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Volume 49 Number 3
Edited by Mona Amer
The First Community Psychology Conference in the MENA Region: Elements of Effective Change for the Socio-Cultural Context
Written by Mona M. Amer, Carie Forden, and Andrea Emanuel (Conference Co-Chairs), The American University in Cairo, Egypt
Rich learning experience. Diversity of speakers and practices. Opportunities for networking and collaboration. Hope and motivation for community change. Inspiration. These were some of the reactions we heard from attendees at the 1st Middle East North Africa Regional Conference on Community Psychology, which took place 24-26 March, 2016 at the Tahrir Square campus of The American University in Cairo (AUC). Located in the heart of Cairo’s city center and nestled between the historic Nile River and a sprawling urban metropolis, Tahrir (which means “liberation”) has seen decades of historical turning points including revolutions, riots, and reformations of modernity.
Thus, Tahrir was a fitting setting for this conference, a landmark meeting that challenged psychologists to consider systemic and community-based models and challenged community-based practitioners to consider psychological and scientific methods. The theme of the conference was “Collaboration for Community Change: Insight, Innovation, and Impact.” We chose this theme both to recognize the groundbreaking work done in communities across the MENA region and also to highlight the central role of collaboration in creating sustainable change.
One of the unique characteristics of this conference was the truly interdisciplinary backgrounds of the participants, including an unusual balance of academics, practitioners, and students. A total of 122 people participated in the conference as presenters and attendees, coming from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Yemen, as well as South Africa, UK, and USA. They represented community and counseling psychology, community development, social entrepreneurship, public health, human rights, and many other specializations. There were 53 presenters and 22 session chairs and roundtable moderators who brought to life a featured keynote roundtable, three keynote speeches, 34 presentations as part of panels, three roundtable discussions, four workshops, and a poster session. Although the conference focused on the MENA region, there is no doubt that the gathering was shaped by others within and outside of the region. For example, it was financially sponsored by SCRA, and many SCRA members served as proposal reviewers and presenters.
To launch the conference, the opening ceremony – which was open to the public – featured a frank and personal keynote roundtable conversation with five visionaries who have spearheaded transformative change in the areas of blended learning, sustainable community development, drug addiction and HIV prevention, youth development, and renewable energy. These were Seif Abou Zaid, Raghda El Ebrashi, Ehab El Kharrat, Azza Kamel, and Ahmed Zahran. Titled “Our Journeys of Change: Reflections of Egyptian Pioneers,” the keynote session challenged these speakers of diverse ages to reflect more deeply on what gave them faith, inspiration, and the strength to continue working creatively and steadfastly on tackling intractable social problems despite challenges that have led others to abandon the cause.
This roundtable highlighted many commonalities in the activists’ journeys to creating transformative change. They reported that they had stumbled upon their vision: a compelling event led them to recognize that something essential was missing in society or an observation led them to question the wisdom of the status quo. Despite lack of funds, corruption, political obstacles, detractors who questioned the significance of their work, and other complex challenges, they fueled their resistance with their personal convictions. To sustain their efforts and make strides towards success, they leveraged the tenacity in their personalities and support from others around them including teachers, parents, colleagues and the people they were aiming to serve. The concept “ideas will never die, and will eventually spread further,” brought an immortality to their projects, and this was further fostered by the empowerment of people involved – whether children, people in slum areas, or recovering addicts, as well as staff members in their organizations – who carried their projects forward.
Other ingredients for effective change were highlighted by the three 1-hour keynote speakers. The first speech was by psychologist Anthony Naidoo from South Africa, a country that shares many socio-political and historical parallels with the Middle East. He spoke on “Building a Collaborative Community in Changing Times,” sharing the lessons he had learned in developing community psychology in South Africa and encouraging the audience to work in partnership with local communities. He used the metaphor of the footbridge that symbolically links the Alexandria Library to the University to remind us of the importance of building relationships between academia and communities.
Iman Bibars, Vice President of the Ashoka - Innovators for the Public, was the second keynote speaker, with a talk titled “Small is Beautiful: Key Ingredients for Locally-Driven Social Change.” Based on over 30 years of experience working in the field of development, she questioned the evolving fads (for example, currently social entrepreneurship and project scaling) and urged the audience to return to the essence of what makes effective change – interventions that grow from local knowledge, are based in local culture, and are driven by a community’s members.
