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  • Writer's pictureMaggie

“I Know I Have Ideas That Can Help:” Community Power and Resilience in Risk Reduction

This piece is cross-posted to Many thanks to Scott Miles, PhD, Senior Research Scientist at UWashington's school of Human Centered Design & Engineering, who encouraged me to write it. Also many thanks to my husband Paul Duddy for the awesome cover photo.

“Last year since Hurricane Maria, I had no words. All I could do was draw. I just drew and drew. Design Lab has given me my voice back. Now I know I have ideas that can help.” Yaria, aged 16 at the time, embodied the powerlessness most people feel in the face of tragedy. To relate to such powerlessness is not difficult, even if we have not just survived a catastrophic smashup of historical, structural, natural and human-caused disasters that are too complicated for a kid to comprehend, let alone to solve. Yaria felt she had nothing to offer. She literally had no voice. Yaria’s situation reflects what millions of youth and children, their families and communities feel worldwide, even ‘on a good day.’ In Design Lab, Yaria relied on a process created to validate and enact her superpowers for empathy and expression, her collaborative openness, her creative ideas for addressing the challenges she and her family and friends were facing. For Yaria, her new toolbox gave her a new certainty. “Now I know I have ideas that can help.” (1)

Now I know I have ideas that can help. Yaria and hundreds of young people like her, her families and communities, taught me that resilience is the power to drive change. (2) After decades of learning from thousands of students of all ages and abilities, and their families living in different contexts, I now work at the intersection of teaching and learning (k-lifelong), youth co-empowerment, and individual and community well-being. I live in deep gratitude every day for all of the life lessons my students have shared. Young people are the needle on the gauge of community well-being. When youth are thriving, it is a strong indication that the community around them is well, too. (3) If we want our communities to thrive, we would be wise to attend to and invest in understanding the ways in which youth can engage with purpose and civic courage. Together we can reimagine a new architecture of relationships. Together we can co-empower to govern uncertainty and drive change, tackling complex issues such as structural racism, inequities in standards of living, and climate justice for human and planetary survival.

That may sound like a tall order, and it may seem to some of you that it has little to do with disaster management and risk reduction. Currently, there is a disconnect between what we know should be happening and what actually happens. Typical research, even participatory action research, still centers the long-term benefits with the individuals or the academic institution that has established the right to do research. ‘Practitioners’ and community members can’t access funding for research, even though their ‘street data’ (4) and lived experience is exactly what researchers need to know. Communities often can’t access research reports and analysis in formats and language they can use. Even socially and culturally responsible research often borrows community wisdom and returns something like a ‘toolkit’ that may or may not be needed or used.

Disaster management, even that which focuses on ‘capacity-building’ and long-term risk reduction, still commonly assumes community deficits. With the urgency of crisis, the insufficient attention paid to identifying knowledge and assets in the community, as well as to the slow process of creating trust and durable regenerative relationships, gets even worse. This is why thinking about disaster management and risk reduction as something that takes place slowly and guided by equitable and emergent practices during non-crisis periods will produce much better results.

Government and NGOs’ efficiencies of scale and their ‘bottom line’ funding practices sometimes actively discourage community-driven solutions. Recently, DE4R was involved in a collaboration with ten communities that were designing sustainable COVID safety solutions that would continue to benefit the community in post-COVID times. One community created a totally touchless hand-washing station. A global NGO offered to fund it, but what the big NGO ‘helped locals to install’ was a simple sink. Not even the door was touchless. Why did they do that? The NGO is piloting hand-washing stations as a global public health benefit, and this was one of their “trusted pilot communities.” The community accepted it because it was better than what was there before. Their own much better design was put on the shelf. After the initial frustrations, eventually communities get used to this kind of disempowering disrespect. Communities don’t want to face another disaster without the big NGO ‘in their pocket.’ They take what they can get, not wishing to alienate these big NGOs, government agencies, universities, or nice graduate students. They continue to entertain hope that this time it will be different, but ultimately the needle does not budge. (5)

How DO we reimagine and realign ‘disaster research and practice’ so that it empowers communities to arrange relationships and drive resilience? What are the specific mindsets, strategies and moves to actually reduce risk and improve well-being, in long-term, durable, and regenerative ways? With some basic principles in mind, every decision we make, from inside the community or out, before a disaster or after, in school or not, can and should be guided by a coherent framework that intentionally centers the power of resilience, the power to drive change, in the community itself.

