Resilience in Community Mediation

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This post is by Dr Richard Slade. Richard is a Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Leeds.

In their working lives people are regularly exhorted to become more ‘resilient’ to the stress and pressures of organisations, processes and service demands. There is strong analysis of the reasons for this, for example the demands of best value – to do more with less – that workers constantly face. There is much discussion of how these pressures make people feel. Commentators urge that we should become more resilient to their impact, although the practical action people can take for themselves, to become more resilient, is thinner. More generally resilience seems to be the order of the day. Indeed an observer could be forgiven for concluding that making some – any – reference to resilience is at least as important as thinking about what the concept really means and how it works. From terrorism, to natural disasters, to the equilibrium of the individual, the need for resilience, however generalised in its understanding, is all around us. Perhaps it’s the VW of social policy: a plethora of models to choose from, and some ‘overstated’ data claims.

Drilling down on the detail emphasises the importance of a conceptual framework. In 2011 the UK government published a framework for community resilience which sees localities drawing on existing networks and resources to respond to emergencies. Working alongside statutory services, resilient communities are ones defined as being adaptive and able to sustain an “…acceptable level of function structure and identity” (Strategic National Framework on Community Resilience, 2011) suggesting organisation and resources able to cope with the paradox of rapid change whilst retaining continuity: indeed coping seems to be the order to the day. By implication communities without such capacities, or with unconventional resources that rest outside the states understanding of resilience, can be conveniently problematized. Any grief or discomfort communities experience arises from their lack of this essential if ill-defined quality. In the complex environment of everyday life this ‘catch-all’ use of resilience can also be observed to piggy-back on a trend of problematizing individuals and communities for activity elsewhere in the system, providing a vehicle for a new form of stigmatisation: ‘lack of resilience’. Lack of resilience to the pressures and strains of life can avoid facing up to issues of inequality and exclusion, Yet in some communities an interrelated cycle of financial austerity, inequalities and exclusion resulting from decisions made elsewhere in the system have profoundly undermined those orthodox resilience capacities and resources that the UK government sees as so important.

Research set in the North of England, co-led by Dr Pamela Fisher and Dr Richard Slade from the University of Leeds has been exploring the work of individuals and communities working from a zero resource baseline to develop community mediation as a strategy to address growing levels of antisocial behaviour in children and young adults. As part of this project we have been engaged with a WUN international working group to explore and develop conceptual frameworks of resilience. We have considered understandings of resilience from the point of closed systems, for example those which echo the not untypical position of the UK government, and open systems, exampled in our research where community activists have adopted a whole systems exploration of the causes of antisocial behaviour and possible solutions.

We have begun to consider how the individual’s relationship with their wider community can become a collective relationship and have noted a strong difference between understandings of resilience which focus on maintaining or reproducing the status quo in the face of challenges, and individuals and communities who by contrast can be characterised by activism and innovation. In short the difference between: coping and surviving on the one hand and social change on another. Our WUN discussion has a useful synergy with Harms (2015) whose understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma forges strong connections between individual resilience, family resilience and community resilience. For Harms (2015) a key issue in resilience is not just that people cope with and survive adversity. Rather there is change, a lived ‘newness’ in their inner selves which extends to their relationships with family and their communities.

Our research revealed that having undertaken a traumatic life journey, community mediators had arrived at a point where they could carry out the demanding and sometimes dangerous task of deescalating conflict and violence: calming down children and young adults locked in belligerence towards each other. Living and working in communities with high levels of inequalities and inward migration the majority of mediators were former offenders, gang members or gang leaders. Their unique journey towards mediation seemed to include a ‘tipping point’ of change. This could arise for example during incarceration in a prison cell and worrying how their partner was coping with a stalker, or dealing with the stress and anxiety of attacks from ambitious lower order gang members who wanted a quick route to gang leadership or ‘being fed up with people being frightened of me’ (Fisher and Slade 2015). Such tipping points were seldom a moment in time but an accumulation of events that motivated an individual to want to see and do things differently; in the way that they looked at themselves, their interaction with their families and their communities which they wanted to make a more peaceful place to live.

The role played by mediators appears to come in part from recognising that a combination of past experience and significant change can realise skills and ‘street’ status, essential ingredients in mediation. This points to a form of resilience that is beyond one focused on coping and surviving adversity but rather individual change leading to activism rather than acquiesce. However, we have also seen how this can be threatening to state understandings of the concept, where individual and community engagement is fine when agencies set the rules but innovation and activism is not favoured. Building a more embracing and inclusive understanding of resilience will be a challenge.

Cabinet Office, (2011) National Framework on Community Resilience. Cabinet Office. London
Harms, L, (2015) Understanding Trauma and Resilience. Basingstoke. Palgrave McMillan.