Serdar M. Değirmencioğlu, whose vision for an intimate regional meeting was one of the seeds that grew into this conference, concluded the conference with his talk on “Multiple Voices, Multiple Needs:
Better Practices in Community Collaborations.” Just as the conference began with personal reflections, it ended with the same, with Serdar tracing the insights he learned along his professional journey from the U.S. to Turkey as a developmental-community psychologist engaged in relief work and youth participation. He discussed seven key components of community change, including vision, planning, and leadership.
The individual presentations were organized into thematic panels and were a mixture of reflections on effective models of change as well as results from research endeavors. The presentations tackled timely issues such as refugee well-being and trauma, youth development, violence against women, poverty alleviation, environmental sustainability, and culturally-sensitive health education and promotion (e.g., breast cancer, pneumonia, HIV, sexual abuse). Most of the sessions emphasized the role of partnerships in achieving the aims.
Three sessions were open discussions aimed at promoting the field of community psychology. One session discussed the knowledge and skills that trainees of community psychology should gain to be effective community psychologists. A second session examined local ethical dilemmas and steps towards developing regionally-sensitive ethical standards for community practice. A third session explored the effectiveness of participatory methods in the Middle East. In particular, it was noted that the hierarchical culture and suspicion of outsiders can make participatory approaches difficult to implement.
Four workshops gave participants the chance to work on skills that are particularly relevant to the region: collaborative approaches to addressing violence against women, advocacy and policy work related to public health issues, appreciative inquiry in evaluation, and addressing terretorialization in Palestine. Finally, a poster session highlighted fledgling innovative programs and the presenters broke tradition with standard academic conferences by integrating 3-dimensional materials, quizzes, and other activities.
There is still a lot of work to be done for community psychology to take hold and grow in the region. Currently, there are only two specialized academic programs. Birzeit University in Palestine launched its Master’s program in 2009, and in 2010 AUC enrolled its first Master’s students, complementing an undergraduate community psychology track which had formalized in 2006. The Birzeit program offers an interdisciplinary approach with faculty from psychology, anthropology, and sociology, with an emphasis in critical and indigenous methodologies, whereas the AUC program is housed in a psychology unit and follows the American SCRA practice competencies in developing students’ skills.
Community psychology in the Middle East faces some unique challenges. The conference couldn’t escape political realities; for example, several people (especially Palestinian speakers with Israeli passports) were denied visa entry to Egypt; some speakers were advised to avoid travel due to violent conflict in their homelands such as in Yemen; one of the organizers was interrogated by Egyptian state security regarding the motives and content of the conference; American faculty and students were advised by their universities not to travel to Egypt; and two of the Egyptian speakers were barely able to make it to their session after being detained by the government days prior for their women’s rights work. Also, the culture of institutions supporting research and conference travel is still nascent and thus some speakers were unable to obtain funding for travel costs. Consequently, many speakers joined via Skype or pre-recorded video presentation. Moreover, issues of language (sessions were held in both English and Arabic) and the prohibitive cost of simultaneous translation showed how difficult it is to bridge between communities.
Nonetheless, the rich landscape of local and transnational NGO’s and other civil society organizations, and attention to the region by multilateral organizations, such as United Nations including World Health Organization, renders the region well-poised to host efforts with community psychology perspectives. At the same time, community psychology has an opportunity to grow as a field by expanding its paradigm according to what is learned in this context. Writings about community psychology in the region have already begun to examine those issues (see list of suggested readings below). We hope that this conference marks the first step in creating a supportive community of MENA region scholars and practitioners who have a common passion for creating a better world.
Amer, M.M. (2014). How the “Arab Spring” will/can plant the seeds for the Arab community psychologists’ identity. In S. Cooper & K. Ratele (Eds.), Psychology Serving Humanity: Proceedings of the 30th International Congress of Psychology (Vol 1, pp. 32-45). New York: Psychology Press.
