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Volume 44 Number 3
Fabricio E. Balcazar
University of Illinois at Chicago
Summer is a time to slow down and enjoy the outdoors. Especially after this long winter we had, particularly in the Nordic States, which have been designated as the place where the Polar Vortex now resides. The environmental conditions of the world appear to be changing before our eyes and we seem to be unable to stop the process. Many of our members would argue that now more than ever is the time to act in a way that is environmentally responsible. There are many ways to save or conserve energy and water, or to reduce pollution, and it is, in part, a matter of becoming more aware of our daily behaviors in relation to our energy and water utilization. But that is only a personal starting point. To amplify the impact requires coordination and collaboration. What if more community psychologists become involved in promoting community projects to save energy or water or reduce local pollution? What projects are being implemented? Are there funds available to help communities organize? I would like to encourage members to share their stories with all SCRA members. Perhaps we can have a “green corner” in the SCRA website where members can share useful ideas about environmental projects they have been involved with that could be replicated elsewhere. Sometimes what we need is to inspire each other into action.
Talking about action, I must confess that I am worried about the upcoming mid-term congressional elections in November in the US. I am concerned about a political agenda that is arguing for the elimination of many federal programs and industry regulations as an uncompromising principle, in the name of getting rid of “Big Government.” There is a possibility that the balance of power may shift in the U.S. Senate. Nobody knows of course what will happen but the situation could become very difficult for a lot of people, particularly for individuals of middle and lower socio-economic status. At last year’s Midwestern Psychological Association meeting in Chicago, I was delighted to see a document that a team of students from DePaul University under the supervision of Professor Lenny Jason prepared to highlight some of the programs that could be affected by the proposed budget cuts. The list is dramatic and the repercussions are very serious. I think it is useful to have personal and/or group discussions about this agenda in order to help more people develop a clearer understanding of what is at stake and encourage them to vote.
I want to call your attention to other ways in which community psychologists can support or assist in developing projects to build community. I often hear comments from some of my students and friends that they do not know their neighbors. Some live in apartment buildings and others in single family houses. This situation is more common among people living in large urban areas. Yet, we all need to be connected and we all need to build trust and personal relationships. But how do we do it? I welcome your suggestions and invite you to share your experiences on the SCRA website, Facebook and Twitter accounts. I can mention a couple of personal experiences from my own neighborhood. I live in a community that has about 100 houses with only one street entrance. There is a volunteer neighborhood association that conducts multiple events throughout the year (Fourth of July parade for the kids, progressive dinners in the fall, barbeque and ice cream social in the summer, and presents for Santa in the winter--yes the idea is to give presents to Santa after he comes to your home to take pictures with the kids). What these activities do is give people the opportunity to know each other. In a nearby community there is a community garden with about 30 plots for people who want to have a vegetable garden. People get to know each other and share some of the vegetables with each other, family members and friends, or other neighbors. I have also noticed that most people get connected with each other though their kids. I have a group of friends who are the fathers of the friends of one of my children. We connected through a program sponsored by the YMCA over eight years ago. Although our kids are now in college, we still get together to play poker sometimes and started a book club last year. The experience of the book club is bringing us closer and engaged in interesting discussions, while allowing us to pursue our own individual interests and share them with the group (for instance, I have them read Paulo Freire and Noam Chomsky).
I think that the experience of being an immigrant to this country and having no relatives around makes me more aware of the need to be intentional in cultivating personal relationships with people. My students from India and other Asian countries are very much connected with each other through dinners. Sharing food is the main mechanism for them to connect and build community. We are also planning with some of my friends to start a “Cooking Club” where we will get together to prepare a meal and invite our spouses. I have also heard about “wine tasting clubs,” and there are many others. So basically people can start a club in any area of interest. The objective is to build community and enjoy each other’s company. But the key point is that someone has to take the initiative and start the process. I think we as community psychologists can help either by our own initiatives or by promoting the ideas and making more people aware of the opportunities. Most of these efforts could be coordinated with local organizations, public libraries and/or local governments.
I have recently become engaged in a project to promote self-employment among people with disabilities through the creating of either small businesses or cooperative enterprises. However, I am hearing comments from potential participants in the cooperatives who do not trust other people or are concerned about getting into a business partnership with someone they do not know. I think the over-emphasis on individualism in this society makes many people a bit insecure about participating in such activities. That is not the case in Europe and in many developing countries where people have to rely on each other to succeed. A great example is an “informal lending group.” I heard about this idea recently from a friend who has been studying those groups among low-income Mexican immigrants but it is common among immigrants from Asian countries too. The idea is that a group of people come together and agree to save for instance $100 a month for a period of time. Each of the members of the group will receive the full amount of the group’s contributions over the number of months that represent the number of participants. So ten people will contribute for ten months and each will receive $1,000. People can use the funds in whatever way they want. There is no bank involved and the group is usually organized among people who know each other, so there is trust. I heard recently in NPR that a non-for profit organization in San Francisco is helping create lending groups among people who do not know each other. People sign up through their web site and the agency connects them. The report indicated positive results with only very occasional defaults. The model has great potential. I wonder if there are any community psychologists involved in evaluating some of these creative self-help initiatives. When I was in graduate school in Kansas, I heard about “babysitting cooperatives,” where several parents of young children organize to create a token system that allow them to earn points to exchange for free babysitting. Members take care of each others’ children without having to pay $15 or $20 dollars per hour to have a night out. I would like to invite members to share their experiences with cooperatives. I think these organizations introduce many opportunities for people to build community and trust. They have the potential to build capacity and empower its members through their engagement. As I said before, my wish is for us to inspire each other into taking action and take small steps to make our lives and the lives of those around us a little better.
It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as the president of SCRA!! Thanks to each of you for the role that you have and continue to play in improving SCRA and our communities. En hora buena!
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