When a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis occurs, Cisco Crisis Response (CCR) provides connectivity, a critical form of aid, just like food, water, shelter, and medical care. Working with nonprofit agencies, local governments, and communities, the CCR team helps them prepare for, respond to, and sustainably rebuild from crises. A network of 400-plus trained Cisco employees has supported the team with technical expertise, field deployments, equipment preparation, logistics assistance, training, and outreach.
One of the CCR team members is Joe Harrison. Joe always wanted to be a writer and wrote his first book in 5th grade, “The Turtle that Lost its Shell.” Over time, he realized that what drew him to writing was learning and understanding new things and communicating information to others. He also knew he wanted to help people. With his role at CCR, he can do both. Learn more about his journey working for a humanitarian aid organization, the impact he is making on the CCR team, and his passion for how communications can transform lives.
How did you first get involved with the Cisco Crisis Response team?
Joe: A few years ago, I worked at Direct Relief, a humanitarian aid organization with the mission to improve the health and lives of people affected by poverty or emergency situations. While at Direct Relief, I was an international program manager and frequently worked in the field, responding to dozens of disasters. A friend and longtime Cisco employee contacted me with an idea for helping Syrian refugees in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The Syrian civil conflict was in full swing, and as Direct Relief’s program manager in the Middle East, I was closely involved in various aid initiatives. This experience put Cisco’s Corporate Social Responsibility program on my radar. I looked into it and stumbled across an article about the Cisco Tactical Operations team (one of the groups that merged into Cisco Crisis Response in 2021), and I was intrigued. Years later, my future wife took a job in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Cisco and Tactical Operations quickly came to mind. Shortly afterward, a position opened on the team. Call it serendipity.
What are your current responsibilities as the CCR global partnerships and communications manager?
Joe: I do a little bit of everything except for engineering — I have no engineering skills, but thankfully, we have incredible folks on the team dedicated exclusively to engineering innovative crisis response technologies. One of my focus areas involves cultivating strategic partnerships with governmental agencies, nonprofits, and non-governmental agencies (NGOs). I try to understand their needs, and match them with resources, share relevant information, outline processes for collaboration, generally build effective relationships. Our partnerships are essential to carrying out our work.
I’m also focused on communicating our work. This involves drafting relevant blog posts, circulating situation reports during crises, updating our SharePoint site, building our regular newsletter, “The CCR Situation,” engaging our CCR Community volunteers, creating informational collateral, and more. The communication piece is really about advocating for those we serve and highlighting the efforts of those we partner with to help make it happen.
Can you tell me more about the CCR Community volunteer program?
Joe: The CCR Community is the foundation of Cisco Crisis Response.
I’m inspired by people who unapologetically and unabashedly do what they love. Seeing people pour themselves into their art or trade, whatever it might be, is magic. And that’s really what the volunteer program is – over 400 Cisco employees who dedicate their time and energy to their passion. Volunteers lend their expertise in a lot of different ways. They consult on innovative tech solutions, advise on cybersecurity improvements for NGOs, manage and deploy emergency communications equipment, provide logistical support during crises, connect us with local non-profits and help build the communications capacity of those non-profits, represent the team at events, conferences, and training exercises. The possibilities are endless.
CCR Community volunteers provide a perspective that serves as an undeniable force multiplier. CCR in turn provides specialized humanitarian crisis response training and unique ways to give-back.
I’m actively trying to engage our CCR Community volunteers by exploring ways to make the program more fulfilling for the Community while scaling impact globally. I feel fortunate to be able to play that role in the program.
Side note: Deploying with the CCR Community volunteer program allows employees to give back to the community without using their paid time off or Time2Give (Cisco’s paid time off for volunteering) hours.
Why is communications technology so critical to humanitarian aid?
Joe: Everything is online now: applying for a job, registering for healthcare, finding a doctor, enrolling in classes, paying bills, and connecting with loved ones. Nearly everything revolves around and relies on the internet. That doesn’t change when you’ve lost your home in a wildfire or are forced to flee to another country. Wherever disaster strikes, establishing or re-establishing access to reliable, secure internet service is even more vital than ever; lives and livelihoods depend on it.
Given our reliance on the internet on a day-to-day basis, it’s not hard to imagine how vital internet access is to individuals and families for communication and news updates during crises. It’s of equal importance to the emergency management agencies and organizations that provide essential services to those directly affected by natural disasters and civil unrest, such as food, shelter, or cash. They require secure internet connectivity to manage their inventory, facilitate cash transactions, offer goods and services, manage requests for support, and to conduct research for situational awareness.
Who are some of the partners CCR collaborates with?
Joe: Partnerships are a key part of our work, and each one is unique. We work with nonprofit NGOs directly and with NGO consortiums like NetHope. We collaborate with UN agencies like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN World Food Program’s Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC). We collaborate with FEMA and many regional and state-level emergency management agencies in the United States. We work closely with multinational associations like the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). CCR collaborates with telecommunications companies, internet service providers, satellite technologies and services companies. Partnerships are vital to this work.
Impactful collaboration begins with effective communication. What have you learned while at Cisco?
Joe: People matter. Cisco knows this. It’s clear that when you listen to people and put people first, everyone wins. Of course, I had reservations about going from a small nonprofit to a massive corporation. Still, I quickly learned that the company is full of unique individuals, and every employee’s voice is relevant and invaluable. It doesn’t matter the size of the company or the nature of the venture; respect every individual, and you’ll foster a family.
You’ve been doing this type of work for nearly 15 years. Does anything surprise you anymore?
Joe: I’m surprised that war still exists. We’ve been actively responding to the war in Ukraine, cycling four teams in Poland, and working alongside the UNHCR to connect Blue Dot hubs that provide services to Ukrainian refugees in Poland, Moldova, Hungary, and elsewhere – from psychosocial support to daycare to cash. Several months later, I’m still surprised that the ruthless, senseless, ignorant, heartbreaking war continues. There’s got to be a better way.
What’s one thing you would like our readers to take away about the power of communications in the humanitarian field?
Joe: What transcends all our work is actively and genuinely listening and taking the time to process what you heard. Cisco Crisis Response facilitates communications and sets up connectivity, enabling people to communicate with each other. Many organizations and agencies recognize that communications and internet connectivity are vital, but to better serve people, we need to ask, ‘how do we become better listeners?’ If we can better understand the experiences of people going through a crisis, we can work better together and help strengthen communities.