This past Monday evening, I attended an Emergent Savannah event titled Connect, Reflect: A World Cafe Conversation About Building Resilience. I noticed the flyer at my local coffee shop over a week ago and thought it sounded up my alley. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but I knew they modeled the event off the World Cafe, which is a (commonly discovered) conversation methodology involving small groups, cycled throughout a space, to answer a list of questions.
I showed up and was glad to find thirty other citizens ready to discuss…resiliency, apparently! Before arriving, I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. I wondered if it was about the ability for physical buildings to weather the test of time? As the discussions flushed out, this resiliency revolved around how communities and individuals remain strong.
The evening reminded me greatly of the Simplicity Project I co-found back in Seattle. There were small group discussions designed to pull out insights and share them with others. The structure gave people the opportunity to speak and be heard without having to own the entire room. Also, participants were more engaged than traditional lecture-styled round tables with pontificating “experts”.
The Many Faces of Community
The leader began by recognizing a few roles in which attendees play: from heres, come heres, and nobody hears. The From Heres are people that grew up right here in Savannah and see their city through the lens of a local. Their childhood friends, high school, victories, and disappointments are visible everywhere.
The Come Heres, are people such as myself, that move to Savannah for a variety of reasons: employment, retirement, joining a partner. We may see this city in a very different way as we bring outside expectations, perspectives, and baggage.
Lastly, the Nobody Hears–which I thought was a nice sentiment–are those perceived to have no voice, the people of the community in which nobody hears. I don’t know enough about Emergent’s outreach to understand how they connect these people with others as under-resourced citizens typically aren’t as involved with civic life. I guess this is more broadly defined as people whose interests are hardly addressed at the local political level.
The goal of the evening was to meet others, discuss our perspectives on Savannah, and identify ways to build resilience within ourselves and the community. The following questions were posed to groups of three and given around 10 minutes of discussion.
- What is resilience? How is it different from persistence and resistance? Or is it?
- What are the signs and signals of a resilient community? What conditions are necessary for resilience?
- What are the practices we need to engage in on a community level and on a personal level to build resilience?
I served as a table host for the night and met about 20 people over the course of many rotations. Architects, creative directors, festival promoters, international college admissions officers, and small business owners. I interpreted the questions much differently from others, and they answered them through their own viewpoint. Architects see communities built around facades. Admissions officers see diversity as boosting resilience. Small business owners want to develop more collaboration than competition among those who provide services in the city. As a transit enthusiast, I bring a perspective of access and freedom.
Personally, I don’t use the word resilience all that often in everyday language, so I took some time to jot down notes: weathers hardship, remains positive, has methodology to challenges, welcomes strife as part of life. I even identified some people in my life who exhibit high resiliency.
- the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
- “the often remarkable resilience of so many British institutions”
- the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
- “nylon is excellent in wearability and resilience”
Many of our conversations viewed resiliency as “bouncing back with style”, the ability to face, overcome, and move on from difficulties in life, whether they are positive or negative challenges. There’s a level of plasticity to the fabric of each of us, and to our communities. The property by which we return to original form, regardless of how we are deformed.
Some things that make resiliency difficult to possess afflict many of the most-forgotten segments of society: poor health, lack of financial resources (more aptly lack of credit, because even high-earners can run very lean ‘cash-flow’ lifestyles yet survive on debt), lack of people power such as child-rearing without a partner or grandparent.
For me, it was really, really fascinating and beneficial. I observed how I construct resiliency in my own life: self-taught financial literacy, insourcing of life skills, yoga or running for strength and mental clarity, meditating on what I value highly in life. What gives me the ability to construct a resilient life compared to others?
Without Hardship, Is There Resilience?
One of the most challenging elements of the evening was discussing the conditions in which are necessary for resilient communities and individuals. Time and time again, we identified strife and challenge as absolute requirements for exhibiting resiliency. Hurricanes or mass shootings are universally seen as detriments to societies. They are unwelcome and unexpected. They are a call for healing: Orlando, Florida creates #LoveisLove and a marathon tragedy sparks #BostonStrong. These people are resilient in the face of sadness.
On the flip side, I imagined an Olympic gold medalist or victorious political contender. These outcomes are not universally held to be negatives. In fact, they are celebrated achievements. But are those individuals also resilient? Or are they persistent? Didn’t they face hardship as well?
In the end, I concluded, resilience is overcoming negative circumstances, rising against unwelcome or undesired challenges. Whereas persistence is working towards a goal or dream, of higher value than your current state. It’s achieving what they said was impossible.
For Orlando, Boston, Puerto Rico or Houston to “bounce back”, they return to life as it was. Perhaps better than before, perhaps just as well. But there is only a celebration of the overcoming, not the final state of affairs itself.
Default to ‘Open’
We identified the topic, then we discussed the required conditions, and finally we speak about tangible actions in which we can aspire–the practices in which we need to engage in order to cultivate resilient communities. The whole night revolved around the shared desire to make Savannah an elastic and strong community. Some individual and community goals are listed below.
I often champion the idea of “being a tourist in your own city“. It’s the idea of bringing the wondering and wandering of travel, holiday, and vacation into your daily life. This lifestyle was mostly driven by staying engaged and interested when not on the road. But it has many implications for connecting you to places and people you fail to observe right under your nose. I often find myself participating in events or openings I otherwise wouldn’t. Remaining curious about other neighborhoods is crucial.
Another mentality to cultivate is finding ways to “default to open”. It’s the conscious choice to give others the benefit of the doubt and believe people when they tell you who they are. It’s no secret that many everyday tasks and conventions now default us to close: lack of eye contact, failure to spark discussion, trying to avoid getting in others’ way. But does this cultivate resilient community? Does this encourage us to engage with or trust our neighbor?
As a community, we must respect private spaces and champion public spaces. Land use regulations should favor the creativity and ingenuity of the citizen so long as it doesn’t disrespect or impose hardship on others. The public spaces we currently support and will continue investing in, shall be championed areas for community events, gatherings, and socializing. Does each neighborhood or commercial district offer something in which the locals desire? Does it connect those people with any consistency?
Lastly, it was so eloquently put by someone other than me, but to encourage shared walking, biking, and driving throughout the city. A co-existence of everyone from 8 to 80 years old to find their place. Much like being a tourist, a community prioritizing the freedom of its citizens to access resources which they use on a regular basis can develop resiliency. People develop ownership of the place they live, and in turn, build trust among the networks they discover.