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Soil Sisters: Building community resilience
pat skogen
Pat Skogen

Imagine a retreat, a slumber party, a deer camp — with 25 of your friends where you feel safe to express your strengths, your fears or doubts, your questions, your successes and your mistakes. Now imagine that the subject of politics, civic engagement and the purpose of government comes up. How will your friends maintain an atmosphere of listening, honesty, respect and constructive conversation? What are the chances your community of friends will survive to spend another weekend together? What are the chances all might leave the gathering with a renewed and deeper sense of community and a plan of action?

I’ve been fortunate to have participated in many such gatherings over the years through Wisconsin Farmers Union annual policy resolutions conventions and Soil Sister winter retreats. While there is plenty of fun, silliness, great food and beverages — the common threads have been these: Your voice and vote are important; You have the right to stand up, speak out, and present your view; you can be a leader and we will support you.

One year we explored basic structure of local government and how to participate ourselves. The book Choosing Civility was chosen in 2016 for discussion. My favorite quote from the author is this: “Civility means a great deal more than just being nice to one another. It is complex and encompasses learning how to connect successfully and live well with others, developing thoughtfulness, and fostering effective self-expression and communication. Civility includes courtesy, politeness, mutual respect, fairness, good manners, as well as a matter of good health. Taking an active interest in the well-being of our community and concern for the health of our society is also involved in civility.” — P.M. Forni

Another year, Victoria Solomon, Green County UW-Extension, and Cara Carper led us through True Colors and Strength Finders, encouraging us to develop our community resilience through effective communication and leadership.

We tend to think of community resilience as our municipality’s ability to handle a natural disaster or traumatic experience. But we must do more to promote and defend, while building in the flexibility to adapt to, the challenges our democracy faces.

“Resilience is the ability of a system (like a community) to absorb disturbance and still retain basic function and structure. Building resilience means intentionally guiding the system’s process of adaptation to preserve some qualities and allow others to fade away, all while retaining the essence — or “identity” — of the system. In a human community, identity is determined by what people value about where they live. However, what a community of people collectively values is open to interpretation and subject to disagreement. This suggests that people — and the ways they come to rough consensus — are necessarily at the center of community resilience building. 

The six foundations of building a resilient community are:

People. The power to envision the future of the community and build its resilience resides with community members.

Systems thinking. Systems thinking is essential for understanding the complex, interrelated crises now unfolding and what they mean for our similarly complex communities.

Adaptability. A community that adapts to change is resilient. But because communities and the challenges we face are dynamic, adaptation is an ongoing process.

Transformability. Some challenges are so big that it’s not possible for the community to simply adapt; fundamental, transformative changes may be necessary.

Sustainability. Community resilience is not sustainable if it serves only us, and only now; it needs to work for other communities, future generations, and the ecosystems on which we all depend.

Courage. As individuals and as a community, we need courage to confront challenging issues and take responsibility for our collective future.

In the words of two of our Presidents and a Supreme Court Justice:

“Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.” — George W. Bush

“So let us begin anew remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.” — John F. Kennedy

“You can disagree without being disagreeable.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Citizenship is not a spectator sport. Community resilience is the work of a concerned and caring citizenry. We can do this. We must do this. Let us reason together for the good of all.

— Pat Skogen is a longtime Soil Sister and activist for family farms, rural communities and clean water. A drive through the Driftless is one of her favorite things. Soil Sisters, a program of Renewing the Countryside, connects and champions women in the Green County area committed to sustainable and organic agriculture, land stewardship, local food, family farms and healthy and economically vibrant rural communities.