What’s the Formula for Community Resilience?

Aug 1, 2016, 9:22 AM, Posted by Tracy Costigan

A $10 million grant opportunity, designed to benefit the Gulf of Mexico region, will advance the science and practice of fostering healthy communities that can prepare for, withstand and recover from adverse events—and even thrive afterwards.

Few of us have forgotten the searing images of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, especially how the great American City of New Orleans was left in shambles—a testament to longstanding social and economic problems that preceded the storm and a nation that was unprepared after it occurred.

In the decade that followed Katrina—one that included the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history—recovery across the region has varied, but there have been several success stories. For example, New Orleans, that soulful town, overhauled its health and public health systems, improved access to nutritious food and fitness activities, and put new emphasis on issues of equity and poverty. The work is far from done, but the transformation was sufficient to earn a Culture of Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) in 2013.

Advancing the Science of Healthy Communities

We urgently need to understand the confluence of factors that helps communities of all sizes to recover and thrive. Throughout the Gulf region, communities large and small have come together to tackle adversity in its many forms—environmental disasters, to be sure, but also violence, chronic poverty and other traumas. The nation could learn from their efforts about what nurtures resilience—that is, the capacity to prepare for, withstand and recover from acute and chronic adversity and emerge stronger than ever.

Advancing the science and practice of fostering healthy communities is the goal of a $10 million grant opportunity jointly developed and funded by the Gulf Research Program and RWJF. We will be supporting the development of research and practices that can be used to strengthen community resilience, and that leaves behind an enduring asset—perhaps a new program or a new strategy for problem solving.

The Gulf Research Program, part of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, was established in 2013, following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. The Program’s work—designed to benefit Gulf communities, ecosystems and the entire nation—lies at the intersection of oil system safety, human health and environmental resources. Actions that promote resilience in any of these areas of responsibility could promote resilience in all of them. But as the oil spill so vividly demonstrated, the strong connections between communities and the natural resources that they depend upon also mean that damage in one realm reverberates across others.

Why Resilience?

RWJF recognizes resilience as a principle that undergirds its commitment to building a national Culture of Health. The challenges to human health and a sustainable environment in the Gulf of Mexico did not begin with the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, nor have they ended there. In a region where residents have long faced persistent health and social disparities and high levels of chronic illness—and are especially vulnerable to climate change—the risks are only escalating.

For that reason, the Enhancing Community Resilience and Well-Being in the Gulf of Mexico Region grant has social justice at its core, and focuses on people, not just physical infrastructure. Because we believe that good physical and mental health, social, emotional and economic well-being, and community cohesiveness are keys to absorbing and rebounding from shocks of any kind, our interest is in testing ideas that enable all individuals and communities to equitably develop and grow these assets.

Towards that goal, the involvement of communities and community leaders that are affected should be visible in the grant application. Many communities under stress perceive that academics helicopter into their lives, study their woes, write an academic paper and then depart. That’s not what we intend with this initiative. While recognizing that citizen involvement can happen in many ways, those most directly affected by conditions on the ground need to play a meaningful role in defining their own problems, designing the interventions intended to solve them and shaping research questions that test those.

About the Grant Opportunity

Grants made through this initiative will emphasize cross-cutting collaborations that encourage synergy. Many disciplines offer important perspectives on resilience—public health officials working on plans and policies that help a community be as healthy as possible; mental health professionals working with nonprofits to overcome social isolation in communities; emergency preparedness experts planning for the next weather disaster; biologists studying the capacity of an ecosystem to recover from insult; environmental engineers seeking to find ways to protect communities by minimizing adverse impacts of environmental change. We’re especially excited when those folks leap their disciplinary boundaries to work together, joined by educators, entrepreneurs and engineers, by community organizers and faith leaders, historians, and urban planners and by so many others.

The unique coming together of RWJF and the Gulf Research Program, with our very different audiences, idioms and roles, demonstrates the value of stretching in harmony to extend our reach. By elevating each other’s work, our collaboration honors the importance of both the natural environment and the health of the people who reside within it.

Along with its many challenges, the Gulf Coast communities of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas have rich cultural traditions, strong social networks and proud and determined people. Together, let’s figure out how to draw on those and other assets to foster resilience and well-being for all who live there.

Blog Update: Awards totaling $10.8 million to support four new projects in Louisiana and Alabama announced July 2017.

Tracy Costigan is a senior program officer in Research, Evaluation, and Learning. She is involved in the process of understanding and measuring key health and health care issues essential to the Foundation’s overarching strategy to move our nation toward a Culture of Health. Read her full bio.