Mark Aber, University of Urbana-Champaign
Having recently returned from the Third International Conference on Community Psychology held June 3-5, 2010 in Puebla Mexico, I find myself reflecting on the future of community psychology, particularly the promises of international exchange and collaboration among community psychologists. I take this opportunity sitting to write my fourth and final president's column to share a few musings.
I have had the good fortune to attend all three international conferences, the first in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2006, the second in Lisbon in 2008, and now the third in Puebla. With each successive gathering, my hopes and expectations for community psychology's international project have grown. My optimism is fueled by recognition that, despite challenges and even decline in some countries, community psychology continues to grow in other locations and is a vibrant enterprise in many countries around the world. Participation in the 3rd International Conference underscored this reality - conferees assembled in Puebla from over three dozen countries spread across at least six of the globes' seven continents (I am not sure whether Antarctica was represented). Of course, community psychology takes on unique features in each of its national contexts. Indeed, it is fair to say that there are multiple community psychologies. One could expect no less given the field's commitment to history and contextualized knowledge and action. At the same time, these very commitments to history and context are but two of numerous core features that many if not all of our community psychologies share. In this sense, community psychology truly is a global endeavor. I am convinced that increased investment in nurturing the international dimensions of our field is incredibly important. It can and will enrich community psychology praxis in its specific national and community contexts.
International dialogue, exchange and collaboration are the currencies of such investment. Despite nearly universal acknowledgement that modern technologies and developments in the areas of transportation, media, communication and trade have shrunk the globe, in many ways our field, perhaps particularly in the insulated United States, has been slow to grapple with the implications of this reality. Whether we like it or not, the forces of globalization, long at work, have accelerated in recent decades. Nations and peoples are, arguably, more highly interconnected than ever before, politically, economically, and socio-culturally. Consequently, our destinies and well-being are ever more interdependent. For many (still mostly privileged) people, the capacity to think and act with international perspectives in mind is no longer a luxury but a growing necessity. Given this well accepted reality, we must critically examine why we have been so slow to warm to and really engage the international dimensions of our work. Related, but perhaps even more troublesome, is the relative failure of American community psychology to even recognize and engage the community psychologies that exist around the world. Confronting these questions and issues is a first important step toward helping us to infuse international perspectives and commitments into our educational, research and practice missions.
Nearly everyone who has had the privilege of international experiences reports coming away from them enriched and changed in some way. Most develop a broader appreciation for diversity, a deeper respect for the challenges posed by human differences of all kinds, and a clearer view of their own national/cultural blinders and assumptions. Along these lines, it is worth noting that the philosophy and goals of international student exchange programs have shifted over the years, moving from a focus on "exposure" to one on "immersion." It is one thing to be exposed to and develop awareness of difference, it is quite another to take the time and expend the energy to develop deep understanding.
Moving forward, more community psychologists do not need merely drive-by exposure but rather immersion experiences in new cultural and international contexts. These will provide expanded opportunities to develop new language skills, try on host perspectives and worldviews, and participate in cultural practices - all critical to developing deep understanding. Coming away from the Puebla conference, there was for me and I believe for many to whom I spoke, a developing sense of our emerging international community. This sense of community, no doubt, was nurtured by the outstanding conference scientific and cultural programs, and by the ample opportunities provided for informal discussion. We owe our hosts at Iberoamericana Universidad, particularly conference chair Dr. Eduardo Almeida, a sincere debt of gratitude. The conference helped many of us to begin or continue to clarify our common aspirations and common challenges. It left us anticipating the benefits to community psychology that will come of continued exchange: fresh insights, refashioned theories, paradigms and approaches to social change, and increased social and political power derived from the joining of forces. Perhaps just as importantly, dialogue in Puebla also helped us to further clarify how our work, priorities, assumptions and goals vary from one site to another; in effect, it helped us to see what it means to have multiple community psychologies. Please do not misread what I am saying here. We are clearly just beginning what needs to be a long and sustained effort. Much work lies ahead.
As just one example, changes in graduate education will be key. Consider for a moment that I am not aware of a single community psychology graduate program in the United States that has a second language requirement. Indeed few US colleges and universities have language requirements for the bachelor's degree. How many of our graduate training programs devote any significant attention to community psychology as conceived and practiced outside the United States? Education for international engagement is in its infancy.
We must figure out ways to support students, faculty and community workers to gain international immersion experiences. In order to place opportunities for international immersion experiences within reach of students that might not be able to afford high-cost programs, we must create reciprocal exchange programs between partner institutions where study abroad costs can be kept comparable to a period of study at home, making possible exchanges between countries with very different standards of living. Models for reciprocal exchange of this type exist and allow outbound participants to pay the cost of an academic term (tuition, room, and board) to their home institution while, for every student sent abroad, the institution receives one in return. Nurturing efforts of this type will benefit not only participating students and faculty but whole programs as participants bring their international experiences and perspectives back to their home settings. Innumerable latent opportunities also exist and need to be brought to fruition in practice and research contexts.
As the Puebla conference was coming to a close, a European colleague and I were reflecting on the relatively low number of conferees in attendance from the United States. I do not know what the final count was, but initial tallies had conferees from the United States numbered at about 50 out of over 600. My friend suggested that I should encourage my American colleagues to attend the 4th International Conference on Community Psychology to be held in Barcelona, Spain. Of course he is right, and herewith I offer such encouragement to all of you, albeit with some trepidation. Just as there are neo-colonial dangers lurking in processes of globalization, so I fear there are dangers inherent in broader international engagement by US community psychologists (and here a definitely count myself as one). Perhaps my fears are over drawn. I'm sure with some reflection and considerable effort on our part they are.
So, I encourage you to join those members of SCRA who have for some years devoted considerable energy and attention to international issues - members of the SCRA International Committee and International Task Force who have been working on multiple fronts to create productive international exchange. And I encourage you to make room in your busy schedules and put some of that coffee money into your travel fund so that you can make it to Barcelona in 2012.
In closing, I am compelled to add that it has been a privilege to serve as SCRA President. I thank you for your trust and I am proud of and inspired by the work that SCRA - its membership, interest groups, councils, task forces, and committees - have accomplished this year. I particularly cherish the opportunity I have been given to get to know and work with so many of you dedicated members of the SCRA community. I leave the office with a deeper appreciation for our organization and all those who have and continue to make it what it is; I am fortunate to count myself among you. I leave completely confident that the future of the organization is in excellent hands and will continue to be well into the future. As much as we sometimes have the predilection to beat ourselves up for not doing enough, we are an organization of thoughtful doers, not content to sit by idly and critique or study, nor content to act without deep and sustained reflection. We have done and will continue to do good things.