We Need to Address the Action-Intention Gap

By Maurice Elias – March 3, 2009
OfflineMaurice Elias

In my Fall 2008 column (which I posted previously at this web site), I issued a call for action. I heard from many who resonated with that call and agreed that it was time for action, but I am under no illusion that such a call generated lots of action. What accounts for the action-intention gap? This article, which is my column in the Winter 2009 TCP, explores the barriers that keep us from following up on our good intentions and suggests how we might do better, especially where SCRA and the issues we car

We Need to Address the Action-Intention Gap
Maurice (Mo) J. Elias, Ph.D.
SCRA President
Rutgers University
In my Fall 2008 column (which I posted on the SCRA President’s blog at the web site), I issued a call for action. I heard from many who resonated with that call and agreed that it was time for action, but I am under no illusion that such a call generated lots of action. What accounts for the action-intention gap?
Take a Stand, with Support:  An Example from Special Olympics
Do you read “Spirit:  Redefining Our World”?  I do.  It’s a magazine published by Special Olympics to promote their name and programs and share information and inspire those who are interested in the organization and its goals.  There are remarkable stories of individuals who refuse to be defeated by their handicapping conditions.  They strive be competent and successful, to push the limits of their ability and to be appreciated for their accomplishments.  In every issue, we meet individuals involved in Special Olympics and we understand how and why they have chosen to work in this field when other, more lucrative opportunities beckoned.  And in each issue, we get a word or two from Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics and the son of the Founder and Chairman Emeritus, Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Sargent Shriver, respectively.
In the Fall 2008 issue (Vol. 13, no. 2), Tim asks us all to take a stand for what we believe in.  Tim does this a lot, and walks his talk.  This time, he asks us to be alert to offensive speech. He cites two individuals, one a volunteer and one a Special Olympics athlete.  The athlete talks about how challenging it is to be considered an “outsider” every day and how much it hurts him to hear the word, “retard.”  And the volunteer talks about how he challenges those who use that word, regardless of how much or little his intervention is appreciated.  Both of these individuals muster courage every day to take a stand for what they believe in.   As Tim says, through sport, and the dedication and discipline that it requires, individuals find that they can exceed what others expect from them, and what they expect from themselves.   But note as well:  Special Olympics supports, and perhaps emboldens, these individuals in taking a stand and striving for more.  They are not alone.

What about you?  We live in a world where it’s hard to take a stand because we often deal with too much information.   We have too many things on our plate, irons in the fire, balls in the air, knaidlach in our soup… use whatever analogy you prefer.   I believe the greatest impediment to action is unfocused and disconnected activity.  Many of us are very busy on many fronts.  Doing so can seem productive.  Careers can be built on it.  But does it have the structural connections and sustainability to yield second-order change?   Do we allow ourselves to do what it takes to take a stand and stay with it?

Uri Bronfenbrenner once said that we suffer from the difficulty of living in an age of hecticness, where activity and focus seem to be in opposition.  He viewed this as a global, cross-cultural phenomenon, though certainly differing by degree in different contexts. The common denominator, he felt, is that everyone was finding their lives filled with distractions, interesting information, sound bites, opportunities, and, yes, temptations than ever before.  We are far more reachable than we used to be, thanks to various electronic communication devices.   The net result, he felt, is that our lives are more hectic than we want them to be, and our relationships are more frazzled and frayed than we would prefer.   Often, it’s just easier to do our own things in our own ways than to take the time for genuine collaboration.

Finding Focus in SCRA:  An Example from the Fall 2008 TCP
How does this apply to us and our work in community psychology/community research and action?  Unpack your experience with the Fall 2008 issue of The Community Psychologist (we could also do this with AJCP, but we know more SCRA members read TCP).  How did you go about reading it? When did you read it? How much did you get through before other interests or demands or reading material took your attention?  Were there three action takeaways from the Fall 2008 that you intended to commit to?  To what extent did you follow through? 

I went back and reread that issue and I was overwhelmed—there is no other word—with the amount and quality of the action-oriented information contained therein.  I know you can hardly get through THIS issue of TCP, but humor me—go back and see if you can find three things in the prior TCP about which, now or in retrospect, you might feel strongly enough to make an action commitment. 

Here are some of the things that struck my attention.  As you will see, there are an extraordinary number of highly worthwhile contributions in that issue that I will not mention.  And this is the challenge.  We face too much information and too many choices that encourage intending to act but make follow up very challenging, or lead us to bounce from issue to issue and action to action without the follow up and focus that we know is essential for lasting accomplishment.

