square bulletWhat’s in a Name: Resilience

From , MSW, LICSW, Research Assistant, Trauma Informed Oregon

This month marks my first-year anniversary working with the Disaster Resilience Learning Collaborative (DRLC). The DRLC is a pilot program created in partnership with Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and United Way of Columbia-Willamette. It was inspired by and directly informed by conversations with community of color community-based organizations (CBOs) impacted by the 2020 wildfires and OHA’s Climate and Health Resilience Plan. This pilot seeks to advance equitable disaster resilience through healing-centered, culturally grounded collaborations and actions among community of color leaders in Oregon. Currently, the collaborative consists of Latinx and Indigenous community-based organization representatives.

Before the DRLC and during this past year, I’ve pondered the term disaster resilience. I’ve heard it used, defined, and discussed in so many different ways. I also feel that focusing on one aspect of resilience changes its use and narrative. For example, focusing on why people are resilient might lead to preparation or advocacy. The need for resilience might focus on the impact of disasters and trauma. The who is resilient focuses on communities that are disproportionately harmed by disasters. Mainstream understandings of resilience also tend to have a “bounce back” and “new normal” narrative, implying that communities are resilient based on how quickly they can return to a pre-disaster state. While this narrative seems practical, it can miss the why, need, and who in resilience.

Research Around Defining Resilience

As always, I turn to research to explore the meanings behind resilience. Researchers are also exploring resilience narratives. Though discourse surrounding resilience generally remains optimistic and associated with local empowerment, research has different definitions leading to different actions. As an example, Patel and colleagues (2017) compare two disaster resilience definitions in measurement tools:

“…the Communities Advancing Resilience Toolkit (CART) describes a resilient community as one that has the ability to transform the environment through deliberate, collective action’ and ‘requires that the community as a whole must cope effectively with and learn from adversity’ and as such suggests the measurement of community resilience requires the measurement of specific constructs such as ‘transformative potential,’ ‘connection and caring,’ ‘resources’ and ‘disaster management’ in order to identify areas of weakness. In contrast, the Conjoint Community Resiliency Assessment Measure (CCRAM) defines community resilience as the community’s ability to withstand crises or disruptions’ and emphasizes variables relating to leadership, collective efficacy, place attachment, preparedness, and social trust” (Patel et. al, 2017 para. 3).

The lack of a common definition is troubling as these definitions inform action. And in disaster work, typically dominated by economic efficiency, these definitions inform how resilience is operationalized and measured.

Process-oriented concepts of resilience use terms such as “bounce back,” suggesting a reactive, unchanged, time efficiency stance when informing disaster interventions (Manyena, 2006). This engineering definition of resilience emerged within the market logic of the neoliberal state apparatus, meaning resilience is nestled in the neoliberal ideology of self-reliance, hinging on the individual being the basis of resilience (Klein, 2020). Resilience therefore becomes something inherent and personal. A neoliberal context idolizes individualism (Morley et. al, 2017), suggesting that the responsibility (and thereby the fault) of the disaster lies on the shoulders of disaster torn communities and frames recovery as returning to pre-disaster or worsening social inequities.  Amo-Agyemang (2021) hence defines this resilience as the “contemporary demand for humans to adapt to the conditions of the complex world instead of transforming the social and political conditions which hold them back or seek to transcend these conditions” (p. 6). Such a definition, though disguised as empowering, encourages disaster work to place focus on “vulnerable communities” as any community unable to transcend their disaster rather than target sources of climate change and systematic oppression. It separates nature from culture and struggles to conceptualize communities within their environmental and historical context.

