Remembering a life devoted to community resilience

NOTE: Bob Russell’s Memorial Celebration is September 8 from 12-3pm on the common lawn at the Village of Grand Traverse.  

Last Friday,  community friend and advocate Bob Russell died surrounded by friends and family after two years living with cancer. During that time, even while trying to subdue the cancer, he threw himself intensely into the concept of community resilience. This is a subject he had always been working on even if the term was not yet in use.


Bob Russell, 1950-2013.

To say he was an environmentalist, as is the common description, is extremely limited. In fact, Bob’s work at the Neahtawanta Center could be described as a biological economist and a lot of his thinking was spent applying a broader economic understanding to community development. He went beyond the spreadsheet and into the very DNA fabric of ecological communities.

Fundamentally, he tried to teach us all that nature, including our own human nature, is a complex nonlinear system that is by default unpredictable. That isn’t to say we can’t attempt to predict the future, for some things we’re pretty good, but we must do so humbly and with room for recovery when we make mistakes.

In the video below, Bob introduces the concept of community resilience in the keynote address at the 2011 Bioneers Conference. He begins by introducing four principles of resiliency:

    • Adaptability
    • Modularity/Redundancy
    • Feedback Loops
    • Diversity. 

All four apply to a strong Traverse City. They do so whether we are looking at a street grid, a water treatment plant, public safety, Traverse City Light and Power, or how we interact and socialize with our neighbors next door and across the city.

Frameworks of resilience

In the keynote above, Bob mentions a few of the frameworks for us to see community resiliency at work in Traverse City. The area’s Farm to school program, the social and cultural energy surrounded the State Theatre, the Grand Vision, North Sky Nonprofit Network, and a state of the art wastewater treatment plant are a few that he mentions before making some predictions for the next 10-years.

If there is one lesson I take away from Bob’s canon of lessons, it is that governance–how we collectively make decisions within systems and organizations–is a critical aspect to resilience. Chiefly, it’s that we must work together across all sorts of circles–communities within communities–in order to reach better outcomes. Diversity isn’t simply a celebration, but a process that continually asks, “Who isn’t at the table that needs to be?”

Thank you, Bob, for a life of asking questions. Thank you for being serious yet always having fun, for being one of those leaders who represents through their actions and convictions, and for countless other seeds of inspirations you’ve planted that have, and will continue, to pop up after a nice, summer rain.

Where do you see resiliency in Traverse City? Where do you see greater opportunity for resiliency? 

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