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When "Resilience" is Part of the Problem

Updated: Jun 12


When “Resilience” is part of the problem

Most people agree that “resilience” means the ability to bounce back from a setback, and that’s not a bad thing. In the natural world, we know that all species work together to help ecosystems recover from damage and disaster remarkably quickly. We often aim for that in human recovery. Resilient business owners need to plan for every eventuality so that they can survive any disaster and avoid closing or cutting back on jobs as much as possible. Government needs to figure out how to keep unity and order during a disaster, and to facilitate equitable recovery short and long term. City planners need to address changing conditions and the predictable threats, both sudden and slow. Communities can come together in marvelous alliances to respond to a crisis and, of course parents, teachers and social workers agree that it is better to raise resilient children than fragile and vulnerable ones. Resilience just sounds like a good and useful set of goals. But many of my friends say the word just makes them tired.


Why? To dig deeper, we have to ask this: what are we bouncing back from and what are we bouncing back to? When there is a crisis, there is disruption. Sometimes this disruption is extreme. Lives are lost or jeopardized, and families are separated. Jobs, houses, basic infrastructures are lost. Social connection is difficult or perhaps impossible, and traditional celebrations and rituals have to be postponed or cancelled. Individual and collective grief and pervasive uncertainty is painful and potentially traumatizing. Most of the time, people would say they want nothing more than just to have things back to normal.


Human beings find security in routine. We want to know what will happen next, and even if our lives are difficult, we want predictability. Most of the time, we think about resilience as returning to normalcy quickly and with the least long-term disruption as possible. But what if normal is the very thing that is making us vulnerable? Normal is living in a racist system that is set up to cut you off from opportunity and threatens your physical and emotional safety on a constant basis. Normal is having to have “the talk” with your kids--the one in which you can’t explain why with any logic other than some people just want to hate you and others just want to use you, but yes, we still need to live by the golden rule. Normal is eviction and the trail of rejection and homelessness afterwards because someone on your hall had to call the police. Normal is expecting to be treated as a criminal by the very people who are supposed to be protecting you from them. Normal is living in the shadow of an oil refinery, where all the kids have asthma and most die young of one cancer or another. Normal is a condition of colonialism (I’m thinking of Puerto Rico here) where every system in your life—government, education, health, all of it, is ignorant of your needs, and entrusts your well-being to ill-qualified others who are there to use your anguish to extract wealth of some kind. Normal is not having enough nutritious food to eat in the most fertile land in the hemisphere. Normal is not being able to afford adequate health care. Normal is drinking water that you can’t trust. Normal is being told that in poor communities such as your own, basic climate care programs are a luxury. Normal is going to school where test scores are the driving motivator for everything, and instead of developing useful skills and applying relevant learning to address meaningful challenges, all external indications suggest you will not amount to anything. You will be replaced by a robot. Normal is feeling that there isn’t anything you can do about it, because no one is listening. A Puerto Rican friend once said to me, “which Puerto Ricans really want to get back to normal? Only the ones who are benefitting from it.”


If resilience means bouncing back, and helping people to be more resilient is helping them to adjust themselves to systems that produce harmful impacts to them, then we have to re-think what we intend by “resilience” (AND by “normal,” but that’s another subject). Let’s look at what makes people and communities resilient. Resilient people and communities have strong creative confidence, strong self- and shared efficacy (they have a sense of control and skills to change things and collectively make things happen), work together well, identify shared values and create place-based vision and innovations. Their sense of time is both short and long-term, and they use community needs and vision to guide everyday practice and add meaning to civic work and purpose to learning. They reframe threats as challenges; crises and problems are opportunities to pull together. They adapt easily and also create change and the systems that support it. Innovators’ mindsets and tools like design thinking predispose resilient people to rely on each other, to integrate decision-making, and to put human needs at the center of problem solving. Resilience is like a set of muscles, trained during the “off-season” through best practices in integrated, equity- and community-driven systems re-design and implementation. When needed, those empowered muscles flex to guide short response and long-term change, and sustain human connectedness with each other and the planet.


Instead of asking, am I resilient, we should be asking ourselves, how can we join together to redesign our systems to create resilience?? Resilience is not a personal trait (or a personal failing if you don’t feel resilient right now!), but we all have a personal role to play. If you are interested in focusing on re-designing education for resilience changemaking, send me an email! maggie@designEd4resilience.org

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