From Individual to Collective Resilience
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From Individual to Collective Resilience: Notes from the (social) field

From Individual to Collective Resilience: Notes from the (social) field

By Dr. Maria Kukhareva
Photo credit: Maria Kukhareva

“[E]very single capability that we have and every resource that we have is always a product of our interactions with the environment.”    
Anne Masten

The term ‘resilience’ has permeated our speech and our daily lives. Scientists, doctors, educators, engineers, business people all talk about the desire and the need to be more resilient. But as conversations about the need for systemic, regenerative approaches are gaining momentum, resilience is seen by some as a limited construct–even a buzzword–woefully insufficient in these complex times.

I’d like to share what the systemic view of human resilience has to offer us–how the concept of resilience emerged, and how we can build on its potential by expanding our focus from individual to collective, and perhaps connected, resilience.

My interest in resilience emerged nearly twenty years ago. An interdisciplinary social scientist by training, I worked as a young people practitioner, running residential summer schools for children who had experienced a lot of adversity. Many were in the care system; many were educated outside mainstream school provision; some were known to the youth justice system. It fascinated me how remarkable and resilient many children and young people were–despite multiple adversities and cumulative trauma in their lives.  

The same young people would be described as vulnerable, at risk, and even risky by the media, society and in policy language. Indeed, their lives were tough and their experiences were far from rosy. And of course, some of these young people faced much tougher challenges than their peers, and didn’t act in ways that would be described as ‘resilient’.

I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of their experiences. I had a lot of questions. Can someone be vulnerable and resilient at the same time? What helps these children thrive? What inhibits their development and their resilience capacity? Can this understanding help us create environments, which purposefully support these young people in becoming more resilient? And can we create such environments for young people?  

The bio-psycho-social framework of resilience, stemming from the work of Ann Masten and Norman Garmezy, provided a perfect lens for understanding resilience of the young people who I worked with, and human resilience in general. If we take a systemic view of our resilience, we are able to see that all elements are equal players in this dynamic, fluid exchange: the individual characteristics; the interrelationship with the immediate environment (family); and the interaction with the broader environment.

People vary in their individual capacity and capability. While some people exhibit traits associated with resilience early in life, it doesn’t mean that others are at a disadvantage. As we grow and interact with others and the world around us, experience life events and mature, there’s plenty of opportunity for each and every one of us to deepen and expand our resilience.

In this respect, it is helpful to think of resilience as distributed capacity, fed by our interactions with the environment, and our relationships with many people who make up our world. This includes our immediate circle as well as broader community.

It is also helpful to remember that resilience is born out of events, relationships and interactions that are commonplace and everyday, something we may even call basic – such as healthy relationships with peers, caregivers, teachers. Ann Masten refers to these basic resilience-building systems as ‘ordinary magic’. These systems can be overlooked and taken for granted; yet if purposefully nurtured, these systems are, in fact, ‘powerful engines for resilience’ .

Indeed, going back to my research with young people, it was clear that those who seemed to be accessing their resilience most naturally had at least one constant supportive adult in their lives. Many were a part of supportive peer communities, often outside school. These communities provided support and encouragement, friendships, and opportunities for personal growth. These communities also helped the young people feel that they belong, that they are a part of something bigger than themselves.

Resilience is relational and dynamic. This is a powerful realization, as it reminds us of our interconnectedness, and the potential that lies within us as integral parts of a much larger whole. We start seeing resilience as a collective phenomenon, fluid and systemic in nature. As we expand our focus from the individual to the community itself, we start to see that the interconnected, interdependent relationships and ties within the community act as a most powerful resilience resource. This interconnectedness is vital for building strong regenerative communities.

With this in mind, where do we go from here? While children rely on us for care, regulation and guidance, what choices do we face, in this complex world? What can we do, as adults, as leaders, as integral parts of our human community? How can we purposefully build and nurture systems that promote our collective–and therefore individual–resilience?

As we grow in our understanding of the challenges humanity and the planet face today, it’s vital we keep expanding and deepening our focus on what resilience can look, and feel like, to enable our thriving as a species. Applying systemic and regenerative approaches to resilience enables us to see ourselves as parts of a much larger whole – be it the family, peer group, community, nature; the planet and perhaps the universe. If we hold this view, we do not become smaller, more insignificant or less resilient–in fact, we are able to see opportunities to build resilience in new, more impactful ways.

Maria Kukhareva is a FEBI Coach and currently training to become an IZL Instructor. She is one of 20 speakers in the upcoming online summit (starts May 10) Living and Leading with Deep Resilience.

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