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What does community resilience to climate change look like? Some new models to consider

The Lighthouse Project - what does community resilience look like?

Sheila Murray, Beatrice Ekoko, Lidia Ferreira, and Michelle Sullivan all work in some capacity with an initiative called the Lighthouse Project, a pilot that aims to develop new approaches for building resilience in a number of Ontario communities in the face of the growing spectrum of threats presented by climate change. Scott Neigh interviews them about those threats, about what exactly resilience might look like, and about the different approaches they are using to get there.

'Resilience' is a contested and, some might argue, somewhat slippery term. At its most basic, it means all of those capacities and characteristics that enable a person or a community to bounce back in the face of adversity – which, at least at first glance, sounds pretty positive. However, critics have pointed out that its growing prominence in various approaches to understanding and intervening in the world in the last couple of decades correspond rather well with the rise of neoliberalism – that is, the erosion of collective assurances of wellbeing managed through the welfare state in favour of budget cuts, privatization, deregulation, austerity, and increasingly precarious work and lives for ordinary people. In this context, those critics maintain, a focus on resilience can distract from efforts to challenge the sources of harm under neoliberalism, through an emphasis on valuing those capacities that allow people and communities to absorb said harms and still, somehow, keep on keeping on.

But, really, even granting that concern, who could argue with cultivating the capacities necessary to navigate and survive adversity? Whether you think about the existing ways that marginalized communities already bear the brunt of systemic harms, or you think about the context of climate change with its increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events already happening and slated to get worse - and with marginalized people facing the worst of not only that but also the other forms of harm that climate change will bring - harm reduction seems like a reasonable place to start.

And when you look at what it means in practice to build resilience in communities, a central component is inevitably the building of connections and relationships among people and organizations in the community. Those relationships mean they are better able to respond to harms in the moment, whether those are chronic and systemic harms or whether they are some kind of acute disaster. And it is precisely relationships among people facing some kind of threat or harm that, under the right circumstances, turn into collective efforts not just to mitigate the symptoms, but to begin addressing root causes of harm. That is, just because neoliberal politicians can sometimes use resilience for their own ends, doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't also be interested in cultivating it in our communities and movements.

The Lighthouse Project is an Ontario Trillium Foundation-funded pilot project working to build resilience in several Ontario communities. Though its roots lie in a recognition of the need to build resilience in the face of climate change and increasing extreme weather, it also seeks to explore resilience far beyond that.

The lead organization on the project is a group called Faith and the Common Good, a national interfaith network devoted to protecting ecosystems and building healthy communities. A key focus for the project has been involving faith groups in the process, both as participants in community networks and in some cases as physical resilience hubs that can be part of community responses to disasters.

Sheila Murray is the manager of the Lighthouse Project, and she comes to it from the Toronto group Community Resilience to Extreme Weather (or CREW). The communities involved in the Lighthouse Project approach it using two quite different models. Some are driven by a municipal emergency management office and take a top-down approach. Michelle Sullivan, for example, coordinates the project in Brampton, Ontario, where she works for the municipal government. In these communities, the focus tends to be quite directly on building community infrastructure to be better able to respond to extreme weather, such as the major ice storm Brampton faced in 2013.

Other communities are using a bottom-up model. Lidia Ferreira coordinates the project in the St. Jamestown neighbourhood in Toronto, while Beatrice Ekoko – who works for Faith and the Common Good as well as for a local environmental organization called Environment Hamilton – coordinates it in the Beasley neighbourhood in Hamilton, Ontario. In St. Jamestown and Beasley, both of which are quite low-income neighbourhoods, the focus is on building community networks with strong participation from faith institutions, and facilitating the communities defining for themselves what resilience should look like. In these instances, the hope is that the project will go beyond a focus on extreme weather events to catalyzing the kinds of relationship networks that are necessary for building resilience in its broadest sense and for taking action as a community, in the face of not just extreme weather but also the everyday harms of poverty, food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, and all the rest.

Image: Used with permission of The Lighthouse Project.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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