Resilience Is Futile: How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty

Resilience Is Futile: How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty

Two years ago, I was hired as a campaign coordinator for a community initiative in South L.A. I got the job because I’d been an organizer for labor unions, and I was eager and thrilled. I’d be coordinating The Belong Campaign, part of a nonprofit funded by government entities as well as large foundations. My cubicle was in the heart of The Children’s Bureau. What they said I was doingwhat the foundations were paying us to do, what I thought I was doingwas working to prevent child abuse and neglect. But the work was not what it seemed.

I came into my job knowing a couple of things. I knew how to organize people to stand up for what they believed in. I knew I wanted to do something to fix the system that treated victims of abuse and neglect like bar codes.

Then, on my first day, I was shown to my cubicle and handed a heap of papers that touted an ideology—a Theory of Change. On subsequent days, I sat at large round tables and looked on as a series of aggravating white liberals spouted the inherent value of this theory:

Relationship Based Organizing is a specific model that recognizes and harnesses the power, and inherent skills and talents of individuals to create and drive the changes they determine are necessary to improve the lives of their families, friends and neighbors.

The story the campaign told was a story of lost resilience. The narrative they preached was how to get it back. This is a common theme in community work. Over the years the term “resilience” has been applied more and more frequently to people in distressed communities to mean their capacity to bounce back from dysfunction or breakdown. Increasing community resilience becomes a solution to chronic barriers such as poverty, trauma, and class inequity. Dozens of programs that encourage resiliency have been introduced in schools and low-income neighborhoods all over the world in an effort to help children recover from trauma and also cope better with their day-to-day stresses.

It’s poverty amelioration through behavioral change—a behavioral change that asks for utter stability. What the resilience preachers look for is a person to be unchanged in the face of trauma. But I would argue that this is impossible, that people are always changed by trauma, and furthermore, that we ought to be. Rather than shift ourselves to change what is, the foundations that fund these initiatives would be better off addressing the gaps, filling the lacks, changing what isn’t.

To me, the story of the families we engaged in South L.A. was never the story of a lack of resilience. It was the story of your electricity getting turned off or your landlord being a slumlord, or your immigration status standing in the way of a good job, or your children graduating from high school with little to no money to pay for college, or your child joining a gang, or your child suffering from autism.

The story, another way, goes like this:

Once upon a time, there was a wealthy community. Just to the south was a poor community. Between the two ran a freeway. People from the poor community were always sneaking over, trying to partake of the wealth of the wealthy community. The people in the wealthy community resented this. Or some did. Some seemed fine with it, and even helped them once they got there. Some said it was a crisis. Others said: What crisis? It’s been going on for years, plus they work so cheap. The local nonprofits, city and county efforts seized on the situation and, as always, screwed it up: reduced it to pithy ideologies, politicized it, and injected it with faux urgency, until I was confused, and we all were confused and there was nothing much left to do but to throw some good wholesome foundation money at it.

About five months into my employment as campaign coordinator, I attended a research meeting where all the plans for the organization were laid out and where I felt very conflicted. I already knew that, in these types of meetings, I was made a tourist to a world and a life that I already knew well. Oftentimes I was asked to be a translator of sorts—a translator of where things went wrong for all these people, for the me I had once been.

At roundtables, this one woman who developed our particular Theory of Change sat at the head, and she carried with her a sort of dominance. Her rhetoric was accepted as the central rhetoric. Throughout time, the rest of us who worked with her stopped believing in our value as organizers. Some of us became passive and stopped believing in the validity of our own experience.

We all began speaking in her language: protective factors, asset based organizing, personal resilience. We started to absorb this woman’s idea that changing people’s behavior was the solution to their problems, which meant absorbing the idea that people’s behavior was the source of their problems. But I knew at the core of me this was false. The problem had never been that I didn’t know the right number to call. It’s a lack of resources that produces a lack of resilience, not the other way around.

But the work of the initiative said otherwise. This is what we did: we gathered residents in the community and pointed out what their individual and community assets were. Nothing else. We didn’t provide services, or even find a way to coordinate between the different service providers.

