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Volume 51 Number 3 Summer 2018
Reflections and Narratives on the Past, Present and Future of Community Psychology
Edited by Geraldine (Geri) Palmer, Adler University
Not too long ago, a conversation took place on an email thread that was originally sent to solicit feedback on whether the field of community psychology should engage in college/university program credentialing---in efforts to sustain and foster interest in the discipline. Responses came pretty quickly, some agreeing, but most, not so much. One response led to another and eventually a question emerged, “How has community psychology evolved?” Susan Wolfe, editor of The Community Psychologist, and I thought the question was interesting and worth pursuing in a special feature column in The Community Psychologist. Thus, we formulated a strategy: I would serve as guest editor, and we would invite a number of community psychologists representing pillars of the discipline, newcomers, and students to contribute articles focusing on the question. Other related questions surfaced in the email thread also, including how is community psychology unique from other fields, and why are we still engaged in explaining what community psychology is? These questions were added to the call for papers.
The following excerpt is taken from the original email chain, and the remaining articles and papers all capture and give voice to the thoughts and reflections of seasoned community psychologists and allies, in academia and practice. It is our hope that the submissions in this issue engage your own thoughts and reflections on where you believe community psychology is as a discipline, as well as the roles each of us must play to strengthen, advance and sustain it. Here’s to moving forward.
- Geraldine (Geri) Palmer, Adler University
On My Mind
"...what distinguishes community psychology from other fields has been on my mind the last couple of days. To push back a bit on that concern, I would argue that being distinctive is not always the best goal to shoot for. For example, the football team at my undergraduate institution distinguished itself in the 1980s with the longest losing streak in the history of college football (I believe another institution has since wrested that distinction from my alma mater, but that’s another conversation....
There are definitely things we can do better. As a field that calls itself community psychology, it is striking that the study of communities per se occupies such a small portion of our field’s work. As a field devoted to an ecological perspective, it is striking that most of our interventions still focus on the individual level. At the same time, community psychologists are making important and prominent contributions to prevention science, public health, evaluation, education, policy, community development and other fields, not just because we duplicate the kind of work other disciplines are doing, but because we bring a perspective that adds value to the work in those areas..." - Gabriel P. Kuperminc
Reflections on Community Psychology
Written by: Jesica Siham Fernández, Santa Clara University
As a community-based researcher, trained community psychologist, and budding teacher-scholar-activist, I have often found myself at home and estranged from community psychology. My multidisciplinary formation as a social scientist, engaged in the intersectional study of race, age, gender and citizenship regimes, has led me to feel both suffocated and freed by the discipline. I have found community psychology ethics, methodologies, and values to be central to my scholarship. Yet, theoretically we are behind other social justice-oriented disciplines, like Ethnic Studies and Women and Gender Studies. In my experience, community psychology theorizing has remained insufficient, as it has not been allowed to fully articulate the assemblages of racialized neocolonial capitalism that disenfranchise communities at the intersections of multiple oppressions. I embrace these tensions with integrity, toward what I characterize as “tensegrity;” tension with integrity.
Community psychology had its birth in the tensions and contradictions I describe. The discipline was born out of the frustrations with the field of psychology, particularly its approach to mental health and wellbeing, as well as its modest engagement in civil rights issues. Hence, in 1965 several psychologists and allies gathered at the Swampscott Conference to discuss the significance of engaging with and understanding community experiences as a means to address individual and community mental health concerns, and more broadly social justice issues. This was the beginning of community psychology in the United States.
Five decades later, the field of community psychology grapples with similar questions, and the paradox of our disciplinary identity – who we are, against the backdrop of what we are not. In my view, we are a disciplinary hybrid that fuses research, theory action and practice with epistemologies “from within.” Epistemologies from within communities who are at the margins, from below and outside the status quo. Since its early formations as a discipline, community psychology has called upon community psychologists “to be political activists, agents of social change, and participant-conceptualizers” (Bennett et al., 1966); to be dissenters and transgressors in pursuit of liberation and empowerment for communities. This is the community psychology that speaks to me, and which with I do identify.
What Is Unique to Our Field?
