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The art of resilience

How Michael Ungar is applying his research to alleviate adversity and provide alternatives to drugs and crime in one of Asia’s toughest slums.


While its name suggests some clean, spic-and-span spot, the White Building is anything but a pleasant place. Filled with drug dealers and prostitutes, this rambling, decrepit structure on a bustling street not far from the famous Mekong River is one of Phnom Penh’s most notorious slums. Wild-haired kids play in the unlit halls while their mothers hang laundry from the metallic mesh that protects the building’s balconies. The scent of Cambodian dishes cooking on cheap hotplates mixes with the smell of human waste. People cluster in the few sunlit spots in the tumbledown breezeways that link the housing blocks, a few feet from tangles of wire that seem ready to burst into flames at any moment.

The White Building isn’t just hard-luck. It’s desperate. What kind of upbringing can a child have in such a place? How can a person emerge from a childhood spent in an environment like the White Building and prosper? Are there any factors that can save a child from a life of crime, drug use, prostitution, unending sadness?

These are exactly the questions that drive Michael Ungar, co-director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University. In fact, questions like these are the centre’s raison d’être: it is tasked with finding ways for children and youth to successfully deal with adversity, drawing lessons within and across many diverse cultures.

Dr. Ungar co-directs the centre with Linda Liebenberg from Dalhousie’s school of social work. They bring together experts from diverse fields and research gathered from sites across six continents to find workable, practical solutions to help kids in very difficult situations to succeed and prosper.

A self-described “reluctant academic,” Dr. Ungar came to academe after spending the early part of his career counseling young offenders in the correctional system and working in community mental health centres. These experiences and the troubled people he encountered, as well as his own difficult childhood (he left home at age 16), spurred Dr. Ungar toward the field of resilience. (His journey to full academic seems complete: he recently tied for first place as Canada’s most influential academic in social work based on a citation index developed by Higher Education Strategy Associates.)

The Resilience Research Centre is inherently international. Its work is to understand the protective processes and coping mechanisms within cultures that enable young people to overcome adversity, such as growing up in Phnom Penh’s White Building.

“We look for what I call ‘hidden resilience’ – patterns that are culturally local,” says Dr. Ungar. “How does someone who is racially marginalized maintain a sense of self-esteem and positive self-identity? If you’re a demobilized child soldier, how do you reconnect with your family and community? We’re looking for local wisdom from the child and people around the child.”

Often, he says, their findings challenge Western assumptions. For example, while parents in wealthy countries tend to be extremely protective of their children, poor kids in the developing world tend to do better when they have a sense of independence and the ability to navigate their communities on their own. “These findings open up a dialogue about our indicators of positive growth,” he observes, “and shake us from our complacency in thinking about the things people need to survive really well.”

He cites, as an example, the young daughter of poor economic migrants in China who need to work around the clock to support the family. The girl rarely sees her parents and occupies herself after school by doing house-hold chores and schoolwork, all alone. In North America, she would be seen as a neglected child, physically and emotionally. But in her context, the girl is not viewed as neglected. She has found a way to contribute to the family while devoting long hours to homework, which will benefit her in the long run.

While the findings vary locally, the research methods do not. Dr. Ungar and his colleagues use standard qualitative and quantitative information-gathering techniques, ranging from an interview guide that includes nine catalyst questions to the data-driven Child and Youth Resilience Measure. That tool, invented by the centre, is a 28-item instrument piloted with some 1,400 youth in 11 countries. It has been used successfully by hundreds of researchers in a wide variety of studies.

The Resilience Research Centre partners with non-government organizations and local groups around the world; these partners gather data using the tools given to them by the centre. Dr. Ungar says the patterns they detect once they analyze the data can be abstracted beyond specific situations. “There are generic processes all across the world, but they’re expressed in very local ways.”

The centre takes the local findings, compares them with data from other countries, and packages them in a practical way for frontline staff. Often, academics from the centre work side-by-side with local staff, advising them on how to put the findings into action. For example, in working with a homeless shelter for street kids in Halifax, the Resilience Research Centre pointed out things the project was doing well – such as being flexible in applying the rules – yet also suggested some services that the kids needed. “You take your data from 500 kids,” says Dr. Ungar, “you crunch it down for that particular organization, and you give it back in a way that the workers can use it.”

