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Volume 52 Number 2 Spring 2019
National Louis University Chicago
The theme of the Biennial this year is Ecological Praxis: System Complexity, Cycles of Action, and Extending the Metaphors with the Natural World.
What does this mean?
Quite a few Biennial submissions received, interpreted, and expanded the “ecological praxis” theme, quite accurately –not that there was a wrong answer—and they did so in intriguing ways. The “Ecological”, in part, recognizes Jim Kelly as a founder of our field and his pioneering, and continued work, on “becoming ecological”. Our attention to “ecology” is now central to SCRA. And yet the ecology metaphor and the ecological realities still possess potential meanings, ecology as, for instance, social systems, multiple-levels, person, and environmental fit. Multiple meanings have instantiated themselves into our community psychology consciousness in complex ways. There is the social ecology in which we work and live. Yet equally meaningful is the connection of ecology to the most meaningful non-human ecosystems around us. The non-human ecology existed before the human, social ecology, and hopefully they will continue on this earth for a long time.
It therefore makes sense to give due attention to the human-driven climate change, and the scarcity of and threat to resources, and extinction. While attempting to move beyond individuals and exploring our human-social ecology we too often ignore our connection to the larger natural world. We are all part of the same interconnected universe. Urgent realities require urgent human allies. Community members around the world who are less affluent are the ones most threatened by climate-related catastrophes. Our “ecological thinking” must transcend the tracing of ecological constellations of human interactions. We have to realize that animal and plant ecosystems are really more than a metaphor for our work, and there is a need for human unity and for action.
This is where the “praxis” in ecological praxis comes in.
The great complex systems thinking can sometimes get us caught up in intellectualizing and observing structures with curiosity and awe, yet with no clear path to action. And for SCRA, that is research, values, and ACTION. If we do not attend to the action, the movement toward transforming the world, if we are just static, that is problematic. To engage in wise praxis, we need to understand the ecology around us without getting stultified and bogged down. Real action is not a single act. It is not a single point in time or a single event, and that is why praxis presents such a powerful guide. The concept of praxis can help us create better guides toward understanding a more fully temporal process and practice, the forward collective movement that comes through action. Praxis not only occurs in time and stages but is often cyclical and iterative.
Here, I am defining praxis as: an iterative, cyclical set of processes or methodological stages toward social change. The iterative cycle may flow back and forth from community dialogues, to the research literature, showing what has been learned in the past, or what has been effective in other settings. The cycle includes later stages of our current multiple methods of research, our practice and programming, and then back again to our community dialogues. We learn at every stage and consistently refine our pathways.
Our current SCRA strategic plan is unsurprisingly communicated as a multifaceted systems-based (even if a closed systems) model. I am grateful for the many engaged members of SCRA who have helped put it together and to those who continue to help bring it to life. While the SCRA strategic plan accounts for some of the complexity of our reality, like any two-dimensional plan, it cannot explicate everything around us, nor everything that we do. Still, this is not a critique as much as a challenge that we emphasize more movement over time including processes, goals, and outcomes. I believe an accompanying logic model or theory of change could help facilitate such movement.
The illustrative visual of SCRAs strategic plan shown on the next page is right now a powerfully comprehensive framework. Take some time to review this model, represented a building or home. Does it capture your understanding of current and future SCRA priorities? What stands out to you in the model?
Here are some of my immediate reflections. It is a solid, sturdy looking building, in my imagination a house, and a home is a good thing. The brick and mortar structure metaphor for SCRA is a place that can be seen inside is protective, and safe, a place of warmth, a place where one can recover with others. It is a setting, and community psychology is all about the creation of new, autonomous alternative settings, where members can provide each other with mutual support, largely around our professional work, but certainly around friendships and even family-like relationships as well. A sense of community and empowerment often come about in such settings. For some of us, SCRA might even provide a form of therapeutic safety, when our work environments are rough or hostile. The lone community psychologist working out in places where no other community psychologists are around can turn to SCRA and feel a sense of connection.
One limitation I see in the house metaphor is its separation from the natural world, a static structure that does not live and therefore does not grow. If we do look at the nature in the model, we see grass and leaves. The leaves are there to label the different sections. Grass can symbolize beautification of a home and its connection to the earth, so perhaps our values could represent roots (in the natural world), or, given that our values permeate everything we do, vines? Part of me still wishes the whole symbol could be one of life and movement.
