February 14, 2023
By Dr. Andrea Wilson, Education Director, CASA Guadalupe
Contributions and edits by Ronda Alexander, Director of National Partnerships and Corin Bauman, Network Equity Coordinator.
Vital Village Networks is grateful to Dr. Andrea Wilson, a member of the Network of Opportunity for Child Wellbeing and the 2023 Vital Village Networks Beloved Community in Action Learning Journey, for guest authoring our first article in the 2023 Vital Village Networks Leadership Series.
I met my class of the “Extraordinary” in the Fall of 2015. I was the new one. I was new to the US, to the city, to this specific type of job. On that first day, I stood at the door armed with almost twenty years of traditional classroom and leadership experience. The moment I had spotted the online advertisement for an Education Coordinator I felt that I was more than ready to take on a community-based after-school program. But on this first day, my feet began to feel a bit wobbly; the way they did whenever I was stepping into the unfamiliar. A huge knot made its presence felt in the pit of my stomach, and it refused to budge even with the slowest and most rhythmical series of inhales and exhales. I spoke. My accented voice was hesitant. I was not afraid; far from it. I was uncertain. There’s a difference.
During those early days, I asked my students to share their stories in a variety of ways. On one occasion, we took a walk through their neighborhoods then returned to the classroom and played a game I called “Where’s the Lava?” I asked them to point out the spots in their neighborhood that they considered safe or unsafe (lava). In the end, there was a consensus.
Image Credit: Casa Kids. The Hood is Lava.
I began to gather as much information as I could. I read reports, tuned into the statistics. I learned new things about trauma and discovered that adversities could arise from childhood experiences or sit stubbornly in neighborhoods (Ellis & Dietz, 2017; Felitti et al, 1998).
Yet, each day, I was witnessing something more than the dire statistics. In one of my very early sessions, my students were sharing their version of their own stories. I presented them with the “My Life is Six Words” challenge. Nathaniel wrote:
Image Credit: I’ve concluded Greatness. Nathaniel (Not his real name).
The statistics and community stories about adversities have barely shifted (Brabant et al., 2016; Migrant Policy Institute, 2016; World Health Organization, 2018). It is the summer of 2019 and, I am making bracelets with a new group of students. Each student selects a powerup word. One student decides, “Resilience”
Image Credit: A Power-up Bracelet. Casa Summer, 2019.
This would be the start of my dissertation exploration of resilience among youth and young adults who are immigrants. Throughout the journey, as I encountered the tales of adversities that proliferated the studies about immigrant youth, I would return again and again to Nathaniel’s words: I’ve concluded Greatness!
Poet Jane Hirshfield writes, “And along with the difficult is the beautiful, the radiant.” All lives are full and complex, she suggests, and the human task is ours to acknowledge this (From On Being with Krista Tippett Jane Hirshfield: The Fullness of Things).
Hence, while I acknowledged the adversities of youth who are immigrants, I believed in the stories of hope, like the one Nathaniel found the courage to share - in a classroom smack in a neighborhood filled with lava.
I dug in.
“To grasp resilience, we need to know a person’s full story, not just the inspirational tidbit that affirms the fortitude of the human spirit or a simplified description of the risks that individuals have overcome.” (Ungar, 2019, p. 57).
I stayed focused on stories of youth and young adults who are not traditionally the focus of research about resilience. Through virtual interviews and online questionnaires, I gathered stories from 42 participants (youth and young adults), the majority of whom were born outside the United States (Table 1).
Table 1: Countries of Origins, Dr. Andrea Wilson (Resilience Research)
I was privileged to be given glimpse after glimpse of stories that provided evidence of fullness and complexities.
A young man, who once crossed a border daily to access a college education, sits in the prestigious lap of an aeronautical organization. His son has a fixed address and a passport to travel the world.
A boy in a city he now calls home has just received news of a visit to the college of his choice.
A young woman who has just completed her master’s degree in psychology spends her days in a community miles away from her own home deeply involved in creating systems of access for youth who bear semblances of who she was when she first arrived in the US.
