Last week I co-facilitated a session on resilience at the wonderful CreativeCollisions conference. Way over 100 youth professionals and young people spent nearly 2 hours engaging with the subject, focussing on the following question:

• How can we increase resilience in young people and communities?

This is a critical question and gets right to the heart of community empowerment and positive youth development.

Resilience is one of those in vogue concepts that is used all over the place, but few people seem to be clear with what it actually means. In the session last week the first question I asked was who felt confident that they could define resilience – almost no hands went up. At a fundamental level this is important – it you can’t say what something is, how can you take steps to increase it.

There are lots of ways of looking at resilience – I like to see it as bounce-back-ability, like an elastic band that you can stretch out but will then return to its original shape afterwards. This capacity is vital for young people and communities and is a prime determinant on how we will cope with the inevitable stressors in life. We are all too aware of what happens when a rubber band gets stretched beyond its capacity – it snaps. This is also what happens to individuals and communities with similarly devastating consequences.

After the session I was reflecting with my co-facilitator, Tom Currie from Leap Confronting Conflict, and it occurred to me that there was a key area of resilience that didn’t get mentioned once – the resilience needed to be effective as youth and community professionals. We talk about developing resilience in others, but where is the talk about also developing this in ourselves?

Being a youth/community professional is incredibly rewarding, but also very challenging. We are faced with having to grapple with ‘wicked’ problems, with heart-wrenching sorrows, with unsolvable dilemmas, with pain and misery and injustice. No matter how hard we work our work is never done. No matter how much of ourselves we put into our work, we are not able to stem the flow of issues we face in our communities. And in the current economic climate we are facing increasing challenges with reducing resources.

It takes a lot of resilience to stay positive and active in the face of these challenges. Resilience is increasingly being recognised as an important factor and there are organisations looking at the issue creatively and holistically – both in terms of personal and organisational resilience (obviously there’s a connection as if individuals aren’t resilient, this impacts the ability of the not just the individual but the organisation to make a difference.)

When we aren’t able to stay resilient, we burn out and either leave the profession for other careers, or stay and pay an immense personal price (often measured in failed relationships and health breakdown). Neither option is a good one.

Now I’m not against people leaving the youth and community sector (it’s not a life sentence) but I do think that we are doing something wrong as so many people are leaving because of burnout. Aside from the personal cost, as a sector we cant afford to lose so much talent, experience and skills. We need them now more than ever.

So what can we do, as individuals and organisations?

• We can play the long game, and recognise that if we want to still be active, passionate and engaged throughout our career that we need to take care of ourselves
• We can invest in developing and nurturing resilience in ourselves, just as we do for others
• We can encourage funders to invest in maintaining and supporting existing professionals so that we can continue to be effective and reduce the amount of burnout

There are no easy answers, we will always be faced with the issues we grapple with today.

I personally fully intend to continue in this sector as long as I am working and able to contribute – there is no work I would rather be doing. I have been in the profession for over 20 years and feel as excited and committed now as when I started. I hope that I can say the same thing in another 20 years; and I believe that if I cant, then the fault will be mine for not doing what I need to do, to stay resilient.