This blog is an excerpt from the new book, Community Resilience: Equitable Practices for an Uncertain Future, which is the fifth volume of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health book series (co-published by Oxford University Press). You can order a free hard copy of the book here.
Is there a formula for community resilience?
Answering this question is at once complex and urgent, primarily for two reasons. First, the drive to build resilient communities is typically born of the need to respond to adverse situations: consider community resilience in the aftermath of environmental and human made crises like hurricanes, flooding, oil spills, wildfires, and violence, or community resilience in the face of historic disparities in employment, health, education, and housing. Second, communities across the United States are increasingly vulnerable to severe disasters and widening inequity.
A Neighborhood’s Social Capital
Lourdes Rodríguez, a former professor at University of Texas at Austin who now works at St. David’s Foundation, has a theory: the neighborhood is where we make deposits into social capital accounts, and access to these assets depends on neighborhood characteristics and connections. Social capital is accrued through engagement, social networks, neighborliness, community supports, and sense of security and safety. If those features are missing, the social capital account is basically empty, which compromises a neighborhood’s ability to be resilient.
Rodríguez argues that it is imperative to create neighborhood connections where they are missing. “When we stop investing in our neighborhoods, we isolate, separate, sort people out in ways that limit our ability to make connections,” she notes.
Rodríguez posits that a healthy neighborhood has three basic layers: a physical component (for instance, good housing stock); a social component (inclusive, with opportunities to connect to others); and an economic component (entities that provide basic services, like grocery stores, day care, and health clinics). “For me, community is a collective unit—‘collective’ because it brings together more than one individual, but a ‘unit’ because members of the collective are seen as part of a complex whole.”
“Community power is the opportunity granted to collectives when we realize that together we can achieve more than we could individually. The more power we accrue, the more resilient we are as a community – and that helps us withstand threats to the collective.”—Lourdes Rodríguez
THRIVE: The Tool for Health and Resilience in Vulnerable Environments
The symptoms of community trauma do not always become headlines. Sometimes, it is the broken glass in the playground or the boarded-up rowhouses and factory buildings that do the harm. It may be a low-income inner-city housing unit that faces a parking lot instead of green space or a crumbling shack with a partially exposed roof in a rural community. The abandoned corner grocery store, the shuttered library, the bus stop shelter covered in negative graffiti, too, are symptoms that signal the need for healing.
According to Prevention Institute, a national nonprofit devoted to integrating prevention and health equity into policy and practice, these snapshots of community trauma reflect chronic adversity. They speak to a lack of equitable opportunities, a deteriorating built environment, and the systemic erosion of solid social and cultural assets. Such community determinants undermine a Culture of Health as they foster disconnected and damaged social networks, elevate destructive norms, and promote a low sense of political and social efficacy among residents.
Yet these images can also be an inspiration for promoting change, believes Sheila Savannah, who is managing director of Prevention Institute.
“If you look at these pictures and ask yourself ‘Where is the strength?’ that’s how you begin to help communities connect to their strengths, their capabilities, their potential. Because therein lies the ability to begin to heal trauma and begin to create change.”—Sheila Savannah
Prevention Institute’s Tool for Health & Resilience in Vulnerable Environments (THRIVE) was created to answer the question, “What can communities do to improve health and safety and promote health equity?” As both a tool and a framework to help traumatized communities begin to heal, it identifies 12 community determinants of health and safety in three, interrelated clusters: social-cultural environment (people); the physical/built environment (place); and the economic/educational environment (equitable opportunity).
THRIVE is used to help communities “think and move upstream” as they assess local health determinants, prioritize them, and take action to change their surroundings to improve health, safety, and health equity. THRIVE also helps communities inform policy and program directions for local, state, and national initiatives. The tool can be used by a wide range of neighborhoods that need healing, including communities impacted by hurricanes, neighborhoods dealing with racial discrimination, and regions dealing with opioid epidemics.
Community resilience, concluded Savannah, “is the ability and capacity of a community to adapt, recover, and thrive, even in the face of adversity—especially prolonged adversity.”
“The most precious part of community resilience is engagement. Because just like an individual patient, if a community is not engaged in setting the course for their healing it is not going to happen.”—Sheila Savannah
Lourdes J. Rodríguez, DrPH, is a Senior Program Officer at St. David’s Foundation. Sheila Savannah, MA, is a Managing Director at Prevention Institute.
Photo credits: SF Mural Arts, "We Are Still Here" by Bay Baes; and Urban Harvest Houston