Elisa Cooper: The importance of community-based resilience

Posted on Monday, June 28th, 2021

Written by Liaba Nisar

In academia, there is often a perceived separation of science and social science, with people expected to focus on one or the other. Elisa Cooper, a MSc candidate at the University of Guelph, made a leap by combining benefits of different fields from her undergraduate education in Water Resources Engineering (also at the University of Guelph) with her master's in Capacity Development and Extension.

“I wanted to learn more about natural resource management and develop an understanding of the application of science to solving real-world problems,” she says. “My interest was mainly in community development.”

MSc candidate Elisa Cooper

After graduating in engineering, Cooper consulted with several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. She was inspired to pursue a career in this sector, and particularly in India, after volunteering with the Barli Development Institute for Rural Women in Indore.

She knew little about the Indian subcontinent. But when she arrived, she fell in love with India -- the aesthetics and beauty within the culture, her positive experiences within the country, and the alternative ways in which non-profit work was conducted there. All this inspired her to remain connected to India, even after she finished her volunteer work.

For Cooper, India provided her first home outside of living with her family, and the warmth and ease with which she was embraced touched her deeply.

India is home to NGOs of different sizes, many working at the grassroots level. Often working with limited funding and resources and comprising of volunteers, these organizations undertake crucial community development work, and engage more personally with communities.

Cooper with a youth group meeting at the Tughlaqabad Biodiversity Park as part of the Preparation for Social Action (PSA) program in the outskirts of New Delhi, 2019

“I’ve found different estimations for how many organizations there are – anything from 100,000 to over a million different NGOs,” she says. “I think something that’s really interesting in India is how agile organizations are, and how readily people arise and start organizations. If there’s a need, people respond in impactful ways rather than waiting for governments to help.”

This community-based resilience can be seen in the localized efforts to provide care and resources during the devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Examples include youth in Govindpuri, New Delhi assisting unemployed community members, and sustainable agriculture students in Kakori, Uttar Pradesh donating educational harvests to families who have become food insecure.

Many have risen to provide support for their communities when large institutions with many more times the resources and funding have failed. Several hospitals and schools have been allocating care and learning to those who would have been otherwise unable to access them. The impact of these organizational efforts, at the grassroots level, cannot be understated.

Cooper’s Master’s thesis examines the dynamics of organizational learning. With funding from the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, she was planning to undertake fieldwork in the summer of 2020 on community-based learning with a small NGO in rural Bihar. Due to the pandemic, she had to alter her data collection methods, relying on interviews and focus group discussions through virtual platforms. Notwithstanding challenges, Cooper has learned firsthand the ways in which remote research practices can benefit knowledge gathering—not only can virtual interviews be more accessible and cost-affective, they can allow participants who would otherwise have not been able to participate, disperse information and resources, allowing researchers access into a previously-untapped field.

Looking forward, Cooper will be soon completing her Master's degree, and looks forward to future research pathways. “I think it’s possible to do research in a way that really helps us to grapple with interesting and important challenges that humanity is facing,” she says.

Cooper encourages students interested in research – particularly focused within the Indian subcontinent – to bravely pursue their interests. “India is one sixth of the world’s population – it's a huge percentage of humanity, and there are so many people in Canada also who have connections to India. So, I think understanding the Indian diaspora is important for Canadians and for others. India is so vast – any kind of research someone is interested in can be found in India.”


Liaba Nisar, a student writer with CIRCLE is a BA graduate in Geography and Theatre Studies.


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