Hands to Earth: On-the-Ground Resilience at Commonweal
February 7, 2024
Have you heard of The Resilience Project at Commonweal? It’s one of our core resilience programs. It started just a few years ago and has been quietly gaining momentum. The project is energized and moving forward with its plans to create a resilience hub on-site at Commonweal. We asked program founder and director Stanley Wu to share more about this exciting land-based project we are prototyping at Commonweal.
Stanley Wu came to Commonweal with a background in renewable energy systems, community living, and water management. He is a subject-matter expert in solar thermal and hydronic systems and is also an ex-wildland firefighter, tango dancer, and father. In 2017, he received his doctorate in Traditional Chinese Medicine but decided to take his healing arts in a different direction. Today he is the director of The Resilience Project at Commonweal. He is also part of Commonweal’s Omega, Omega Resilience Awards, and Resilience Funders Network programs and a member of the Commonweal Stewardship Council.
What is TRP at Commonweal and what inspired you to start it?
SW: I believe we are collectively entering a period of some hardship and uncertainty on one hand, and immense potential on the other. The storm this week that cut off power, shut down roads, felled trees, damaged structures and threatened lives is one example. My sense is that these challenges are likely to increase in scale and complexity. At the same time, there is a real opportunity to connect and support each other as we reimagine what resilience looks for ourselves and our communities and the future we want to inhabit.
I’ve worked with Commonweal’s broader polycrisis and resilience work for the past five years, and I’ve come to believe that fostering local resilience with the systems on our physical site and with our immensely gifted community is one of our most rigorous paths to navigating the polycrisis.
We are grateful the Marin Community Foundation has made a truly significant initial grant supporting our efforts to pursue public funds for our microgrid and other dimensions of the resilience hub.
You are a very hands-on person—from being a wildland firefighter to operating community utilities to being a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine. And yet you also are able to think at a systems and community level. How does this practical and action-oriented aspect of you shape your interest in resilience?
SW: I feel fortunate to have worked with my hands building and maintaining infrastructure that provides water, electricity, shelter, food, heating, community, and medicine. Supporting these elemental human necessities has been profoundly rewarding. I enjoy thinking about reducing energy inputs and creating simple yet elegant systems. But, even more so, I feel that working with the fundamentals and basic needs for sustenance connects us in a very human way with our past and the ages to come. It’s tremendously empowering to learn how to work with and support our basic necessities, and it’s these feelings and skills that I want to share with our community.
Resilience is becoming such an overused phrase, like sustainability. What exactly does it mean?
SW: It’s true. The term is overused and becoming hollowed of its deeper meanings and utility. An important part of our work is to support an exploration into how our knowledge of resilience may be useful and when it falls short.
At its root, resilience is an elastic ability to withstand, to recoil, to adapt, and bounce back. It’s widely used in psychology, emergency response, community, climate, and in many other domains. The Resilience Project explores resilience as a system to help navigate a set of challenges and uncertainties. In recent years, resilience frameworks have been greatly expanded to encompass ideas such as adaptive capacity, an ability to sense, intervene, and bolster. There are operational principles that have been observed in resilient systems that persist over time that include things like feedback loops, decoupling, swarming, and clustering. We hope to explore and learn from diverse and expansive sets of work and experiences.
It’s worth noting that not all things resilient are desirable. Terrorist cells and racism are two examples.
Intersecting crises are a hallmark of our time and many are a direct threat to our Marin County community. These include wildfires, access to potable water, earthquakes, and climate change, to name a few. Our resilience efforts are housed within the polycrisis framework that refers to the interaction of an estimated two dozen environmental, social, technological, and economic stressors. These shocks manifest themselves in a wide array of impacts, contributing to ever greater movements of people seeking food, shelter, and safety. These cascading crises devastate the biosphere and threaten the human future. Our mission is to seek deep resilience through confronting the reality of the polycrisis as we understand.
You are an avid reader of polycrisis and resilience news and put together The Long View news digest for the Omega project. What new threads in our culture are you seeing in the news that give you hope?
SW: There are a lot of stories these days of billionaires building bunkers and people burying resources and “prepping”—stories that reflect a strong tendency to silo. I very much understand this way of thinking. However, there is growing research and understanding that challenges these notions of “islands of resilience.” Rather, resilient people and communities appear to be well networked, connected, and have high degrees of trust.
I hope that the acceptance and broad use of the resilience lens may help us see beyond individualistic and near-sighted interests and broaden our orientation towards collective resilience and opportunities to thrive. These times can feel so deeply fractured and polarized. I talk with many who feel isolated, overwhelmed, and even hopeless. In this sense, we view resilience far beyond the infrastructure to manage a sustained response to an emergency or crisis, but a capacity to foster meaningful relationships and connections with each other that is essential for deep resilience. In this sense, we are also cultivating the Resilience Hub to be a refuge.
What is the larger vision for site-based resilience at Commonweal—and the next steps for The Resilience Project?
SW: Within the coming years, we believe the likelihood of polycrisis stressors affecting us is quite high. This includes a serious earthquake or prolonged power outage, water scarcity, and wildfires in addition to our fraying social fabric and loneliness and unrest. We hope to have enough infrastructure in place to support our staff and community in an extended emergency scenario. We hope to do this in a way that simultaneously contributes to regeneration throughout everyday life.
I like to think of The Resilience Project as a laboratory for community and land-based resilience work. We’re building a pilot and demonstration site at Commonweal that will be a community of practice, a place for learning and refuge.
We have a good start. We’ve built a large solar array to reduce the carbon footprint and electric costs. We have water tanks and hydrants for fighting fires. We have a ham radio station and are part of the county emergency response network. We store Red Cross supplies. We are connected with the local volunteer fire department and we have staff who coordinate with other county emergency responders.
While there are many dimensions of work ahead of us, at the moment we are focused on seeking batteries to become a self-sufficient microgrid. This will leverage our existing solar system and is a fundamental emergency response resource. It further ensures that the energy we consume is sustainably sourced and will lower our carbon footprint.
A microgrid does not only help our site—it increases our capacity to support the emergency response community as well as our ability to support the local and extended community in a disaster scenario.
How could The Resilience Project inspire other work?
SW: We look forward to learning from and collaborating with a diverse set of projects and communities working on resilience.
We’re actively transforming the Commonweal site into a laboratory for community resilience work. We are building a pilot and demonstration site, a learning community, and hope to share our learnings in a way that may help other individuals, organizations, and communities to deploy and scale their own resilience projects and hubs.
We challenge ourselves to hold the complexity of the polycrisis in our work. It certainly makes the work harder—but it really is necessary to face the reality of these times. I hope other hubs and resilience initiatives find value in taking the polycrisis into consideration, as well, and learn with us.
How can people get involved and learn more?
I am hosting an inaugural The Resilience Project conversation via Zoom with Commonweal founder Michael Lerner on March 7th at 9am PST. Please save the date and register here.
This conversation is the first in a series that explores what deep resilience within the context of the global polycrisis looks like from the conceptual to practical. I hope readers will register for this event and feel free to reach out to me directly with any questions at email@example.com.