The Community Practitioner

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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 51 Number 2 
Spring 2018

The Community Practitioner

Edited by Nicole Freund, Wichita State University

Written by Olya Glantsman, DePaul University, oglantsm@depaul.edu

The Community Psychology Practice Council is utilizing this column in 2018 to highlight the practice work of our members and profile their organizations. This first profile is of The Community Engagement Institute (CEI), an institute affiliated with Wichita State University. CEI partners with communities and organizations to strengthen Kansas through education, leadership development, facilitation, project management, and research. The Institute’s purpose is to (1) promote best practices in organizations and communities, (2) foster meaningful connections and engagement, provide applied learning opportunities, and (4) conduct high-impact, state-of the-art applied research. Dr. Scott Wituk currently serves as executive director of the institute and provided valuable context and history for how CEI came to be and where it is going.

Dr. Wituk believes that CEI’s history has several continuous threads connecting its historic work with what it does today. The roots of the Institute go back approximately 35 years. Everything started in 1984 with a Wichita social worker, Evelyn Middelstadt, seeing a great many benefits for her clients when they participated in local self-help groups (e.g., AA, cancer survivor groups, peer led support groups). All her referrals were through voice calls, in-person conversations, and printed pamphlets since the Internet was still several years away from becoming the ubiquitous presence many Americans experience in 2018. Evelyn was a one-person network hub, connecting those who needed it to the resources and self-help groups that could provide assistance. Over time, the network, called the Self-Help Network, turned into a nonprofit and grew beyond Ms. Middlestadt’s capacity to manage it alone. Moreover, she was nearing retirement, so she began looking for help to find a home for the nonprofit work she had poured so much of herself into building. That help came in the form of Dr. Greg Meissen, who was a professor in the Wichita State University psychology department and sat on the nonprofit’s board of directors. Through conversations and negotiations with the university, Dr. Meissen assumed leadership, the nonprofit dissolved, and the Self-Help Network was welcomed to WSU, housed within the psychology department.

While at first, the network focused on Wichita, the need for its services and the value it provided outgrew the local nature of its beginning. Soon, the Self-Help Network expanded to include the entire state of Kansas. For over 10 years and with more and more staff, it provided 800 number referrals to self-help groups and educated professionals about the benefits of self-help, among other things. As a result, some self-help groups, particularly in the domain of mental health, became nonprofits, beginning to run mental health drop-in centers and training other peer support groups on how to run nonprofit, self-help networks.         

The center’s further expansion began in the mid- to late-1990s. This was also around the time that Dr. Wituk joined the network. Having heard about an extra credit opportunity in his undergraduate Social Psychology class at WSU, Dr. Wituk became a volunteer, answering the 800-line to help those looking for self-help groups and updating the database. Working at the network connected him to Dr. Meissen and the field of Community Psychology (CP). Over the course of his work at the Self-Help Network and with Dr. Meissen, Wituk determined that he wanted to do more of it and applied to the CP grad program at WSU. The power of the Self-Help Network changed many lives, including those of its staff and leadership. 

During the 1990s, the network persistently received additional support requests from nonprofits, coalitions, local governments, faith-based organizations, and others. These requests often went beyond nonprofit support and thus, the organization’s services expanded to include facilitating nonprofit leadership workshops and program evaluations. This expansion in services ultimately required a name-change from Self-Help Network to the Center for Community Support and Research (CCSR), so that the name included the various capacities of the organization beyond the original mission as a hub of information and as a connector to local self-help groups. While CCSR still worked with mental health consumer-run programs, it began expanding even further to capacity building and leadership development programs with self-help and support groups and beyond.

CCSR showed those connected to it that sustainable change is possible. Dr. Wituk “was seeing change happen within a setting over a period of time. What happens to a community or a coalition and nonprofit after the funding/grant is gone?” At CCSR, the rewarding part of the work is in continuing to support those coalitions and nonprofits and to see their good work continue. In addition, because of its roots as an organization that identified a need and created a solution over time and through trial and error, the culture celebrated is one that is willing to try new things and experiment. The way forward is often by asking questions like: “How can we create communities of practice?” and “Let’s learn what we can from working with all these communities and see how that might apply to a different sector or program.” As the executive director, it is often Dr. Wituk who asks these questions and encourages multiple ways to find the answers.

In 2012, about 3 years after Dr. Wituk assumed the leadership post at CCSR, he began recognizing that the organization needed a new structure to support all its activities. At the time, the organization was receiving nearly 100 grants and contracts each year, and Dr. Wituk began to investigate whether and how CCSR could become an institute that houses multiple centers rather than a center with different service areas. The institute structure provides more freedom to grow and greater capacity to deliver the services the organization is being asked to deliver. The transition to the Community Engagement Institute was completed in 2015, and the service areas blossomed into an initial set of centers. One of these is the Center for Behavioral Health Initiatives that regularly get requests of all sizes from small, local nonprofits to large state agencies and works on projects promoting mental health and recovery. Another example is the Center for Public Health Initiatives that works with the State of Kansas to promote community health workers and local residents who receive training to support their residents around health behaviors.

As of January 2018, the Institute is considered one of the largest self-help support group referral centers in the United States and houses six centers (Center for Applied Research and Evaluation, Center for Behavioral Health Initiatives, Center for Leadership Development, Center for Organizational Development and Collaboration, and Center for Public Health Initiatives, and the IMPACT Center). With five to a dozen individuals in each center working on various projects, across the centers, the Institute employs 70 to 75 full- and part-time staff, including students, with a core of 40 staff, many graduates of psychology (CP, I/O, and Clinical), social work, public health, as well as part-time associates for contracts that require additional resources. CEI also works with the Wichita State to provide practicum, internships, and other applied learning opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students in psychology, social work, public health, and more.

CEI has a lot to offer its staff and students in terms of training and skills including opportunities to connect to real-world problems and challenges and to work with individuals who are impacted by those challenges in various ways. Staff at CEI work with stakeholders at all levels, from a population being impacted to nonprofits established to help that population to policymakers in a position to effect change. “It is a rare and a fantastic opportunity to be able to get involved with projects like that early on in one’s career,” said Wituk. At the Institute, students can also get exposure to evaluation and applied research methods and are able to design services that meet very different needs. The applied learning and service learning opportunities are not usually tied to academic programs of research, and this is part of what makes CEI a unique place for students and staff.

Wituk’s mantra and a core value at CEI is: “Go to the community and good things will happen. Listen to the community and good things will happen.” Listening may be broadly defined as both collecting data and talking to community members about the challenges and issues they try to make progress on, but the act of listening is crucial. The point of CEI’s work is to help its partners sustain their missions and grow to deliver what their communities need. To do that, CEI’s staff has to be able to listen to their partners, the community, and each other. According to Wituk, “When we step out and take those initial steps of listening and connecting to the community; when we conduct needs assessment of community leaders, asking them about traditional and nontraditional needs; when we go to the community to hear their needs, hopes, and aspirations; that’s when the real and sustainable change happens.”

To learn more about the Community Engagement Institute, visit their website: http://communityengagementinstitute.org/