What does community resilience really mean?

‘Community resilience’ is a common term used today to describe a pathway to greater strength and harmony, particularly in minority communities.  But what does it really mean and how can it be applied?

The concept of resilience is usually applied at an individual level, but over the last decade, we are hearing more about the need for resilient communities when dealing with divisive influences such as racism, radicalisation and discrimination.

In the simplest sense, resilience means one’s ability to bounce back. To be a resilient person means to be able to withstand and adapt to hardships, including trauma. In some cases, it can mean finding a path that leads to a stronger position.

Community resilience is like neuroplasticity

At an individual level, resilience is more than just a theory or an ideal. Breakthroughs in neuroscience have proven that the human brain has an elastic quality which allows us to adapt and grow stronger: known as neuroplasticityOur brains can adapt to compensate for damaged areas: it can build new pathways to a part of the brain responsible for a particular function or it can rely on other parts of the brain to enhance other functions when another is permanently damaged. This inbuilt flexibility is where our own resilience comes from.

Perhaps the best way to think of community resilience is to imagine a community just like the human brain: it can adapt to compensate for damage, call on other community members to enhance capabilities where there are weaknesses and build new pathways to keep the community on track.

Communities are composed of interconnected pathways for information to travel between, just like the neural pathways in our brain. The pathways in a community are our relationships: to each other through a shared sense of identity and culture, and to shared resources, physical, human or otherwise. The information that travels between us are our collective stories – our emotions and experiences.

Communities can be wounded, be also adapt

So if we understand our communities as living, breathing entities, it means that they can be wounded. Divisive influences like racism, discrimination and radicalisation can have the effect of trauma at a community level if they persist. They encourage violence that is based on difference, at the expense of what is shared. These influences break down the very relationships we need to make communities healthy.

Communities can be wounded, but that they can adapt to challenges and trauma as well. This is the heart of community resilience – using what is shared, such as common experiences and ideals, to protect each other from influences that can cause harm. According to Landau and Saul (2004), the aspects of resilience at a community level can be divided in to three themes:

  • Belief systems: making meaning of traumatic loss or experience; through a positive
    outlook, transcendence, and spirituality;
  • Organizational patterns: flexibility, kin and community connectedness,
    and economic and institutional resources; and
  • Communication/problem-solving: which includes clear, open emotional expression and collaborative problem solving.

While these needs will be different for every challenge, the overarching principles are the same. Taking the time to understand your community’s strengths and weaknesses is not a task for just one person. It involves significant leadership and collaboration.

Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

18 Oct 2023

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