Purposeful action

Lefty Gomez was famous for saying he’d rather be lucky than good (How many of you know who Lefty Gomez was?). And when it comes to disasters, there are a lot of communities that have thrived due to dumb luck. After Katrina, Baldwin county in Alabama gained lots of new residents who had well-paying jobs in Mobile – jobs with companies who had relocated from New Orleans. Older workers were almost unaffected by the Great Recession; if we had a job, we kept it. No action was required – just being in the right place at the right time was enough.

There is a tendency to call the lucky ones – e.g., Baldwin County – resilient. But they’re really not. Resilience relies on purposeful action – enabling things to go right, not just preventing them from going wrong (Hollnagel, et al.). For communities, purposeful action requires that a community recognize

• What the community is. A community’s character colors the actions it can take. Thus, purposeful action requires an understanding of the community’s structure and its social topology – the kinds of people who live there; how they are connected; who the real decision makers are.
• The community’s assets and liabilities. A useful way to look at a community’s actions is as the production and expenditure of community capital. While financial assets are important, human capital – the skills and the number of skilled people in the community – may be more important. And its social capital – the connections among those in the community, and from them to those sources of resources outside the community – is perhaps the most important asset a community can have. While a community’s assets indicate its possibilities for action, its liabilities indicate the limits on its actions.
• The community’s context. No community acts in isolation; its actions are best understood in at least a regional context. Too often, we ignore the influence of geography on community action, e.g., how Portland’s hills limit its options in providing housing. Similarly, a community’s culture and history can also powerfully condition its actions (e.g., the limits on remodeling old homes in Charleston, SC). Further, communities are open systems. People move in and move out based on economic and social conditions. A community’s economy is tied to others in its region, and often the nation and other countries. A community’s decision-making is often constrained by state government. Indeed, the size of a community in terms of action is better represented as a membership function rather than simply its population.

Purposeful action also requires that the community has a unity of purpose; an acceptance that an action will make the community stronger, better. This unity of purpose can be captured in a strategic plan, though that formality is less important than the reality of the unity itself. All the active parts of the community have to buy in to the intended direction, otherwise action will at best be halting and the results less than satisfying. This implies that the leaders of cities like New Orleans – with its plethora of organizations often working at cross purposes – face major challenges in achieving a unity of purpose and thus taking purposeful action.

Ultimately, if resilience is a manifestation of a community’s strengths, then its ability to take purposeful action is an indicator of those strengths. And, thus, an indicator of its resilience.

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