Thayer Global Speaker Series: Kayyem touts benefits of preparation
An international leader in crisis management and homeland security, Juliette Kayyem does not believe in perfection but is an ardent advocate for preparation. The educator and author recently shared that proactive message, as well as several takeaways from her decades of experience in those fields, with Thayer’s Upper School community.
“We can learn to fail safer,” is how Kayyem, the faculty chair of the Homeland Security and Security and Global Health Projects at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, put it during the April 4th event. The latest installment of the Thayer Global Speaker Series, “The Devil Never Sleeps: Learning to Live in an Age of Disasters”, the discussion was also viewed by a livestream audience and is available to watch on the Academy’s YouTube channel.
The event’s title refers to Kayyem’s recent book of the same name, a work which The New Yorker described as an “engagingly urgent blueprint for rethinking our approach to disaster preparedness and response.” At Thayer, Kayyem discussed her book, her career, and her take on crisis management with Dr. Timothy Patrick McCarthy, an award-winning scholar with a joint faculty appointment at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and John F. Kennedy School of Government. Primed with student and faculty questions, McCarthy, who is also a Thayer Scholar-in-Residence, kept the hour-long discussion lively and informative.
Kayyem provided her audience a different way to think through crises, beginning with helpful terminology. She defined a crisis as “a disruption to the core capabilities of an institution” and offered the term “Boom” to describe the exact moment a crisis occurs. “Left of Boom,” then, is the preparation that takes place before a crisis, and “Right of Boom” is the response which occurs after a crisis. The key, she said, is first accepting that crises are unavoidable at a societal level and then taking concrete steps to minimize damage.
Calling herself “a disaster chaser,” Kayyem said it’s impossible to achieve complete invulnerability from crises via preparation but that planning ahead is the right place to start. Grounding herself in the reality of what can and can’t be done, she cautioned against the extremes of “tuning out” and “freaking out” when it comes to a catastrophic event.
“I don’t seek perfection,” she told the audience. “Either you become paralyzed with fear and do nothing or you become a prepper, and we don’t want either of these.”
Once a crisis has occurred (i.e., Right of Boom), Kayyem said, an institution’s ability to respond is limited in time. One strategy, therefore, is to “extend the runway” and buy more time for an adequate response. Here, Kayyem used the example of the recent COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, which was designed to mitigate the damage to society as treatments and vaccines were developed. The more time an institution or government has to respond to a crisis, she said, the more options it will have at its disposal.
While Kayyem, who served as a homeland security advisor for both Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and President Barack Obama, does believe disasters are inevitable, she said her approach is far from fatalistic. In fact, she said, the title of her book comes from a comment made by a woman in Joplin, Missouri, whom Kayyem met as the Obama administration worked to provide disaster relief from devastating tornadoes. The woman’s faith was an active one, Kayyem noted, and the woman’s words — “The devil never sleeps, but he only wins when we don’t do better next time” — struck a chord with the Harvard professor.
“We have agency,” Kayyem said. Later in the conversation, she added: “I have faith in our species. We do have the capacity to adapt.”
A Pulitzer Prize-finalist, Kayyem is also an on-air national security analyst for CNN as well as a contributing writer for The Atlantic and GBH, Boston’s local NPR station. Among other works, she is the author of Security Mom: My Life Protecting the Home and Homeland and one of three editors, along with Chappel Lawson and Alan Bersin, for Beyond 9/11: Homeland Security in the Twenty-First Century. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and three children.
The Thayer Global Speaker Series brings thought leaders, innovators, and difference-makers to the Thayer campus to engage the community in issues that matter to the world.