We are powerful because of our People. As individuals, we are unique but we are not alone. Let’s face it—human beings need trusting relationships and true collaboration more than we need to win. When we keep working toward an architecture of relationships that is built on mutuality and horizontality rather than creating power OVER something or someone, our humanity emerges, and a more just world is possible. We know how important teamwork is, locally and globally, and there are plenty of examples of it during disasters, when neighbors who would otherwise disagree allow their hearts to lead them into caring. But when things are ‘normal’ again, adults default to sorting people (and children!) and measuring success individually, competitively and materially, while hypocritically lecturing youth and each other that we must learn to collaborate if there is hope of human survival. In a crisis, or facing a threat, or just living our lives together, we understand at a deep level that resilience is relational. If we think of ourselves with some humility as cells in a larger organism, we know we can work together to accomplish amazing things. We know that the thriving of the organism, our own bodies as an example, depends on the interwoven relationships among cells and systems of cells. If we separate types of cells into their own disconnected spaces? …. If we use this natural ‘logic of life’ to regenerate and guide reciprocal relationships, we become resilient and powerful. Borrowing from Hutchins and Storm’s Regenerative Leadership (6), it is the quality of the interconnected relationships that determines a community’s ability to respond quickly and well to disturbances, inequities, and sudden shocks.

What if learning communities were places that prioritized creating and sustaining ethical relationships, with ourselves, with others, and with the natural world? Would it lead to a liberating shared efficacy and the knowledge that together we have ideas that can help?

We are powerful because of our sense of Place. When we feel connected to each other and to our natural environment, when our diverse identities are at home and we feel safe showing up as who we are, we can create communities of care that will protect us. When we belong, we will change those institutions and systems that generate harm. When our sense of rootedness, our sense that this is “my” place is strong, we can speak up more freely. We can make demands. When we flourish in our culture and share a sense of purpose with others, we can learn and evolve. We reach out and create. We can be more open, more curious, and more adaptable, from a position of strength. Darwin tells us that those who are most adaptable will survive. What do we want to leave behind as we learn from our ancestral past? What do we want to take with us or learn anew as we step in our future? What is Nature open to teaching us if we are open to awe, to noticing, to giving? How can we become more aware of the meaning of our position in our social context? How can we be good citizens? Good ancestors? (7)

What if learning curricula were aligned with local culture, building in ethical and regenerative community values? Youth energy and ingenuity might just enliven the hopes, strengthen the bonds, and reduce the risks in the community at large.

We are powerful when we have Purpose. Another student in Yaria’s class found a new purpose during the Design Lab. After working on safe housing with his family’s community in a flood- and earthquake-prone coastal area, he reflected, “School never made any sense to me. Now I know I want to be a lawyer who helps people to move to safer ground.” His sense of purpose motivated all of his next choices, and gave him a sense of direction. It added meaning to his life and gave him a reason to learn more, and to learn more deeply. A resilient community builds collective efficacy around the challenges it faces and the creativity and wisdom it holds. Communities which are driving change to improve equity also mitigate climate risk. For students living in disaster-affected areas, the opportunity to help gives purpose and meaning to their learning and their lives. When we engage them fully, it builds our sense that we can make a difference, together. Having a sense of purpose gives us clear vision and direction when it is otherwise hard to see. The guideposts we purposefully and collectively establish help us to know what to do when there is a threat.

What if multi-generational teams deepened learning and growth by taking on community challenges?

We are powerful when we have Process. This is where most communities struggle and where most schools turn away from co-empowering and authentic learning. We may know we have the assets and strengths to solve our problems, but are not sure where to begin. Different groups have different priorities. Every time we try to address the issues, the usual people say and feel the usual things, and little progress gets made. Organizations of all kinds have many ways of getting stuck—and unstuck. DE4R uses a mixture of regenerative and liberatory design thinking principles which emerged from the voices and actions of Puerto Ricans after the double hurricanes Irma and Maria. But whatever process communities use, from a risk reduction standpoint, the essential benefit of having a process everyone trusts is just that. When things get sticky, communities can rely on the process. The processes a community uses to shape vision, build belonging, surface priorities, and energize creativity, are a powerful toolbox for driving change. When the community owns its process, when it owns the power of design, a paradigm shift in disaster management and risk reduction occurs. (8)

Much more attention gets paid to well-being, relationships, belonging, place, and purpose during non-crisis periods. Each challenge framed and achieved builds shared efficacy and resilience. Disaster risk reduction is what should be happening when youth and their communities are not in the midst of a disaster.

