Just seven months after being elected mayor of Parkland, Florida in 2016, Christine Hunschofsky was dealing with historic flooding: the first of several crises that would test her steadfast leadership style. That deluge was followed a few months later by Hurricane Irma. And then, in 2018, on Valentine’s Day, one of the most notorious school shootings in American history occurred, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Within the tight-knit community of mayors of American cities, Mayor Hunschofsky is a prominent national voice in crisis management and a fierce advocate for mental health. In light of COVID-19, I recently spoke with her about leadership during and after the crisis, and how arts, design, parks, and public space can be tools to unite and heal.
TS: Trinity Simons
CH: Christine Hunschofsky
No one who runs for office wants to find themselves as leaders in crisis management, but it seems more and more mayors are called to do just that. From 100-year floods that are happening much more often to school shootings to now COVID-19, you have, unfortunately, been through it all. What are the primary lessons you’ve learned when leading through a crisis?
First and foremost, you have to connect to the community. You have to let people know that you understand what they’re going through. That they’re hurting. That they’re anxious. That they’re scared. Then you have to show them a path forward. That is why it’s important that before any crisis, you’re connected to the public you serve. That is essential to being a good public servant and to getting things done in your community. We were one of the first cities in Broward County to issue a stay-at-home order. When we weren’t seeing action by the state, we had to ask ourselves, “Do we wait, or do we lead?” You cannot lead without the trust of your community.
The hardest part about COVID-19 is the uncertainty. During a hurricane, there is a lot of uncertainty: You don’t know if or when your community going to get hit. With this uncertainty comes stress and anxiety. It’s important to point out in those moments not only that you understand what the community is feeling, because you feel it as well, but what those things are that everyone does have control over. In a hurricane, while we often don’t know until the last minute whether or not we will be affected, we do have checklists that guide our preparation. Focussing on preparation helps mitigate the anxiety and stress that come from uncertainty.
But in a situation like COVID-19, there is a lot of unknown in addition to the uncertainty. And as a mayor, you have to be a quick study, go directly to the experts, and learn the facts. We have guidance from the CDC that we can share with residents on how to stay healthy, but we also have to quickly get up to speed on helping our small businesses and on the various funding streams available to cities. In this regard, nothing has been more valuable to me than my fellow mayors and the United States Conference of Mayors. None of us are going to come up with the best ideas all on our own. Collaboration is key.
We will eventually be on the other side of this, though the world may look different in ways that are hard to fathom right now. What lessons have you learned during the healing processes after weathering various crises?
People need to feel like they’re not alone. They need to know that other people understand what they’re going through, and that whatever they’re feeling, that’s OK. You want to immediately let people know what resources are available. In our area, we have Eagles’ Haven, a community wellness center that was created after the shooting. Like everyone else, they are figuring out how to deliver their services digitally, but after this is over, I expect they’ll be even more necessary for our community.
We’ve also seen in Parkland how arts and architecture can be tools to heal and unite. Through a Bloomberg Philanthropies public art grant, we partnered with neighboring Coral Springs to engage in various arts processes and installations after the shooting. The first was the Temple of Time, a David Best–designed wooden sculpture that was built with the help of members of our community. It was opened to the public for reflection exactly a year after the shooting, and destroyed in a ceremonial burning a couple of months later. People brought cherished mementos and notes for the burning. To create this magnificent temple, to spend time remembering and reflecting with it, and then to say goodbye to it, helped our community turn the page.
Other arts engagements from that grant included a performance, a documentary, and community-created art. The last piece is up now, a billboard installation by R&R Studios that spells out “PEACE & LOVE” in huge letters in flowers. It opened on the second anniversary of the shooting, a couple of months ago. It’s a little serendipitous that a piece meant to help us heal from the shooting is a message of hope during COVID-19, and one that you can experience in your car while being physically distant from others.
I can only imagine that the arts will play an important role in helping us heal after COVID-19. I’m not an artist, but I have always appreciated the arts and am learning how to describe their benefits. We’ve seen in Parkland that they can help people process complex emotions and bring communities together in positive ways by reminding us of our shared humanity.
We won’t always have to practice physical distancing, thankfully. Parkland is, of course, known for its parks. What do you think will be the lasting impacts on parks and public spaces in our cities? Will people flood back into them? Or do you think that health safety concerns will have a lasting impact?
The trails in our city have never been more popular! It’s ironic that it took physical distancing to make people want to connect with the world and nature again. Bikes have sold out everywhere around here. Longtime residents tell me they have never seen the Everglades before but are now out appreciating their beauty. I think in crisis, people are seeking out natural, peaceful places. And we know that while we may have times of crisis, people are all dealing with some kind of trauma in their lives. As a mayor, this moment drives home to me the importance of connecting all of those green and natural spaces, of giving people those places where they can “pause” long after this is over.
How are you getting support through all of this?
Well, we all have good days, bad days, and really bad days. I’ll say again that my most valuable resource are my fellow mayors at the Conference of Mayors. The people I’ve met there and the resources that have been available to me as a small city mayor—it’s nice to have the support of such compassionate human beings who also function as a board of experienced advisors.
And of course, my family. My two kids are home from college, and my husband isn’t traveling for work like he normally does. This is time I would have never had with them. I wish we weren’t losing lives and that people weren’t suffering financially and emotionally; I wish that essential workers weren’t putting their lives at risk everyday. In these times, it’s important to have moments of gratitude throughout the day in order to keep going. In crisis we must deal with the reality at hand while also keeping hope alive. It’s the only way to keep moving forward.
Featured image: “Peace & Love” billboard by R&R Studios; image via University of Miami.