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Revisiting Stories of Community Resilience

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Article
November 4, 2015

A firm sense of community has played a significant role in creating feelings of belonging for those battling isolation and social disconnection. Involvement in community activities, entertainment, and relationships has often helped people feel connected with others in their life.

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However, even “beyond our basic human need for social networks and relationships, participation in civic life is also an essential need and is a critical component of healthy communities.” (PlanH) Resilient Neighbourhoods, an organization aimed at bringing communities together to tackle climate change explains that,

“resilience is about increasing a community’s capacity to respond pro-actively and enhance well-being even while under stress”.

In the case of isolation, the establishment of networks helps create a strong social fabric that allows communities to become more resilient, which helps groups overcome some of the most pressing social issues they have come to face. Last October, under the leadership and vision of Kim Samuel, a diverse group of people from around the world came together in Toronto to tackle the issue of isolation. One of the key themes focused on revisiting these stories of community resilience. As a part of this conversation, panellists recognized that Indigenous community perspectives are a huge part of the topic on overcoming isolation, and started a deeper conversation about connectedness in relation to tradition and heritage. Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo from the Ahousaht First Nation in B.C., spoke of the return of traditional customs and ceremonies that were outlawed by Canada until very recently.

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The return of these First Nations ceremonies, coupled with recent apologies by the Canadian government to those affected by residential schools, has contributed to what Chief Atleo described as the “age of indigenous peoples.” Chief Atleo noted that to finally celebrate a ceremony that was once illegal appears to have raised community spirits and helped to reconnect with an important shared heritage.

Cultural exchanges were also highlighted as a way to strengthen community resilience. Laurie McLaren of Nipissing University shared a story of community connectedness in Peru. While in Cusco for the World Indigenous Conference on Education she was able to compare, first-hand, the traditional knowledge and family memories of Canadian Aboriginals with the indigenous traditions of the Quechua. Laurie recalled a moment when she witnessed two young girls who, having learned about their family role from their elders, understood their even greater role in the community.

The idea of understanding oneself in relation to their community was taken even further by Zeni Thumbadoo from the National Association of Child Care Workers in South Africa. In her presentation she defines community in the way that it is able to inspire individuals to act. As she explains, “you can animate responses if people come together and talk about what we can do collectively”. Individuals have the capacity to be astoundingly impactful, however, it is only as a community member that they are able to accomplish these things because “you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have others who were with you and helped you on your journey.” This is the philosophy of ‘ubuntu’— “I am because we are”.

We only come to know ourselves through our relationships with others and it is these connections that bind us and encourage us to act. In large part, community resilience is also about being able to learn from each other and using that knowledge to better your life and the lives of others. Near the end of her presentation Zeni highlighted this by saying, “when people feel brave enough in a community to share stories of their own lives, of their own poverty, of their own hardships they are able to understand that it’s okay”. In this way, it is only when we are able to feel comfortable discussing these issues that we will be able to overcome them.

In Canada, the Connected North program is one that operates under a similar concept. This program provides opportunities for Indigenous youth in remote and northern communities to connect with others through virtual classroom exchanges using interactive technologies supported by Cisco. With an emphasis on storytelling, the hope is that this program will allow communities to share experiences of resilience and contribute to overcoming isolation.

This fall, TakingITGlobal has recently taken on the role as lead ecosystem partner for Connected North and is facilitating North-to-North connections with participating schools. Unfortunately, just last week on September 6th, the Connected North partner school in Cape Dorset was involved in a devastating fire. The entire building along with all of its contents including books, supplies, musical instruments and technologies were completely destroyed. While there has already been a great mobilizing effort to begin the process of sending new school supplies and materials, significant costs will be associated with shipping and this highlights the barriers that remote communities face.  

Isolation is reinforced by proximity and geographic location and yet there remains a strong willingness and desire for students to remain connected to the program and to their peers– this is the meaning of community resilience. Nevertheless, the discussion also highlighted the fact that there are challenges related to isolation for both remote and urban communities. As was explained by Dominic Richards from the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, in the next ten years, 300 million people worldwide will move from rural regions to city centres. With ever-growing cityscapes, developing community programs to encourage connectedness will be more important than ever.

At the end of the panel, a thought-provoking question was posed to Chief Atleo in response to Richards’ discussions of city growth. Participant Aaron Williamson asked, “what does the age of indigenous peoples look like in this urbanizing age?” In his response, Chief Atleo replied: “the age of indigenous peoples is the age of people.”  

We must hope that Chief Atleo is right: that greater connectedness amongst indigenous communities will ultimately lead to greater connectedness and understanding in all communities around the world.