What’s a chief resilience officer? Ferrini explains
26 Mar 2015
Source: El Paso Inc.
By: David Crowder
Resilience: The ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult situations; toughness. ~ Merriam Webster
El Paso’s first chief resilience officer, Nicole Ferrini, keeps getting the same questions about her new job.
“I started Dec. 1, so I am coming up on two months,” she said, “and I have probably been asked, ‘What the heck is chief resilience officer?’ and ‘What is resilience?’ about a million times.
“But that’s OK. It happens when you start something new.”
In an interview with El Paso Inc., Ferrini was asked those questions yet again, but she couldn’t offer hard and fast answers about what she’ll be doing because, she said, the answers are a work in progress.
The Rockefeller Foundation started a worldwide initiative called 100 Resilient Cities, funded with $100 million it will spend helping resilient cities get stronger and struggling cities to overcome their challenges.
El Paso made the list of the first 10 cities picked by Rockefeller in its first round, when a total of 32 cities were selected. Juárez was in the second group of 30 cities chosen.
Besides El Paso, the first 10 included San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans.
Among the factors the city of El Paso cited in its application were the city’s response to drought on one hand and to seasonal flooding on the other, its emphasis on smart growth and the commitment to improving mass transit.
The Rockefeller grant is funding Ferrini’s $117,500 salary for two years with the possibility of an extension. The salary is a small part of the foundation’s investment.
“I’m really proud that El Paso is standing shoulder to shoulder with 31 other cities selected globally from nearly 400 applications,” she said. “I’m from here, born and raised in El Paso, so to me this was a real coup.”
Asked to define Ferrini’s position, Kurt Fenstermacher, assistant to city manager Tommy Gonzalez, gave a definition of resilience: “The capacity of communities and businesses to survive, adapt and grow no matter what stresses or shocks they experience.
“In short, it’s about a community’s ability to respond to economic and environmental issues.”
For the first nine months, he said, “She’ll be surveying the community and helping to build a resilience plan.”
Ferrini’s orders will come directly from Gonzalez, and she will work and consult closely with the foundation.
From her résumé, it appears Ferrini was preparing for the job and working at it well before it existed.
A graduate of Eastwood High, she has degrees in interior design and architecture from Texas Tech and was a principal designer with PSRBB Commercial Group.
She was also a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Chihuahuan Desert Chapter and the ECO El Paso board and has been an activist for sustainability causes.
“When we had the initial resiliency workshop here in June – I wasn’t part of it – one of the areas Rockefeller identifies as a big weakness for us is civic engagement,” Ferrini said. “That is public trust in the idea that we as a community are the only ones that have the power to move ourselves forward.”
The city and the government sector can offer leadership and support, she said, but private engagement is what will take to push the city forward.
“I think we’re starting to see some of that in small pockets around our community,” she said. “But one of the things I’ve said for over a year is we have to put all those pockets on the same pair of pants and start walking forward.”
Ferrini said Rockefeller wants her to work on four areas:
Leadership and strategy to improve public involvement and trust by the community.
Health and wellness focusing on chronic obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Economy and society looking at the diversity of job opportunities, income inequality and keeping young people in El Paso.
Environment and infrastructure.
Keeping and attracting young people and families figures into the crisis El Paso’s biggest school district faces as it looks at closing schools in the heart of the city because student enrollment is falling fast.
“Far be it for me to act as an armchair quarterback for the school districts, but I will tell you we want to work with them to try and address this,” Ferrini said.
She and her husband planned and saved to buy a house in Manhattan Heights, where their son attends Crockett Elementary.
“It’s not one of the schools slated for closure but they have a declining enrollment because we have an aging population in the neighborhood,” she said. “I’m very concerned about that as a citizen and parent.”
The question, she said, is why are people choosing to live in new homes on the fringes of El Paso instead of long-established neighborhoods offering the full array of city services, existing schools and proximity to work?
Ferrini said she and her husband planned to do that, too, and then started looking at the advantages – and the economies – of an older neighborhood.
“When the Manhattan house came up, it was too expensive, but when we looked at the reduced commute, car maintenance and gas, we were able to maneuver our mortgage into a manageable range,” she said. “We bought a house that was $50,000 more than we thought we could afford.
“The commute to my office here takes 15 minutes, and that’s because I walk to my office (at 200 N. Kansas) from City Hall. I have seriously saved money.”
El Paso’s core – neighborhoods, schools, fire stations and other infrastructure – must be saved and used, she said, and that means creating an environment where people want to live.
The positive signs, she said, are the public and private developments Downtown, and economic initiatives like the Medical Center of the Americas and the El Paso housing authority’s efforts to create new kinds of public housing.
“The housing authority is not typically where you would look for innovation, but right now it is,” Ferrini said.
The Rockefeller Foundation’s investment in El Paso and Ferrini will be significant. Their expectations, as well as the city manager’s, will be high, she said.
“They’re looking to me to lead the dialogue,” she said. “It is going to be hard stuff, but if it’s not hard, it’s not worth doing.”