DRLC Discussions on Resilience

Leaving healing, culture, and trauma out of disaster resilience conversations minimizes “the struggle, pain, and trauma most folks go through to be resilient” (DRLC Survey Respondent). At the start of the DRLC, there was tension around the word resilience. Many felt mainstream understandings of resilience misrepresented their experiences or were more harmful than helpful. Participants characterized this view of resilience as:

  • Static in that it avoids the impact of trauma, healing practices, and systematic issues that may contribute to the frequency/intensity of climate disasters
  • Forced assimilation in that communities of color must align with Western views of “normal” along with its emphasis on economic recovery over community/cultural healing
  • Lacking a healing component or rooted in Western ideas of emotional and social wellness
  • Minimizing the long-term mental health impacts of disasters along with historical trauma within communities of color
  • Toxic in that it conditions communities to avoid asking for help for fear of not appearing resilient enough
  • Unwittingly oppressive by shifting focus on being resilient instead of why communities need to be resilient

Through storytelling and mutual learning, the DRLC developed collective understandings surrounding resilience, which recognize the intersections of culture, community, trauma, and healing in resilience. This conception of resilience, similar to situated resilience (Chen, 2020), decenters colonialism at the center of creating knowledge while adjusting to the multiplicity of resilience. This multiplicity honors more than one understanding and use of resilience based on each participant rather than forcing a singular interpretation of the word:

  • Returning to our roots. Participants spoke to bringing back tradition, language, and connection to family and culture while remaining firm in resistance/resilience – not letting forced assimilation define them. Cultural identity is something to take pride in and to return to. Celebrating ancestral traditions includes being witnessed, adaptability, strength, and pride in cultural identity. As one facilitator pointed out, “Genocide and forced assimilation did not end Indigenous culture. These and traditional stories are a symbol of resilience in that they were able to be passed down, kept alive, despite the endless injustices on Indigenous people.”
  • Advocacy. With pride comes the confidence to engage in change work. Some participants felt resilience means working as a collective, maximizing resources, and challenging the “vulnerable” and “minority” lens placed upon them. This view of resilience suggests that communities as a collective have the capacity to ignite systematic change, learn and share resources and ideas, and to build healthy communities. This narrative emphasizes that resilience is only the beginning; there is much to be learned and to achieve.
  • Healing. Participants also considered how resilience might impact their own lives and communities. Self-care, wellness, and community healing were stressed. Healing meant not only treating symptoms, but also centering where participants wanted to be. Healing also includes honoring their communities’ experiences as well as their own and the wisdom that emerges from them. It is a shift from endurance and desire for change to being the change. It also offers breaks from being resilient, inviting others for support.
  • The Daily Struggle. Last, resilience was described as persevering, preparation, holding hope for future communities, and endurance. Hope was described as a yearning for a better future for their families and communities. It honors the daily work that participants undertake to serve their communities and recognizes the trauma required to be “deemed” resilient.

Including healing, resistance, and cultural identity restoration within a narrative of resilience contrasts with the mainstream understanding of resilience in crucial ways. While dominant understandings penalize those deemed not resilient, an alternate, inclusive understanding of resilience recognizes that we don’t always have to be resilient. It is okay to be vulnerable and ask for help.

The Why, Need, and Who

Such powerful discussions of the harm and benefits of resilience as a word lead me to consider what innately lies in other terms we use to inform our actions, our decisions, our education, and even our policies. Moving forward, I challenge myself to examine my own assumptions about other notions. What may seem practical can miss the why, need, and, most importantly, the who.

Read the DRLC Evaluation Report »

If you would like to learn about the DRLC from another organization’s perspective, check out their thoughts: » »


Klein. (2008). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism (1st Picador ed.). Picador.

Morley, C., Macfarlane, S., & Ablett, P. (2017). The neoliberal colonisation of social  work education: A critical analysis and practices for resistance. Advances in social work  education, 19(2), 25-40.

Amo-Agyemang, C. (2021). Decolonising the discourse on resilience. International Journal of African Renaissance Studies, 16(1), 4–30.

Chen, Y. Y. (2020). Decolonizing methodologies, situated resilience, and country: Insights from Tayal Country, Taiwan. Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), 12(22), 9751.