Resilience: ordinary people in extraordinary times, doing extraordinary things

September 9, 2013 § 2 Comments

I have been invited to a round-table on the theme of Resilience, taking place later this month. Though our focus will include building resilient Quaker communities up and down the country, the invitation has prompted me to think about resilience generally.

What is resilience in a community context? How can one diagnose the strength of a community’s resilience? And, how can resilience be encouraged?

This post is a record of my early thinking, and there is much out there on the subject already, so I’m not claiming any new learning. I would be very interested in any responses, or any useful resources you know about, and I’ll share here what people suggest to me.

Resilience seems relevant to a great range of events which have their impact locally. To name a few:

  • climate change
  • the ending of local industries or other significant employers
  • the local impact of national financial austerity or economic downturn
  • freak weather events
  • pandemics
  • corporate invasion, such as mining or fracking companies – see The Pipe for a great documentary example (
  • the threat of violence, or actual violence – whether from within or from external sources
  • high population churn, or the arrival of new residents into a previously settled community.

What is resilience?

The dictionary of course is a great place to start. Its entries on resilience gave me two ways in which resilience can be looked at. The perhaps more familiar understanding is resilience as the ability to withstand shock, suffering or disappointment. From a physical point of view, however, resilience is the ability of a substance to recover its form and position elastically. I like the image of that elastic rebounding, back into shape after managing a challenge.

So I take community resilience as the ability of a group of people sharing a geographical or other identity to manage, respond to and emerge from community-wide shocks or suffering. The sense is of a community ‘bouncing back’ – though unlike a piece of elastic, a community is likely to bounce into a different shape than it was before, with changes to relationships and probably some people in a place of greater or lesser resilience than before.

There must also be a link to the comparative fragility or strength of a community – if it was weak before, my assumption is that it will find it harder to respond to shocks. There will be communities that are resilient in anticipation of shocks; and there will be communities that develop resilience only once a shock or traumatic incident arises.

And before I get too far along this journey, I need to affirm that communities are made up of people; and so resilience – or its absence – will be expressed in what people think and believe, what they feel, and what they do. A community responding to a shock, will be demonstrating a network of human stories – with examples of altruism and generosity alongside moments of selfishness and aggression.

Can we then measure how resilient a community may be?

CarnegieUK Trust and the Fiery Spirits Community of Practice in 2009 published Exploring Community Resilience in Times of Rapid Change. It has a simple model which leaps off the page for me. It identifies four dimensions of community resilience building, in which “work in one area is likely to benefit and amplify that in another”. It also works as a diagnostic tool: how far do we assess our community as having:

  • Healthy people: supporting individuals’ physical and psychological well-being;
  • An inclusive, creative culture: generating a positive, welcoming sense of place;
  • A localised economy – within ecological limits: securing entrepreneurial community stewardship of local assets and institutions.
  • Cross-community links: fostering supportive connections between inter-dependent communities.

If this model is taken at face value – and there must be many similar versions, highlighting different aspects of communities and of resilience – then we also have a model of starting points for the ‘how’ of community resilience building. I’m sure there is much more for me to learn about the how; and what of the many efforts in resilience-building around the world can be replicated or adapted.

I wonder how many examples of resilient communities are in essence the coincidental combination of ordinary people, in extraordinary times, doing extraordinary things.

NB This is the first of four posts on the Resilience theme: click the Resilience tag in the right hand margin to see the other posts.

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