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Building More Resilient Communities

An interview with Dr. Anita Chandra and Dr. Joie Acosta on community resilience.

This is the next in a continuing series of interviews with expert researchers on how resilience—one of the major themes of my book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience—connects to their area of study.

Anita Chandra, used with permission
Source: Anita Chandra, used with permission
Joie Acosta, used with permission
Source: Joie Acosta, used with permission

Today’s interview is on the subject of community resilience, with Dr. Anita Chandra and Dr. Joie Acosta of the RAND Corporation. Dr. Chandra is Vice President and Director of RAND Social and Economic Well-Being and a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. She leads studies on civic well-being and urban planning; community resilience and long-term disaster recovery; effects of military deployment; health in all policies and advancing a culture of health; and child health and development. Dr. Acosta is a Senior Behavioral Scientist at RAND and a community and cultural psychologist. She specializes in community-based participatory research and evaluation of issues related to the behavioral health consequences of disaster, community resilience, and long-term recovery. Together, they shared with me how their research and project experience can help build more resilient communities.

JA: How do you personally define community resilience?

AC & JAc: Community resilience is the ability of a community to leverage its assets to withstand, recover from, and adapt to a range of acute and chronic stresses, with attention to both the response and recovery to human and infrastructure impacts.

JA: How did you first get interested in studying community resilience?

AC: I had a personal interest in this topic because I had experienced and lived through several natural disasters, but also worked with children dealing with community violence and other trauma. Resilience allowed me to marry personal experience with professional training in the fields of public health, community science, and youth development.

JAc: I became interested in resilience as a result of my work in communities affected by chronic violence. Seeing the way the environment influences how and where youth interact and the types of relationships they form sparked an interest in not just understanding individual factors that promote resilience, but community factors as well. After seeing that there was no way to mediate all the risks that youth face in all communities, I became inspired to search for ways to build supportive and resilient communities that can help promote positive growth and development for everyone living in them.

What are some risk factors that might make a community less resilient?

AC & JAc: When community organizations aren’t working together in coordinated ways, or are over-relying on government agencies rather than the whole community approach to addressing chronic and acute stresses, they diminish their capacity for resilience. Another major factor that can put a community at risk is low social capital which can be thought of as a community’s network of relationships.

While planning is good, it’s important that communities focus on building relationships they can turn to when faced with acute stresses. Plans have a narrow focus on short-term gains, rather than long-term sustainable development of the community.

When communities place too much emphasis on identifying and minimizing risk, this often weakens their ability to leverage community assets effectively to support response and recovery.

JA: What are some ways a community can enhance their resilience?

AC & JAc: Here are a few ideas communities can implement:

  • Better integrating the assets and resources of organizations across government and NGOs
  • Better inventorying of assets—not just materials but also human capital as well as cultural (e.g., art forms) and social goods (e.g., public transportation)
  • Strengthening activities in which communities respond to day-to-day stresses so that when acute shocks hit, the communities are better able to respond

JA: Can you share what you’re working on these days related to community resilience?

AC & JAc: Through our work at the RAND Corporation, we are continuing to help post-disaster communities (e.g., Puerto Rico, British Virgin Islands) build the capacity to integrate resilience-based approaches. Our National Academies effort is supporting activities that will enhance the measurement of resilience. Through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation resilience grants, we are documenting lessons learned for communities trying to build resilience.

We are also committed to sharing ideas for populations trying to build resilience through resources like this recent toolkit to help communities build resilience among older adults.

JA: Anything else you care to share?

AC & JAc: The biggest challenge that we see is the ongoing focus of academics/researchers on defining resilience conceptually and theoretically, rather than getting to action and finding innovative ways to actually build resilient communities. We must work with local communities where innovation is happening to find the most effective ways to build resilience and work toward national policies that have resilience as a goal. In the words of Henry Ford, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is a success."