Amer, M. M., Mohamed, S. N., Ganzon, V. (2013). Experiencing community psychology through community based learning class projects: Reflections from an American university in the Middle East. Journal of Prevention and Intervention in the Community, 41(2), 75-81.
Burton, M. (2015). Community psychology under colonial occupation: The case of Palestine. Journal of Community Psychology, 43, 119-123. doi: 10.1002/jcop.21715
Carrillo, A. & Forden, C. (2013). Community psychology practice competencies in Egypt: Challenges and opportunities. Global Journal of Community Psychology, 4(4), 1-12.
Carrillo, A., & Forden, C. (2014). Master’s degree in community psychology at the American University in Cairo. The Community Psychologist, 47(1), 18.
Forden, C., & Carrillo, A. (2015). A reflection on the impact of culture on campus-community partnerships to build evaluation capacity in rural Pennsylvania and urban Cairo. Community Psychology in Global Perspective,1, 86-104.
Makkawi, I. (2012). Psychology of the oppressed: Encounters with community psychology in Palestine. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 3(4).
Makkawi, I. (2015). Community psychology enactments in Palestine: Roots and current manifestations. Journal of Community Psychology, 43, 63-75. doi: 10.1002/jcop.21714
Makkawi, I. (2015). Critical psychology in the Arab world: Critical community psychology in the Palestinian colonial context. In I. Parker (Ed.), Handbook of critical psychology (pp. 415-424). London: Routledge.
Meari, L. (2015). Reconsidering trauma: Towards a Palestinian community psychology. Journal of Community Psychology, 43, 76-86. doi: 10.1002/jcop.21712
Reflections by Attendees of the 1st MENA Regional Conference on Community Psychology
Hana Fahmy (evaluation consultant, Cairo, Egypt). I was the first graduate of the Community Psychology (CP) master program at the American University in Cairo, in 2012. Being a member of the organizing committee for the 1st MENA regional CP conference, 4 years later, was a dream come true. I joined the committee because I had a sense of responsibility toward the development of the field in Egypt and the region. From being the only student of the CP master program, to questioning what is CP, to being the first graduate of the program, to practicing and promoting the principles of CP, and finally witnessing a well organized and rich conference. It was of great value to also facilitate a workshop on appreciative inquiry as a powerful evaluation tool, and explain that these strength-based and participatory approaches actually work. It is true! We, the students of the program, spent a lot of hours, in 2011, defining CP and comparing it to other fields, and some of us struggled to explain the field to other professionals through their internships. The conference was the best way to clarify what it is, what community psychologists do, and connected community psychologists together. I attended two important group discussions, one on ethical code and the other was on the core competencies needed for practicing CP in the MENA region and felt that we were making history and developing the field ourselves.
Kamauria Acree (community psychology MA student at The American University in Cairo). The conference was a landmark in the field of community psychology in the MENA region. It was truly wonderful to hear presentations about preventive interventions, evidence-based research, qualitative studies, and much more. It was exciting to see people networking, actively participating in group discussions, and conversing about a certain topic over lunch. Being an African-American international graduate student in Egypt has its own set of challenges, but this conference reminded me of why I even decided to pursue community psychology in Egypt to begin with—to learn, grow, build collaborative relationships, understand social issues, fight oppression, and promote positive health and well-being. Seeing and hearing the speakers present with great zeal and passion reminded me of my own love and passion for community psychology and encouraged me to continue to pursue my heart-felt desires.
Sarah Mitkees (human development and psychology EdM graduate of Harvard University, USA & study of religion MST graduate of Oxford University, UK). As someone who is establishing a career in community psychology in Egypt, attending the first Community Psychology conference in the MENA region has been an enriching experience. I believe this is a first step towards establishing a community of scholars, practitioners and learners who can use Community Psychology to mobilize development efforts in the region, at a time MENA needs such efforts the most. Community development efforts won’t be as fruitful if they merely follow priorities, values and competencies of other societies –mainly Western–without seeing what works and what does not work in the context of the Middle East. It has been an invaluable initiative to start conversations among scholars and leaders in the field as well as aspiring community psychologists, to investigate what works best in development efforts within a MENA context taking into consideration, values, skills and competencies that are of relevance to such work
initiatives in the region. I am optimistic to see this conference as a building block towards similar
initiatives to follow, shaping and empowering communities and community psychologists aiming to do change in their societies and have a say in what matters most to them.
