medium_SCRA_logomark_4col.jpg

The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 51   Number 3 Summer 2018

From the President

Yolanda_Suarez.jpgYolanda Suarez-Balcazar 
ysuarez@uic.edu
University of Illinois at Chicago

Promoting Community Conversations that Lead to Action and Resistance 

The events that have transpired in this country during the last 16 months under the current political and social environment are troubling to say the least. The national issues we are experiencing as a country such as the immigration crisis; school shootings and lack of gun control policies; the dismantling of environmental policies; the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; the proposed cuts to health, housing and other assistance that support families of low and moderate resources; cuts in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program); cuts in housing and energy assistance; proposal to cancel housing vouchers (see Parrott, Aron-Dine, Rosenbaum, Rice, Floyd, & Roming); increases in racial profiling and acts of discrimination against Latinos and Blacks; and the list goes on and on, will negatively impact many American families including children, seniors and people with disabilities. As a community researcher who works with people with disabilities and Latino families, I am appalled, like others are, at the proposed cuts in disability benefits. These reductions include cutting Social Security Disability Insurance, as well as Supplemental Security Income. These and other cuts will put an additional hardship on individuals who need supports the most. Basically, these are blunt attacks on middle class and lower income hard-working Americans. I did not mean to write a bleak last column as president of SCRA, however our current environment is dismal, and it calls for action.

Current times call for extraordinary acts of courage, civic engagement, and community activism. I think community psychologists can play a critical and pivotal role during these troubling times. We have much to contribute to the current national discourse and we can also learn from other groups of individuals. For instance, young people, like the Parkland School students, are paving the way for transformation and displaying strong advocacy and organizing skills. Young folks are rallying communities and moving the conversation on gun control from the local to the state and national levels.

During difficult times like this, it is important to bring the national issues we care about, to conversations at the community and local levels. One way in which change is happening gradually is via community conversations. Community conversations involve residents and other stakeholders coming together in small groups to engage in constructive dialogue. This is a process intended to promote critical awareness and consideration of steps that community members could take to address the issues at the local level. As community psychologists there is much we can do to support local change and gather communities for conversations about local issues and support a process of critical dialogue and potential transformation. At the core of having these conversations is engaging with the community at the local level on issues that matter to them. Community conversations are also a way to promote civic engagement, community collective action, and local efficacy (Collins, Watling Neal, & Neal, 2014). 

Conversations may take the form of listening sessions at community agencies, faith-based organizations, local libraries, or any other public spaces that provide opportunities for community residents to come together and share their experience and views on critical issues.  There are several tools available to engage communities in conversations about local issues (see the community conversations toolkit by the CDC at

https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/nationalconversation/docs/Toolkit_3instructions.pdf); the community conversations toolkit on immigration, (https://www.scribd.com/document/144886635/Community-Conversations-Immigration-Toolkit); the community conversations about mental health (https://www.samhsa.gov/community-conversations); and other tools to support community conversation on public issues, https://www.publicagenda.org/pages/community-conversations). Community psychologists have an important role to play in these community conversations. We could become the conveners, organizers, encourage others to participate, disseminate efforts, reach out to marginalized communities to engage in conversations, brainstorm with residents on how to follow the community conversation with a civic engagement project, and other forms of activism. Given our expert knowledge on community engagement, capacity building, civic engagement, empowerment settings, community conversations are a perfect fit and in fact, we have been having community conversations all along.

