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Societies Should Build Resilient Citizens

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Just days before it became public that U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney had criticized 47 percent of Americans as being "dependent on the government," Emory University Law Professor Barbara Woodhouse espoused the important role a society should play in helping its citizens build resilience.

"The measure of a society's worth is not in the survival of the strongest and most powerful -- they will always be with us. Instead, true worth is measured by the flourishing of the smallest, weakest, and most vulnerable," Woodhouse said during the Don S. Browning Lecture, hosted by Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion last week. (Watch lecture video.)

A Community Model

Woodhouse, L.Q.C. Lamar Professor at Emory Law and a renowned children's rights expert, laid out an ecological model for building a resilient community, beginning with children, whose early development sets the stage for their ability to flourish as adults. Her model, developed by social scientist Urie Bronfenbrenner, maps the roles of law and religion at various levels.

The model's first level is the microsystems of the child's world: family, faith community, and school.

Where these overlap, there are mesosystems that ideally are in harmony, such as a tolerant school that accepts children in all their diversity. But mesosystems also can generate conflict, for example, if a child is forced to hide his or her faith at school to avoid being ridiculed.

The next layer, the exosystems, are places that don't directly affect the child but nonetheless influence his or her life. Woodhouse pointed to a parent's work situation as an example. A child whose parent has a low paying job that requires overtime has a very different early experience from the child whose parent has a secure, living wage job in a family-friendly workplace.

Woodhouse describes the final element in the model, macrosystems, as the "wellspring of the values, norms, and power structures that are enacted into laws and policies."

"The macrosystem permeates a particular society, much like water permeates an ecosystem. As with water, this is continual exchange from the mirco to macro and back," she explained.

Asking the audience to imagine the child at the center of this model as symbolizing the universality of vulnerability, Woodhouse then posed a tough question: "Can we transform our society so that it is more responsive to our shared vulnerability rather than driven by destructive myths of rugged individualism and survival of the fittest?"

"Make no mistake -- a society's capacity for resilience is not just born, it is also made. Resilience can be nurtured or sabotaged, depending on the social environments we create, especially those of infants and children," she said.

A Model Community

To prove such a society is possible, Woodhouse presented her findings from a recent study of children in Scanno, Italy, a mountain village with a population of just under 2,000 located three hours from Rome.

Scanno itself is resilient. It has existed since pre-Roman times and survived wars, foreign occupation, earthquakes and many other crises. Today it is one of Italy's more isolated communities and faces many economic challenges, but the residents told Woodhouse over and over again "there are no poor children in Scanno." She quickly learned why: the community works together to create "serenity and tranquility" for their children.

It starts with the Roman Catholic faith, the guiding force in family and community life, and the pre-school, where the value of caring for the weaker and smaller, is first instilled. The town's church is located on one side of the village's piazza, the heart of the community, and it is led by a parish priest who knows all the families and has been ministering in Scanno for 30 years. On the other side of the piazza is the publicly funded Catholic pre-school, where all children ages three to six attend, no matter their religion or ability to pay. In between these two structures is a ring of cafes and benches. The result is a safe space where children play, grown-ups gather, ceremonies unfold, and old people sit and enjoy the action.

If a family can't afford the preschool's modest tuition, "the money is always found somewhere in the parish or town coffers without stigmatizing any child or family," Woodhouse said. Some of the other ways the community comes together: school rules are bent to accommodate special needs children; extended family and neighbors pitch in when families need support; the whole town turns out for religious and school events held in the piazza, especially the procession of children during First Communion.

The macrosystem permeating Scanno's micro, meso and exo systems is the Italian emphasis on social solidarity, Woodhouse explains. The country has "an excellent system of universal health care ... and labor laws still protect job stability, pay for parenting leaves, and cushion unemployment and family tragedy," she said. In addition, national laws mandate including children with disabilities, supporting children's nutrition, and providing allowances to large families.

Woodhouse also pointed out that "Italy along with virtually every other country in the world except the U.S." has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the children, which recognizes children's economic, social, and civil rights.

"Children's rights are taught in every school beginning with the nursery schools, they are discussed in the popular media and in daily conversation, and children's rights have come to play a powerful role in shaping Italian children's law and policy," she said.

The Challenge Ahead

Woodhouse said that the economic crisis spreading throughout Italy and its Mediterranean neighbors is threatening to destroy Scanno's model.

"Italian leaders are under enormous pressure to cut programs and services. Critics claim that welfare democracies are unsustainable and blame social welfare for causing the markets to crash and unemployment to skyrocket," she said. "My comments on the fallacy of their reasoning and the role played by greed and globalization must wait for another day."

Others believe, Woodhouse added, that Italy suffers from an excess of familism, or too great an attachment to children, family and home, rather than valuing economic efficiency and rugged individualism.

"In my view, Italy is in touch with a far more ancient and fundamental value than efficiency or individual success. Scanno folks do not view need as a form of personal or familial failure. Child poverty in Scanno would be judged as a failure of community rather than as an individual failure," she said.