Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Reframing resilience | April 5, 2018

“There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” Margaret J. Wheatley

Jim Kelley was my first boss when I came to South Carolina.  Always certain, but with a willingness to listen and the unusual ability to change his mind if you made a good case.  He was the best boss I ever had – at least for me.  He set his expectations for us very high, and often put us through pure hell to make sure we met them.  Conversely, woe to someone outside his group who tried to attack one of us.

As an occasional reader of my short essays he pulls no punches.  In response to a recent one, he sent me this:

It seems to me that this whole “resilience” argument needs to be reframed, since that term is a hard sell. Communities already pay for resilience is several areas, such as cutting trees away from power lines, routine road maintenance, replacing rotting power poles, etc. The common element is with key pieces of infrastructure that cause a lot of “pain and agony” when they are down. It seems that “resilience” should not be framed as something new, but expansions of what’s already being done.

As a sometimes practitioner, my experience indicates that Jim is exactly right.  Communities do spend a lot of money that can be leveraged to make them more resilient.  But “resilience” is too often seen as something that is separate and different from the normal life of the community; not embedded in the everyday.  Thus, it often doesn’t resonate with a community and its leaders.  In CARRI’s work, we have recognized the importance of leveraging the everyday expenditures of a community to achieve greater resilience. But, we have been hampered by the perception of resilience as an unnatural and additional burden.

Recognizing the need, how do we reframe resilience?  Perhaps we can begin by looking at what makes a community resilient.  To me, the most important attribute of a resilient community is that it cares about itself.  In the case of my town, it cares about the treasures it has inherited from its past.  The hiking trails in Hitchcock Woods; the beautiful flowers and the wonderful concerts in Hopeland Gardens; the horse track and the Polo Field; and the majestic oaks that canopy South Boundary.  We pay to maintain these in many ways, including a 1% Capital Projects Sales Tax, a burden that is broadly borne and thus seen as fair for all.

Another important attribute of resilient communities is that they’re focused on the future.  They anticipate future risks, and are ready to seize future opportunities to strengthen themselves.  Conversely, resilient communities do not dwell on the past – avoiding the Blame Game – but are keenly aware of present weaknesses and strengths. When I lived in Mississippi the contrast between resilient communities and others was striking.  Some communities were still bogged down in the detritus of the Civil War and Reconstruction.  They viewed everything as a Zero Sum game – one community’s gain was seen as necessarily another’s loss.  This bred a sort of siege mentality and a resistance to new ideas.  In these towns racial tensions simmered; the Old Guard had never quite lost the plantation mentality.  Conversely, resilient cities like Tupelo were firmly focused on their future.  They were open to new ideas and found innovative means to capture economic opportunities.  This openness also served them well in resolving the endemic racial problems of the past.

Salt Lake City provides another great example of focusing on the future.  CARRI held a meeting there while the Great Recession was raging.  While other cities were staggered and trying to find the means to simply maintain what they had, Mayor Becker told us that the city was investing heavily in revamping its downtown infrastructure.  While money was tight, interest rates were low and the cost of materials, esp. steel, had dropped dramatically.  And, as the Mayor said

Resilient communities realize that fixing today’s problems will lead to a better tomorrow, one in which the community will have reduced its risks and poised itself to seize future opportunities.  The community as a whole cares about itself; it knows what needs to be nurtured and what is superfluous.  The leadership is passionate about improving the community but realistic enough to know that you can’t do it all at once.  While aware of all that must be done they focus their attention on two or three items at a time, patiently bringing the public along through effective and frequent messaging.  They continue working down the list of things that will make sure today’s problems are getting solved and the prospects for the future are getting brighter.  So maybe instead of talking about resilience, we should talk about CCFF – caring communities focused on their future.