The science is evolving and governments are working to keep up. But, the next disaster, even the next pandemic, will not be exactly the same as this one. It is so important for grassroots organizations to understand the potential for a donations disaster and make sure that they know exactly what, where and when donations are needed and have a sustainable reverse logistics plan for any unused items.

BLA: What should large organizations know about working with small, grassroots organizations? 

SR: Large organizations need to be creative about how grassroots groups can link to existing networks, as they are more agile and can help fill gaps. Governments and large institutions need to recognize the reality that when they don’t act fast enough (or appear to) or there is a lack of trust in the public sector, people will take things into their own hands. Large organizations should embrace small, grassroots groups not only during response but also recovery where they have the power to make a big impact.

BLA: What has the SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 crisis taught you that you didn’t know before? Is there anything that frustrates you as you can now only watch from afar as New York City grapples with this emergency?

SR: We’ve been told that this emergency is “unprecedented” but there are many similarities to past disasters. Like in prior crises, politics has gotten in the way of life safety, our most vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected and yet, so much could have been prevented. This is not the first emergency with a worldwide PPE shortage. H1N1 in 2009 and the Ebola outbreak in 2014 saw shortages of protective gear and yet we still don’t do enough to diversify supply chains, stock up on equipment and identify ways to reduce the reliance on single-use PPE. What is unprecedented is the level of “unknowns,” extreme misinformation and contradictory messaging from governments.

Our industry is always trying to get the public, non-profit and private sectors to recognize how critical supply chains are and how important it is to have redundancy and contingency plans. Not just for pandemics but any disaster. Hopefully this crisis will push for better planning and preparation for supply chain disruption.

It’s really hard to be far from friends and family, but I’m trying to support efforts remotely. I’m thankful for those on the front lines in New York City and around the world including the seemingly infinite list of essential workers and those growing, manufacturing, picking, packing, stocking and delivering goods.

Trucks in line to deliver supplies. There are public safety officers standing to the side of each truck.
(Photo credit: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Wrapping Things Up

I know how Sandra is feeling. My parents and siblings live in Ghana and Nigeria. Most of my relatives live in Ghana. I wake up every morning dreading what I might learn from the news. Like Sandra, I am thankful for everyone making an effort to overcome this crisis, wherever they may be in the world.

Since my original commentary ran, many more people have been infected by SARS-CoV-2. The COVID-19 pandemic does not seem like one that we will gain control over any time soon. It is easy for people like me who are on the outside to critique. It is more difficult to look past differences and work in unison with others to make a difference and solve problems.

But, that’s what we have to do if we are to overcome this crisis and come out stronger on the other side. That is the obligation we owe all the people who have already died, and those that we are yet to lose to this pandemic.

Yes. I was frustrated when I wrote the original commentary. I am also an optimist. I have an abiding faith in collaboration as a means to solve shared problems. I believe in the power of grassroots organizations, and I believe some problems are so big that only the government has sufficient might to solve them – even if it might need assistance from grassroots organizations.

If you are a team working on innovations that you believe have the potential to save lives during SARS-COV-2 and COVID-19, we’d love to tell your story in FreightWaves. I am easy to reach on LinkedIn and Twitter. Alternatively, you can reach out to any member of the editorial team at FreightWaves at