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In Nov. 2021 after ten years of our evolving mission and impact, we changed our name to Gathering Ground. You may still find reference to our old name Creative New Jersey in posts created prior to Nov. 2021.

Creativity and Collaboration Take Courage

Originally posted on the Geraldine R. Dodge Blog.

As I reflect upon our recent Creative Highlands: Call to Collaboration, I am reminded of the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity and loss.

The residents and business owners of this seaside community have been working hard to recover from the colossal damage of Hurricane Sandy and their determination and resilient spirit was palpable during our day-long community-wide creativity convening on May 2. (Click here to see the News 12 New Jersey video from the event.)

The 80-plus community members gathered at the gymnasium of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to discuss the issues most important to them, and to grapple with the question:

How do we use creativity and innovation to galvanize our diverse community so as to honor our heritage, embrace revitalization, and move toward a sustainable Highlands?

It was a tall order, but over the course of seven hours, residents, business owners, municipal leaders, educators and Board of Education personnel, nonprofit leaders, environmentalists and recovery experts led more than two dozen self-directed breakout sessions.

The topics included:

  • The creation of “green spaces” to help address the flooding and drainage challenges
  • Waterfront development
  • Temporary housing for displaced residents
  • Utilizing and leveraging Highlands existing arts, cultural and environmental assets such as Twin Lights and Hartshorne Woods
  • Securing appropriate levels of funding for staffing recovery coordinators and recovery programs
  • Establishing better communication networks and processes
  • Need for a community-based peer leadership program
  • Addressing the needs of seniors when considering elevating buildings
  • Educating students to excel in a competitive environment, while creating a sustainable, thriving community so that these same pupils will wish to remain living in Highlands’ as they mature into adulthood.

A small group discussion on how to understand and communicate the risks of living near the bay.

These are difficult discussions to hold. The issues are personal and the problems have been magnified by Sandy’s wrath.

In the 18 months since the storm pummeled Highlands’ shores, many individuals and organizations have been working tirelessly on Highlands’ recovery.  FEMA conducted an extensive community planning process, and our New Jersey Recovery Fund colleagues at New Jersey Future, Sustainable Jersey, and Rutgers University have been working in cooperation with the municipal leaders to identify and develop solutions to Highlands most pressing needs. Yes — it does take a village to recover and design creative, sustainable rebuilding strategies.

If we are to build consensus, enhance the flow of relevant information, diffuse rumors, mitigate fears, and find common ground, we must continue to engage all members within a community.  These discussions are crucial to building trust and shared vision among all stakeholders.

5.28.14 Dodge blog image 3
Attendees were invited to write messages on chalkboards that were displayed in town after the event.

While it is unreasonable to expect that all community members will agree on all aspects of their town’s recovery and rebuilding strategy, deliberating on these issues in a creative, open and democratic manner is an essential component for strengthening the social capital and human networks within community.

In turn, those networks become ideally situated to work in cooperation with the recovery experts, and to help leverage the community’s current assets in a manner that supports collective action.  The stakes are high.

Collaboration takes time and creativity takes courage. This work also requires all of us to trust in each other, and we learn to trust in each other through consistent and meaningful engagement.

The Creative Highlands: Call to Collaboration provided another opportunity to foster and fuel the collaborative spirit in Highlands.

All of us at Creative New Jersey are grateful to the residents and business owners of Borough of Highlands for embracing this Call to Collaboration, and for leaning in with their courageous, creative spirit!

Elizabeth Murphy is the part-time Director of Creative New Jersey.  She also consults with other nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, including the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers where she provided coordination of the Post-Sandy Philanthropic Response in NJ.

Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, innovation, and sustainability by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.


“Thank you for hosting Communities in Conversation. Having the opportunity to build new partnerships, share resources and problem solve with such a wide variety of community stakeholders was remarkable! The framework and format used created a truly valuable experience for everyone. I look forward to participating in future events like this.”

– Jaime L. Angelini, MA, DRCC, AMTP, Statewide Director of Disaster Services and Special Projects at the Mental Health Association