Dr. Ungar became involved with the residents of Phnom Penh’s White Building after a local organization called Cambodian Living Arts approached him to design an evaluation to see how well the arts group’s efforts were working.

Cambodian Living Arts emerged in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s that killed millions of Cambodians and was especially hard on the country’s educated classes, including artists, dancers and musicians. These people had to hide their talents in the hopes of escaping the Killing Fields, although in the end precious few were spared. Thus, added to the human tragedy was a cultural one as traditional Cambodian art forms began to die out in the absence of masters and teachers to carry them forward.

The mission of Cambodian Living Arts is twofold: to revitalize these art forms by training a new generation of artists drawn from the poorest youth of the country, and in doing so to give them an alternative to crime and drugs as well as a potential source of income.

This is exactly the kind of program that has all the tools for success, says Dr. Ungar. “They have come up with a very unique, culturally appropriate solution.” And it’s one that the Resilience Research Centre could share with other marginalized groups.

“It could be exported to other places around the world that are struggling to engage youth and curb criminality in a post-conflict, post-genocide context,” he says. Dr. Ungar visited Cambodia last year to help Cambodian Living Arts begin the process of evaluation.

As it turns out, the group’s executive director, Phlouen Prim, is also Canadian. Mr. Prim fled Cambodia with his family to escape the Khmer Rouge, and he grew up and was educated in Montreal before returning to Cambodia in 1998. He has directed the Cambodian Living Arts since 2010.

Over a lunch of savory rice and noodles in a restaurant catering to white-collar workers but within walking distance of the notorious White Building, Mr. Prim says he has no doubt that his organization has had a positive impact on the nearby slum and others like it across Cambodia. “The environment around these young people in the White Building pulls them toward dealing drugs or prostitution,” he says. “We create hope. We inspire them with skills.”

In fact, the White Building used to be an artists’ colony of sorts; now it houses the poor. But along its dank hallways, it also is home to a simple, clean classroom – the seed of hope that Mr. Prim speaks of.

Today’s class is small, with just three students, two boys and a girl, all in their teens. They play traditional songs on ancient instruments like the gong touch (a sort of xylophone) and the sampor (a drum), which combine to create beautiful, haunting music. Although shy, the students are able, through a translator, to express their love for the music and this program. One wants to be a professional musician; another says he enjoys meeting his friends here, that this place makes him happy.

Just across the hall is the home of Neang Kavich, a university student who is one of the program’s success stories. Born and raised in the White Building, he has encountered many of its problems – including being robbed and beaten – but he was not pulled down into a desperate life. He started attending classes with Cambodian Living Arts when he was 15 years old and was instantly hooked, returning every afternoon to learn traditional Cambodian song, dance and music. He even performed with the group on tours of the United Kingdom and the United States, trips that he will never forget.

Mr. Kavich qualified for a university scholarship provided by the organization, first studying film and making three documentaries (one was about the Cambodian long-necked guitar and another about life in the White Building). He switched his program from film to graphic design, and he now looks forward to earning a living in graphic arts.

“Cambodian Living Arts was like a warm-up and now I value the arts in university,” he says. “My family is poor. Without the program, I would never have been able to study in university.”

It’s stories like these, replicated thousands of times over, that Dr. Ungar seeks to study, unpack, understand in their fundamental elements, and then apply to other locales. While the final data on Cambodian Living Arts is still being tabulated, Dr. Ungar is confident that it will bear out the program’s overwhelming anecdotal evidence of success.

“They are engaging kids, and all the factors that you would associate with resilience are evident in their program – the potential for entrepreneurship, and school engagement, and cultural pride.”

And while they will probably never make the White Building a pleasant place to live, all signs point to the conclusion that Cambodian Living Arts is making life much more livable for the young residents of the slum. “This is definitely showing consistent patterns,” says Dr. Ungar. “The proof is there.”

Tim Johnson is an award-winning journalist based in Toronto who frequently writes about travel, social affairs and education.

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  1. Jenny Palmiano / August 8, 2012 at 13:57

    Resilience combined with encouragement from the elders and self-determination are important to ones survival in life. The elders have experienced difficulties in life (e.g. 1st and 2nd world war) and those who survived have skills that were not written in any manuals, books, internet. They are hard workers and we younger generations should not be afraid to work hard too and use our talents and skills.

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