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Volume 51 Number 1
Edited by Nicole Freund
Written by Olya Glantsman, DePaul University, firstname.lastname@example.org
“My personal and career goal is to utilize my trainings and experiences to provide support to those whose voices go unheard.” – Amber E. Kelly
Amber E. Kelly, PhD, MS, MHS, is a community psychologist with a passion for taking a social ecological perspective to address issues that impact underserved populations. Currently she is an Adjunct Professor at National Louis University and a People’s Liberty grantee. Dr. Kelly’s experiences have ranged from evaluation research, community-based nonprofit work, international teaching, mental health research, and health disparities research. Until this past summer, Amber worked as a director of program evaluation and research at Cincinnati’s Beech Acres Parenting Center. Before the move to her hometown in Cincinnati, OH, Dr. Kelly worked as a director of evaluation at ChildServ and as a visiting research associate at the University at Chicago. What makes Amber’s career path unique and of special interest to many practitioners is that she has successfully navigated and balanced both the academic and practice domains of her work. Her approach has been to keep both hands in both arenas at the same time.
Bringing Community Psychology Home
Amber’s latest endeavor is FamilyFlickn. “What is FamilyFlickn?” I asked Amber during our interview. “One of my favorite childhood memories” she begins, “was going to the Bond Hill Showcase Cinemas on the weekends with my family.” Because the theater was within walking distance from her home, it made it easy to get to. “The love of going to the theater was instilled in me,” Amber continues, “which is why me and my husband regularly take our daughters to the movies on the weekends.” When the movie theater in her neighborhood got demolished, Bond Hill and its neighboring towns, Avondale and Roselawn, lost the only cinema in the area. Amber grieved that the families in her community would not have the opportunity to engage in the same positive experiences she had when she was little. This is when Amber jumped into action: “How do I bring movies to the community? What about families who want to engage in the movies and they are not accessible?” Her goal was to come up with a plan that would allow the families in her community and surrounding areas to engage in a movie experience. Enter FamilyFlickn. This project is a movie-going experience that goes beyond just watching a movie. While riding around the neighborhood on a party bus, participants get to watch a movie while enjoying free popcorn and drinks, and, most importantly, a sense of bonding with other families in the neighborhood. Supported by People’s Liberty, a philanthropic lab powered by the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation, FamilyFlickn brings the family movie experience back to the community for free. Thus, the goals of FamilyFlickn - to promote family engagement and build a sense of community - are accomplished. These events have received a very positive response from the families and have been embraced by both the parents and the children alike. One grant, two movie screenings, and 111 happy moviegoers later, Amber is already planning the next event. Encouragingly, once word of this project got out, Amber was approached by members of neighboring communities asking for similar events in their hometowns. Amber is already working on the grants to increase capacity in order to meet this demand. To learn more about this project, you can visit https://www.familyflickn.com.
Working in Communities
Being involved with this project reignited Amber’s passion for working in the community. “I want to make a difference,” she says, “I have visions of what I want to do.” So, now she is looking for projects in which she can see those visions come alive and where she doesn’t have to “compromise herself,” as she says. While there are many options, she is considering starting a community-based nonprofit to realize her many dreams and visions. “I love practice, I am too much of a people person to be confined to a desk,” she says.
At one point in her career, Amber truly believed that she was going to be doing evaluation for the rest of her life. But even though she really enjoyed it, she felt like it was missing something - there was more interaction with leadership, but not enough with the community. Another characteristic that sets Dr. Kelly apart is her openness to experimentation. “I am open to failure because not everything you try will be a success. I have learned as much from my failures as from successes.” One thing she is sure about - she “needs to drive it.” “When you really enjoy something, it does not feel like work,” she says. And that’s how working on FamilyFlickn felt. There were many lessons that Amber learned from this project. For one, how do you get a word out in a community that is not media savvy? This involved a lot of work: on the ground advertising, working with the local businesses, involving community members. For this project, Dr. Kelly’s academic research training was an additional asset. At this time, she is working on an evaluation of the events, which she hopes will help her secure even more funding. Her hope is not only to repeat this year’s activities, but to expand the project to other neighboring communities. As many practitioners know: “The degree is not the end it’s the beginning. You are equipped with the tools. What you will get out of your career is how you use those tools.” The academic settings in which she learned and cultivated her research and evaluation skills continue to influence her work and remain a part of how she operates.
Finding the Field
Since there does not seem to be one path to community psychology, it is usually very interesting to learn how did they come to the field. Dr. Kelly’s began with a love of her undergraduate experience. Still very much involved with her alma mater, Amber’s efforts at Clark Atlanta University (CAU) contributed to the establishment of an undergraduate scholarship fund for psychology majors. At CAU, Amber earned a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Spanish. After matriculating, she was granted the post baccalaureate Intramural Research Technical Assistant (IRTA) Fellowship by the National Institute of Mental Health where she conducted various research projects focused on children who had mood and anxiety disorders, utilizing Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) techniques. This experience prompted Amber to learn more about mental health, but from a public health perspective. In fact, what set Amber apart from her cohort, was that she always looked at community issues differently. She also realized early on that if she wanted to accomplish what she envisioned, she needed to be in a leadership role, which pointed her towards a Master's degree. After receiving her first Master’s in Public Mental Health and a Certificate in Health Disparities and Health Inequality from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, she moved to Spain to teach English to high school students for 9 months. She would teach during the week and travel during the weekend, offering time for self-reflection and leading her to apply to DePaul’s Master of Science in Public Service Management.
It was at DePaul where Amber was first introduced to Community Psychology, taking Intro to Community Psychology as an elective. At that time, Dr. Chris Keys, a community psychologist, was looking for research assistants for a program evaluation of Medicaid managed care and Amber was looking for a capstone project. While working on this project, Amber met Judah Viola, a recent graduate of DePaul’s Community Psychology doctoral program and a faculty member at the National Louis University (NLU). It was he who told her about the NLU’s Community Psychology PhD.
Right away she was drawn to the graduate program at NLU because of its philosophy that individuals, communities, and society are all interlinked and play a part in the wellness of an individual. She was also excited to learn that community psychologists interact directly with the community, her lifelong dream. The program was very applied and had a cohort model. What she loved most about her program was the opportunity to learn from different perspectives. Amber’s experience at NLU was so positive, that she still keeps in touch with others from the program, including Judah, who became her advisor. At NLU Amber learned that failure only came when she didn’t try; when there was no one to tell her she couldn’t do something, her default was to believe that she could. This included traditional academic roles like teaching.
Initially Dr. Kelly shied away from teaching. She would think to herself: “How do you teach the same things (concepts) over and over again without getting bored?” However, when she actually got to try teaching, she realized that while the concepts may not change, the students do, and common topics may be facilitated in different ways. Courses can change in design as well. She loves helping the concepts stick for students. There is something thrilling about seeing that light bulb go on when students get it, and that can have the same effect as watching the vision for a community event come alive. Dr. Kelly has found that she is happiest when both sides of her work are married: working in academia through teaching and working in the community on programs and projects that are meaningful. Just as there is no one path to discovering community psychology, there is no one path to expressing community psychology in one’s work. However, Amber wouldn’t have found this balance without experimentation and trying both ways of working with community psychology on for size. “Think about what’s the best that can happen? Find your niche. And you can’t find your niche, if you don’t try different things.”