Juliette Kayyem is among the top experts on homeland security in the United States. The CNN analyst, author of Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home, Belfer Lecturer in International Security at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, founder of Kayyem Solutions, LLC and assistant secretary of former President Barack Obama’s Homeland Security team has handled some of the country’s largest disasters of the 21st century. Women & Wealth Magazine recently sat down with Kayyem to discuss her road to a career in national security, preparedness and resiliency in an unpredictable world, what we can do to keep ourselves and each other strong and safe and how to speak with our children about security, among other topics.
How did you begin your career in national security?
I started working in the late 1990s at the Department of Justice as a lawyer focused on civil rights issues. I worked on a few national security cases because national security affects civil rights. When 9/11 happened, my career took a turn. There were so few people in national security and counterterrorism at the time that those of us with subject matter expertise in the field – mine being in law – became known as experts. That led to various academic, corporate and government positions over the course of my career. I don’t think of myself as a counterterrorism expert, even though I started that way. The field is changing, and there is more focus on the wider range of issues that can happen beyond terrorism – cybersecurity breaches, climate change, active shooters and so forth. My goal is to prepare people for a world in which there is vulnerability.
Where were you on 9/11?
We were living in Boston, and I had a trip planned that day to New York City with my five-week-old baby. While my husband was dropping us off at the train station, we heard about the first plane hitting the tower. The thought of terrorism didn’t cross my mind, despite all of the warnings of a catastrophic attack. I got on the train, and not too long after we left, my husband called me to tell me the second tower had been hit. Still, the train continued heading to New York City – there were no protocols.
I started getting phone calls because I was considered knowledgeable about this field, but while rumors were circulating, no one knew what was actually going on. At one point, the young woman next to me who had overheard my conversations turned and said in tears, “I just want to go home. I don’t know what’s going on. What should we do?” It hit me then that it was my responsibility both as an expert and a mother to take action. I told her we didn’t know what was happening in New York and that we needed to get off the train. That message started spreading throughout the car. Eventually, I stood up on a bench and told everyone to get off, and the train evacuated in New Haven, Connecticut. It wasn’t until we were in the station that I saw the images of the towers going down and got in touch with my husband to pick me up.
As an expert in the field, what did that experience teach you about preparedness and trusting your gut?
Two things. One was that when people are given information, they will behave and follow protocols. People can take a certain amount of responsibility. The other thing is that family unification is the guiding force for everyone. Knowing that your kids, spouse or parents are safe goes a long way toward resiliency. So that is how I have spent my career. I like to prepare people, communities and businesses to respond to unexpected events in the most effective manner because we cannot get rid of vulnerability, no matter how hard we try.
The title of your book is Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home, but I think it resonates with everybody who has friends, family or a caregiving role. What is a security mom?
It’s a demographic that emerged after 9/11. It was both an electoral and advertising demographic and described predominately white suburban women who felt fear in a different way than men. The statistics after 9/11 are interesting. More women saw therapists, and more joined the NRA. Women put terrorism as the top motivating factor for their votes, so this became a demographic that would be captured electorally. The security mom went away during the Obama administration, but she re-emerged this past election.
In the book, you talk about “grip” as a way to build resiliency. What is grip?
Grip is an investment in preparedness, response and resiliency by individuals, institutions and businesses. We tend to think of resiliency as “keep calm and carry on,” but grip requires action. It’s investments in personal preparedness, the capacity to pivot, exercise training, active shooter education, backup systems, cybersecurity – it’s avoiding what we call the single point of failure. You want to ensure that you have layers of security to make it that much more difficult.
We often think about security as something the government handles, but you talk a lot about personal responsibility. How do we take personal responsibility for the security of our homes, families and neighbors?
Part of it is having the government recognize that as a country we need the capabilities, goodwill and enthusiasm people have for protecting their own communities. If you could harness the goodwill that people feel for each other and their communities after a tragedy or trauma and apply it to the other big issues of our time, such as education or healthcare, they would all get solved. The government needs to understand its own limitations, and then we must be able to talk to communities about how they can be part of that security network.
When I think about the United States’ safety and security, I don’t think about the Department of Homeland Security. I think about the homeland security enterprise, as I define it, which includes the government as well as the nongovernmental organizations, faith-based areas, businesses in charge of finance or critical infrastructure and colleges and universities. We should engage all of these groups in ways that are manageable to them.
We make taking personal responsibility for security more difficult than it needs to be. Most people tune out because they think it’s too hard. In terms of communication with your family, it’s knowing what the plan is, buying items at a store to have for your home and figuring out the rules and goals.
What’s the answer to the question “Is my family safe?”
You have all the tools you need to make your family more safe, but if you’re asking if you can live in a world with no vulnerability, the answer is no. You don’t want a world where there’s no vulnerability, though, whether it’s the basic things like letting your kids ride their bikes or go to the movies, or bigger things like flying to foreign countries and letting them experience the world.
You do have ways to minimize the risk to them. Educate them, and make them smart. Think through the possibility that something could happen. And always focus on family unification – that’s the one thing that you’re going to care about.
How do we talk to children about security and preparedness without scaring them?
Our security is about three important elements: minimizing risk, maximizing defenses and maintaining who we are – whether it’s as a family, community, company or nation. All three are equally important, and as a parent you have the capacity to guide your kids for each of them.
Talking to them depends on age and maturity. I’ll start with the older kids, who I view as 8 or older because once they have access to more advanced technology, they have access to everything. You have to be able to put events into perspective for them. Be open to those conversations – don’t close them off because you think they are too young. Make it personal to them by asking questions about how it relates to their life. Then, you need to give them the long view because it’s difficult for kids to see too far into the future.
Younger children actually do understand risk reduction – they understand helmets and seatbelts. When something bad happens, such as a school shooting, use it as a learning experience so that your children know what to do if it happens to them. Make them feel like these bad things are empowering them.
How should business owners and leaders think about security?
The most important thing for business owners and leaders to remember is that this is their problem. They wouldn’t hire a COO or CFO and delegate all of the operations to that person, so they can’t do that with a CSO or similar security executive. As leaders, it’s their responsibility to own this issue. They owe it not just to their corporation, but to their employees.
The second thing to remember is that what animates them in a crisis will animate their employees, and that’s family unification. It’s a business leader’s responsibility to provide the mechanisms by which his or her employees will be able to feel confident that their families are taken care of.
The third thing they need to think about is all of the aspects of building a resilient business community and enterprise that will make the business and its community thrive. There are many different attributes, but the most important one is avoiding a single point of failure. If you can set up mechanisms that protect everything from collapsing if one thing falters, you’re in good shape.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t worry so much, enjoy life and have confidence in it.
In terms of advice that I have received, there are two pieces that guide me as a working mother. One came when I was trying to figure out what to do in my career after I had kids and was going through every permutation, as if there was an outline to follow. The person said to me, “You’re using should a lot. What do you want to do?” The other came from one of my mentors. I was stressing about a big decision I had to make in my career, and he said, “I’m 83 years old. What would your 83-year-old self tell your 45-year-old self?”
My advice for women is to give yourselves a break. We’re all trying to fit into these models of how it should work, and that can be destructive because the failure to achieve can paralyze people. Life really does unfold in ways you cannot predict.
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