Written by: Leonard A. Jason and Jack O’Brien, DePaul University
We recently participated in a lively discussion on the SCRA listserv with the goals of defining Community Psychology and specifying what might be unique to our field. Beginning at the Swampscott Conference in 1965, our discipline has focused on going beyond the medical, individualized conceptualizations of problems by incorporating both individual and ecological contextual factors in the examination of health and well-being (Kelly, 1968, 1984). This seminal Swampscott conference emphasized the importance of examining how social factors influence mental illness through multidisciplinary collaboration between psychologists and other related professionals committed to examining and improving community welfare. Community Psychology’s ideological framework and methods has expanded since then to adventurously and creatively address issues such as social justice, public policy, empowerment, diversity, and harm reduction through action-oriented, participatory research (Jason & Glenwick, 2016).
We believe that community psychologists adopt a contextual examination of individuals’ transactional relationships through a more systems-based perspective. This is in accordance with SCRA’s (2017) booklet titled: What is Community Psychology, which states that our field “goes beyond an individual focus and integrates social, cultural, political, environmental, and international influences to promote positive change, health, and empowerment at individual and systemic levels”. Early on, Kelly (1968) offered our field the Ecological Theory, which proposes that interdependence, cycling of resources, adaptation, and succession can used to examine settings and behavior in how people effectively adapt to social environments. Kelly’s theory on community’s resource management in relation to environmental adaptability has been widely used by community psychologists in understanding behavior in social and cultural contexts. As an example, Kelly’s (1979) study of boys transitioning to new schools found that boys, with high exploratory behaviors, scored higher on adaptation measures and, in turn, the school that experienced more fluctuation in enrollment throughout the schoolyear facilitated more exploratory behavior in these students. These findings demonstrate the significance of the Ecological Theory by demonstrating the significance of individual-environment interactions, the consistency of adaptation and change, and how differences in individuals and setting contributes to fluctuation in the scores. As we continued to reflect on defining Community Psychology as a discipline, we received the following email from Dr. John Light as part of the larger SCRA discussion about what is unique to our field:
…such efforts are important today because of forces that tend to de-contextualize human behavior. These include stuff like the medicalization of addiction, and the psychologization of social problems. Laudable advances in neuroscience and neuro-psychopharmacology can lead to a sense that understanding how humans function as individuals automatically addresses how they function as collectivities. But the latter is a separate and apparently equally complex problem (J. Light, Personal Communication, Dec. 30, 2017).
John Light is a sociologist at Oregon Research Institute. We have had the privilege of collaborating with him over the past seven years in a multidisciplinary group that includes a clinical-community psychologist (Len Jason), a community psychologist (Ed Stevens at DePaul University), a social worker (Nate Doogan from Ohio State University), and many graduate and undergraduate students (Jack O’Brien). We began thinking about whether there are unique perspectives that these individuals trained in different disciplines (i.e., Community Psychology, Sociology, Social Work) bring to our research team. In other words, as John Light and Nate Doogan represent two very different disciplines from Community Psychology, this exercise could provide us with a way of better understanding the unique contributions of our fields, but first let me provide some contextual issues regarding our work.
Our team came together with an interest in a research area involving addiction, and in particular the efforts to help re-integrate individuals with substance use problems, who also have high rates of past criminal justice involvement, homelessness, and psychiatric comorbidity, into community-based settings known as recovery homes (Jason, Light, Stevens, & Beers, 2014). John Light brought to our research group a sociological approach to critiquing knowledge which helps us understand power, oppression, and action (Strauss, 1997). He also brought us methodologic perspectives that allow us to use dynamic social networks (using a Stochastic Actor-Oriented Model) to investigate how we both influence and are influenced by others, with ongoing and interactive feedback loops that more closely approximate the complexities occurring within the real world.
John Light appreciates the action-oriented and participatory approach of Community Psychology that always involves context, whether it involves working with judicial systems to reduce not-in-my-backyard polices or bringing the perspectives and active participation of the recovery community members and leaders into the agenda-setting arena. The same appreciation for this unique way of doing research has been expressed by colleagues from other disciplines who collaborate on different research teams at our center, including economists, physicians, psychiatrists, nurses, immunologists, and statistical/computer specialists in data mining and bioinformatics.
