Resilience, Grit & Aliens

It was so exciting to see that James Redford’s new documentary, Resilience: the Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope has been named an official selection for Sundance in 2016!

Washington State’s own Laura Porter is featured in this powerful documentary which Redford says was the impetus for him to go on and make Paper Tigers, now screening to sell out crowds all over the country. Paper Tigers focuses on students from Walla Walla’s alternative Lincoln High School, a story we are all are very familiar with and proud of here in Washington State. Laura Porter, of course, joined Healthy Gen’s team in January, 2014 to launch and lead the Learning Institute focused on the NEAR sciences (Neuroscience, Epigenetics, Adverse Childhood Experiences, Resilience). We are proud to support the continuation of her valuable and important efforts as a foundational element in Healthy Gen’s theory of change on how to create enduring health equity.


The national conversation on resilience is heating up. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine on “The Profound Emptiness of Resilience” questions the sudden everywhereness (yes, I made that up, don’t send me grammar correction notes about it please) of the term which the author sees as a potential problem for exactly those proponents who have worked so hard to get the visibility to the issue in the first place. His concern:

“It [resilience] is indistinguishable from classic American bootstrap logic when it is applied to individuals, placing all the burden of success and failure on a person’s character.”

I absolutely agree with him. We have struggled with this precise issue at Healthy Gen as well. It’s one of the many reasons behind our development of the term “NEAR” to capture the broader suite of sciences we feel need to be examined and understood in order to create viable solutions to the many complex issues inherent within. As social scientist Alfie Kohn put in in an op-ed article in The Washington Post, also cited in the New York Magazine article: ‘‘The more we focus on whether people have or lack persistence (or self-­discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies.’’

The article continues to discuss recent studies and protests of racisms and personal trauma on college campuses where the author perceives “demands for resilience have become a cleverly coded way to shame those speaking out against injustices.” He suggests that by insisting upon telling their stories over the growing protests from right and left, these students “are reframing resilience. It’s not just the strength to stay the course but to question it and propose others, not just to survive but to thrive… Why rise from the ashes without asking why you had to burn?” Indeed.

In one of those near déjà vu moments I find so heady, the article also weaves in grit, calling it “a close cousin of ‘resilience,’ [that] has emerged as education’s magic mantra.” I’ve been having conversations about the grit craze with researcher colleagues for awhile now who have pointed out to me that all that grit research so well popularized in Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, was done on Ivy League and West Point students and grads. These are not exactly the downtrodden or disenfranchised usually. How does this research inform those of us working towards enduring health equity?

Happily, others are asking these same questions. A new article in the Atlantic, The Limitations of Teaching ‘Grit’ in the Classroom, headlines with the statement that “We are asking students to change a belief system without changing the situation around them.” The article highlights the work of Tyrone C. Howard, Associate Dean of Equity and Inclusion at UCLA (great materials from Howard here):

“Children dealing with traumatic situations should not been seen as pathological, he argued. Instead, educators need to recognize the resilience they are showing already… When asking the question of why some children succeed in school and others don’t, he said the educators and administrators tend to overestimate the power of the person and underestimate the power of the situation.”

I’m fortunate to be in conversations like this often. One of my personal heroes and mentors, Maxine Hayes, has always emphasized that we need to learn from those who have experienced trauma and institutional bias and other obstacles. They know so much and we structurally are set up in all our work to ignore them pretty much entirely, only paying attention to them as a client, a patient, someone to be the passive recipient of our services and policies. How about someone to be a partner, a leader, a co-creator of a better future? That’s what I really want us to figure out and start doing.

Last week I confessed to you my deep love of space and sci fi. I'm bring that back in below, please enjoy the very quick and funny clip from an all time favorite of mine and then read on to see why I am foisting this upon you!

Definitely put Newt in charge. Sounds like a brilliant idea to me. Ripley smartly listens to her and gets all the intel she can for surviving the overwhelming terror of the aliens. You may be laughing, both at the movie quote (one of my favorites! That Hudson!!) but also at me for even including it here. What the heck, Melanie?? But seriously, the aliens are toxic stress and trauma come to life. They are structural and institutional bias, they are poverty, they are abuse in every form. And we have to take our cues from the people who’ve survived them if we are going to get the heck off that planet and onto a better one where everyone can be safe and have the same opportunity for healthy, whole lives. And maybe I just want to be as badass as Ripley too; okay, I’ll give you that. Really though, the true badass is Newt! THAT is grit and resilience personified right there.