Episode 1 Transcript: What Is Community Resilience?

Read the transcript of the first episode of the Resiliency in Disaster Behavioral Health podcast.

Moderator: Welcome to Resiliency in Disaster Behavioral Health, a six part podcast series from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The goal of this podcast is to inform local behavioral health agencies on strategies for building resiliency in individuals and the community before, during, and after a disaster. The series discusses specific behavioral health interventions across the stages of disaster response, in addition to focusing on the needs of specific populations.

In this installment, we hear from Brian Houston, Co Director of the Terrorism and Disaster Center at the University of Missouri, a partner in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. He discusses community resilience definitions, models, strategies, and tools.

Brian Houston: What is community resilience? Today, we are going to discuss community resilience definitions, models, strategies, and resources.

Let’s begin with some simple definitions of community resilience. Community resilience can be understood to be a community’s ability to bounce back, or bounce forward, following an event. Community resilience may be marked by a community’s return to pre event level of functioning following an event, but a level of functioning that’s adapted to the post event reality.

Schoch Spana writes that community resilience is “a complex process of adaptation—a collective roll with the punches.” In terms of a formal definition, Norris and colleagues write that community resilience is “a process linking a set of adaptive capacities to a positive trajectory of functioning and adaptation after a disturbance.” What these simple and formal definitions illustrate is that community resilience is about a community’s ability to adapt, cope, and recover following an event, crisis, or threat.

When practitioners and researchers mention community resilience, they are often talking about community resilience in the face of disasters, both natural and manmade. In terms of natural disasters, we mean things like earthquakes, hurricanes, or tornadoes. In terms of manmade disasters, we can think about intentional and accidental manmade disasters. So an accidental manmade disaster might be an oil spill or a nuclear accident. An intentional manmade disaster includes events such as terrorist attacks or mass shootings. Generally, whenever people talk about community resilience, they mean community resilience in the face of these sorts of events.

But beyond disasters, community resilience can also apply to other events, such as public health emergencies, cyberattacks and other technology crises, and climate change. And even beyond these events, sometimes we might think about community resilience in the face of more chronic issues, such as community unemployment or community violence. Overall, then, the idea of community resilience has application to both acute and very short lived threats and events, and to longer term and more chronic stressors that a community might be facing. This application and this potential for different applications is some of the appeal of the idea of community resilience.

An important aspect of community resilience is that a resilient community is more than a collection of resilient individuals. Pfefferbaum and Klomp explain that community resilience emerges from collective activity in which individuals join together in efforts that foster response and recovery for the whole community. In a separate publication, Pfefferbaum and colleagues write that community resilience is “grounded in the ability of community members to take meaningful, deliberative action...to remedy the effect of a problem.” In both these descriptions, it’s illustrated that community resilience is about a collective community or collective community members working together. Community resilience is about engagement, interactivity, joining together, and deliberation. Therefore, a group of resilient individuals that are working alone in their own self interest does not translate into a resilient community. The interaction and engagement of community members is an essential part of community resilience.

Another important aspect of community resilience is that community resilience is a process, not an outcome. Community resilience is not a static end state. It’s not the case that a community is simply resilient or not resilient. In fact, a community can appear resilient in the face of one crisis and might appear less resilient in the face of another crisis. Because community resilience is not an outcome and not an end state, we do not measure community resilience directly. We can theorize about what factors or about what community characteristics are associated with a resilient community, but when we go to measure community resilience, we do not do it directly. Instead, the best way to measure community resilience is to look at the adaptation or functioning of a community following an event. Ideally, what we’ll have is a measure of community functioning before an event that we can compare to community functioning following an event. If we see that a community has recovered and returned to pre event functioning, then we can conclude some resilience. This is a very simple explanation that belies a lot of the complexity, but it illustrates that we’re not measuring an outcome and are instead attempting to measure a process when we think about assessing community resilience.

