Building Resilience: Behind a Gift to Help Communities Bounce Back After a Crisis Hits

Tempe, AZ. Tim Roberts Photography/shutterstock

Tempe, AZ. Tim Roberts Photography/shutterstock

Open a newspaper, and you’ll find no shortage of U.S. communities hard hit by disasters and setbacks—including wildfires, hurricanes, droughts and plant closings.

Government provides something of a safety net to help Americans cope when bad times arrive. But recent crises, including the opioid epidemic, Hurricane Maria and the Flint water crisis, have underscored the limits to how much public agencies can or will step up in the face of adversity. And it’s a pretty good bet that government will be even less responsive in coming decades, amid a fiscal crunch caused by an aging population and growing demands on emergency resources due to climate change, deteriorating U.S. infrastructure, and other factors.

These realities explain the keen interest among a range of funders in bolstering civil society’s role in promoting resilience. To see this phenomenon play out in a somewhat unusual way, look to Tempe, Arizona, where a $15 million gift from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust to Arizona State University (ASU) established a program to “help people in Maricopa County better cope with economic recessions, natural disasters, and other community challenges.”

“All communities experience stresses,” ASU’s press release reads. “They can be sudden shocks (floods, earthquakes) or they can be long-term, constant stresses. In each instance, how well the community survives the stress or shock—through proactive planning, nimble actions and openness to evolution—and how quickly it can bounce back is a measure of its resilience.”

Working at the Knowledge Exchange for Resilience (KER) program, ASU scientists have already begun conducting research that aims to make communities “more resilient so that when a shock hits, they can survive and get back to their normal lives as quickly as possible.”

Concern for the “Social Fabric”

Since 2002, the Piper Trust has funded 19 ASU projects for a total of nearly $56 million. The projects run the gamut, including improving the health of Maricopa County residents, appreciation of the arts, and boosting K-12 education.

To get a better understanding of the kind of work the KER hopes to accomplish, ASU’s press release reported on how the Great Recession affected the community as a whole:

When the recession hit in 2008, it manifested itself in the housing collapse in the Valley that tested the resilience of nearly every community. ‘Upside down’ in their mortgages, neighbors left overnight. Houses were abandoned. Communities faced holes in them that took years to fill. The collapse tore at the social fabric of nearly every Maricopa County community.

“Social fabric” is the key phrase here.

It’s been almost two decades since the seminal publication of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” and in the intervening years, Putman’s thesis—that Americans have become increasingly disconnected from one another—has only become more acute with social media and heightened political polarization.

Funders are understandably concerned about what David Brooks calls a “crisis of community.” And it’s a small step from these worries to a parallel set of anxieties about the fragility of U.S. society in the face of rising stresses and shocks, both natural and man-made. Yet what, exactly, can be done to strengthen the social fabric in ways that promote resilience?

Understanding Social Networks

KER’s hybrid approach to helping communities bounce back contains elements of community development, public health, social services, social science, psychology, sociology, knowledge sharing and classic good governance. According to ASU, KER will partner with scientists, citizens and community members to identify “gaps that exist in services.”

“There really has never been anything like this for social systems,” said Elizabeth Wentz, the principal investigator of KER and dean of social sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “It is geared toward learning about people and their lives and turning that information into something that can be used by municipalities, NGOs and other agencies to improve the lives of the people who are living here.”

A KER pilot project focuses on long-term exposure to heat in Maricopa County. “Heat,” ASU notes, “has always been an issue in the Valley, and science suggests summer temperatures will continue to rise, threatening individuals’ health, well-being and economic security, particularly affecting older adults and families with children.” Both in the U.S. and abroad, heat waves have often served to underscore deadly gaps in social capital.

So the project is looking at how citizens can cope with the heat by literally going door-to-door. “What are the heat relief strategies being employed, like going to a neighbor’s house or a friend’s house?” Wentz asked. “We want to understand their social networks, as well as their daily heat exposure.”

More Disruption on the Horizon

The Piper gift is predicated on the idea that bad things happen, but with sufficient planning and practice, the impact can be mitigated. Communities can bounce back and residents can “get back to their normal lives as quickly as possible.” And as much as I hate to rain on the parade here, while reading ASU’s press release, I couldn’t help but wonder: Will more funders step up to help residents whose “normal lives” never return?

In a recent post looking at the global AI boom, I alluded to the dual specters of automation and self-driving vehicles. Both technologies threaten to upend entire communities, with working-class men hit especially hard—the same group, mind you that’s already been whacked by disruptive changes. These job losses could further tear at the social fabric of parts of the nation that already face serious challenges.

The Piper gift doesn’t address issues like AI and automation. But by acknowledging how “long-term, constant stresses” can affect a community and the extent to which these strategies can be transferable, regardless of the cause of the disruption, it’s a very promising development.

“What makes us passionate about the KER Initiative is its long-term impact on our community,” said Mary Jane Rynd, president and CEO of Piper Trust. “A resilient community leverages its assets to mitigate economic, social and environmental vulnerabilities. That’s what we’re doing by bringing cross-sector expertise together through KER. Through planning ahead and using the collective knowledge of the university and the community, we can solve complex issues, build resilience and improve lives.”