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Resilience and movement building

This blog post is part of our "Movement Building resources" series. To find more, see

At the recent Community Climate Coaches training, led by the Permaculture Association, we were encouraged to think about how our work as trainers, coaches, organisers, and activists is rooted in our own personal resilience.

What does resilience mean? It is the capacity to withstand difficulties, to recover from things we’ve found challenging, to flex and change when we need to, in order to meet the demands of the present moment.

Our resilience can change over time. If we feel rested, we have the resources we need, and there is time and space to think and reflect, we are probably feeling fairly resilient and can manage if presented with a challenge. If we are very stressed, overworked, and under-resourced, then we might feel less resilient. We might be “coping” with what we already need to deal with, but if something changes and we face a new or unexpected challenge, then we might feel unable to handle it effectively. When our resilience is low, even small things can feel like big problems.

When we are more resilient, we are also more likely to be more able to engage creatively, or feel more ready to explore complex issues with an open mind. We are likely to feel more ready to consider longer term responses to structural issues, because we are confident our immediate needs are being met. We might also feel able to take greater risks, because we feel more secure in ourselves.

This is true for everyone, not just those involved in movement organising. People’s resilience can be impacted by a whole range of factors - some specific to them (like personal health issues, finances, or other personal circumstances), and others much more structural (economic shocks, conflicts or natural disasters, for example). We could look at the way individuals, companies, or even whole countries responded differently to the Covid-19 pandemic as a case study: some were able to hunker down, enjoying the time and space that lockdown allowed. For others it was a hugely stressful, complex, difficult period. 

What makes us feel more resilient?

Our personal resilience might start with self-care, but it shouldn’t stop there. As well as doing things that help us to relax and de-stress (exercise, socialising, yoga, a hobby, etc), things that might help people feel more resilient include:

  • Learning a new skill

  • Making or doing something useful

  • Achieving a goal

  • Recognising (or being recognised for) something they have achieved

  • Reflection, perhaps through therapy, counselling or coaching

  • Strengthening relationships, or building new ones

  • Accessing a useful resource they can make use of (land, money, information, etc), or can use in the future

  • Asking for help and receiving it, or responding to a request for help from others

This isn’t an exhaustive list! What other ways might an individual or group be able to increase their resilience?

How can we build resilience in our movements?

The challenges that climate breakdown presents are mind-boggling. The  very reality we face is a huge assault on our resilience - how can we possibly expect to make any sort of impact on such a complex, intangible crisis? The very nature of the climate crisis is an immediate and lasting assault on our resilience, even before we begin to think about doing something about it. It is important to recognise this because it frames our approach to movement building.

How resilient someone feels might be a determining factor in whether they can engage in our movements at all: if someone feels like they’re only just managing to cope with day-to-day life, how much capacity are they going to muster for engaging in something beyond that?

When activists become less resilient, they feel less able to cope with the challenges they face - this can lead to burnout, and this can have lasting damage on individuals, groups, and wider movements. This means that building the personal resilience of members of our movement is itself movement building. Movement building isn’t just about sheer numbers of people involved, its about how much capacity they have to take effective action. So the question is: how can our movements build the resilience of our members?

Here are a number of ways that we can support our individuals to be more resilient.

1. Recognise that building resilience is movement building

Front and centre to incorporating resilience into our movements is building a culture where we recognise that we need people in our movement to be resilient, to actively work on doing so, and welcome and encourage people and groups who take steps to increase their resilience. It shouldn’t be an added extra, a luxury, or something we think about when everything else is done (as if that ever happens!).

This means valuing the capacity and skills of individuals, building in processes that help us to understand and respond to our movements overall sense of resilience, and making space for different people with differing levels of resilience or capacity.

2. Talk about it!

Creating space for people to discuss their own sense of resilience, and the resilience of the group or community means we can begin to make steps that increase that resilience in a way that is strategic and effective. 

Do members of your group discuss what they feel would help increase their capacity? It may be that there are things they want to do on a personal level, or there might be things to change within the group that would help.

Groups can regularly check-in with themselves about how resilient people are feeling, and encourage people to share what they do - or need - to increase their resilience.

Sometimes groups have an identified individual, or small group of people, that are responsible for supporting the well-being of other members of the group. Incorporating an understanding of resilience into their work, and encouraging them to feedback to the whole group, could help to build an understanding of what the group’s resilience needs are as a whole.

3. Support individuals to make choices based on their own sense of resilience

If someone says “no” to a request - celebrate it! Be glad that they have made a choice based on the capacity they have, and the confidence to act on it. Creating this culture also means that we can fully and readily accept when someone does offer to do something, because we know that it is being offered fully.

4. Incorporate building resilience into the everyday work of your group or movement

We can actively work to build resilience in a number of ways:

  • Training and workshops

  • Sharing tasks, and encouraging members to share and develop new skills

  • Celebrating when the group, or some of its members, achieve something 

  • Sharing access to information

As well as building resilience within current members of the group, some of these could also be incorporated into a wider framework of building community resilience. This communicates to potential members that your group hold the resilience of individuals and the community in high regard, which might make the group more attractive to potential members.

5. Recognise there is a relationship between personal resilience, privilege and power

A sense of resilience - and the activities and processes which help to build it - shouldn’t be a luxury, but they often are, simply because “getting what we need” is easier if you have access to more money, resources, time, or power. The opposite is also true - people with less resources, are likely to be more vulnerable to unexpected challenges. 

How this plays out in our movements is complex and beyond the scope of this short blog post, but understanding this begins to explain why it is important that our personal resilience isn’t left as a private, personal thing: our groups, organisations and communities need to be supporting everyone to build their personal resilience, and make sure they have access to the resources they need to do so.

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