The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Sustainability Spotlight: Resilience and Oppression

Hurricane Katrina aftermath

“Sustainable” and “resilient”: these are words that many of us toss around both formally and informally, in academic contexts and in our everyday lives. But when we dig deeper, what do these actually mean, and how can we use these definitions in ways that are meaningful to us? 

Perhaps one place to start is with etymology. To “sustain” is to support or to strengthen, in either a tangible or abstract way, while to be “resilient” is to be able to bounce back or recover from adversity. While sustainability and resilience are often grouped together, there are distinct differences between the implications of these mindsets. 

When talking about the social, economic, and environmental systems of which we are all a part, do we want to simply sustain the status quo – to be able to meet the demands of overconsumption, to be able to support the systems that thrive on race- and class-based inequity – or do we want to be able to respond to these phenomena in a way that shifts our thinking so that values align with actions? Using this comparison, “resilience” can be equated with change – a dynamic, ever-evolving process of taking in feedback and incorporating it into new iterations of an entity or system. “Sustainability,” on the other hand, implies that something survives rather than flourishes or thrives. 

Perhaps (or at least I hope) as you read this, you’re asking, “But if ‘sustainability’ is in the name of your blog, then why are you picking it apart so critically?” As with all definitions and interpretations of the words we choose, there are other sides to the story. Depending on how these words are applied, they can have harmful consequences or agendas that seek to reinforce systems of oppression rather than reform them. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, New Orleans has been labeled as a crown jewel of “resilience.” As part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities” initiative and the city government’s “Resilient New Orleans” campaign, government officials and nonprofit organizations have glossed over the uneven distribution of resources and effort throughout the city’s recovery. Nearly fifteen years after the hurricane, many neighborhoods are still lacking resources such as access to fresh food and adequate living spaces. 

This present-day example of disaster recovery has roots that go far deeper than lackluster response efforts. A brief look into our country’s sobering history of systematic displacement and disinvestment of resources through segregation provides us with insight into one reason why New Orleans, Chicago, and other communities continue to suffer the direct and indirect effects of racism. And when we continue to use the narrative that the residents of these places are “resilient” in their ability to adapt to events like Katrina, we justify inaction in addressing the systems that form the basis of these inequities. 

Tracie Washington, an adjunct professor of political science at Tulane University and “the voice of a Black-led response to resilience-based policy,” objected to the city government’s attitude toward the future, saying, “Stop calling me resilient. Because every time you say, ‘Oh, they’re resilient,’ that means you can do something else to me. I am not resilient.” In 2015, a year that marked ten years post-Katrina, flyers quoting Washington were put on telephone poles and bulletin boards around New Orleans, making it known that her sentiments are shared by the city’s communities of color. “I don’t want to be resilient, I think that we should fix the things that are making us be resilient,” says Washington. 

As with most definitions, making literal interpretations of “resilience” and “sustainability” often fails to address the implications of these terms. If “resilience” meant re-envisioning the systems that underlie and reinforce oppression, perhaps the issue would be less about which words we choose and more about what we choose to do with our collective capacity to effect change.