Dalia Nassar and Lian Derini (community psychology MA students at Birzeit University, Palestine). We are very thankful for the AUC University for the first annual conference for Community Psychology, and the opportunity given to us as Palestinian students to join this conference, we think that this conference is important for us especially as Palestinians to learn from other experience in the region. It was a pleasure for us to meet important professors in the field whom gave us hope for change. It was also extremely beneficial for us to meet other students and share knowledge with them, we have discussed the differences between Birzeit University and AUC curriculums. Successful stories of women especially gave us more strength to fight the reality we are facing. We suggest the engagement of more youth in the conference, either actives in their areas or students of universities, and the involvement of more Arab universities students. We also suggest that each panel has translation since many could not participate in our session. Eman Motawi (sustainable development MA and community psychology Diploma student at The American University in Cairo). Coming from sustainable development and community psychology background, the conference provided me with a vivid experience of different community practices nationally and regionally. It gives me hope of better and ethical practices that include community voice side by side to the expert voice. Keynotes’ spirit motivated me regardless of what they faced of challenges; they kept working with people to create a valuable change. As a Palestinian refugee, I was inspired by the different sessions to pursuit my PhD. I want to use service-learning and community based courses as a method to integrate immigrants in their receiving countries. I know that I want to participate in the second community psychology conference in MENA region and I cannot wait to do that.
Sawssan Ahmed (assistant professor at California State University, Fullerton, USA). When I found out that a MENA focused community psychology conference was being organized, I was very intrigued. As an Arab American psychologist with Egyptian heritage, I was very interested in learning on what kind of work was being done in the MENA region. I also had not visited Egypt for several years and was curious to see what the climate in Egypt was like post-revolution. A highlight for me was the opening session where organizers from various community programs highlighted their respective programs including a program that used art to empower Egyptian children, one that worked to reduce stigma around substance abuse intervention and one that worked on implementing solar energy and sustainability to Egyptian society. I also enjoyed connecting and learning about the research and community work being done in the surrounding regions of Turkey, Palestine and Saudi Arabia.
Khalifah Alfahli (lecturer in department of psychology at King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). My excitement for the 1st MENA Region Conference on Community Psychology was different than usual interest for other psychology conferences for many reasons, personal and not. The 1st conference came with a title that speaks to the current and recent events in the region “Collaboration for Community Change: Insight, Innovation and Impact”, as we live in a time of radical social change, a sweeping change beyond responsibility of particular persons, disciplines or professions. I believe that community psychology’s theoretical frame and literature can lend itself easily to active agents who seek structural changes through better understanding of social context. On a personal level, the conference was a chance to rediscover my identity as a community psychologist, especially the engagement element of it. This conference offered me a different experience to be involved in a roundtable discussion with community development agents and entrepreneurs, which should take us back to the issues that really matter.
Shaymaa Hasan Abdelmagid (counseling psychology MA student at The American University in Cairo). Although my background is in counseling psychology, I was very much motivated to attend this conference and participate in it. First of all, I wanted to present my work on HIV/AIDS related stigma. Secondly, I was excited by the opportunities for learning and professional collaboration that should be present in a first community psychology conference in the region. My contribution was a poster presentation about reducing HIV/AIDS related stigma using collaborative interventions in Egypt. I had the chance to learn from experts and from the audience in the conference. In fact, they provided me with encouragement and useful feedback regarding my poster, which should help me later on in improving my work. The panel discussion session about Creative Child-Friendly Prevention Methods and the panel about Violence Against women were particularly inspiring. In addition to the other sessions I attended in the conference those panel sessions helped in extending my knowledge about resources in our (and other) communities that might lead to social change in different areas. Additionally, they introduced me to new theory, methods and tools in research and gave me ideas for new programs and effective interventions. In addition to the resources and opportunities they presented, these sessions also helped me to discover a new passion for social change. They focused not only on extending existing knowledge and expertise, but also on growth. Attending the scheduled social activity was also a special experience as well as a good opportunity to meet, collaborate and know some interesting participants. This was a lot of fun and helped to amplify the excitement, enthusiasm and energy of the conference. All in all, the resources and activities in this conference left me with a special experience and presented me with a valuable learning opportunity.
