In April 2020, as everyone struggled to adjust to the unprecedented changes brought about by the COVID pandemic, the American Planning Association New Mexico Chapter (APA-NM) began to discuss ways to help as an organization. As the long-term implications of COVID-19 were still unclear and seemed overwhelming, they began to discuss the possibility of creating a special project to help community members better understand the effects of the pandemic on their communities.

Five students from various disciplines throughout The University of New Mexico, under the direction of Joni Palmer, Ph.D., Research and Teaching Faculty, and James Foty, APA-NM Professional Development Officer, set out to capture stories of how people and their communities were staying resilient in the face of the challenges posed by the pandemic. The local chapter received a grant from American Planning Association National and additional funding from the New Mexico Resilience Alliance to hire the students to carry out the project. The student team included:

  • Fiore Bran Aragón is an MA student in the Latin American Studies program;
  • Andrew Gorvetzian is an MA student of Anthropology;
  • Maria (Mia) Held is a Masters in Community & Regional Planning student; and
  • Abrianna Morales is a sophomore undergraduate student double-majoring in Psychology and Criminology

The student team met regularly starting in November 2020, then took the lead on refining the initial project plan, conducting research, and designing and implementing an engagement strategy to hear from people around the state.

Among their tasks was defining “resilience.” They consulted dictionaries, books, and multiple academic sources, and also asked the people who contributed their stories. In the end, they concluded that “Resilience is a process. Resilience is strength and adaptation. Resilience is a story.”

 “New Mexicans are even tougher than I already thought. We spoke with interview participants who lost family members, had children, endured job loss and all kinds of other struggles in the pandemic. In spite of all this, all the participants I interviewed expressed optimism about the future and saw the good in things instead of focusing on the negative. We are a strong and resilient state,” Held noted.

“Working on the project itself was an act of resilience,” Gorvetzian said. “Working entirely on Zoom, dealing with challenges with outreach limitations, and working on a group dynamic within the team without the face-to-face work was hard to adapt to at times. But I think that, in retrospect, we saw how we were learning about resilience not only through the stories we heard but also in the most experiential way. This felt really true when we finally did meet in person to discuss initial findings and the energy was great, lots of ideas and learning that felt so good to discuss in person.”

The written and multimedia accounts have been compiled into a printed and digital booklet available online that can be shared widely with planners and community members. In sharing stories about resiliency and struggles against adversity, planners and communities can “humanize” quantitative data and produce compelling support for addressing the short and long-term impacts of COVID-19 and other catastrophic events, Dr. Palmer explained, adding, “It seemed that these stories of resilience were at the heart of everyone’s experience, and that sharing them would help more people grapple with a difficult time.”

“I think this project allows for communities to feel represented and to feel heard and seen. A central theme of the project was the isolation that people felt, and I hope that this project will show how people had similar experiences of isolation, how they found resilience in different ways, and share tips and strategies for how to adapt to the next pandemic or some other crisis,” Gorvetzian said.

“This was my first time conducting research in both English and Spanish and I think it was such a great experience. I had the opportunity to interview some community-led initiatives working with Latinx and Asian migrants, and I also conducted interviews with diverse international students at UNM… And sometimes I conducted interviews both in English and Spanish and even in Spanglish. It was so fun, and I am honored to have had the opportunity of listening and learning from such diverse interlocutors,” Aragón said.

“There's a quote from Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, that I feel fits this question well: ‘I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.’ I think our project can show New Mexicans that they are not alone and that we will overcome,” Held remarked.

"I think stories are among the most special things that we can share with one another and this project, at its core, is all about stories of resilience," Morales observed. "For many years to come, people will be able to use these stories to look back to and remember what the pandemic was like for New Mexicans, and more importantly, how New Mexicans were able to get through it. That's why this project is so special. I believe this project is valuable because it gives participants, researchers, policy-makers, and community members the opportunity to be a part of something special that can make a lasting impact."

Anyone can read the stories, see the artwork, and contribute their own on the Stories of Resilience New Mexico website.

Image: From left, Resilience project members: joni m palmer, Ph.D., UNM Research & Teaching faculty; James Foty, APA-NM, Professional Development Officer; and students Andy Gorvetzian, Fiore Bran Aragón, Mia Held, and Abrianna Morales.