Building Resilience

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by | May 1, 2020

Last week, I received a very interesting article from Georgia Center for Nonprofits (GCN) in my email inbox. We have come to rely greatly on GCN’s expertise and guidance in my years at GVP, and I am thankful that GCN is such a strong voice and leader for local nonprofits. This particular article, written by Kathy Keeley, focused on organizational resilience. Honestly, I had not thought about resilience in relation to an organization before. At GVP, we talk often about organizational impact, relevancy, and sustainability—but not about our resiliency. Keeley argues, “This is the time to make resiliency planning your priority. Resiliency is the most important concept for nonprofits to understand and achieve over the next 24 months. Replacing our drive for “sustainability,” resiliency is the ability to absorb a shock and come out better on the other side. The goal is not simply survival, but endurance – through the immediate COVID-19 crisis and the recession that’s guaranteed to follow.”

As I read her message, I felt a sense of urgency and wondered why I had not considered resiliency at GVP, especially given that we use this term and concept regularly to refer to our students and families. In terms of organizational resiliency, Kathy Keeley says, “nonprofits have three strategic options to consider, which I call “reemerge,” “reorganize,” and “restructure.” Though different, all three options call for board and leadership teams to be laser-focused on the mission, realistic regarding funding and revenue, and sensitive to the needs of the community.”

I was relieved as I read her article because I believe GVP is very strong in all three of these areas. We have been and remain “laser-focused” on our mission, vision, and values. We come back to all three in our decision-making, strategic and financial planning, and everyday activities. They are always in front of us—guiding us in all that we do. GVP is committed to the community of students and families that we serve. We strive to create an inclusive community and to listen to our parents and students in order to better serve them and meet their needs. Additionally, our global village is a broader community of support that surrounds and stands with us in our mission and work, and we strive to maintain high levels of sensitivity, engagement, and responsiveness to the wider community as well. Finally, we have an incredible development committee and finance committee who are dedicated to supporting me, our development team, and our board of directors as we carefully plan for future funding and financial resilience. 

In this time, we have stepped up our work in these areas and created new teams to support this. We have a new Family and Student Support Team, Engagement Initiative Working Group, and Communications Working Group. We have a new private volunteer Facebook Group for those who are closely connected to our students and classrooms, and I have started this new blog for reflection, documentation, communication, and connection. We have altered and adjusted our educational model, crafting a powerful virtual model for holistic education for refugee young women. We recognized very quickly that movement to a remote working and virtual learning model would require us to do things very differently. GVP has always been a very flexible organization. We are adaptable, innovative, and open to taking risks for the sake of continuous improvement and movement towards achieving our mission and vision. While I recognized this before, I had not really equated it with resilience in the ways that Keeley suggests.

Keeley describes resilience as, “the ability to absorb a shock and come out better on the other side.” Similarly, Sara Truebridge (2014), an educational expert in resilience, defines it simply as “the ability to spring back from adversity.” Truebridge argues that resilience is “a process and not a trait.” In general, most people think of resilience as a major resource, strength, and skill, and while it can become all of these, it is important remember that it is not a character trait that is stable or inherited. Resilience is not something we are born with but is rather a process–a series of steps and actions and of learning that will enable one to “adapt and define themselves as healthy amid adversity, threat, trauma, and everyday stress.”  Resilience is something that anyone can practice and learn. Sara Truebridge goes on to suggest, “Reframing—moving from a deficit-based perspective to a strengths-based perspective—is at the core of the concept of resilience.”

Sadly, refugees are too-often framed as deficient and viewed as helpless, unhealthy, unintelligent, and incapable in the media and even in educational research. This happens for many reasons including the fact that they have come from areas of intense conflict, lived in camps, may have missed out on school, may have been unable to work, and are not familiar with the language of the receiving countries and communities.  There are, of course, many other reasons for this type of framing that have to do with racism, nationalism, and protectionism. Nonetheless, the process of reframing allows us at GVP and as educators to contest and resist these types of deficit perspectives inaccurately applied and pay attention to the strengths that refugee families and students possess. However, in order to powerfully practice reframing, we need to create an understanding of resilience that is based on a more inclusive definition of success and wellness. 

We have to learn to recognize and value the ways that refugee families and students practice resilience and notice their abilities to navigate new situations, adapt, persevere, problem solve, make decisions, build relationships and networks, and collaborate. As educators we have important choices to make about what is valuable, what success looks like, and what it means to be well. For example, in many school spaces, the only knowledge considered valuable is shared in textbooks. Yet, our students and families come with valuable funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti & Gonazalez, 1992) gathered from their lives and from different cultures and countries. As educators, we can choose to value these funds of knowledge and offer time and space for inclusion and integration into our classrooms and curriculum. 

GVP chooses to take up strengths-based perspectives and approaches to teaching and learning that allow us to draw upon the funds of knowledge–skills, expertise, cultural practices, and resources–our students bring with them to school. Specifically, we strive to recognize the resiliency that our students and families practice each and every day as they overcome obstacles and new challenges in resettlement. We also remain committed to recognizing that there are many ways to define educational success. We know that students have different dreams for their lives and futures and that being socially and emotionally prepared for life is equally, if not more important, than being academically prepared. And, if we accept this, then we have to be very careful about the weight and value that we put on things like standardized test scores, grades, and going to college. If there are multiple paths to a successful life and we value more than what we find in our textbooks, then we have to be sure to include these in our measures of success. 

At GVP, we practice reframing in our community, and we are a resilient community. Yet, I had not seen or even looked for this in terms of organizational growth, strength, and success before. As a relatively new organization that has experienced rapid growth over our first decade, we have had to be flexible and adaptable. As an organization committed to innovation and continuous improvement, we have had to take risks and mine resources in order to create a new model for education. GVP reflects the strength and resilience of our students, families, and communities and this gives me great hope for our future despite the challenges we will face. I am committed to working with our dedicated and determined team to make sure that GVP continues the process of developing our resilience and the resilience of those we serve so that we collectively “come out better on the other side.”