Nate Doogan is another critical member of our addictions research team, and more recently he has brought to our group advanced methodological tools such as agent-based modeling and tools used to describe, visualize, model, and make inferences from social networks. He has been working with us in developing a comprehensive simulation tool (including not only identified mechanisms for success, but also how these mechanisms relate and affect system evolution) that can have important, real world, policy implications for housing best practices as well as patient-centered decision-making. Yet, his discipline is social work, which might be more difficult to differentiate from our field (and others within this genre might include public health, criminal justice, or community psychiatry).
As we further pondered what makes our field unique, we looked over Moritsugu, Vera, Wong, and Duffy’s (2016) Community Psychology textbook, which defines our field as having the following fundamental principles: a respect for diversity, the importance of context and environment, empowerment, the ecological perspective/multiple levels of intervention, prevention rather than therapy, social justice, emphasis on strengths and competencies, social change and action research, interdisciplinary perspectives, and a psychological sense of community. Our guess is that Jane Addams, the founder of the field of Social Work, and a pioneering activist reformer in the United States, would subscribe to many if not most of these principles, even though subsequent work within the field of social work sometimes retreated from Addams’ more comprehensive and action-oriented vision. Given the similar value frameworks between Community Psychology and Social Work, our field’s action-oriented research, through a contextual, theoretically sound, systems-based approach, can distinguish our field.
Many people reacted to these ideas on the SCRA listserv, and one of the responses was from psychologist David Glenwick, who framed our field in the following way:
(a)The study of the transactions between individuals and their contexts (e.g., systems, communities, organizations)--and the modification of these transactions in order to help individuals become more competent and healthier--provides the subject matter (the WHAT) of our discipline. The exploration of such relationships (and the development of theories to help explain them)--is the science of our field, which complements and provides the bedrock for the service/social action activities of our field. This, perhaps, differentiates us from such primarily "engineering" fields as social work and public health. (b) Values (e.g., empowerment, promotion of social justice, appreciation of diversity) provide the WHY (i.e., to what ends?) of our discipline. (c) Methodologies (quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods) provide the HOW of our discipline.
We think this nicely summarizes our field. We also believe many of the core principles of our field are shared by many other disciplines, including Nate Doogan’s field of Social Work.
But we continue to believe that our field has the possibility of providing unique features regarding understanding behavior in the context of individual, family, peer, and community influences in a theoretically meaningful way. It is not necessary to have Community Psychology coalesce around one theory, as these complex systems comprise multiple mechanisms of change. We are fortunate to have several promising theories (e.g., from Jim Kelly to Seymour Sarason), which began at the descriptive level to understand the transactions between persons and community-based structures, and this type of sound theory can accomplish in a scientifically rigorous way the empowerment and participatory goals of Community Psychology. A systems theory contextual perspective (Jason, Stevens, Ram, Miller, Beasley, & Gleason 2016) may one day help capture our entire collaborative enterprise, and thus identify what specific aspects of context influence what specific aspects of individuals, and by which specific mechanisms this occurs, and this type of precision could ultimately provide us the unique explanatory capability to differentiate our field from others as we work toward improving peoples’ lives, especially those who suffer most from system level forces. Ideally, a contextual perspective developed through system-based theory allows a thorough examination of how specific individual and contextual factors operate, which in turn provides unique explanatory capability for addressing system level forces and fulfilling our primary purpose of improving people’s health and well-being.
