The word resilience derives from the Latin resilire, meaning "to jump back."
Helping communities prepare for and respond to traumatic experiences including human-made and natural disasters, past and present, has been a significant part of the work I have been involved with for the past two decades. While in Belfast, Northern Ireland, many years ago, on the eve of beginning training about building community resilience, a community member approached me and shared concern about any gathering using the word resilience. They shared that there was a billboard in their neighborhood cautioning community members about the word resilience.
Stop Calling Me Resilient
A quote by Tracie L. Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute was on that billboard. It read, “Stop calling me resilient. Because every time you say, ‘Oh, they’re resilient,’ you can do something else to me. I am not resilient.”1 In other words, the person shared that being called resilient minimizes one’s history and lived experience. It was the government’s way of ignoring the needs of the people. In their view, resilience had been weaponized as a term used to marginalize, oppress, or trivialize individual and community suffering and ignore the community's needs. The same perspective toward the word resilience has been echoed within many communities within the United States for many reasons, including in the context of structural racism.
Unpacking the Definition of Resilience
Many resilience initiatives are being launched worldwide, including within the United States, to address the mental health needs of individuals and communities pre- and post-disasters. We must unpack the term when working on mental health initiatives promoting resilience. This does not mean we do not share our perspectives, but the dialogue is essential for community engagement. One standard definition of resilience is the ability to “bounce back” from adversity. This has been a troubling definition for many from marginalized communities. As one community member stated, bouncing back to what? Oppression, poverty, systemic racism, insecure housing?
Resilience Through the Lens of Cultural Humility
The myriad definitions of resilience highlight the complexity of working within communities. When invited into communities to launch resilience initiatives promoting mental health, a perspective of cultural humility must guide us. Cultural humility will help draw out individual and collective strengths to recover from and grow from adversity without suggesting that the systems that work against a community’s well-being—and were present long before the current challenge—should remain unchanged.
Resilience Can Be Rooted in a Strength-Based Perspective
Resilience remains a powerful word; for many, its meaning is rooted in a strength-based perspective. Christina Bethell of John Hopkins University, a leading researcher on mitigating the impact of adverse childhood experiences, describes resilience as “the ability to remain calm when faced with a challenge.” She suggests that building resilience for children ages 6-17 can reduce the negative impact of adverse childhood experiences. There were higher rates of school engagement among children with adverse childhood experiences who demonstrated resilience.2
My definition of resilience has expanded to a tapestry of many elements, influenced by people I have met around the world. Resilience is not a static state but one that emerges dynamically and has an ebb and flow. Resilient individuals and communities are infused with an overarching stance of embodied compassion and empathy and cultivate embodied well-being by remembering their assets and strengths. They appreciate culture and traditions.
Acknowledging Human Suffering: Recent and Historical
Resilient individuals and communities acknowledge human suffering—recent and historical. There is an openness to the experience of hope and optimism. This optimism imbues community members with solution-focused perspectives. They embrace the diversity of their community and deeply listen to divergent views. There is an attitude of adaptability and flexibility when faced with individual and community challenges. Resilient individuals embody well-being by embracing their vulnerabilities as well as their capabilities. They can lean into their suffering and lean into their strengths and assets.
A woman shared with me her belief in her resilience—her ability to embrace her suffering and her indomitable strength. She felt empowered, not limited. She described that her resilience was mobilized to purpose and meaning to try as much as possible to advocate for the rights of those who had no voice. Exploring resilience and its meaning helped illuminate her life purpose. What does resilience mean to you?
Washington, Tracie (2021) Don't Call Me Resileint, The Conversaiton Podcast, https://theconversation.com/listen-to-dont-call-me-resilient-our-podcas…
Bethell, C., Newacheck, P., Hawes, E. & Halfon, N. (2014). Adverse Childhood Experiences: Assessing The Impact On Health And School Engagement And The Mitigating Role of Resilience, Health Affairs, 33, no.12 (2014): 2106-2115