In terms of understanding community resilience, several models exist. Norris and colleagues posit a model of community resilience that includes four core community resilience capacities. These four capacities include information and communication, community competence, social capital, and economic development. Each of these capacities include several elements and other characteristics that make up the capacities, and so the resulting model is quite comprehensive and complex. Norris and colleagues also posit that the four capacities are interrelated. This overview in this conceptualization of community resilience illustrates the complexity of the idea of a resilient community.

Pfefferbaum and colleagues also have a model of community resilience that includes five domains. These domains include community connection and caring, community resources, community transformative potential, information and communication, and disaster management. As this fifth domain illustrates, this conceptualization of community resilience is quite specific to disasters and community crises in conceptualization.

Gurwitch and colleagues have also written about community resilience and have identified the many community sectors that are important when thinking about community resilience. These sectors include businesses, community leadership, cultural and faith based groups and organizations, first responders, health care, the media, mental health, public health, and schools.

As each of these models illustrate, community resilience is quite diverse. It’s comprehensive, and it’s multidisciplinary, including a variety of fields, sectors, and systems. Thus, the idea of community resilience and community resilience work in terms of intervention, programs, or assessment is quite complex and challenging. This is both daunting at times, but can be quite exciting as well.

Another important aspect of community resilience is the role of communication in community resilience. Communication is a core component of community resilience processes. Each of the models that we just discussed include communication, and Nicholls has written that “Resilience is intimately associated with good communication.” In fact, Houston and colleagues have put together a model of community resilience that illustrates the importance of communication. In their model, several domains have been identified that are communication focused. These include communications and systems and resources that are available in a community, the strategic communication processes that might occur in a community, community relationships and interactions, and community attributes. The point here is that the collective nature of community resilience, the engagement, the interaction, the joining together, and the deliberation are often communication processes, and so a community that can facilitate more and better and stronger communication in a community might be on the path towards fostering a more resilient community.

Strategies have been identified to help foster community resilience. Pfefferbaum has identified the following strategies, including developing economic resources in a community; addressing risk and resource inequities in a community; fostering community connections; promoting community engagement and participation; having a community focus on wellness; engaging and connecting community organizations, both with each other and also with members of the community; actively managing disasters in a community; and finally, creating community resilience awareness. Many of these strategies fit with the models we have previously discussed in terms of theorizing and conceptualizing community resilience. It’s interesting that creating awareness of community resilience is often the first step in fostering community resilience and in engaging in community resilience activities. Making a community more aware of this idea of resilience, of the capacity to cope with events and bounce back, can often be a good first step in getting coalitions together that may sustain various community resilience efforts and activities.

A variety of community resilience assessments, interventions, and resources are available for practitioners and researchers. The resources that are described in this podcast are all available for free download via websites. The first resource is the Communities Advancing Resilience Toolkit and the Community Resilience Enhancement Intervention that are available from the Terrorism and Disaster Center at the University of Missouri. This toolkit and intervention includes a variety of materials that may be useful for those working in the area of community resilience. Included in this toolkit are an assessment survey, other assessment materials, protocols, steps, and guidelines to help a community—members and leaders—work through a community resilience process. The focus of these materials is to allow a community to take stock of its strengths and challenges, so that the strengths can be strengthened and the challenges can be addressed. These steps then, at the end of the day, will hopefully contribute to a more resilient community. These materials are also quite adaptable in that they can be used in the short term with community organizations, or in the long term in a more comprehensive strategic planning.

The Community and Regional Resilience Institute, or CARRI, has a community resilience system available at their website. CARRI’s community resilience system also provides a way for communities to get an assessment of their community resilience, and this assessment is intended to guide future action.

Bay Localize, an organization in California, has a Community Resilience Toolkit 2.0 available at their website. Bay Localize’s Community Resilience Toolkit is focused on a variety of challenges, including social challenges and environmental threats as well.

