As we continue to weather the storm brought on by 2020, there is an imperative before us. We have the opportunity to redesign our system for a more resilient tomorrow—this is a defining moment for both our nation and our field. What can we learn from our individual and collective experiences over this past year? And what must leaders in health and human services do to take action on those lessons? How do we ensure that we are focused on bouncing forward, not just backward, and actively working to repair decades of pervasive, structural inequities that permeate our systems?
To act on this imperative, we need to understand our desired future state—what do we mean by achieving a more resilient tomorrow? And what is the role of the human services system and its leaders in advancing us toward that achievement?
At its core, resiliency is about the capacity to recover. We use the word resilience or resiliency to describe the ability of an inanimate object to weather extended use or to spring back into shape even after we stretch it beyond its standing form. And, when we attribute the word to people or a community, we describe the capacity of an individual, group, or place to weather difficult times and bounce forward in spite of experiencing hardship.
However, like so many terms in our nomenclature, having resiliency or being resilient cannot be singularly defined nor narrowly applied. It is multidimensional—having meaning and application at individual, agency, community, state, national, and arguably, even global levels, and it requires that we understand the context and conditions that enable resiliency to occur in the first place. And, to do so, it also requires us to understand the cumulative impact of the pervasive inequities woven into our systems over decades. In other words, the resiliency of human beings doesn’t just happen—it’s connected to where and how we experience the world.
Over the past year, our American society has endured multiple overlapping crises—a global pandemic that has resulted in devasting loss of life and significant economic repercussions; a broader awakening to the generations of racial injustice endured by Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities; and a presidential election cycle that amplified the deepening division and polarization within our country, resulting most recently in the unfathomable attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, posing real threats to the pillars of our democracy.
Yet, through these unprecedented challenges, we have collectively witnessed the resiliency of people and places. Leaders have shared with me countless stories of the resilience of our workforce, our community partners, and the people we are committed to working alongside. One leader explained how the “resilience in her agency revealed itself early on and has been the touchstone for action ever since.” Another shared how remarkable it was to witness leaders “power through the personal struggles they were enduring in their own lives”—including losing loved ones to COVID-19—and still “give more than they ever had before” to their jobs knowing that the lives of many in their community were also at risk from other perils sparked by the pandemic, such as food and housing insecurity, and the incredible stressors families were facing.
The experiences of leaders in the field have been revealing in other ways as well. For example, one leader noted that “the most ‘a-ha’ thing for me during the crisis is how willing everyone (partners, advocates, stakeholders) has been to give grace and set aside agendas to come together to solve the problem.” Another of our members reflected that she had “to turn to people who are experts in their own lives to help lead the conversation and take control”—and how illuminating the very act of ‘letting go of control’ has been to the ways in which she is leading today. And a common sentiment across our membership has been the recognition that “our systems are capable of much more than we thought.”
Read more in our recent publication, The COVID Response Project: Lessons Learned from State Adaptations and Federal Flexibilities, which documents the real-time impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on state human services agencies and captures state perspectives on lessons learned to guide future federal policymaking and state implementation.
When we look deeper at the factors that both enable and thwart this resiliency, it is clear that our sector is at the Cornerstone of a redesign and a rebuild we must embark on together:
Human services are the essential bricks and mortar that undergird what allows all of us an equitable opportunity to live our fullest lives. Human services help shape and support us at key points in our lives, opening opportunities for lifelong success. Human services provide foundational supports to families facing adversity and ensure resilience at familial and community levels that help us weather life’s inevitable ups and downs. They are a stabilizing force when we are hit by an unexpectedly severe storm such as the COVID-19 pandemic we are all experiencing.
Read more in our transition blueprint, Cornerstone for Resilient Communities and a Revitalized Economy: The Role of Human Services in Building Well-Being from the Ground Up.
I have never been as sure of the preventive and primary role that human services must play in our communities than I am today. To become a nation where all Americans can thrive, we must understand that human services are part of our critical infrastructure—like schools, hospitals, and roads—and therefore foundational to driving a revitalized economy, repairing the multitude of harms caused by structural racism and inequities, and, ultimately, to building resilient communities.
As one CEO in our member network recently shared: “Human services is an incredible engine for the public health response.” Together we oversee services that build resilience and bolster family well-being through access to food, health care, employment, and other key building blocks. We should not understate what the pandemic has illuminated about this engine that we sit on, and what we are called to do in support of the public good.
Those of you who know me, know I am, by nature, an eternal optimist. I believe in the good of humanity and that together we can emerge from this moment with a learning mindset that positions us as systems leaders to do better for all. I’m also a realist and recognize the road ahead is long and rocky. At APHSA, we are proud of the incredible effort of the local and state leaders in our network who have worked tirelessly on behalf of their communities, many of which have been impacted directly by COVID-19. We remain as committed as ever to working alongside all of you to build a more resilient tomorrow.
Check out our 2021 Action Plan overview to learn more.