Several entities are sponsoring community conversations around the country. As such, The Chicago Community Trust (CCT) sponsors “On the Table” community conversations all over Chicago (see CCT website for a description of actions and social change resulting from On the Table community conversations http://onthetable.com/).  Last year, my students and I organized one on walkability safety in the community as it was a topic of interest to Latino families participating in a health intervention we designed with the community. As a result of the community conversation, we engaged with the community on several civic engagement actions such as a community walk to promote safety, created information cards with safety tips to distribute to residents, gathered the families to meet with a state representative, and created a brief that was distributed to diverse stakeholders including the local police and state representatives. At another community conversation we were having with immigrant Latino families regarding community assets and health services, a 10-year-old girl came up to me and said she didn’t want to go to school anymore and when I inquired why, she said she feared that when she comes home back from school her mother would not be home because she has been taken away by immigration authorities. This conversation prompted an action by the group to identify resources in the community on rights, support systems, distribution of preparedness materials, and identification of mental health supports for children and families.

Community conversations can also empower settings and residents to take action (see Maton, 2008) and provide opportunities for participants to share their knowledge, ideas, experiences, and values on issues they care about and come together to cope with stressful times; feeling less isolated. Community conversations can also lead to local advocacy. Ken Maton and his students are part of an APA grant awarded to four divisions, including SCRA, to gather and create a set of tools on local advocacy. Such tools will be available to all SCRA members by 2019. We also have access to the Community Tool Box (https://ctb.ku.edu/en), which has a great list of actions that communities can take to pursue change.

Another important contribution of community psychologists includes the writing and dissemination of policy statements such as the statement on the effects of deportation and forced separation on immigrants, their families, and communities (see Langhout, Buckingham, Oberoi, Chavez, Rush, Esposito, & Suarez-Balcazar, available at http://www.scra27.org/what-we-do/policy/policy-position-statements/effects-deportation-families/) and the statement prepared by the Immigrant Justice Interest Group on the incarceration of undocumented migrant families (Chicco, Esparza, Lykes, Balcazar, & Ferrera, available at http://www.scra27.org/what-we-do/policy/policy-position-statements/family-incarceration/), among several other statements on crucial issues. 

Moving forward, I encourage all of us to engage in community conversations and find out what are communities thinking in terms of current issues, how are they coping, and how they can build on their resources and assets to resist and still thrive in the face of uncertainty and stress. We also welcome more policy statements and rapid responses that call attention to issues as well as attention to action.

Reflecting on my last TCP column as President

Writing this last TCP column as president of SCRA, reminded me of the incredibly talented and committed SCRA staff, Executive Committee members and the many of you who have volunteered endless hours to this organization.  We are, as you know, a volunteer organization and count on the many wonderful members who are truly committed to advancing the field of community psychology and SCRA here in this country and around the world. We couldn’t do it without you. I invite you all to be involved and continue to volunteer and engage in community conversations about current events. Provide support to communities in distress, putting our community psychology values and principles into action.

References

Chicco, J., Esparza, P., M. Lykes, B., Balcazar, F., & Ferrera, K. Statement on the incarceration of undocumented immigrant families. (Retrieved, 2018; http://www.scra27.org/what-we-do/policy/policy-position-statements/family-incarceration/).

Collins, R., Watling Neal, J., & Neal, Z. P. (2014). Transforming individual civic engagement into community collective efficacy: The role of bonding social capital. American Journal of Community Psychology, 54, 3-4, 328-336. https://doi.org10.1007/s/0464-014-9675-x.

Langhout, R. D., Buckingham, S. L., Oberoi, A. K., Chavez, N. R., Rusch, D., Esposito, F., & Suarez-Balcazar, Y.  Effects of deportation and forced separation on immigrants, their families, and communities. (In press). American Journal of Community Psychology. (Retrieved, 2018; http://www.scra27.org/what-we-do/policy/policy-position-statements/effects-deportation-families/).

Maton, K.I. (2008). Empowering community settings: Agents of individual development, community betterment, and positive social change. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41, 4-21.

Parrott, S., Aron-Dine, A., Rosenbaum, D., Rice, D., Floyd, I., and Roming, K. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Trump budget deeply cuts health, housing, and other assistance for low-and moderate-income families. (Retrieved 2018 https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-budget/trump-budget-deeply-cuts-health-housing-other-assistance-for-low-and).