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After the storm…

by | Essay

The artist—and the artwork—caught our eye as soon as we saw them one recent quiet, locked-down morning. Kadir Nelson is an award-winning author and artist; some of you likely know his New Yorker covers, or his album art for artists like Drake, or have children’s books with his illustrations on your bookshelves right now as we do. But this time he was speaking to CBS Sunday Morning about the process of creating a new work inspired by the current global moment: After the Storm.

It’s immediately captivating. There are nearly two dozen people in this large painting, hands and arms clasped in solidarity, eyes all raised towards the same point as clouds break behind them. Kadir Nelson’s website explains that After the Storm is “a triumphant celebration of humanity, determination, faith, and solidarity. Nelson paints a diverse and prideful plinth of souls rising and supporting one another, gazing past heavy storm clouds as they collectively heal, gather strength, and move toward the promise of a brighter and stronger future. With this soaring new masterpiece, the artist celebrates the strength of the human spirit and challenges all of humankind to stand together, to look upwards and onward to create a path forward and set our sights on moving beyond our current challenges.”

We see the community, the diversity, the beauty, the hope. And yet we at Symphonic Strategies also recognize something else as we look at this painting: vulnerability. Many of the figures in the painting are people of color. There are a few infants and children, but also several older people, with their wise faces and silver hair. In the real world, will all of these people survive the storm? And, if they do survive this storm, how will they fare on the other side?

If there is one thing we have learned about the novel coronavirus, it is that it has very literally left the entire world unprotected, exposing our vulnerabilities. Yet, in one of its many cruel twists, the same people who were already the most physically vulnerable, economically vulnerable, and emotionally vulnerable before the pandemic find themselves in great peril. In the United States this has meant entire communities have been disproportionately affected, including African Americans, Native Americans, and older Americans. It’s not fair—just as structural inequality itself is not fair—but Nelson’s portrait encourages us to continue to cast our collective gaze forward, toward life after the storm.

Our hope, and our commitment as a firm, is that we will work harder to recognize the most vulnerable among us—the anonymous faces who stock store shelves, bag our groceries, deliver our mail, transport us throughout city streets, and tend to us when our bodies fail us. After the storm, what we choose to see will reveal who we have become.

About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.