The Terrorism and Disaster Center at the University of Missouri also has a free Building Community Resilience for Children and Families Guidebook available for download. This guidebook focuses on community resilience and pays special attention to the role of children and families in community resilience, so both a focus on how children and families can foster and help contribute to community resilience, and what considerations a resilient community must make in terms of children and family issues. This guidebook offers practical ideas, suggestions, and strategies for engaging a variety of sectors in community resilience activities. This overview can be helpful for programs and systems that are interested in community resilience work.

RAND also has available at their website a Building Resilient Communities online training. This online training program includes information and an overview about community resilience, and then also provides activities such as an action list for organizations or communities interested in community resilience and assessment tools such as an asset chart. This online training can be viewed at any time and can be of great use to organizations working on community resilience.
Finally, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, has a variety of materials that can be useful for those interested in resilience. SAMHSA has materials on children and family recovery and coping with traumatic events and other stressors. This information can be essential to communities that are thinking about how resilient they are, particularly when they think about the importance of children, families, and schools in their overall community resilience.

Overall, this presentation has reviewed community resilience definitions, models, strategies, and resources. Community resilience is a broad construct that includes a variety of fields, disciplines, community sectors, and systems. All of these pieces need to be involved for a community to ultimately be resilient. Community resilience is mostly about community members interacting, engaging, deliberating, and supporting each other. Community resilience work can be challenging because it is so complex and broad; however, the potential for community resilience to exist, for a community to be able to bounce forward following a traumatic event and support each other, is appealing and worthy of our time and investment. The definitions, materials, and other information that have been reviewed here provide many points for people who are interested in this work to learn more and to gain tools that can inform their work.

Moderator: Thank you for listening to the Resiliency in Disaster Behavioral Health podcast series. If you would like to learn more about the topics and materials discussed in this episode, contact the SAMHSA Disaster Technical Assistance Center at dtac@samhsa.gov or at 1 800 308 3515. For products such as tip sheets, webcasts, and collections of research materials, visit our website at www.samhsa.gov/dtac. If you or someone you know are experiencing distress related to a natural or human caused disaster, call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1 800 985 5990.


  • Gurwitch, R.H., Pfefferbaum, B., Montgomery, J, et al. (2007). Building community resilience for children and families. Oklahoma City: Terrorism and Disaster Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
  • Houston, J.B., Spialek, M.L., Cox, J., et al. (2015). The centrality of media and communication in fostering community resilience: A framework for assessment and intervention. American Behavioral Scientist, 59, 270-283. doi: 10.1177/0002764214548563
  • Nicholls, S. (2012). The resilient community and communication practice. The Australian Journal of Emergency Management, 27, 46-51.
  • Norris, F.H., Stevens, S.P., Pfefferbaum, B., et al. (2008). Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41, 127-150. doi: 10.1007/s10464-007-9156-6
  • Pfefferbaum, B., Reissman, D. B., Pfefferbaum, et al. (2007). Building resilience to mass trauma events. In L. S. Doll, S. E. Bonzo, D. A. Sleet & J. A. Mercy (Eds.), Handbook of injury and violence prevention (pp. 347-358). New York: Springer.
  • Pfefferbaum, R.L. (2014). Advancing community resilience to disasters: Considerations for theory, policy, and practice. In A. Farazmand (Ed.), Crisis and emergency management: Theory and practice, pp. 691-708 (Second Edition). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
  • Pfefferbaum, R.L., & Klomp, R. (2013). Community resilience, disasters, and the public’s health. In F.G. Murphy (Ed.), Community engagement, organization and development for public health practice, pp. 275-298. New York: Springer.
  • Pfefferbaum, R.L., Pfefferbaum, B., Nitiema, P., et al. (2015). Assessing community resilience: An application of the expanded CART survey instrument with affiliated volunteer responders. American Behavioral Scientist, 59, 181-199. doi: 10.1177/0002764214550295
  • Schoch-Spana, M. (2008). Community resilience for catastrophic health events. Biosecurity and bioterrorism: Biodefense strategy, practice, and science, 6, 129-130.
Last Updated: 02/23/2016