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Global Crises, Local Impacts: A Roundtable for Mayors and other Local Government Officials on Threats to Social Cohesion & How Cities Can Respond

— 19 minutes reading time

On 30 April 2024, the Strong Cities Network, in partnership with the Picker Center for Executive Education at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, convened more than 20 mayors and other officials from cities across the United States to discuss how global crises, such as Israel-Gaza, are impacting their cities and the steps they are taking to maintain social cohesion in the midst of increasing hate, extremism and polarisation. They shared challenges, lessons learned and good practices and identified ways to strengthen city-led responses that can de-escalate increasingly divisive situations, including by leveraging existing Strong Cities and other resources. 

Framing Remarks

Louis Molina, New York City’s Assistant Deputy Mayor for Public Safety, shared how New York City, as a global city, is experiencing the impacts of various global crises in its communities everyday but particularly from the Israel-Gaza crisis most recently. He emphasised the city’s diversity as its greatest strength while highlighting New York’s efforts to navigate the balance between freedom of expression and public safety, particularly in the face of rising hate crimes against Jewish and Muslim communities. He highlighted Mayor Eric Adams’ commitment to fostering solidarity among neighbours and preventing hate and polarisation through initiatives like Breaking Bread and Building Bonds, which “promotes inter-community dialogue and celebrates common humanity over a meal”. In the face of rising hate, Deputy Mayor Molina stressed the importance of bridging cultural divides, instilling common values, promoting critical thinking skills in students and implementing effective law enforcement strategies and community partnerships to ensure the safety and well-being of all residents.

Louis Molina, New York City’s Assistant Deputy Mayor for Public Safety

Strong Cities Executive Director, Eric Rosand added that the local impacts felt by New York City have also been experienced in cities across the country. He noted that these global crises, and the misinformation and conspiracy narratives that often surrounds them, are fuelling different forms of hate and extremism, all of which threaten social cohesion. He shared how mayors and other city leaders have been pursuing and/or seeking out approaches to mitigate the impacts of this crisis on their residents, adding that this roundtable was a part of wider Strong Cities’ efforts – through its Global crises, local Impacts initiative – to help cities address these challenges.

Theme 1: The Israel-Gaza crisis, and the misinformation and conspiracy narratives online surrounding it, have contributed to a rise in offline antisemitic and anti-Muslim hate and violence across the United States, with malign actors using the crisis, including the student protests surrounding it, to stir up discord

Katherine Keneally, Director of Threat Analysis and Prevention at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) highlighted the rise in anti-Muslim and antisemitic narratives online catalysing offline manifestation of hate and violence against these communities across the country. She noted the rapid spread of mis- and disinformation from fringe platforms to mainstream social media platforms and how nefarious actors are targeting young people, in particular, with misleading narratives (and violent content) related to the crisis.

Rebecca Ulam Weiner, Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism at the New York City Police Department (NYPD) said her office was seeing these same online trends influencing offline mobilisation to violence in New York City. She emphasised how malign actors (both state and non-state) are using the current crisis to try “to stir up discord” and that they take advantage of a social media environment that “makes things worse than they actually are”. Describing the threat environment as “everything at once” rather linked to specific ideologies or groups, she echoed Ms. Keneally’s assessment that hybridisation of extremist groups is increasing content online that promotes violence mobilisation, including bomb threats, swatting incidents (particularly focusing on houses of worship) and vandalism.

Rebecca Ulam Weiner, Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism, New York City Police Department (NYPD)

Although both acknowledged that the protest environment on college campuses has been largely peaceful, Ms. Keneally and Deputy Commissioner Weiner warned that extremist and other malign groups are using university and police responses to the student protests to promote narratives of government repression and censorship to stir up anti-government sentiment in local communities.

Theme 2: City Councils should carefully consider their role when global crises impact and divide their communities, focusing on fostering community cohesion, and work closely with mayors’ offices and community-based actors, including faith leaders, to help de-escalate tensions and bridge divides between communities affected by international crises such as Israel-Gaza

Participants agreed that city councils are effective tools for ensuring the concerns of communities are heard and their voices inform the polices they enact. However, the point was made that they should focus their limited resources on addressing issues on which they can have a positive and practical impact. While acknowledging that a growing number of councils are being pressed by their constituents to take a stand on the Israel-Gaza crisis, some questioned whether this is an appropriate use of these bodies’ limited time and resources. It was noted that time spent on this crisis thousands of miles from their communities meant less time and fewer resources for addressing residents’ more immediate and practical needs.

