Resilience: A Definition

After a whirlwind trip to Geneva to promote the University of Oklahoma’s International Resilience Institute, of which I am honored to be Board Chairman, I settled back into familiar territory in Oklahoma City, which over the years has become a second home, for a final disaster recovery mission assignment. One of my major tasks is to clearly define “Resilience”, as an industry and a practice.  Unfortunately, resilience has very quickly taken on the definition of a “buzzword”–a word that is used very frequently by people who really do not understand what it means. I certainly do.  It means Oklahoma.

Ironically, it was 20 years ago, almost to the day, that I reported here for my very first consulting gig with my new boss, and later partner, the gifted Ed Morrison. Those were heady days, with the now legendary Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) initiative just getting underway.  Ed and I remain proud of what I feel is still our very best work together, the Forward Oklahoma City strategic initiative.  A little more than a year later, however, as we (actually Ed, as I was recovering from a serious accident) were wrapping up that important work, tragedy struck, the worst act of domestic terrorism this nation ever had, or still has ever seen, occurred.

The Murrah Building bombing changed Oklahoma City, and the nation, forever.  In the aftermath, Ed was thrust into a field neither of us had dreamed of working in–disaster recovery. And though my involvement was tangential, at best, I was struck by the way that city, and those people, abjectly refused to quit.  The city was still recovering from another, though painful far less catastrophic event–the collapse of the oil industry in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  The economic consequences were dire–downtown Oklahoma City looked like a ghost town the first time I arrived in March of 1994–but again, rather than give up and give in, Mayor Ron Norick, along with elected/appointed officials, and business/community leaders, instead set out on a bold mission–to change the landscape of the city, beginning with downtown.

The MAPS program was just beginning to show progress when the bombing happened. The city would have been justified in shutting down or delaying it.  None of them would hear a word of that–instead they doubled down and passed an expansion of the program.  They also resolved to build a permanent tribute to the people whose lives were lost in the bombing, to show that their sacrifice was not in vain. The results are nothing short of amazing.  MAPS has generated over $5 billion in new investment, and revitalized not only downtown but the spirit and energy of an entire city. The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, a place visited by people from around the world, is a tranquil tribute to not only those lost, but to the spirit of resilience of those left behind.

So here I am–in Oklahoma again–this time in a different capacity as subcontractor to the Economic Development Administration, under FEMA, to provide support for regional and state stakeholders in implementing long-term recovery strategies. I am working with some of the same wonderful people who were there back in 1994, who believed in a vision and worked hard to achieve it, even in the face of unimaginable hardship.  I don’t just hope they will succeed in once again setting this place apart as a shining example for the world.  I know they will.

Someone I admire recently gave me a definition for resilience–“The Ability to Endure the Adversity at Hand”. Couldn’t have said it better myself.  The Ability to Endure. The Ability to Come Back, Stronger than Ever. Turning Adversity into Opportunity.  Standing Strong. Don’t tell the folks I work for, but this assignment is easy. You see, I already know the definition of Resilience.  It’s Oklahoma.

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