In planning circles, “resilience” often refers to the ability of urban systems to bounce back from environmental shock. On that front, Tulsa, Oklahoma, has its work cut out, ensuring utilities and emergency services have the resources to withstand 130-mph tornadoes whipping through the city.
But to DeVon Douglass, Tulsa’s Chief Resilience Officer, resilience is ultimately about the strength of citizens themselves—a tenacity, she says, that starts with individuals and spans out to society.
Appointed by Mayor GT Bynum in December 2016, and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities network, Douglass brings experience as a lawyer and policy analyst to the task of developing a multi-pronged resilience strategy for the Oklahoma metro, zeroing in equity gaps in Tulsa’s schools, transportation systems, and the economy.
We spoke to Douglass at the Urban Resilience Summit in New York City in July about the work she’s got ahead of her.
What was your definition of resilience coming into this job?
When I first started, I had this idea of youth resilience, because of my previous work with marginalized youth in New Jersey. I was thinking of children who are called dropouts, and the difference between a kid who stays in school and those who don’t. What is inside a child that, despite the fact that they have an abusive father, a distant mother, and murders going on on their block, keeps them from pushing to the end of high school and getting to college?
That’s their internal resilience, and that’s where my first understanding of the word came from. I think it’s transferrable to urban environments, to large communities, to our entire city.
How do you transfer a quality inside the individual to the scope of an entire city?
Well, this is more my conceptual framework. We often talk about systems, but we forget that people make up systems and policies, and the policies reflect us as human beings. I think it’s useful to think about how we as human beings can withstand trauma individually to think about the whole city.
Can you give me a concrete example?
Our schools have suffered a lot recently. They are in a state of crisis as state funding for them has plummeted. Our state funding formula is odd to begin with, to say the least—we’ve had the lowest teacher salary and more cuts to public education than any state in the union since 2008. Across the state, we’re cutting programs, moving to four-day school weeks, taking away stuff these babies need.
I think we need a two-pronged approach with resiliency [in schools]: more funding to raise money for them, but also rethinking schools so we can get people excited about them again. I’d like to make schools places where families can get wraparound public services, and where parents and grandparents can come and get new skills. So [like people themselves], there are external changes and internal factors that come into play. Paris has done work around making schools neighborhood centers, anchors in a community—I have found that very inspiring.
Transportation is another example of a challenge we have here. It’s very limited. We just started having Sunday bus service on July 2. When we don’t have that infrastructure for mobility, when you don’t have the external factors, a person has to be all the more resilient internally to get where they’re going. And even then that’s not enough. Also, health—kids who grow up in different parts of the city have vastly different life expectancies. I want to strengthen the work the city has already been doing to fix that.
Tulsa has attracted attention lately for its revitalized downtown core. How does the city’s economic development strategy play into your work?
A lot of times, when people talk about economic development, it’s about attracting young white people to the city and getting them to stay. That’s great. We want that. However, [that conversation leaves out] people who already live here, people of color, and middle-aged folks. Economic development doesn’t necessarily have to mean big shiny projects every time. It’s [resources like small grants or training programs] serving people at every socioeconomic strata.
Where are you in the process of devising a resiliency plan for Tulsa?
We’ve drafted our discovery area questions—we’re focused on racial equity, social cohesion, and health disparities. We are working still to define resilience in Tulsa in a way for everyone to come on the same page. We’re partnering with organizations, business leaders, utilities, and the schools to create strategies that build resilience in individuals themselves and the systems that support them.
Black girl magic is a thing, but I’m not actually a magician—I can’t do it all by myself. I want to make sure that the city of Tulsa is all a part of this process, including people who aren’t normally included at table. Because this is ultimately for Tulsans.
Do your progressive ideas ever clash with your Republican mayor’s?
It’s a non-issue. Mayor Bynum is someone who understands that we need the best people for the best solutions. Marginalized people in the city of Tulsa need our help. It’s part of my job is to amplify their voices and find out what they have to say, figure out strategies to help them, regardless of party, gender, and race. As everyone knows with city politics, you just have to get things done.
The mayor doesn’t put partisan politics in front of what he’s doing; he believes in solving problems. That’s pretty progressive to me. I’d call him a progressive conservative.
What would you call yourself?
Well, I’m very progressive. Almost everything I believe lines up with the Democratic party. But I’m a registered Republican in Tulsa County. Partly because “when in Rome,” and partly because of a couple of ideological differences. So, to have the mayor on my side, it’s not hard.
The U.S. has an extremely divisive commander-in-chief in office. How do presidential politics affect your work building cohesion?
Presidential politics do become a distraction when there’s real work that needs to be done at the municipal level. And it does make things more difficult for me personally. But it also lets Tulsa be an island of respite. When you have a mayor who has hired people of all different racial and economic backgrounds, folks who are and aren’t from Tulsa, and who brought in the last Democratic mayor as his chief of economic development—it allows people to se what politics could be like. When people who live in Tulsa see our city government in stark contrast to federal government, it gives them hope and belief in what we’re doing.