Councilmembers from Athens (Ohio), Raleigh (North Carolina) and Rochester (New York) shared their recent experiences serving on city councils that were called upon to pass cease fire resolutions. Some shared, for example, how community divides generally lingered following the adoption of such resolutions, which generally failed to adequately address the concerns of constituents on either side of the debate.

Athens, Ohio councilmember-at large, Micah McCarey, said his community was calling on the city council to “not do nothing” in the midst of the ongoing Israel-Gaza crisis. However, he said it was difficult to gauge public opinion on a cease fire resolution and wanted to find more ways for city councils to measure public opinion on community calls for action on sensitive and potentially divisive issues and to ensure any council action (or decision not to act) is informed by the views of the wider community rather than its most vocal members.   

Participants pointed to the contributions city councils can make to maintain social cohesion during a global crisis that is having a diverse impact on its communities. In this context, they emphasised the importance of closer cooperation between city council and the mayor’s office and community partners, particularly faith leaders, to develop, support and inform inter-communal dialogues.

In the case of Rochester, New York, councilmember Mitch Gruber said the adoption of the cease-fire resolution helped move the conversation surround the Israel-Gaza crisis outside of the council chamber and allowed the council to return its focus to its core business. He encouraged mayors to work with their city councils to build dialogue initiatives with community partners to ensure they all can support each other during times of increased polarisation. Mayor Tim Kelly of Chattanooga, Tennessee said mayors should facilitate dialogues with communities and faith leaders on divisive global issues such as Israel-Gaza and ensure that the discussions therein inform the city’s approach to addressing hate and lessening polarisation in such potentially divisive moments.

Further, councilmember Megan Patton from Raleigh, North Carolina shared how she would like to restart the mayor’s “committee for compassion” or adapt NYC’s Breaking Bread and Building Bonds programme in her community. Councilmember at-large McCarey said he has asked Athens’ community relations commission to work on this issue, guided by resources from networks like, Strong Cities, and learning from other city-led efforts.

Participants also discussed role of city councils in response to a hate- or extremist-motivated incident, acknowledging the unique strengths and relationships city councils bring to crisis response efforts.  Reflecting on his time as Mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bill Peduto emphasised the need for collaboration between the mayor’s office and city councils in such situations and participants underscored the importance of ensuring alignment and shared goals between the two entities.

Theme 3: Proactive, city-led multi-actor approaches help mitigate the impacts of global crises, but small and mid-sized cities, in particular, need more guidance and other support for these efforts that are tailored to their needs

Participants agreed that multi-actor approaches have yielded positive results in addressing local impacts of global crises, particularly in addressing community tensions and reaffirming public safety. Adam Geer, Director of Public Safety for the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, highlighted newly-elected Mayor Sharad Parker’s efforts to unite the city amid campus protests and rising youth gun violence within the city’s Muslim community driven by the Israel-Gaza crisis. He shared how she convened Imams across the city to discuss how they can work with her office to promote violence mitigation measures.

Wangari Fahari, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) for the City of Beverly, Massachusetts, underscored the important role that DEI offices like hers can play in uniting communities divided by global crises, but that need resources and support from other city agencies to ensure success of these efforts. She shared how her office attempted to organize interfaith humanity-centred dialogues to mitigate community concerns expressed after 7 October, but that the different affected communities in Beverly were not ready to engage with each other. As a result, the City organised dialogues with individual affinity groups, which she hoped will help lay the foundation for bringing together the different groups.

Greg Wong, Deputy Mayor of Seattle, Washington, spoke about some of the challenges the City faced trying to engage community organisations and leaders on city-led prevention efforts in response to the rise in hate crimes and threats to soft targets in Seattle. Echoing the sentiment of other participants, he said that “global crises feel somewhat out of scope for cities to address”. Instead, the City has focused on consistent messaging around the impact that a global crisis has on public safety in Seattle. He underscored the importance of coordinating with neighbouring cities and state and federal partners in managing the local impacts of such crisis, pointing to the approach that Seattle helped lead regarding the migrant crisis. Such a model, he suggested, could be applied to managing the local impacts of other ones. 

Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said that more attention should be given to connecting the dots among national-, state- and city-led efforts to mitigate the impact of global crises on local communities, with a particular emphasis on the critical, but often overlooked, role mayors and local governments can play.   

Participants underscored the importance of cities being prepared to respond to global crises that are impacting an increasing number of communities around the country. It was noted how, given the nature of the threats, even cities in rural parts of the country need to be prepared and they should be taking steps to proactively address polarisation and enhance social cohesion to help mitigate the impact that a crisis such as Israel-Gaza will have on their residents.

Participants shared approaches for doing so. These ranged from leveraging social media to consistently communicate city-led mitigation efforts, community dialogue programming and providing reassurance through strategic communications that community concerns are being heard. Deanna Logan, Director of the New York City’s Mayors Office of Criminal Justice, spoke to the effectiveness of “human-to-human” programming between communities with a history of tension highlighting the annual soccer game her office coordinates between Hasidic and Caribbean youth to strengthen cross-cultural bonds. She also shared how New York City’s Mayor, Eric Adams, also initiated a programme – Talk with Eric – that hosts neighbourhood-specific community conversations that allow New Yorkers to engage with members of the Mayor’s administration on a wide variety of issues and concerns to residents of the relevant community. Discussion topics range from the migrant crisis to quality-of-life issues, public safety and youth programming. Emphasising a “one city” approach to addressing community concerns, she said this programme helps the city respond to needs of its communities.

Former Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Mayor, William Peduto, shared how multi-actor community impact networks can aid city-led violence prevention efforts. He pointed to how Pittsburgh’s interfaith network’s efforts to increase after-school programming and public transportation in underserved communities have helped mitigate grievances that often contribute to mobilisation to violence.

Small cities across the country cannot sit back and wait for the impacts of global crises to reach them. Now is the time to plan and prepare resources to respond.

Dontario Hardy, Mayor of Kinston, North Carolina

Theme 4: City-led strategic communications in times of global or other crises should be compassionate, inclusive and consistent

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The roundtable shined light on the need for consistent strategic communications from city hall in times of crises to mitigate pervasive mis- and disinformation and conspiracy narratives that can escalate tensions within or between communities. Mayor Dontario Hardy of Kinston, North Carolina emphasised the importance of providing immediate resources and uplifting messaging following an incident or crisis. He stressed that city leaders must anticipate their next steps before making public statements, emphasise actions the city will take and prioritise “compassionate community engagement”. Echoing this last point, Broadview, Illinois Mayor Katrina Thompson said that delivering an inclusive and compassionate message requires ensuring that the mayor understands the trauma that communities may be experiencing, including by leveraging relationships with community leaders. 

Participants also discussed the importance of mayors “cutting through the social media noise” surrounding a global or other crisis impacting the communities to engage residents, Mayor Thompson emphasised the mayor’s role as a spokesperson for the entire community and advised mayors of small cities to consider hiring “good public relations talent” to help maximise the impact of community engagement efforts. She also shared that smaller cities often coordinate their strategic communications with neighbouring cities to present unified messaging. It was noted, however, that such coordination efforts, while important, can take time, thus undermining efforts to be proactive. Mayor Thompson encouraged small city mayors to lead by example if trying to reach consensus with neighbouring cities on a strategic communications plan will impede proactive messaging.

Mayor Hardy suggested using various communication channels, including livestreams and press conferences, to disseminate time-sensitive messages effectively. Former Mayor Peduto emphasised the need for mayor’s offices to be mindful of the timing of crisis communication, citing examples where mistimed messages could have escalated tensions within or politicised traumatic events for affected communities.

Participants stressed the need for city officials to emphasise humility, empathy and compassion when they engage their residents in times crisis and how officials in small and mid-sized cities, in particular, could benefit from training in this area.

Theme 5: Investments in partnerships with community-based organisations and leaders and ensuring city policies and programmes are informed by the needs and concerns of communities can strengthen city-community trust and social cohesion that can mitigate impact of a global crisis at a local level

Participants agreed on the importance of cities being able to rely on existing partnerships with community-based organisations and leaders to minimise the impact that a global crisis such as Israel-Hamas can have on social cohesion within and among communities. Discussions highlighted how such partnerships can foster greater trust between communities and their local governments, promote diversity and inclusion among residents, as well as generate practical initiatives that effectively minimise the community-level impacts of global crises.

