GAZETTE: You were both in the BHCLI second cohort alongside mayors from cities with populations ranging from 100,000 to 12 million. What was it like to work alongside mayors from across the country and world, with different populations, facing different issues?
WOODFIN: The best way to learn is through difference. I come from a city that has high poverty, that has a 74 percent Black population. It’s the fourth-Blackest city in America. Twenty-two percent of my city are elderly. My city is an outlier. And so I was definitely able to learn from other mayors whose cities are more diverse in race, more diverse in age, who have more diverse industries, a more diverse tax structure. Definitely various mayors and cities’ tax structures are very different.
SHEEHAN: I remember one amazing moment with the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, who was in my class. We were talking about how you build legitimacy around [the vaccine]. She told the story about how they were dealing with an Ebola outbreak, how the doctors were trying to get people to follow these guidelines, to not do what they normally would do in situations when they’re caring for the sick. Eventually, one of the leaders of a nearby town said, “You know, it gets really hot here, and so in the afternoon, in the height of the sun, many people gather under the trees, and they have conversations as they gather to cool off. You need to meet with people under the trees and talk to them about why they need to do this.” And she explained that when they started to have those conversations under the trees, that was when people within the community started to change their behaviors; it was building legitimacy with those elders, those trusted voices in the community. It was those quiet conversations that really helped to change people’s hearts and minds and started to turn the tide on the epidemic. It doesn’t always have to be a big public meeting. It doesn’t have to be us blaring information at people. It’s meeting people where they are, under the trees and building trust — and then having those individuals take that message and spread it through the community. I think about that all the time.
GAZETTE: You referenced some of the ways you needed to be able to respond to the pandemic. Are there elements of the program that suddenly became particularly relevant over the course of the last year?
SHEEHAN: We’ve been through this unprecedented experience, and there was really no playbook to follow. But the [BHCLI experience] really helped provide a center of gravity and keep us tethered, even if that tethering was just helping us to effectively communicate in a world of a lot of unknowns. I found that incredibly helpful. I was able to say, “OK, with all of the issues that are swirling around us, how do I break it down into digestible pieces of information that will be helpful to my residents and businesses in the city of Albany as they try to navigate these uncharted waters?”
We are somewhat “a tale of two cities.” We have affluent areas, and then we have areas with really significant challenges. For example, [COVID] testing wasn’t getting to certain communities in the city of Albany, and it became really important for us to advocate to make that happen. It also become important to reach out to the community partners who could help us to get that message back to those in power to say, “You’re doing thousands of tests every day in the city of Albany, but guess who’s not getting tested? Our residents.” People were driving here from the surrounding suburbs and taking advantage of this mass testing site, and so the vaccines were not getting to people who are really the most vulnerable to this disease. As mayor I didn’t have the power to set up a testing facility [the health department resides in the county], so I had to figure out the more informal channels to help make that happen. The [BHCLI program] helped me think about where I did have a role and really helped me to figure out how, as a mayor, I can use information to determine where we need to focus more efforts and where we need to more effectively communicate.
WOODFIN: I will call it the art of storytelling. The program showed me that we have to frame things so people can connect. Oftentimes as leaders, we only want to talk about facts, about numbers. But it doesn’t work like that. You want to connect with the everyday people you serve. Unfortunately, I’m in a position to tell people that my great-grandmother died from the coronavirus at age 87. I tell people, “I know many of you all in the community have lost a loved one, or you’ve had a loved one hospitalized. I know this is real.” And we can talk about how we still have to hunker down, to socially distance. We still need to get tested and to get the vaccine, because it’s the best way to save lives and to get back to our way of life. Bloomberg-Harvard really homed in on showing how to be a better communicator through storytelling, through connecting with the people. I think it would have been easier to stand in front of our citizens and just give stats and numbers. But that’s not it. It’s about connecting with the people.