On p. 45, I was reminded of the talent and passion of our community psychology students and how important it is to nurture them, guide their careers, and create transitions to professional life and provide early career mentoring.  I also realized the connection of this article to Al Ratcliffe’s marvelous contribution, on behalf of the Practice Work Group, regarding finding work as a new community psychologist, including a template for a CP resume that I absolutely should make part of my advising and supervision work (p. 59), but have not done yet.
I looked at the chart on p. 30, outlining School-Family-Community Partnership Coordination Functions and tried to imagine what it would take to integrate this into my work with over 150 schools in a genuine way, and bring along all the relevant teams and colleagues in such a journey.  I also realized how little of this I actually do and contemplated a New Year’s resolution on the matter.
I read plans of the Social Policy Committee and all the work being proposed (p. 37ff.) and realized that if all I did in my Presidential term was to help Nicole Porter and Steve Howe and their colleagues implement their vision, I would have an extraordinarily busy and fulfilling time in office.  They have a plan to help SCRA become a genuine influence on the formation of public policy at the multiple levels of government, and I believe this is long, long overdue.
In the spirit of thinking globally but starting locally, and given the difficult economic times and the need for community building and encouraging service, I wondered about starting a Knick Knack Nook in New Brunswick, NJ (cf. p. 71ff.).
Or, should I actually figure out what it would take to use the remarkable Community Psychology board game (p.45 ff.) with my classes?
When I saw a picture of Abe Wandersman drinking tea in Japan and read the regional and international community psychology reports, I was reminded of my experience at the International Community Psychology Conference in Portugal last summer and realized how little I know about how community psychology is conceptualized and practice worldwide.   Maybe I should travel a bit more, to understand how SCRA could better relate to other groups that represent organized community psychology worldwide?
And I came to a deeper realization, through a series of articles in the Fall 2008 TCP, that LGBT issues are worldwide, that there are complex historical factors underlying how discourse on sexuality has been shaped and can be conducted at present, and that I understand far too little about how to impact on this.  Perhaps I need to educate myself a lot more if I am to adequately lead these concerns within SCRA?

Join With SCRA Resources for Concerted Action
In this age of information overload, we need discipline and focus to an unprecedented degree.   Most of all, we need to be sure that our work is genuine.  We need to follow the causes to which we have a passionate emotional commitment and let go of at least some of our interests that are perhaps curiosities or fleeting attempts to please others.  Ultimately, these are the kinds of distracters that hold us back from genuine accomplishment.

Amidst doing many things in our professional lives, we must be sure to have a focus, to have one thing that gets our primary attention and serves as the anchor point for our taking a stand.  This is the challenge of being an SCRA officer, committee, interest group, task force, or network chairperson, or member.  For myself, I realize I must focus and plan for continuity in my SCRA work, though it’s a constant struggle.  And I must encourage all those in leadership and participatory roles to do the same.

And I believe we need to work in a context of collaborative uplift.  We need to connect our work to stories and people that we or others can relate to and from which inspiration can be drawn.   We also need to connect with one-another in SCRA to a greater extent, as well as like-minded others, such as Special Olympics, so that the synergy of our efforts can be realized.   Make a commitment to share your genuine interests on the listserv and the SCRA web site.  Find those who share your focus and focus together. 

Fight the pressure to divide your time, your interests, and, ultimately, yourself, and see if you can move toward fewer but more personally authentic and sustained areas for accomplishments.  Resist being swept along by the spirit of hecticness and reaffirm your belief that through being grounded in a small number of communities, we can best be the instruments of lasting and productive community research and action.

Take a Stand for Focused, Sustained Action
In a documentary about Sargent Shriver (who is also credited with inspiring the development of Head Start and the Peace Corps, among other enduring efforts), he was asked what legacy he would like to leave for others.  He thought for a quick moment and said that his legacy is this:  “When somebody tells you that you can’t do something, it’s rubbish.”  He has lived his legacy and has had a life of extraordinary and sustained accomplishment.  He generally kept his focus; when he did lose it, things went best when he tacked back to it sooner rather than later.  And he built networks of relationships and organizational structures that embodied his work.  That’s what I call taking a stand for what you believe in and turning intention into sustained action.  How about finding three takeaways from this outstanding issue of TCP that reflect matters that you believe in most strongly and to which you will make a sustained commitment, even when other tempting opportunities come your way?   How about reaching out to those who are already engaged in the same or similar work, and allowing yourselves to have more impact through collaboration?  And then, please tell us all about it on the SCRA listserv and web site so those with related concerns can connect with your efforts, and thereby draw both inspiration and support.


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March 3, 2009
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Maurice Elias

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