What if learning and change in community was guided by a trusted and regenerative process? How much more resilient would we be?

We are powerful when we are loaded with Positivity. Each moment of uncertainty governed by “yes we can” reduces vulnerability. When communities and those agencies and institutions who support them prioritize the principles of power with intention and humility, positivity grows. Celebrations rooted in belonging and place bring joy and connectedness, interweaving the fabric of learning and life. Shared purpose and efficacy is a kind of collective optimism. Here is an example. A mountain community is isolated enough that COVID hasn’t reached them directly, but neither has internet and steady phone service. Electricity comes and goes. Virtual school is not working well. Collaborating with a community psychologist and his students from the nearby university, they laid out a plan for Saturday school. They began with Bomba, a foundational Afro-Caribbean dance. Then they interwove agro-ecology, learning by observing and absorbing natural systems, applying STEM principles along with local wisdom, and growing food for everyone. The whole community is involved, building benches and a bathroom and gathering around to take part in the learning and discussions. No one is left out. Each little kid has a big kid mentor and tutor--big kids who started out just like them but now are at the university. A big kid who stokes their curiosity and validates their being who they really are. Any observer can feel the joy and optimism in the air. (9)

We know things will get better because we know how to make that happen, and we’ve done it before. Start small. Build trust. Act on purpose. Connect school with life. Charge up communities with power intentionally. Ask What If…. Connect communities with each other. Resilience is the power to drive change. We know we have ideas that can help.


1. Beginning in fall 2018, Design Ed 4 Resilience (DE4R) offered design thinking for community resilience labs as part of a series of two-week design thinking programs launched by a public high school in an underserved part of Bayamón, Puerto Rico. The intersessions were designed as a partnership between Escuela Francisco Manrique Cabrera and a student collaborative based in California, then called El Pueblo Unido Program. Now the program has moved to Puerto Rico, and is called CD-TIE (Ctr. For Design Thinking and Innovation in Education). Design Labs offered by DE4R at Esc. FMC included Emergency Preparation, Community Resilience, and Community Resilience Hubs. With the support of CD-TIE, educators at Escuela FMC have continued to build design thinking into their curriculum.

2. Dr. Cecilio Ortiz-García, Dra. Marla Pérez-Lugo, and Dr. Eduardo Lugo-Hernández shaped my thinking about resilience and power most strongly. Last summer (2020), it was my honor to post a guest blog from Cecilio :

3. Abramson, David. “Kids First: Children As Bellwethers of Recovery.” In Natural Hazards Center, Research Counts: Children and Disasters Special Collection. 2019.

4. Safir, Shane and Jamila Dugan. Street Data. Corwin, 2021.

5. I am protecting the identities of all of the good people involved. There has been plenty written about this problem, ranging from the documentary Poverty, Inc., to the now infamous academic debates between Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly on the efficacy of “foreign aid.” One simple point emerges: No country or community has been developed by another.

6. Hutchins, Giles and Laura Storm. Regenerative Leadership. Wordzworth, 2019.

7. Krznaric, Roman. The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking. The Experiment. 2020. Finally a lot of attention is being paid to teaching outdoors, securing food and learning agro-ecology at the same time, and appreciating the value of connecting to the teacher of all teachers and mother of all mothers in a mutually giving relationship. There are many places to start, but all of the best examples are those open to learning from and collaboration with indigenous and first nations’ learning communities and wisdom.

8. Reina-Rozo, Juan David. “Communal Innovation: Collective Creation Towards Well-Being.” MIT Working Paper 02, January 2019.

9. Aula en la Montagna (Classroom in the Mountains), Barrio ‘Rucio’ Peñuelas, Puerto Rico 2021

Thank you, Paul Duddy, for my favorite cover shot.

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