What Makes Communities Resilient? And Three Ways You Can Help

One hundred years ago, the hills of Norway fell silent. If you walked along the hillsides into the villages, you’d notice that everyone was in their home, waiting. What could they have been waiting for? An answer? It was the outbreak of the Spanish flu in Norway and residents were asked to stay inside their homes to avoid contagion. Suspicion spread throughout the country, making everyone fearful of their neighbor and the germs that they carried. This event became one of the most useful examples for studying community resilience.

Compare this event to Norway’s spring frosts that caused turmoil for many farming families. The end result was completely different than the flu epidemic. Cooperative organizations would often come together in the event of a frost, increasing trust and social integration. With the case of the frosts, it was evident that community cooperation increased individual resilience and recovery. The Norway example gives us some framework for what that means in terms of social resilience- how community cooperation results in faster recovery and stronger people.

Hills of Norway

So, you may be wondering, what are some concrete ways community resilience can be defined? Community resilience is a big topic and needs to be defined in several ways. Being a resilient community means responding to disaster by returning to the same or higher level of functioning. Resilient people create transfigured communities- we got through this and now we are stronger. For example, many noticed that after the trauma of September 11th, New York Residents were friendlier and made more eye contact. Despite the insane shock of the crashing twin towers, residents took notice of their neighbor- the one that may have helped them pick up a dropped purse as they ran from collapsing debris.

Community resilience is often measured only after something bad happens, like the recent problems with gun violence or natural disasters- like hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina, for example, helped many realize certain deficits in the infrastructure around New Orleans. Often, there is a post-disaster high where the community strengthens for a period of time, until most people need to return to their work and normal lives. If you look at the graph below, you would see that the Heroic/Honeymoon phase is followed by a huge drop in resource inventory and emotion. Basically, post- disaster highs last about as long as your teenage hot summer romance (and we all remember how that ended.) Since the organizational infrastructure can’t rebuilt in the three-ish months of the Heroic/Honeymoon phase, the residents of the disaster-stricken area are left to wonder how to keep going. However, after some bumps in the road, things stabilize and a long-term plan is set into place.


Traits of Community Resilience

“Resilient people create transfigured communities

Community resilience means cooperative organizations. Martin Smith at the Stanford Graduate School of Business claims that: “The most resilient communities appear to be those with a wide variety of deeply rooted cooperative organizations, often made up of such volunteers as doctors, educators, and religious leaders.” He thinks that these kinds of organizations build the strength of the social system, solving long term problems holistically.

Community resilience means resource diversity. On the one hand, communities with strong infrastructure and access to resources have been shown as resilient, however, it also requires a diversity of resources. Imagine, for example, a community that goes through a drought, slowing their agricultural production, but retaining access to goods through importing. It also means understanding and being creative with your resources. After the sanctions occurred in Russia, distributors and suppliers were forced to look locally, which strengthened internal economy.

Community resilience means strong communication. Communities that have been resilient after disasters have given others clear ways of getting involved in the rebuilding process. If residents are not aware of their resources, they will often not go searching for them. Therefore, social media outlets as well as other personal approaches help get the word out.

Where you come in!

  1. Understand your network. This is important to understand both on a local and global scale.
    • Local. Cities that have remote work options are often resilient in terms of economic downfalls, due to their outsourced employment. Remote workers are able to boost the local economy, and thus increase their network. I’m not saying everyone should work remotely, but if you are able to make an income outside your local community (i.e. blogging, online selling), you may boost your local economy.
    • Global. Understanding how you contribute to a global network can make a difference in the long run. For example, a program called Global Russia brings students from America to Russia to advance peaceful dialogue, expanding resilient community ideals beyond the local sphere.
  2. Become a safety educator. Seattle Children’s Hospital has a helmet program, which educates people on the importance of helmets, trying to eliminate brain injury. However, it’s not just the message that’s important. This program involves local firemen, attending fairs as a helmet vendor and creates fun and interactive programs for children about helmet safety. Additionally, those that are trained to lead the program have an increased skill set and greater social capital in their local communities. With some basic research, you can easily find a local program like this one.
  3. Volunteer. America is unique in its high emphasis on volunteerism. This is an extremely valuable asset, as it boosts your local network and contributes in practical ways in your community. Knowing that resilience is rooted in strong social networks, a good option is to volunteer at your church, hospital, or other local non-profit. One of my favorites is IOCC, which uses 98% of their funds for the actual cause, not wasting it on excess administrative costs. Join one of their home-builds here!

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