Pete Souza / The White House

How fostering resilience keeps low-income communities down

We are a nation dangerously preoccupied with the capacity of communities to rebound

February 9, 2015 2:00AM ET

In my early teens, I hated my mother. I hated everything about her, but mostly I hated her admission of our poverty. I hated her shoes, the Pro-Wings from Payless Shoe Source, though worse was when she wore my hand-me-downs, my jelly shoes from the Pick ’n Save. She was a decade behind in the fashion, but we never threw anything away. Not even the plastic sectioned-off plates our frozen dinners came in.

I took this poverty to be evidence of our joint failure. My part in it was involuntary, but in a way hers was too, given the stigma of what I later came to understand as her mental illness, the state of health care and the state of our nation, which in the late 1980s — with HIV and crack cocaine and Reaganomics — was on its knees.

Today what I admire most about her is her resiliency. Her financial failing was, I realize, not the product of a lack of resiliency but, just perhaps, an abundance of it.

Glass half full

We are a nation preoccupied with resilience. A search for book titles containing the word yields 1,258 results. Of those, 240 are self-help, and 343 are mental health books. The National Institutes of Health’s clinical trials registry lists 92 clinical trials in the U.S. focused on building community resilience. According to its 2012 annual report, the Rockefeller Foundation spent $5,349,160 on programs that fostered community resilience. President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget proposal (PDF) even opens with the words “Thanks to the hard work and resilience of the American people, the economy and our nation are moving forward.”

The budget sets aside $164 million for Obama’s Now Is the Time initiative to expand mental health treatment and prevention services provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Now Is the Time initiative includes $55 million for Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), which helps states and communities implement plans to refer students with behavioral health challenges to the services they need and provide mental health first aid training to adults who work with youths to detect signs of mental illness.

Such critical supports are in order. But we must reconsider our nation’s use and understanding of the rhetoric of resilience. Because by normalizing the idea that residents in low-income communities can simply bounce back in response to a lack of resources, it is handicapping our ability to help those truly in need.

The term “resilience” was first used in 17th century physics to denote the ability of an object to absorb and then release energy when deformed elastically. A rubber ball is resilient; subjected to a blunt force, it will deform and then rebound to its original shape. The Oxford English Dictionary notes its current metaphorical use: “The quality or fact of being able to recover quickly or easily from or resist being affected by a misfortune, shock, illness, etc.; robustness, adaptability.”

Fostering resilience fits in remarkably well with efforts to pull back our country’s critical safety net systems and breed independence.

The term has been applied to communities to mean, roughly, their capacity to rebound from events conducive to their dysfunction or breakdown. Increasing community resilience has been the public health solution to chronic challenges such as poverty, depression and class inequity. While working for an organization in South Los Angeles that served a community of Latino parents and grandparents acting as parents, I saw this asset-based approach in action. We focused not on what the community needed but on what it already had: the capacities of the people who lived and worked there and the institutions based in the area.

This is the glass-half-full approach. But resilience is not a triumph at all; it is a symptom of a failing society. It calls for an individual or group of people to remain unaltered after an assault, a burglary, shootings, lack of food, the crack epidemic or inadequate health care. To encourage communities to be more resilient is to suggest that simply forging on is the solution to poverty and crime.

A troubling trope

Built into the concept of resilience is an image of what a resilient community or individual should look like: a crime-heavy neighborhood policing itself or a child who suffered abuse growing into a responsible, civic-minded adult. But if that child were to become a skillful criminal, it’s likely that we, as a society, would consider her a casualty of adversity rather than someone who bounced back but not in the way we’d like. The unspoken byproduct of cultivating resilience, in other words, is the expectation that individuals and communities function the way we think they should.

Such a goal buys into a troubling narrative that writer Lidia Yuknavitch describes as “the cult of good citizenship.” In a recent interview with LitReactor, she stated:

We’ve made an industry out of it. I could make a clever list right here of the sanctioned and authorized and exalted narratives available to a person the day they are born. They come from media, they come from family, they come from religion, they come from corporations, they come from what we still quaintly refer to as “politics and law” … If you as an individual conform to those scripts, you are a good citizen. If you as an individual resist those forms of power and control and organization, you are an agitator. 

Encouraging community resiliency does exactly that: It promotes a cult of good citizenship. Fostering resilience fits in remarkably well with efforts to pull back our country’s critical safety net systems and breed independence.

Public and privately funded projects that promote resiliency may mean well, but they are wrong to valorize the idea that we should remain unchanged, unmoved and unaffected by trauma. Because here’s what happens to me when I embrace it: I quiver with a fake sense of pride and accomplishment for withstanding rape, poverty, bureaucracy, the child welfare system, our sexist workforce and low wages — and coming out unscathed. Yet what I’m really doing is assuaging those in authority by saying, “I am not broken. I can take more.”

According to the “Handbook of Adult Resilience,” a text that is taught in college psychology courses, Hispanic populations are resilient in the face of adversity. But what does it even mean to define a population as resilient? It’s dangerous not only for how reductive such a view is but also for the policies that are built on these findings. Let’s burn the trope of resilience and with it, the assumption that the flip side of resilience is brokenness, failure and weakness.

Melissa Chadburn has written for Guernica, BuzzFeed, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus and American Public Media’s Marketplace, among other outlets. Her first novel, “A Tiny Upward Shove,” is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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