Our mission statement:

The 35,000 children and youth, especially the youngest ones, living in the neighborhoods within the 500 blocks of the Magnolia Catchment Area will break all records of success in their education, health, and the quality of nurturing care and economic stability they receive from their families and community—Getting To Scale An Elusive Goal.

Our target community was the Los Angeles neighborhoods known as West Adams, Pico Union, and the North Figueroa Corridor, where the streets are lined with sweet bread bakeries and fruit carts, hot dogs fried and wrapped in bacon, chicharrones the size of my head, round and puffed or flat with lime and chile, AA meeting spaces, Disney knock-offs. The making and selling of things was an endless mantra, repeated in my head with every step.

The Belong Campaign chose this area because it’s a place that houses vulnerable, high-need, low-resource neighborhoods with multiple threats: high poverty, low employment rates, high incidence of diabetes and asthma, and high rates of involvement with the child welfare system.

In other words, we served people who are already resilient. If there’s one thing that people in poverty, children in foster care, and recent immigrants already have in abundance, it’s the knowledge of how to be tough.

How did this gaggle of liberals measure this mental toughness of resilience? One common tool to measure resilience is called the Children and Youth Resilience Measure (CYRM-28). The CYRM-28 is a 28-item questionnaire that explores the individual, relational, communal, and cultural resources that may bolster the resilience of people aged nine to 23. The measure was designed as part of the International Resilience Project, based in Canada—a group on the forefront of resilience studies and partially funded by the Nova Scotia Department of Justice Correctional Services.

Part of the programming offered by The Belong Campaign was a training for the parents in the community. The theme, of course, was resilience. It would be encouraged through discussions about challenges that life presents you and what possible resources you can use to respond to those challenges.

I felt this training endorsed a morally appealing self-castigation, and when I was hired, I did away with it. We’d built what I thought was a lonely hearts club; parents attended their “resilience meeting” casually, waiting for the day to unfold. They’d do this with or without us, without this hovering idea of what they lacked. Rather, I thought it would be best to go out in the community and assess who lived there, ask where the children were, what their barriers were.

So the promotoras and I knocked on the doors within the geographic target area. We surveyed the questions within CYRM 28. I added an additional question: “What was it that you want or need most in the community?” Most everyone responded with jobs and safer spaces. This seemed reasonable and not something that stemmed from a lack of resilience.

The questions were like this:

When I am hungry there is enough to eat:
Not at all A little Somewhat Quite a bit A lot

Door to door, I thought about the Philippines, where my people drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, (backwards, the lit end in your mouth). It reduces the appetite. Babies drink coffee, children smoke cigarettes, little brown bellies go round and vacant, the coffee sloshing around.

I’d think about it, asking people:

I know how to behave in different social situations:
Not at all A little Somewhat Quite a bit A lot

And I’d remember my own capacity, or lack thereof, to behave in social situations, and then think back to a time when I too lacked resources. When I first entered the system as a foster kid I ran away a lot. I ran to a park in the Pacific Palisades, all trees and dips and picnic tables. I hung by the pay phones for a nighttime streetlamp. I pretended to be relevant and then later I retreated down a hill.

Halloween of 1993, all the rich kids came to the park and called it “Midnight Madness.” I emptied a tub of Cool Whip and replaced it with Nair so when one of the pretty girls was being flirty I could douse her long, blonde, shiny hair with it and she’d think it was innocuous, and then scowl as handfuls of her hair fell out.

Back then, I was a solid little bomb—young, angry, and energetic. I had nowhere to put all of these feelings so I pasted posters on the sides of buildings, leafleted college campuses, got people to sign petitions at supermarkets. I was angry because, after being placed into foster care, I hated all the rules of my life and being told what to do and when to do it. I hated that the people who were in charge of my well-being felt substantially less prepared and dumber than me. Less resilient, you could say.