I look at the two floors with five concrete strategic priorities— (1) Membership, (2) Educational Programs, (3) Visibility, (4) Operations, and (5) Finance. These two concrete floors feel like a lot a lot of room taken up for such inward focused work. The strategic priorities are important, but sometimes I wonder if our strategic plan focuses a bit too much inwardly. I am not sure it deserves more floors than other areas. What if the outside “community” was seen to represent the majority of our work, to be our base? What if the metaphor of the strategic plan was looked outwardly, to the community and to the natural world? How might that re-framing change the way in which we conduct our work?
Then I get to the “domains of activity”. This is in many ways what I see as one of our strongest set of forces. This, I believe, is where our greatest sense of strengths lies. The domains of activity get closer to the idea of praxis, to what might be better represented as our cyclical but forward movement. Our domains of activity— (1) Research, (2) Education, (3) Practice, and (4) Policy. They reflect action, and our engagement with the world. It is hard not to notice some incongruities between our “domains of activity” and our “councils”. Research, Education, and Practice are all Councils, but Racial and Ethnic Affairs are not included in our domains of activity, and “Policy” is one of our domains of activity but –as I have been reminded—Policy is not a Council. It would certainly be easy to pull Racial Justice up from the values and added as a domain of activity. But should Policy also be a Council? Such alignment between our councils and domains of activity would make sense. For me, what is key is that these domains of activity reflect on SCRA’s engagement with the outside world.
And then we get to the top of the house. It is in very small print, but it is a very essential and pleasing SCRA mission and vision.
Let’s focus on the SCRA vision portion on the roof:
Have a strong, global impact on enhancing well-being and promoting social justice for all people by fostering collaboration where there is division and empowerment where there is oppression.
The statement is almost perfect here. Although, in my opinion, the pairing of “empowerment” with “where there is oppression” is not quite right. Empowerment is a process that involves the “community members” themselves. Empowerment involves community members, not those doing “oppression”. We need to engage, as well, as Community Psychology, those actors involved in oppression. Rather than “empowerment where there is oppression”, what about “activism” instead? Or even better yet, “empowerment and activism” “where there is oppression”. It is this combination of empowerment and action that changes power structures, whereas empowerment alone puts the onus on the community members in the face of oppression—it falls a bit into the blaming-the-victim, pulling-up-by-bootstraps fallacy. In fact, “activism” incorporates empowerment within it, and solidarity, all in the service of confronting or challenging unjust power and policies.
As community psychologists engaged in activism, we should be working “with” community members, working “for” and, sometimes “behind”. community members. Often, we actually are the community members. We are always allies and our community psychology brings, as scholar-activists, knowledge capital. We don’t have to fight oppression violently. We can peacefully (but vigorously, forcefully, analytically, and intelligently) play a larger role in resisting oppression. That work, non-violent activism, not just empowerment, falls clearly within the domain of community psychology.
In any ecological praxis survey of the environment, oppression has to be studied, people have to be involved in liberating pedagogy, dialoguing about racism and de-colonization, and pushing for policy change.
There are two broader (not mutually-exclusive) roles SCRA plays when it comes to our function:
1) as a house, a setting of support, perhaps for respite. For many of us, SCRA conferences or events, for instance, are places to refresh, to get new ideas, to feel solidarity. Eventually our empathy for the broader world and social justice re-emerges. Therefore, there is also:
2) that policy, advocacy, and action work that SCRA does as an entity. We are all of course doing individual work outside that SCRA house, but I am talking about the work we do through SCRA, as a collectivity. We engage in that action as SCRA now, and we must continue doing so.
The complexity of ecology can interfere with concentrated action, but we need both ecological thinking and practice, for all the natural world, and the human part as well. How do we learn to better fold our ecological knowledge into praxis-based action? How do we more intentionally share the positive lessons learned and new ideas across the ecology of groups to move toward more collective action? Part of praxis is reflection, gaining input, utilizing existing research and theory, conversing to assess how we are impacting the human and the larger, natural world (animal, plant, and other worlds), and future generations, and putting ideas into practice. Let’s use community psychology’s community-based and trans-species values, against the forces of harm, the by-standing, the excesses of social control, and the structural violence in the world.
President of SCRA
Associate Professor, National Louis University Chicago