Cultivating Resiliency

September 21, 2011

A couple weeks ago Bernice, one of the women in our Voluntary Simplicity group, passed along an idea for a new group: the resilience circle. Chuck Collins, director of the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality and the Common Good, and his team developed the concept of the resilience circle—or common security club—in response to the economic crash of 2008. Since 2009 circles have sprouted in more than twenty-five cities across the United States using the resources posted on the Resilience Circle Network’s website.

So, what are resilience circles? They are groups of ten to twenty people with a threefold purpose: (1) to learn about the global economy and what caused the recession; (2) to build relationships based on mutual respect and aid; and (3) to promote social action and local policy that will provide long-term economic security for community members. The Resilience Circle Network has designed a seven-session curriculum to start groups on their way. During these first few meetings, participants learn about and discuss topics such as sources of economic security, debt and overconsumption, the concept of mutual aid, the influence of ecological crises on the consumer economy, the power of corporations, and the efficacy of social action. The network website suggests readings by the likes of Juliet Schor and David Korten and homework assignments that include watching The Story of Stuff, talking to relatives who survived tough economic times, and digging up recipes to share.

The beauty of the resilience circle, though, is not in the highfalutin Web-learnin’ of economic and political theory. Rather it is the emphasis on mutual aid and the fostering of a supportive community. The curriculum for the first seven group meetings includes and encourages practical application of ideas discussed in the readings. The best example of this is Activity 2 in Session 5: offerings of gifts and needs. One by one, participants explain what they can offer to the group (e.g., expertise in sewing, tomatoes from their garden, organizing services) and what they need (e.g., school supplies, cooking lessons, a knitting circle). Everyone is encouraged to make connections and start exchanging.

Are you having trouble getting enough food for the family on the table seven nights a week? Your resilience circle can organize bulk food purchases to reduce individual expenses, or members can share responsibility for making weekday meals for the group. Does your bathtub need caulking? Do you need to weatherize your home? Your resilience circle can probably help. And, in fact, resilience circles across the country have thought up some pretty special ideas. One group hired two teachers to create a low-cost summer day camp for the members’ kids. Another helped a member launch her own business as a professional organizer.

The resilience circle concept relies on a handful of assumptions. You can find a complete list on the website; I’d like to dwell for a moment on just one: “There is tremendous untapped creativity, energy, and talent in our communities. We have the tools we need to make a transition to a new economy: the knowledge, technology, and guiding examples.” The efficiency of this idea—that we can use an existing surplus of creativity, energy, and talent, plus knowledge and technology we already have, to solve our present problems—is what makes resilience circles so appealing to me. You can see this efficiency in the offerings of gifts and needs activity, in the cost savings in the bulk buying example, and in the brilliant summer camp idea.

And, if I’m interpreting this assumption correctly, the folks behind the Resilience Circle Network believe the best way to tap into available talent, energy, and knowledge is to talk to your neighbors.  Why aren’t we doing this already?*

OK, OK. I know building a community of support is tougher than it sounds. For one thing, Americans are generally opposed to asking for help. For another, we want compensation for our offerings. The no-buying group I was part of in 2009, for example, struggled with the concept of doing favors for one another without direct payment of an equivalent good or service. I think many of us were afraid not only that we’d be taken advantage of but also that we wouldn’t know when to say no to requests for help. The Resilience Circle Network provides information about establishing time banks or local currency to address these worries, but perhaps it is more important to begin the group by building a foundation of respect and trust (and, in fact, many of the activities in the initial sessions are geared toward creating these bonds). It is also important, of course, to remember that a support group should be a blessing, a convenience, not a full-time job.

*Some communities are actually founded on this concept. Would a reader who lives in Blueberry Hill like to write a guest post on the benefits of cohousing? Jim? Helene? Bernice?


3 Responses to “Cultivating Resiliency”

  1. Nan Says:

    A theoretical model, whether political or economic, is, in part, a systematic way of organizing ideas. So, I don’t understand your comment regarding “the highfalutin Web-learnin’ of economic and political theory.” As a long time participant in some of the NWEI circles in Reston, such as the voluntary simplicity one Julie mentions, it was not the ideas that were limiting or problematic, but the community itself, and the different point of views they were not willing to consider. Diverse viewpoints must always be encouraged, or at the very least acknowledged and considered, even if seemingly wrong – a salient little comment in Chapter 2 in On Liberty by J.S. Mill. Our success in changing these models depends upon an entire re-working of hundreds of years of entrenched economic, moral and political principles. An exponential shift like that cannot depend solely upon the liberal, secular framework, and its abhorrence to anything it fears may be against it.

    • Julie Says:

      Nan, I agree with your point here. For a community to work well, each member and his or her viewpoints should be respected and heard. The “highfalutin” comment was part tongue-in-cheek and part just a fun reason to use the word “highfalutin” in print. Mostly, though, I used the comment as a segue from the foundation of the curriculum to what I really wanted to talk about–the community building and establishing connections. The mutual aid aspect of the resilience circle sets it apart from the NWEI circles.

  2. Channing Says:

    I remember pooling resources in a barter exchange manner in another circle. I offered to help someone with their kitchen drainage by borrowing another circle member’s kitchen snake. Aside from the karma and a few stains, I can’t say I accomplished much; it certainly felt good to try to help, though.

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