What is community resilience?

Guest faculty member Molly Sturges leads an exercise at this year’s Sitka Symposium. Photo by Christine Davenport. Retrieved from   https://www.artsfwd.org/how-can-storytelling-transform-our-communities/

Guest faculty member Molly Sturges leads an exercise at this year’s Sitka Symposium. Photo by Christine Davenport. Retrieved from  https://www.artsfwd.org/how-can-storytelling-transform-our-communities/

“As we think about resilience, we’ll need to think about what it looks like for a community of people to come together to address shared challenges. We’ll need to consider the role of marginalized and historically excluded voices in the health of a community. Most notably, we will need to work closely with the native communities who have for thousands of years been the stewards of this place, to get a stronger understanding of what resilience means for them, and to find ways to build those ideas, voices, and perspectives into our own work.”  —Peter Bradley


I recently followed one of those rabbit trails — a good article from twitter leads to another good article which leads to another and so on. It brought me to this quote in a op-ed piece by Peter Bradley on the ArtsFwd website. The piece was called, “How Can Storytelling Transform our Communities?”. It caught my attention for two reasons. First, I’ve learned through my work as a Developmental Evaluator, and specifically my work with a project focused on the power of story, that people and communties are harmed when people’s stories are silenced or excluded. Second, I’m always wondering what it takes to create the conditions whereby individual impacts reach a tipping point and one can claim something as bold as a community transformed. I want to do both better in my work—include stories in meaningful ways and support communities transformation when transformation is truly and authentically the community’s aspiration. 

But right there in the first line he used the word resilient. “Ugh”, I thought. I bristle when I hear that word. It’s used in a number of different academic fields in a variety of ways. But too often the concept of resilience is used to place the burden of developing reliance on the shoulders of people who are struggling— struggling every day just to live, making the decision to live over and over again in the face of trauma, dissapointment, grief, and loss. People who are deemed resilient and have degrees write that these other-ed people need resilience. The message is “we’ve studied this, we know what you need, and we know what you need to do.” And of course, because the book has been written, they’ve judged that many people don’t know how to do resilience well and they should read the resilient accomplished person’s book to improve their life.  There’s always an undertone of judgement and shaminng. 

“Great title,” I thought. “Why did you have to go ahead and ruin it with the judgement that the community needs to be more resilient? Luckily I read further because Bradley admitted that it wasn’t up to him to decide what resilience looks like for the communties his organization works with. Instead he proposed using the power of story to understand what community means to them. More people in positions of power need to think this way— to use power to lift of the voices of others, learning from them, and supporting their aspirations for themselves, as opposed to telling communities what they need. 

As I write in my work on JODE (Journey Oriented Developmental Evaluation for Social Justice), we are created and shaped by the stories we tell stories we tell ourselves and others. Rooting community change in the power of story is wise and ethical, and quite possibly, a critical component in sustainable change. This is something I’ll continue to support and reflect on in my work.