Samantha Smith, Civil Rights Manager for the City of San Antonio, Texas, emphasised the importance of breaking down barriers between the local government and communities to ensure that residents – including new arrivals – feel heard and valued. As an example of this she pointed to San Antonio’s efforts to address language barriers to access city resources, identify community needs through surveys and ensure the city budget is prioritising the greatest needs of its residents. She said San Antonio also established a Migrant Resource Center, which is run by Catholic Charities but includes one city government liaison and provides space for new arrivals and city officials to come together to talk about what they are seeing on social media (e.g., anti-migrant misinformation or conspiracy narratives) and how to mitigate any negative effects.

Husein Yatabarry, Executive Director of the Muslim Community Network in New York City, spoke to the challenges in addressing the rise of hate crimes against members of the diverse Muslim community in the city. He stressed the importance of partnerships with city agencies to combat hate crimes and bridge language access gaps to city resources. In the aftermath of 7 October, he has called on city leaders to listen more attentively to community leaders and youth activists from across the city’s Muslim community to better understand their concerns and trauma related to the Israel-Gaza crisis and to build trust and address mixed messaging from different parts of the city government, as well as from Washington, within effected communities.

Husein Yatabarry, Executive Director, Muslim Community Network, New York City

Kajori Chaudhuri, Deputy Commissioner of the Community Relations Bureau at the NYC Commission on Human Rights, highlighted her agency’s role in fostering community relations and investing in anti-hate initiatives. She advocated for intentional partnerships with “anchor organisations”, such as the Muslim Community Network, to promote diversity and combat biases while stressing the need for proactive engagement with faith leaders and community groups as an effective tool to combat misinformation that threatens community cohesion. She highlighted other examples of programmes born out of strong local government – community partnerships. These include educational workshops on digital literacy and critical thinking, as well as anti-bias training in schools, all of which can be leveraged at the community level.

Participants shared approaches their cities are taking build trust between historically marginalised communities and the police, including to increase the willingness of the former to report bias and hate incidents to the latter and ensure police forces look like the communities they serve. These include a co-responder model for crisis response that pairs trained police officers with mental health professionals to respond to incidents or through dedicated victim support liaisons, with NYC having established the first stand-alone municipal office of its kind in the United States.

Theme 6: Small and mid-sized cities in particular need more tools and support, tailored to their often unique needs, to prevent and respond to the rise in hate and polarisation in their communities linked to global crises

To unleash the full power of cities to prevent polarisation and maintain social cohesion in the face of global crises such as Israel-Gaza, participants agreed that more resources, funding and opportunities for city-to-city sharing and learning are needed, with a particular emphasis on small- and mid-sized cities. In this context, they highlighted a number of specific needs:

Overall, participants acknowledged that whole-of-city-approaches are needed to mitigate local impacts of global crises that align and are supported by county, state and federal approaches. They recognised that city-led, multi-actor approaches to addressing global crises have yielded better outcomes than siloed initiatives and thus should be enhanced, scaled and replicated to help communities withstand the impacts that such crises can have on social cohesion.

Strong Cities Executive Director, Eric Rosand, referred participants to the various tools and guides Strong Cities has developed to support enhanced city-led efforts to prevent hate and extremism in the face of increasing tensions from global crises. He reaffirmed Strong Cities commitment to providing more opportunities for city-to-city learning and knowledge sharing through Strong Cities programming like the Transatlantic Dialogue Initiative and partnerships with organisations such as the National League of Cities, the US Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Prevention, Programs, and Partnerships and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He also pointed to the Strong Cities on-going monthly webinar series on Global Crises, Local Impacts and upcoming workshops in Montreal, Canada in May and Columbus, Ohio in September, as well a Strong Cities Mayoral Retreat in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in August as opportunities for continued in-person sharing and learning among cities experiencing the diverse impacts of global crises on their communities.

As a city representative, it’s easy to feel isolated and, as a result of this convening, I have a renewed spirit knowing we aren’t alone.

Megan Patton, City Councilmember, Raleigh, North Carolina

This roundtable was made possible due to the generous support from the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation and partnership with the Picker Center for Executive Education at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. A special thank you is owed to the City of New York for providing the venue.  

For more information on this event or Strong Cities ongoing initiatives on Global Crises, Local Impacts and Transatlantic Dialogue programming, please contact Allison Curtis, Deputy Executive Director at [email protected]