For the Storms and Between them—The Context for Resilience

The Reading Room of The Boston Public Library where I wrote most of this piece.

At the annual The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS) conference in Boston earlier in the month, we had the opportunity to hear Richard Weissbourd, of Harvard’s Kennedy School and its Graduate School of Education speak. The title of his talk was “How Schools Can Develop Caring, Achieving, Justice-minded Students.”

Coincidentally, I had just spent the better part of the day before with James Honan, also of both the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Education. Jim’s insight and remarkably broad base of knowledge leave me both inspired and challenged. Beyond the content of our conversation, his enthusiasm for both Harvard and for the culture of the University and of Cambridge struck me and made me a bit envious. Jim clearly knows how to benefit from, create, contribute to, and lead engaged and challenging learning environments.

My intersection with these two men set the stage for my final piece (no. 4 of 4) for The Resilience Initiative Executive Series. Resilience exists in a context, and thus context exerts a defining force on an individual’s ability to sustain a resilient posture against the waves of challenge that inevitably arrive for all people. However, it is not just in crisis that one needs resilience; as importantly, it is also in the living of our everyday professional and personal lives that resilience is vital. Resilience provides the well of strength from which individuals can draw strength for long term devotion to a purpose greater than themselves alone.

Dr. Weissbourd spoke briefly of resilience; however, he did so only in adjunct to the subject of what schools might do to help raise “caring, achieving, and justice-minded adults.”

That said, I left with an insight into how an individual’s resilience is both born within them and produced/reinforced by the context of their upbringing. By hyper-valuing achievement above happiness and even by a greater degree, caring, we have, to use Dr. Weissbourd’s words, “den[ied] children of coping strategies.” So, the ever-lengthening list of all the things parents and schools do to protect our kids, juxtaposed against losing perspective on the appropriate balance of caring, happiness, and achievement, diminish a young person’s ability to sustain and build resilience. The mental health issues, the ever-increasing demand for counseling services, the failure of so many high school graduates to transition to the independence requisite of successful college students each point more to changes in how we (families and schools) are raising these young people than it does to changes in the innate potential of the young people themselves. [Note: Dr. Weissbourd’s primary content was hugely valuable, particularly his description of “The Four Failures of Moral Education” and “Six Key Strategies for Promoting Caring for others and the Common Good.”]

Jim Honan’s work at Harvard, which focuses on “financial management of nonprofit organizations, organizational performance measurement and management, and higher-education administration,” has been positively impactful on non-profits, schools, colleges, and universities for several decades. I knew this before arriving at his office filled with the clutter of exams, projects underway, and a framed needle-point of a large “NO” dwarfing a small “Yes.” What I didn’t know is the extent to which his specific learning environment impacts his work and creates a context for his openness to new learning and ideas of everyone around him—students, faculty, and colleagues spread far and wide around the world.

He loves Harvard—it is evident in everything he told me about it, and over the course of a couple of hours, he gave me not only an amazing tour of the University, including the stunning Kennedy School, and the town of Cambridge, but in addition he gave me insight into how immersed he is in the life of the University itself. There is resilience borne of such settings where one is known, has the opportunity (and the expectation!) to grow, and has myriad chances to contribute. Just as he plays a part in buoying the University, he is also buoyed by it. In this way he is part of the backbone of Harvard, while it serves as a key part of his backbone as well. Such is the nature of an individual’s resilience—it exists within the individual and in conjunction with the community in which that individual lives and works.

For both students as well as for professionals with decades of experience under their belts, the truth is similar regarding resilience—communities where people are challenged, cared for, known, and supported in turn produce people who challenge others, care for others, know others, and support them. Thus, the symbiotic relationship between individual and community (school, college, non-profit, or for-profit) both produces resilience and gives it legacy. It also helps produce individuals who are prepared to face tasks with resilience and humanity when they move beyond the confines of that community. The benefits of resilient individuals and resilient communities transcend merely the membership of that specific group and inevitably impact the larger communities of which they are, or will become, members.

Let me take this opportunity to thank Watson Jordan for the invitation to serve as the inaugural writer in The Resilience Initiative Executive Writers Series. The conversation about resilience is vital, and I am grateful to have been given a voice on this platform.

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