Alia Afifi (second year BA student at The American University in Cairo). They say that the best way to learn a language is through immersion. Putting yourself in situations where language is inevitable is
your best shot at learning. Being in a room where everyone spoke the same language, the language
of change and (com)passion, was my most valuable and beneficial community learning experience so far. Thanks to those four days of complete and constant inspiration, I came to realize the following. Developed or developing, first or third world country, people all over the world faced the same social
and community problems, just in different intensities. I believe Community psychology might be the field in which the issue of generalizability was the least of problems. Studies are easily generalizable; an intervention working is a proof of its success that with just some tweaks would fit where you want it to. This is not in any way a denial of the importance of culture and its differences, but a mere realization that in all countries of the world, there exists major differences between communities which CP accounts for anyway thanks to its core principle of respecting diversity, making replication of those studies less likely to be hindered by their generalizability. One more thing that I got to see was how numerous the initiatives taken were. In Egypt alone, we have countless number of NGO’s tackling the same problems. Most, if not all those NGO’s faced problems in funding, publicity, and/ or working force. I wish we could soon witness collaboration, as one could only imagine how much more powerful all those resources brought together could be.
Ayah E. Sarhan (board member of the Mother & Child Friendly Care Association, Egypt). I believe that the conference was a very good real life learning opportunity for students through which they explored ongoing community projects, networked with practitioners, became aware of challenges, and explored causes/projects that interested them. For me as a philanthropist, the pool of information and professionals, and ongoing community projects provided me with reassurance about the possibility of realizing my dream goal of “building a peaceful, collaborative, and productive community”. It reinforced that yes there is a lot to be done, but it can be achieved through the ripple effect of small initiatives addressing multiple societal needs (inspired from the presentation “Small is Beautiful”). Networking with peer philanthropists also opened rapport for possible collaboration, an added benefit that was not expected. It gave me a positive boost of energy to share useful information with others who are just getting started. Overall, I think we are in need of such an event on regular basis to bring into reality the needed societal transformation and community development. Attending the Conference made me realize my need to complement my practice in community initiatives with academic knowledge through enrollment in the community psychology Master’s program.
Fatema Abou El Ela (community psychology MA student at The American University in Cairo). It was a privilege to be one of the organizers of the First MENA Regional Conference on Community Psychology, at a time when I was in my last year in the Community Psychology M.A. program at the American University in Cairo. Being the first of its kind, this conference brought together leaders of the most influential community work in the Arab world, giving learners, like myself, insight into the different practical approaches, social problems and community programs in the field. It was a great opportunity to engage such a diverse group of community practitioners in important discussions about essential competencies for community practice and ethical conduct and dilemmas within the Arab culture. During the discussion on ethical dilemmas, I decided to do my thesis about the important ethical principles in community practice in the region and contribute in developing a culturally-appropriate ethics code for community practitioners, since most organizations now adopt Western codes that do not conform to our collectivist and conservative culture. Moreover, as an organizer of the conference, I read several ideas and projects in order to help in the selection process. This task taught me about the successful factors of research and programming and made me realize that my research needs to be innovative and effective. I also had many chances to network with community psychologists and practitioners as I operated several sessions during the conference, which was an exceptional opportunity while I am still a student. I aspire to present the research of my thesis in the next community psychology conference in the MENA region.
Amira Ragy Hanna (community psychology MA student at The American University in Cairo). I wanted to attend the conference mainly because it was the first conference bringing together community psychologists from the MENA region. To be honest I did not have particular expectations. But if there is one thing that I got out of the conference, it is inspiration. I was simply inspired just by being surrounded by like-minded human beings and sharing our stories and experiences. Everyone was aspiring to make a change, to be the change that others gave up on. I was surrounded by human beings who still believe in people and communities. It was a confirmation that I was studying something that I love and am proud to be a part of. I am looking forward for the coming
What do Community Psychologists Need to Know in the MENA Region? A Discussion on Training Competencies
Written by Mona M. Amer and Serdar M. Değirmencioğlu
A roundtable session focused on training competencies was hosted at the 1st MENA Regional Conference on Community Psychology, which was held March 2016 in Cairo, Egypt. Our goal from the
discussion was to generate ideas for community psychology curriculum development. During the session, titled “Priorities for Community Practice Training Competencies in the Region,” participants identified some of the important theories and skills that were essential to effective community practice within the regional context.