Are We There Yet? No, but Changing the Flat Tire Should Move Community Psychology Forward
Written by Geraldine Palmer, Adler University
“My father always said, if you see a good fight, get in it.” – Vernon Johns
Coming into the field of community psychology in 2009 (which I am considered a newcomer), our classroom historical sweep of community psychology influences included the social, civic and community mental health movements, and of course, the Swampscott conference in 1965 (Moritsugu, Vera, Wong & Duffy, 2014). Since this time, pioneers of the field advanced the discipline, establishing academic training at the graduate level, theories were set forth and built on (a psychological sense of community, empowerment, ecological levels of analysis), and values were defined (Kloos et al., 2012). Research and action took place, and the field grew. The literature supports the evolution of community psychology (Kaufman, 2016; Sonn, 2016; Trickett, 1996; Sarason, 1974; McMillian & Chavis, 1986; Rappaport, 1977; Jason, 1998; Prilleltensky, I., 1997a). Yet, what some may be feeling, is community psychology seems to be experiencing a “flat tire” (time of stagnation). Camera (2013) aptly noted that: “Community psychology is a transformative field because it is one which is consistently changing to adapt to evolving issues people face in communities” (para. 3). It is my argument that it is time to change the “flat tire” and adapt to the evolving issues people are facing in our communities. But, we must look through a much sharper and critical lens than ever before. Why? Because much of the issues facing our communities today have the same roots of yesterday, oppression and inequality, covered by words that seem like progress, such as “diversity”, “tolerance,” and “inclusion”. However, once the covers are peeled back, the same root is exposed.
Therefore, just how should the discipline adapt to evolving issues people face? At the very least, we must engage in “intentional framing” in our discourse of who and what we endorse, stand for, won’t stand for, and work to achieve, internally and externally. The American Psychological Association (APA) stated that, “the way information is presented or ‘framed’ when people are confronted with a situation can influence decision making” (para. 1). Further, Critical Media Review (2017) put forward that
…a frame refers to the way media and media gatekeepers organize and present the events and issues they cover, and the way audiences interpret what they are provided. Frames are abstract notions that serve to organize or structure social meanings… (para.1).
How does information that is intentionally “framed” make a difference? The following example may seem counterintuitive, but upon taking a closer look, I believe you will see how powerful framing can be. Take the case of groups standing for, or indifference to inequality in housing. Pfeiffer (2011) argues that inequality is enacted, legitimized and sustained by conversations manipulated and controlled over the spaces of ideological production. In the case of the demolishment of Cabrini Green public housing development, stakeholders were able to disseminate discriminatory texts and displace people of color with lower-incomes from their homes because of their unequal media access (Pfeiffer, 2011). Rather than use their position to promote debate and search for equitable solutions to the lack of affordable housing, investors adopted dominant underclass public housing discourses. As a result, vulnerable populations were further stripped of any power they may have had (van Dijk, 1993). Pfeiffer further explained that a contributing factor to the displacement of tenants in the former Cabrini Green development may have been the result of bad management, but more so they were displaced circuitously by the public in renaming their community.
The announcements of a new community naming such as “Old Town Square” was followed by installing fixtures such as light post banners and stone markers with the new community name inscribed on them. Subsequent brochures distributed to the public brought the new communities to the forefront, while the old Cabrini Green recessed into obscurity. The perceptions of new residents thrust the area into the long-time label of a community based on race and class. In Pfeiffer’s (2011) study, when White/European Americans were asked what the name of the community was, they replied, “Old Town” where Black/African American pedestrians replied, “Cabrini Green.” The description of Old Town was, quaint, close to downtown, exciting, and connected to everything; while the older characteristics were, ugly, depressing, and isolated. In the brochures, language used promoted Cabrini Green area as a community composed of name-brand stores such as Crate and Barrel and Whole Foods. They omitted any older Cabrini-Green mom-and-pop stores or replaced them with slick renderings of low-rise town homes. Further, just as private developers erased the historical identity of Cabrini-Green by renaming the community “Old Town,” they also generated public support for redevelopment where there may have been none, by describing Cabrini Green and its former residents in the public’s mind as inhabitants with “tropes of disease and decay” (Conquergood, 1992, p. 97; Bennett and Reed; 1999; Popkins, et al., 2005).
I share this example of intentional framing and results (albeit, harmful in this case) as a viable mechanism in influencing public perception. We must use this same tactic, for good, in our public discourse and through media. The conversations we have, the words and language used, the positions we take for, or against, the evolving issues people are facing in our communities today, is critical for our discipline to move forward. Our historical roots, the work put in to evolve community psychology in academia and practice well-positions us and compels us to do so. We can change our “flat tire” by intentionally framing who we are which include protesting all forms of oppression and inequity and agreeing on other issues, in ways that are visible to the public. Evolving issues today include the onslaught of Black/African Americans being murdered nationwide by police, the deportation of those in the DACA program, the homelessness of men, women and children, poor leadership, and the list goes on. A closer look---and we can easily see the same old structural systems of oppression and inequality. We should have a list of statements denouncing every one of these issues, and more, - and another list, for example, commending the actions of students telling the world, “We don’t want to die!”