A teen girl dances on the merging and sometimes wavy lines of high school and college and opts for dual enrollment as she reaches for a dream that beats its rhythms in her head.
The data informed me that socio-ecological factors that are important for resilience among youth and young adults who are immigrants include:
Belonging to a community
Support from loved ones and friends
Opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills that would prove useful later in their lives
Opportunities to celebrate traditions of their families
Opportunities for mentors and new connections
Table 2: Perceived sense of belonging, Dr. Andrea Wilson (Resilience Research)
Image Credit: Dr. Andrea Wilson. Most frequently listed resources identified by participants as needed for resilience. (Resilience Research)
What is ours to do?
Resilience is not a gene that only some people possess. Rather, “Resilience is born from the interplay between internal disposition and external experience,” (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2015).
Resilience as complex and multifaceted (Masten, 2018; Panter-brick et al., 2013, Ungar, 2021).
“No matter the source of hardship, the single most common factor for children who end up doing well is having the support of at least one stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver, or other adult.” (Center on the Developing Child - Harvard University, 2015)
Make room for the stories of our communities.
Tune in to the lived experiences.
Keep asking, what else could be true? Make genuine efforts to seek out the other side of the narratives you are accustomed to hearing about specific groups or populations. To guide us in our efforts to acquire authentic stories about our communities Merle McGee proposed the idea of adopting and maintaining a posture of curiosity by rejecting “Unhelpful Social Narratives.”
Listen more than we speak.
Stop assuming and know that we seldom know the whole of a situation.
Asset-Framing as proposed by Trabian Shorters encourages us to lead all conversations with the hopes and aspirations of an individual, of our communities. We should do this diligently! Do this as many times and for as long as it takes for the fullness of the stories to arise.
In his book, Change Your World, Ungar (2019) opines that access to resources is only part of the resilience paradox. An individual must also be able to have opportunities to negotiate the resources that they find most useful to their wellbeing. He writes that resilience relies also on the “the right services from the right people in the right way” (p.16).
How can community-based organizations make use of this information?
In the medical setting the 7 Rights of medication preparation and administration is utilized to prevent patient harm: right patient, right drug, right dose, right time, right route, right reason, and right documentation. Research has shown the significant effects in reducing errors and harm through consistent practice of the 7 Rights (Smeulers et al., 2015).
Maybe we can model our practices in such a manner to support and strengthen our efforts to ensure positive wellbeing outcomes across our communities.
Here is merely a suggestion:
7 Rights of Community-based Program/Service Planning and Implementation
Right Person (Receiving & Providing)
Don’t Do This Alone! A Call for Collective Action
Image Credit: Dr. Andrea Wilson. Quote from Participant.
We must embark upon dynamic and multi-systemic responses. Within and across our communities, we must move our actions closer, align and connect, become partners in new and purposeful ways.
A famous quote by Ram Dass, “We're all just walking each other, Home.”
We must continue, but we must continue together.
Dr. Andrea Wilson was born in Guyana, South America where she obtained her teaching credentials and her bachelor’s in Education. She graduated from the University of Guyana as valedictorian and obtained several prestigious awards including the President’s Medal. Later, Andrea would spend five years as Head of Department – English at a novel tech-focused high school on the island of St. Lucia. She relocated to the US and obtained a master’s degree from Seton Hall University in Education Leadership, Management, and Policy. She also acquired certification as a Medical Assistant and worked in urgent care and surgical settings. Andrea recently completed a doctorate in Health Sciences with East Stroudsburg University. Her dissertation research was a narrative exploration of processes of resilience among youth and young adults (immigrants). For the past 7 years, Andrea has held the position of Education Director at a non-profit organization in an urban city. Her experience and expertise span traditional school settings and out-of-school time spaces locally and internationally. She considers herself a villager and continues to collaborate extensively with community partners near and far. She resides in New Jersey with her very close-knit family which includes her two children and their new dog Apollo.