March 31, 2020

Cultural Resilience Lessons During COVID-19 and Beyond

People working on community engagement activity at a table

Resilience is built before, during and after we are faced with a challenge. Communities that are able to recover from adverse events, shocks or stressors are not only structurally sound, but also socially empowered and connected. Whether responding to storms or wildfires, facing a period of economic downturn, or addressing a public health challenge such as the COVID19 pandemic, resilience means doubling down on collaboration and prioritizing the needs of those most impacted.

Researchers on resilience, such as Daniel P. Aldrich of Northeastern University, have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of social infrastructure at the community level as a primary factor in resilience. What does that look like, especially in a time of social distancing? How can our actions now strengthen resilience for future challenges? Our Made to Last case studies share stories of cultural resilience, from which we offer three lessons for taking care of each other in this moment.


1. Now is the time to know not only your community’s vulnerabilities but also its strengths.

Practitioners must be sensitive to local needs in both understanding a place and determining how to help community. Diversity of ideas, culture, governance and action enables strength, flexibility and creativity in responding to stresses, both physical and socioeconomic. Reaching out and being inclusive toward people and ideas is fundamental to increasing resilience.

Though broad-based policy strategies such as halting evictions and assisting renters and landlords are essential, the responses we provide must be tailored to the specific needs of particular groups of people in a particular place. Knowing your community is essential to mobilizing the most relevant resources for the highest positive impact. Many organizations do asset mapping as part of their organizing or emergency preparedness efforts.

Now is the time to know not only your community’s vulnerabilities but also its strengths and assets. This makes it possible to act strategically with limited resources. “In a disaster, everyone moves toward response and gets chaotic. ”Jennifer Gilligan Cole of Arizona State University advises, “listen and collect and consolidate information, try to connect things vs. invent things, think about resources as limited and flexible, and one size does not fit all.”

2. Forge partnerships that meet multiple needs.

It is through a diversity of people, perspectives, and ideas that solutions come forward that can match the magnitude of the issues facing a community. It is important to both recognize historic traditions, organizations, and leaders, and engage with new members of the community, as a diversity of stakeholders can lead to new coalitions and alliances. Collaboration among residents, local community-based organizations, and public agencies is essential to move from ideas to proposals to implemented projects.

Models are emerging across the country. For example, to support our homeless neighbors and also bolster local businesses and workers, some cities are paying restaurants to prepare meals for homeless residents, or leasing hotels to house those who are willing to come inside, with the possibility of making some of it permanent housing in the long term.


3. Short-term actions are part of long-term change.

Trust takes time to build and needs ongoing reinforcement. Making and doing things together – even remotely –fosters relationships and enhances cohesion within the community and can build toward long-term change. The challenge is to align near-term actions with the goals and aspirations of the future, so that efforts are done in a strategic, rather than ad hoc fashion.

Just as the temporary housing solutions we are seeing could become permanent, the ways in which we communicate and respond in the current moment will matter to the long-term wellbeing of our communities.

The team at American Indian Housing Organization (AICHO) is taking care to make sure their shelter residents are healthy and safe while also supporting staff to continue providing comprehensive services. Executive Director, Michelle LeBeau shared that “our staff came together to plan, shop, take residents shopping - creating new best practices for ensuring the safety of our residents as well as staff. Our gift shop coordinator was concerned about the gift shop closing and how that would impact the artists we serve. She decided to launch a website she has been working on for several months – this might just ensure the survival of the gift shop, and the work of dozens of Indigenous Artists and Food Producers, during these difficult times.”

Especially for people who have been systemically put at a disadvantage by the structures of our society and economy, responding in a way that is caring and attentive will build trust, which is an investment in readiness for our next challenge. This is especially important during a time when we are required to distance ourselves from one another – though this is necessary for public health, we don’t want to lose out on the health benefits of social connection.

Additional strategies and case studies for cultural resilience can be found in Made to Last.

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