We can no longer be silent, colleagues and allies, indicating to the public “we are not taking seriously our own tenets and values” but instead use our strong historical foundation, human capital, tools, visionaries, academics, advocates, and activists to make real and lasting change. It’s why we signed up for the ride.
Social Psychology, Sociology, and Community Psychology: Linkages and Divergences
Michèle M. Schlehofer, Salisbury University
My path to the field of community psychology has been a circuitous one. As an undergraduate, I double-majored in applied sociology and psychology. Upon graduating from college, I desired a graduate degree in an area of study that bridged my two majors. I ended up entering an applied social psychology program at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. My graduate program trained me in applying traditional social psychological theories to addressing social issues and community problems. Of my many formative experiences at Claremont was the fortune of being mentored by Dr. Bianca Guzmán, then a member of the Psychology Department faculty, who introduced me to the world of community psychology and took me to my first SCRA biennial (2001, in Atlanta, Georgia). Trained in the Lewinian tradition of action-research, much of my work draws upon social psychology theories, but incorporates community psychology principles and methodological practices. My exposure to community psychology has led me to adopt a more ecological perspective and approach to my research, as well as helped foster that bridge between sociology and psychology that I was seeking as an undergraduate. At Salisbury University, I developed and teach the “Community and Applied Social Psychology” undergraduate course in our department, and I am the only community-oriented psychologist among our faculty of 18.
Differentiating Between Social Psychology, Sociology, and Community Psychology
From its inception, community psychology has drawn theoretical and methodological inspiration from other disciplines, both in and outside of psychology (Kloos & Johnson, 2017). Although close cousins, community psychology has a perspective that is distinct and differentiated from social psychology. Both fields were heavily influenced by Kurt Lewin’s action-research approach, both seek to address social problems through the application of psychological science, and the fields have a similar trajectory of development. However, despite these commonalities, social psychology is a discipline which remains clearly rooted in the individual-level perspective that dominates the field of psychology as a whole. Even when studying microsystems such as the family or group processes, social psychologists tend to approach these topics from an individual-level perspective; studying, for example, how the discrepancy between people’s current relationship and the “ideal” one they envision impacts relationship satisfaction (e.g., see Sternberg and Barnes, 1985), factors that influence individuals’ decision to intervene in emergency situations (e.g., see Fischer, Krueger, and Greitemeyer’s 2011 meta-analysis on the bystander effect), or the role of implicit bias in racial discrimination (e.g., see Greenwald and Krieger’s 2006 review). Higher-level ecological factors, such as historical or political context or other exosystemic or macrosystemic factors, are only incorporated into theory or research insofar as they are considered “background noise” which impacts individual-level responses on measures.
In addition, the field, despite its focus on addressing social issues and problems, continues to be dominated by traditional experimental methodology conducted from a postpositive theory of science; a research approach which community psychologists have actively denounced as “experimental colonialism” (Chavis, Stucky, & Wandersman, 1983). While community psychology actively embraces participatory action research (PAR), PAR approaches are largely absent from social psychology. Although perhaps implied in the discipline’s topics of study, social psychology does not actively embrace values of social justice and social change, and social psychological research aims for objectivity; yet another way in which the field differentiates itself from community psychology. While perhaps most social psychologists would identify themselves as applied social psychologists, given that their topics of study are relevant to social and community problems, the bulk of social psychologists who conduct applied research engage in traditional postpositive experimental work from an individual level of analysis.
