Cultivating Resilience |
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Cultivating Resilience

We’re living in a time when a lot is churning, and some old assumptions about the way life is supposed to be are turning out to be less than reliable. Some traditional elements of the American Dream—the one-job career with a pension, the thirty-year mortgage that turns into the retirement nest egg, the good job waiting after college graduation—are becoming the exception rather than the norm for many people across the United States today.

Change of this magnitude can be rapid and sometimes disorienting.

Whether it is changes in technology, the global marketplace, the healthcare system, or even the climate, it’s easy to find yourself on the wrong side of a massive shift, a victim of unsettled times. Terms like Rust Belt neatly describe how our lack of a capacity to anticipate and adapt to a big shift can affect an entire region of our country.

It will take resilience—and a lot of it—to navigate these times. But resilience is something that needs to be cultivated in order to anticipate and respond to changes, to adapt and come out thriving.

Resilience is a concept with many contexts. To be psychologically resilient, one needs the capacity to rise again after trauma or loss, and that means always seeing a way forward, even through periods of darkness. In materials, resilience reflects the notion of being able to spring back into shape after being crushed or warped. Ecologically, resilience is tied to a system being able to withstand perturbations—major disruptions such as flood, fire, and drought or the loss of a key species—and still maintain or restore vital functions that support diverse and productive life.

What unites all of these contexts are some common elements of a resilient system: healthy redundancy (so a single disturbance doesn’t become catastrophic), diversity of options to fulfill needs, and a robustness based on tolerances beyond normal capacity—just in case something unexpected happens.

It’s pretty clear that resilience only happens when we make informed and thoughtful choices, when we invest in a future with more options and safeguards, consider the “what ifs” and have creative plans to deal with them, and nurture the things that sustain us. And, of course, there’s that maxim about not putting all your eggs in that one proverbial basket.

Resilience has always been a theme in Wisconsin Academy programming. Even before we began Wisconsin Initiatives like the Intelligent Consumption Project (1999–2001), which identified the massive pressures squeezing global forest resources, or the more familiar Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin (2005–2008) and original Waters of Wisconsin (2000–2002) programs, the Wisconsin Academy has never been afraid of taking on the big issues affecting our state and world alike.

Today, with climate change influencing life in Wisconsin— from farming to fishing to forests—we’ll need to focus our energies on the task at hand. This year and in the coming years resilience will be the thread with which we’ll weave a narrative that connects all of our programs: the James Watrous Gallery, Academy Evening discussion forums, Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine, and Wisconsin Initiatives Program.

As you’ll see in this issue of the magazine and through our ongoing examination of resiliency, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters is doing something that no other organization in the state can do. Certainly highlighting the best of the sciences, arts, and literature can contribute to our culture in many meaningful ways. But an organization focused on exploring ideas at the intersection of the sciences, arts, and letters can show us a new way of thinking, a new path for moving forward.

Join us for this journey in 2013 and help create a more resilient Wisconsin and world.


Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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Madison, Wisconsin 53726
Phone: 608.733.6633


James Watrous Gallery 
3rd Floor, Overture Center for the Arts
201 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: 608.733.6633 x25