There were many theoretical frameworks that were highlighted as important foundations for the community psychology student in the MENA region. These included the following:
1. Systems perspectives including ecological theories such as by George Kelley, in order to gain a complex understanding of social issues. Systems theories can be broadened to include cultural anthropology or even John Bowlby (attachment as a system).
2. Theories that analyze and explain the distribution of power between different parties, as well as the process of empowerment. These theories are important to explain the political contexts and influences on community psychology work.
3. Social justice models and theories, which are critical when addressing disparities and injustices in the region.
4. Examinations of colonization and its pervasive and ongoing influences on shaping MENA society.
5. Readings by Frantz Fanon, specifically The Wretched of the Earth, to ground students in decolonization movements towards liberation and effective change.
6. Theories on experiential learning and involving the empowerment of people, such as Paulo Freire’s ways of engagement described in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
7. Collectivism versus individualism models, to be able to grasp the values and implications of living in collectivistic cultures in which beliefs and behaviors are influenced by cultural contexts and not necessarily individual motives. The collectivistic setting could affect community practices differently from how they were developed in more individualistic nations.
8. Examinations of the cultural nuances and differences within the regional cultures in order to avoid overgeneralizations and to understand community and diversity in a more complex manner.
9. Ethnopsychology, to examine one’s own indigenous cultural background and study other cultural perspectives to bridge diversity.
10. Theories about group development and group dynamics, including stages of change, psychoeducational groups, and peer mentoring approaches, because so much of community work is groupbased.
11. Social identity approaches, such as Tajfel & Turner, which provide a better understanding of the underpinnings of group behavior and how people understand themselves in relation to others.
12. Public health perspectives in order to address the disparity between the large number of people who need services and the availability of qualified practitioners. This may include readings by George Albee focused on prevention.
In addition to the theoretical groundwork for community psychology training, the roundtable discussion was also an opportunity to determine some of the key skills needed for effective community practice. These included the following:
1. Being humble and learning how to learn solutions from communities. Gaining skills in how to accept, respect, and appreciate community beliefs and culture.
2. Understanding the community’s needs through participatory approaches. Building trust, bridging with communities, and co-creating solutions.
3. Using participatory approaches in generating and documenting knowledge, such as Participatory Action Research.
4. Using research skills to know what works and doesn’t work in popular community practices (including trends such as micro-financing, fair trade, etc.), taking into account the unique community contexts.
5. Applying research approaches in accurately observing and collecting data to map what is happening. This would apply to all stages of program development, implementation, and evaluation.
6. Structuring a model of change and implementing impact modeling.
7. Knowing how to integrate religious and cultural values and belief systems in the work, including how to acknowledge the influences of collectivism or utilize religious messages to encourage positive change.
8. Effectively managing small and large group dynamics.
9. Advocating for human rights and finding allies to work with on human rights issues.
10. Learning alternative forms of activism other than political activism (in cases where it is risky or unsafe). Creating advocacy through non-political means.
11. Learning from other approaches to community change such as social entrepreneurship.
12. Being flexible and creative in addressing problems in a complex and continuously changing socio-political context.
In many ways the theories and skills identified by participants echoed the training competencies issued by SCRA. Community practice was seen to rest on ecological and systems perspectives, with trainees encouraged to develop evidence-based skills in designing and evaluating programs. Participation and empowerment were central. At the same time, the roundtable discussion emphasized the role of culture and collectivism in community work, and the importance of understanding the ramifications of colonialism and inter-group cultural tensions. As such, models from sociological and anthropological traditions were suggested. Much of the discussion centered on the need for students of community psychology to gain skills in working within the contentious and rapidly shifting socio-political dynamics.