Sociology, on the other hand, emphasizes macrosystemic facets of society and, while including psychology to some extent, deemphasizes an individual-level perspective in favor of exploring how social and cultural groups are influenced by various social forces, including history, economics, and global influence. Sociologists tend to downplay the role of individual characteristics, cognitions, mood states, and dispositions in understanding the person – societal relationship. Like community psychology, sociology contains a strong social justice orientation and commitment to social change; yet, emphasis is placed on changing social forces and social structures, not individuals. While psychological sociologists might focus on individual-level factors such as personality, affect, and cognition, they approach these topics in ways that substantially differ from social psychologists. Whereas a social psychologist would explore the interactive impact of social influence and intra-individual factors on human behavior and cognitive processes, a psychological sociologist would instead study how individual-level factors are developed, changed, or otherwise influenced by cultural forces and social structures.
Community psychology has an approach and orientation which is nicely nestled, at least theoretically, between these two allied disciplines. I view community psychology as encompassing all the potential and promise of applied social psychology--with its emphasis on the practicality of applying psychological theory to addressing social problems and use of rigorous psychological scientific methodology--with the macrosystemic perspective and explicit emphasis on social justice and social change which sociology offers. Indeed, sociological thinking has influenced the development of community psychology, and several concepts integral to the discipline (e.g., empowerment, social capital, and citizen participation, to name a few) draw heavily from sociology (see Perkins & Schensul, 2017, for a review). Community psychology overlaps with sociological thinking about how social, cultural, and historical contexts influence not only the individual, but also even the way in which we frame social problems, and the solutions we generate for them. Community psychology, that is, has the potential to be a nice middle-ground discipline, encompassing the “best of both worlds” of social psychology and sociology.
One criticism of community psychology, however, has been its failure as a field to live up to its commitment to full use of the ecological model as a guiding theoretical and methodological framework. Community psychologists have been criticized as having the tendency to primarily study individual-level variables and to approach social problems from an individual-level perspective, rather than higher order levels of the ecological model (Riger, 1993; also see Shinn, 1996). Although the development of multi-level modeling techniques has facilitated better utilization of the ecological model, the field tends to under-emphasize the role of macrosystems and fails to fully incorporate macrosystemic factors into research (Angelique & Culley, 2007). Community psychology, it seems, has not grown far from its roots in the individual-level discipline which is mainstream psychology. This is problematic for a few reasons. First, an over-emphasis on the individual stymies theoretical and methodological growth of the field (see Shinn, 1996). Second, an overemphasis on individual-level factors can work to further oppress and mollify people by implicitly suggesting people are the cause—and solution—of their own oppression, thereby working contrary to the field’s stated value of social change (Pretorius-Heuchert & Ahmed, 2001).
Is it Time for Joint Sociology-Community Psychology Training?
Community psychologists have called for the field to become interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary via alliance with other disciplines of study (Boyd & Angelique, 2002; Perkins & Schensul, 2017), and the field’s ecological focus facilitates such alliances (Angelique & Culley 2007). Perkins and Schensul (2017) suggest that strategic alliances with particular fields—such as political science and economics--could enhance and expand community psychology by helping to inform underdeveloped areas of the discipline. While a handful of interdisciplinary community-oriented programs exist, these programs tend to take a public health approach. This is not surprising, given the fact that community psychology’s model of prevention and promotion developed from adaptation of a public health perspective. However, to address the under-emphasis and under-study of macrosystemic factors in community psychology, I suggest the intentional development of joint sociology-community psychology graduate training programs.
What might a training program of this nature look like? I see an interdisciplinary sociology-community psychology program as embodying the “best of both worlds:” it would couple strong training in community psychology methodology, theory, and practice with the ecological perspective, analysis, and methodologies of the sociologist. It would provide training in program design and evaluation which encompasses multilevel modeling and assessment approaches that place appropriately significant weight on exosystemic and macrosystemic factors. It would help move the field of community psychology to a better understanding of how socio-cultural forces influence and interact with the individual. It would facilitate moving the discipline of community psychology towards embracing an advocacy and liberation perspective. And, it would strengthen the social change focus of our work by providing sound pathways by which we could affect second order social change, helping the field fulfill its promise.
Community Psychology: Something more
Daniela E. Miranda, CESPYD-Universidad de Sevilla
When I was invited to be a part of this special issue, my dissertation director and mentor, Manuel Garcia-Ramirez, asked me to discuss myself and my fellow students’ experiences with community psychology with his graduate students. I would like to thank my peers for sharing their experiences so that I can construct our emerging narrative around community psychology.
