Volume 50 Number 4 
Fall 2017

From the President

Yolanda Suarez-Balcazar
University of Illinois at Chicago

My Roadway to Becoming a Community Psychologist

My first exposure to social justice issues began as a young girl growing up in a family of 12 children in Bogota, Colombia. My parents, very mindful of the challenges of raising 12 healthy-minded kids, were chary about making every one of us feel valued and loved. My mother’s usual practice of running errands on Saturday mornings involved taking turns bringing two or three kids along for the trip, as we all thought it was a fun thing to do—we just had to wait for our turn to come along.  From those regular errands, my mother would bring back with her two large Chilean green apples—deemed to be special, expensive, and best the in town at the time—and painstakingly cut 12 equal pieces from both. There was no way we could argue that one sibling got a piece larger than the other one. But more important lessons were common.

Growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in Bogota, we were easily exposed to street children begging for food. A large pot of beef soup or chicken stew was often cooking on the stove which was easily augmented by adding chicken broth, water, and cilantro according to the demands of the crowd to be fed on a particular day. Once we were done with our meal, my parents would gather all the remaining food and call on the street children, have them come inside the garage of my house and feed them. Many street children left my house with a full belly and often with hand-me-down clothes and toys. Soon, our middle-class neighbors complained about my parents’ practice of attracting street children to the neighborhood by feeding them. The complaint came in the form of a visit from a delegation of three neighbors and then a letter signed by several neighbors. As a respond and a lesson on social justice, my parents asked our regular street visitors to bring their friends for a nice meal. Thereafter, instead of 6-8 kids we were easily feeding 15 to 20. The garage of my house became a classroom and a cafeteria for street children. After that, our neighbors stopped complaining, hopping that the number of guest would suddenly decline. At one point my parents connected with an orphanage in Bogota that was able to accommodate only a few of the street children. A government response to the plight of street children doesn’t come easy in resource-limited countries.

Many such lessons on social justice continued throughout my growing up. My family had a farm in the mountains near Bogota.  A small peasant village nearby had built a new 3-classroom school facility up in the mountains and for a few months the new school remained empty because of the lack of teachers and the village negligence in searching and hiring the teachers. My parents trained my older siblings and me to teach children how to read and write, tailoring the task to the needs of each particular child--neither of them were school teachers, other than assisting their 12 kids with daily homework. Soon we became the voluntary school teachers on Saturday and Sunday mornings. My mother was the principal and head teacher, my father assisted with feeding the kids and organizing the school facility, and my siblings and I the teachers ranging in ages from 13 to18 years old. I was the youngest and that was my first experience as a teacher. Within a few months, we organized a march with the local families to the village hall to advocate for the hiring of a regular professional teacher. After much advocating, the rural community hired its first teacher. Afterwards, my older brother rallied his siblings at marches in the city to protest against human rights and workers’ rights abuses.

These early experiences instilled a passion for community psychology as a field. My dream then was to abolish poverty in children. I had visualized that all children would be able to live in a loving family like mine. Soon I realized how idealistic I was and the complexity of the social problems I cared about.  My commitment to social justice and diversity issues was strengthened while pursuing my doctorate degree with my mentor Steve Fawcett at the University of Kansas. Steve, a visionary who embodies the essence of community research and action, instilled in us (Fabricio, my husband, and me) the skills and knowledge needed to become agents of change.

Community psychology is about transforming communities and promoting social justice. Yet that transformation starts with us. During the last 20 years I have been studying the health disparities experienced by people with disabilities here in Chicago, in particular among Latinos. I have been transformed by the narratives and stories of discrimination and lack of access to opportunities to live healthy and engaging lives experienced by many hard-working Latino families. But I have also learned about their persistent efforts to provide their families with the best they can. As I listen to these community members, I hear stories of despair and resilience. A Latino mother shared her story of how her two kids with autism were denied the opportunity to continue a swimming class—they both were enjoying it tremendously--at a local parks and recreation facility. The coach did not know how to handle them and thought the other kids would feel uncomfortable swimming along her children. Other families have told us about their struggles in obtaining needed services that they had been denied because there is no bilingual staff or there are not interpreters available on site. We have helped these families address their challenges and take specific actions to promote their health, participation in the community, and overall well-being. We recently pilot tested and are in the process of disseminating a health promotion intervention --in collaboration with Latino families with youth and young adults with disabilities along with the staff from a local community agency and community leaders. Together, we also developed a family navigator filled with strategies, suggested by families, to empower families of children with disabilities to navigate their environments to promote health.

At a national broader level, I was involved on a project that sought to develop guidelines and recommendations on disability inclusion for health promotion and obesity prevention. We are also empowering community agencies that serve families of color on how to evaluate the impact of their programs and focus on goals that matter to people with disabilities by providing culturally relevant services.

Community psychology is about promoting social justice, addressing disparities (participation, health, and well-being) and promoting equity. Given the current political environment, the horrific demonstrations of hate expressed by white supremacist groups at Charlottesville, Virginia and the recent government decision to end DACA, we as community psychologists need to engage in action and come together to address these issues. We know that the road ahead is a bumpy one and full of challenges.  Yet, I am convinced that we do have what it takes to collaborate with marginalized communities and support them in their transformation. Community psychology is a powerful field, yet not many people know about it outside of our close-knit community of SCRA members. 

Moving forward, as President I support the strategic priorities articulated by a working group of SCRA members. I also want to become involved in not only the issues that align with the priorities, but also other issues that matter to many of us, including supporting the diversity of our membership and support young professionals to become the next generation of community psychologists and agents of change. We need to strengthen our focus on diversity, including increasing the membership and engagement in SCRA of diverse students, practitioners and faculty, fostering their professional development, emphasizing diversity within our priorities, recognizing the distinct value that diversity brings to our endeavors and the power of diversity in SCRA. I would like to bring a strong representation of diverse voices to the forefront, increase the number of diverse individuals in committees and councils; increase our visibility as a powerful field; and connect with our members, to listen, and act upon their recommendations.   

I would like to reestablish a mentoring program for early career and junior faculty, with particular emphasis on professionals of color, women, and junior professionals.  I am also committed to establishing strong lines of communication with our membership and strengthening our visibility and our collaborations with similar professional organizations.

I have been a faculty member in a college of applied health sciences for the last 15 years working closely with researchers and practitioners in disability studies, occupational therapy, nutrition, and public health and have appreciated the fact that we share the same values of social justice, promoting equity and diversity. We all trust that we can be agents of transformation and support our communities in the process of seeking what matters—to be valued, be loved, be healthy, to care for our families and one-self, and participate actively in the betterment of our communities.