The moment I entered the system I felt my identity ebb further and further away, no longer a name to my body, no longer an address, no longer a mother, no longer a brother, no longer a host of dreams attached to my body. My body was a number. My body was assigned to a social worker. The social worker was responsible for lots of bodies, not just my body. And yet deep, deep inside I was certain that, if these people could just meet me—if they could hear me and listen to me and talk to me—they would know that I was different. I was special and articulate and to be handled with some kind of care. I did not deserve to be poor. I did not deserve to be forgotten. I wasn’t yet aware that no one did.

Was I “resilient?” I don’t know. But I was a Marxist, a graffiti artist, a girl looking for love. I was needy and cool and confused and nonchalant, and I hitchhiked around town with my friends. I slept in parks and in rich kids’ homes and stayed up in coffee shops. I drank Carl’s Jr. coffee and smoked clove cigarettes. I did not pay for too many things, I stole food but was at an age where I could live off of a large french fries, cigarettes, and coffee.

Meanwhile, there were other kids in foster care who were much worse off than me. As of 1989 Los Angeles County had already paid $18 million in settlements to children who were abused while placed in custody.The majority of the lagging Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigations—which include allegations of serious abuse, inadequate food, homes in disrepair or other licensing violations—remained open for more than six months, according to data obtained under the California Public Records Act.

One case involved a nine-year-old boy. He weighed only 28 lbs. That’s half the size of my dog. The social workers assigned to his number hadn’t visited him for four months. In their defense, my social worker was only required to see me once every six months. During that time, the boy was beaten, sodomized, burned on his genitals, and nearly drowned by his foster parents. He had become a spastic paraplegic.

On the other side of the country, I had a brother who was being kicked out of our father’s home. He was being kicked out for being gay. “Bakla” is how he was called at home. It means “faggot” in tagalog. He was being called bakla and my rich girlfriends were taking ecstasy and making out with each other. And I was sleeping in their rooms in their clothes, fondling their CD collection, pretending it was all mine until the one day I got picked up and put back into the group home I’d run away from.

If you ask one of these service providers they might say I reached my all time resiliency low when I was sent to the first group home, scared of the bed that had been already been so slept on. Scared of the used sheets and scared of the roommate and scared of not knowing things. The only thing I could compare this separation to is a break-up, one where you imagine your beloved at home, heartbroken, crying, hugging a pillow in the dark. In this new place I imagined the same of my mother, and then I took maybe one or two moments to pause and take in my own surroundings. It was clear to me then that nothing good was ever gonna come of me. It has taken me two decades to shape all that helplessness and anger into a career. Does that make me, now, resilient?

I thought of my past a lot during the Belong Campaign. At one of our meetings, about three months into my tenure, I looked across the table at the people in nice suits, drinking coffee and eating bagels, talking about solving this poverty problem by increasing these community members’ sense of belonging. These people, my colleagues, traveled the world—Australia, Africa, and throughout the U.S.—speaking on panels and at conferences about their innovative new approaches to increasing resilience. Making money off poverty was their vocation. They were compensated for these studies, creating a career out of their ludicrous idea of “resilience,” that the circumstances of these people’s lives were somehow a result of their poor choices or ill behaviors.

At this meeting, they proposed a new concept. What if we did a cortisol study, someone said.

Cortisol is the hormone that is released when someone is distressed. The proposal was to enlist a group of parents in the target low-income community in a clinical trial—to take a mouth swab and check their cortisol level, and then ask them to do something stressful and take another mouth swab to check their cortisol level. Compare these cortisol counts to others in more stable environments. The hypothesis for this study was: people in low-income communities suffer greater levels of stress. The incentive for the initiative was that it might procure funding that could then be used to establish concrete measurable findings which would then in turn substantiate the need for more workshops on resilience, more outreach, and ultimately more funding.

That day was enough for me. On that day I walked out of that job, understanding fully that the story of these people was not one of a lack of resilience but of too many systems to navigate. How to see a doctor, how to enroll in classes, how to get a driver’s license, how to tell people that you are already resilient, and what you need is a job that pays better, a job that will take you out of the surveys and focus groups to a place where you’re no longer so poor.

Melissa has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, Salon, McSweeney’s, Tin House, The Rumpus, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America and dozens other places. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her first novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

This feature has been supported by the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

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