In my time as a Ph.D. student, Manuel invited myself and my peers to his classes to share the work our research team is doing and give us each a space to share the development of our dissertations. He presented us with a brief introduction and then always, without fail, put us on the spot to tell our story—to narrate how we arrived at our findings and why we are doing a dissertation in community psychology. Until now I thought he was helping me improve some practical public speaking skills by pushing me off the deep-end; however, after discussion and reflection with the group of graduate students, I realized that telling my story is very emblematic of our field. Most of all community psychologists I have encountered come from an array of backgrounds, choices, and trainings that somehow, sometimes unknowingly, led us into this relatively new field in psychology. We arrived at community psychology not necessarily through traditional training but through an innate tendency that comes when we see injustices that exist around us and want to defend human rights. Many times, we come across the idea that community psychology is value-driven, which is absolutely true; however, it goes beyond a set of values. It is a way of thinking. It is an attitude and an approach. Community psychology is not exclusive to the field of psychology and should not be exclusive. It is something we can and should share with other fields.
The horizontality with which we guide our work is what allows us to share the table and not be the sole experts. We engage with communities and give them the opportunity to be the real experts of their realities, shifting the power dynamics that transgresses traditional psychology branches. Our responsibility is to share and provide the tools to make their expertise visible and facilitate their role as community psychologists who engage in critical dialogue, reflection, and collective action (Balcazar et. al., 2004). Community psychology distinguishes itself from other fields because it simply asks those who were never asked in the first place, “What do you need, what do you think, and what can we do?”
Our interaction with ourselves, each other, and the communities we partner with in constructing our own narratives is what makes community psychology dynamic, challenging, and difficult to define. This can be seen as debilitating; however, I think that our active definition provides us with the ability to exist across many settings, which right now, in our current polarized world, our presence and call to defend human rights seems more relevant than ever. I have categorized both my own and the group’s reflections into a set of assertions that can accessibly explain community psychology to others and serve as a reminder to ourselves.
We are always community psychologists. Last year I had the opportunity to spend three months in Chicago with Yolanda Suarez-Balcazar and Fabricio Balcazar, an experience that helped me consolidate many ideas around being a student in community psychology. There is one fundamental lesson I learned from my time there: you can never divorce yourself from the community psychologist identity. Whether we are with peers, students, professors, communities, family or friends, this way of thinking, feeling and being is not something that can be shut down at the end of a workday. It accompanies you wherever you go—that is: we cannot fragment reality. In this sense, a valuable lesson Yolanda taught me is that we should always engage, bring purpose and meaning to our day-to-day, and bring a social justice agenda into everything we do. As she writes, “embrace your moral compass” (Suarez-Balcazar, 2014). I think this is important to consider when we are thinking of developing a curriculum in community psychology. We must constantly immerse ourselves in what we do, wherever we are, seven days a week. This means that a community psychology curriculum must be more than a set of tools we can learn in a classroom. It must be a praxis we carry with us.
We must start difficult conversations. Yes, Chicago rush-hour traffic is horrific, but I must admit that it was one of my favorite moments of the day with Yolanda and Fabricio. The drive into the city is interesting for anyone with a community psychologist lens because in Chicago, daily injustices are set across the landscape of a beautiful city. The conversations we had in our long car rides around those injustices and our work is what propelled me to have difficult conversations with myself. Fundamental questions around interests, power, privilege, and oppression that energize our work continue to be challenging concepts to have dialogue around. Having these difficult conversations is essential to community psychology that we should constantly reassess as both newcomers and veterans.
Fabricio once pointed out to me how we are usually taught to avoid difficult conversations. However, Fabricio taught me that we should be having those conversations about religion and politics at the dinner table! It is safe to say that being polite at the dinner table, or our lack of constructive dialogue, has had some serious consequences across the globe. Learning to have difficult conversations, where we listen, exchange ideas, and create a new social order is an essential aspect of the community psychology praxis. We cannot be passive or avoid important issues that are a part of our collective wellbeing and we should learn to feel comfortable being uncomfortable in a shift in power dynamics (Prilleltensky & Nelson, 2002).
