VIEW: Striking the balance between engagement and discomfort, to generate resilience

During COVID-19, communities are being reminded of the value of connection and engagement. In this interview, Dr. Froswa’ Booker-Drew, who has literally written the book on engagement, shares how engagement can lead to resilience, and her views on how societies around the world are now engaging due to the pandemic.

  • You’ve done a TED Talk, written a book and completed a PhD on engagement. At the surface level, it seems quite obvious that engagement and connecting to communities is important, and yet there are many deeper issues worth exploring on these topics. What drove you to study and explore these issues in such depth? 

Initially when I started my PhD program, I was interested in Asset Based Community Development. I was intrigued with the idea of viewing marginalized communities with a lens that was strength-based versus from a deficit point of view. I’ve always seen in even the most challenged areas that assets do exist. 

My advisor suggested that I examine social capital, a term I had never heard of before. She realized that I was really intrigued with relationships and how they are instrumental in the process of change.

Growing up, I witnessed my dad build relationships that launched his business. As an African American male in the deep south in the 80s, he had many hurdles he faced to develop a business that was supported by a diverse community. I also remember seeing my aunt and uncle in a bowling league. As a kid, I didn’t know they were exchanging social capital but they were helping one another with information about jobs, people to know, etc. 

All of my life, I saw relationships as not just transactional but transformative. I didn’t have the terminology for it but over and over again, I saw that relationships either opened doors or the lack of them prevented people from access and availability to opportunities.

  • You’ve spoken about the link between engagement and resilience. How has that link evolved over time and how does it shift according to the experiences we’re experiencing at an individual and society-wide level? 

I think resilience exists on an individual and a collective level. When we have support systems, it is easier to persevere because we have access to resources. We are seeing this play out in our current climate. 

In the US, individuals who have access to private medical care as a result of insurance have in many instances, an advocate who will see them and fight for them because there is a relationship. The doctor knows them. 

For those who do not have that resource and visit urgent care facilities or emergency rooms, they may not have the same outcomes. They could become just a number especially with the amount of cases our very strained medical workers are experiencing daily.   

We are also seeing communities step up and protect the most vulnerable like senior citizens. Despite the possible health risks presented, individuals are caring for others to ensure that they are safe.

Engagement has changed over time simply because of the introduction of technology. We have more opportunities to engage but we are now seeing Zoom burnout because people need face to face interactions. We are wired for connection. I can’t imagine this happening 30 years ago. The inability to connect like we can today through Facetime and social media would have been even more of a problem.  I think our current crisis will really demonstrate the need for relationships as we move forward. We need each other more than I think we realize. 

  • During COVID-19, what has surprised you most about the way communities are and aren’t coming together, and how does this relate to the research you’ve conducted or come across? 

I really haven’t been surprised. In moments of crisis, you see various ends of the spectrum as it relates to responses.

I have noticed that for some, it is the focus on self and how things benefit me/mine. For instance, individuals who are willing to go to beaches or parties because they are bored but are not thinking about the greater good. There are those who then focus on others. They are helping out in their communities and making themselves available. These are not exclusive, either. They can exist at the same time. 

I think I am elated because in my community work, I witness daily individuals who are collaborating, sharing resources and making a difference especially in areas that are plagued with poverty. These communities are already challenged and to see the sharing of resources to make sure that those impacted by COVID-19 have access to resources has been inspiring to me.  I’m inspired to know personally about churches feeding the homeless or schools offering meals to youth. There are so many amazing stories of individuals and organizations who are committed in this time to the greater good.

Disasters have a way of making people focus on the important things. As it relates to my research, I saw that when people are in close proximity to a situation, they experience perception transformation. I think as we see the challenges of healthcare and other essential workers, our views are changing drastically about the dangers they face. When we know someone personally with the virus, it has a way of changing the way we think.  I’ve had several friends that have recovered from the illness and I know others who have died from it. Having those close, intimate experiences have impacted my thinking significantly. 

  • How have your personal experiences impacted your approach to resilience today? 

Our stories and experiences play a significant role in who we are. They shape us and mold our perspectives. My journey hasn’t been easy but I have always been one who pushes through. I get tired and there are times I have wanted to throw the towel in and quit. 

I’ve learned there is nothing wrong with taking a break. There is nothing wrong with addressing how you feel. I think so many of us bottle up our feelings and it ultimately impacts us on so many levels.

Reflection has been a big part of my approach to resilience. I spend a lot of time thinking and processing my day. I remind myself of how I’ve dealt with challenges in the past and it allows me to remember that I can also get through what I’m going through at the time. Being grateful has played a huge role in my resilience.  

  • You’ve spoken about the importance of running to spaces of difference and places of discomfort. What’s your advice to others wanting to build their resilience in this way, but struggling with that level of discomfort or fear of the unknown? 

It is all about balance. If you are fighting all day long and you have no time for recovery, at some point, your wounds will overcome you and the infection and inflammation will be severe. The same thing applies for our day to day lives. If you are constantly in places of discomfort without opportunities to heal, process, reflect, and rejuvenate, it can be overwhelming. 

Relationships are important even in this space. Having individuals that can pour into you through the discomfort is important. I am all for being stretched but I also know it is critical to  be supported as well. I often remind those around me that we live in a society that always focuses on either/or. There are times it is both/and. You can feel discomfort, deal with the tension and still have spaces of refuge and peace in your life. Balance is key as much as possible.

About the expert 

Froswa’ Booker-Drew, Ph.D. is a Network Weaver who believes relationships are the key to our personal, professional and organizational growth. She has been quoted in Forbes, Ozy, Bustle, Huffington Post and other media outlets, due to an extensive background in leadership, nonprofit management, partnership development, training and education. She is currently Vice President of Community Affairs for the State Fair of Texas responsible for grantmaking, educational programming and community initiatives. Formerly the National Community Engagement Director for World Vision, she served as a catalyst, partnership broker, and builder of the capacity of local partners in multiple locations across the US to improve and sustain the well-being of children and their families.  She is also co-founder for HERitage Giving Circle and the owner of Soulstice Consultancy.

Dr. Booker-Drew was a part of the documentary, Friendly Captivity, a film that follows a cast of 7 women from Dallas to India. She is the recipient of several honors including 2019 Dallas Business Journal’s Women in Business honoree, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. Global Big Heart 2014, semi-finalist for the SMU TED Talks in 2012, 2012 Outstanding African American Alumni Award from the University of Texas at Arlington, 2009 Woman of the Year Award by Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and was awarded Diversity Ambassador for the American Red Cross.

Froswa’ graduated with a PhD from Antioch University in Leadership and Change with a focus on social capital, diverse women and relational leadership. She attended the Jean Baker Miller Institute at Wellesley for training in Relational Cultural Theory and has completed facilitator training on Immunity to Change based on the work of Kegan and Lahey of Harvard. She has also completed training through UNICEF on Equity Based Evaluations. Booker-Drew is currently an adjunct professor at Tulane University and has been an adjunct professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas, the University of Texas at Arlington, Capital Seminary and Graduate School as well as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Antioch University.  She is the author of 3 workbooks for women, Fly Away, Ready for a Revolution: 30 Days to Jolt Your Life and Rules of Engagement: Making Connections Last. Froswa’ was a workshop presenter at the United Nations in 2013 on the Access to Power. She is a contributor for several publications globally, including as an advice columnist for professional women in Business Woman Media, a global platform based in Australia.