Let’s dismantle our own narratives. During our discussion, many students pointed out the difficulty they experienced working with communities because their reality was far from the community’s reality. How can we share our willingness and the availability of our tools with our communities? As the daughter of Latino immigrants who was born in the United States and now working with Roma communities in Sevilla—I have come to learn that everyone has a complex identity that is ultimately the product of generations existing within a larger, complex system. The idea of cultural humility or mindful activism that is resonating across our new vocabulary is incredibly important to consider (Norsworthy, 2017). The transparency we must bring to the table regarding our interiorized privilege or oppression is a liberating experience and a chance to build new, collective knowledge and to develop innovative solutions to problems. Reflection and close work with communities that may be far from our own identity are what makes community psychology exciting for all those involved.
Be careful with the toolset. As community psychologists, we tend to champion and bend the rules to adapt many social research methods for our action-research purposes. During the discussion with my peers, many of us brought up the fact that we should be careful with our set of tools that we bring to communities. It is a delicate task as our efforts must strive to be transformative and not unknowingly ameliorative (Prilleltensky, 2014). What is most dangerous is when oppressive mechanisms are disguised as liberating efforts. The word “transformative” is heavily charged with its own set of implications. Therefore, we must be more rigorous in evaluating and adapting the work we are doing. For example, policy and intervention efforts to reduce social inequities between Roma and non-Roma communities has failed. Why is this happening? Recently, our team and I have partnered with different Roma communities and have been invited to experience their most intimate social niches. In these spaces, Roma communities are committed, active, engaged and fully immersed. We identified certain elements of these spaces as participative, safe, constructive, and respectful. We should translate these elements in all the work we do to ensure transformation.
I want to thank Manuel, all of Manuel’s graduate students, CESPYD, Yolanda, Fabricio, and other community psychology colleagues for letting me sit at the table to learn from them, so that we can continue building and navigating the world of community psychology.
Commentary: It’s Time for Action
Written by Geri Palmer & Bradley Olson
The excerpts, reflections, and articles, as shared in the introduction, represent a wide range of perspectives, thoughts and opinions of community psychologists and allies, in different stages of their careers, academic training, and practice. That’s just one aspect of what makes them worth the read! This wide range of perspectives and ideologies, and how they get interpreted, is what makes the discipline of community psychology transformative. As a transformative field, community psychology’s historical tenets secure a consistent shift in viewpoints, all of which is needed if we are to progress. One area in serious need of a shift included academic and other training that was too restricted to individualistic, Eurocentric psychological paradigms (Parham, 2002). Thus, the nature of community psychology has served “as the social justice arm of psychology” (K. McKay, personal communication, February 2, 2018), and rightfully so. To this end, the work of social justice is dynamic in nature and necessarily evolutionary. Yet it has likely only become more difficult for the field to do what it was designed to do, largely because the dire need in our myriad communities have grown, requiring us to be more action-oriented than ever before. Research must lead to action that strengthens and builds resiliency and takes on the banner of hard work, helping others restore their status from being marginalized by structural systems of oppression and inequality.
We must embrace this work even when we were not necessarily socialized that way. We need to respect positions that cross our very core and embrace methodologies that may diverge from the status-quo. We must also not forget that some of greatest transformation in social and racial justice was accomplished by civil disobedience, particularly peaceful forms of political protest. To this end, the articles and reflections that make up this special issue serve as a sort of protest and action. Community psychology and allies must attend to this action, to move the discipline forward. Let us share here, that forward cannot mean, the way it has always been. Speaking of action, we find it necessary to highlight a collective message provided by several authors: “action is necessary in some facet” if community psychology is to not only survive but thrive.
We look forward to future discourse on community psychology and issue a call to action for those in academia and practice. Change does not take place unless we are willing to invest our time, talents, and voices. Let’s stand on the shoulders of our pillars in this discipline that met our needs, and one that can continue to do so. Community psychology has not arrived. It is still evolving. But, that’s a good thing. We have opportunities to chart its future.
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