Volume 54, Number 2 Spring 2021

Community Psychology Practice in Undergraduate Settings

Edited by Mayra Guerrero and Olya Glantsman, DePaul University

A Community Engagement Course Goes Virtual

Written by Elizabeth Thomas, Rhodes College

This brief report describes a partnership between my Community Psychology classes at Rhodes College and BRIDGES, USA, a youth leadership organization located close to our campus in Memphis, Tennessee. I was able to share insights about this partnership at the Undergraduate Interest Group virtual meeting in fall 2020, and was invited to provide a brief report about it here, which I was glad to do!

I teach Community Psychology to undergraduate psychology, urban studies, and health equity majors each fall semester. Over the last three years, my students have provided research support for youth organizers who serve as fellows for CHANGE, the most intensive program at the BRIDGES organization, which is focused on youth-led community transformation. This last fall, we all moved to virtual learning, including my students as well as the 20 youth fellows who attend middle and high schools all over the city and surrounding region.

The youth fellows at BRIDGES reflect the demographics of our majority Black city, and they come from public schools, private schools, wealthy suburban communities, and under-resourced neighborhoods in the city and surrounding counties. They are paid to work 10 hours per week, and they engage with the issues that impact young people in Memphis. Committees include youth justice, racial and educational justice, sexual harassment and violence in schools, and safe and brave spaces for LGBTQ+ youth. Youth fellows work within and across issue areas in intersectional justice work. They have had a number of tangible successes, most recently realizing a sexual harassment policy for our largest metro school district and a Mayor’s county-wide youth council. 

As my students get to know the youth fellows and their work in committees at the beginning of the fall semester, they choose the issue areas to which they want to contribute. Then, they partner with youth fellows by listening to their definition of the problem, the cultural and policy changes they believe are needed to address these problems, and their research needs. At mid-semester, my students meet with the fellows, offer a presentation of their findings, and provide a focused literature review. Youth fellows then provide feedback and suggest next steps for the research. At the end of the course, my students provide updated research to the youth fellows and complete a final academic reflection and analysis of the experience utilizing course concepts for me. 

Over the last three years, staff at Bridges and I have learned a great deal together about how to best facilitate and structure this partnership, while enabling youth organizers and college students to take the lead. One of the biggest AHA! moments has been the realization that the research “deliverables” do not need to be academic research papers. We have become much more creative (and I cannot take any of the credit for that) with infographics, charts, one-page fact sheets, animations, and other more engaging, effective, and accessible ways to share information with our youth partners and community leaders. 

Moving to remote learning has felt like a loss in many ways. Before this year, we met on site at BRIDGES, a space that is so intentionally welcoming and embodies the principles and values of their inclusive, equity-oriented work. My students come to know their partners through games, exercises, and meaningful sharing. But I have been incredibly impressed with how this has still been possible in Zoom virtual spaces -- spaces in which youth have the support and skills they need to take the lead. They lead the meetings, each fellow taking responsibility for various portions of the agenda. They model inclusive pedagogies, beginning the meetings with grounding and centering practices, then sharing updates. They use the annotations feature of zoom to take votes, and create fun, meaningful tasks for large and small groups. My students and I have learned so much from the youth organizers about creating community in these virtual meetings. 

I have also learned that there are silver linings for my students in a virtual information sharing climate. My students and I now have access to national and international resources and forms of expertise that have emerged in virtual conferences, webinars, and live streaming of talks. We can learn about youth organizing in other parts of the country around common issues and experiences. 

We look forward to continuing our partnership this coming fall. And I long for a time when we are physically in the same space. But I am grateful for the opportunities that this difficult time has brought us to engage in meaningful change. One of the CHANGE committees, for example, is working on reallocating funds currently used for school resource (police) officers towards counselors and other mental health resources. The pandemic and realities of virtual learning have made the need for these policy shifts clearer than ever. Youth fellows are meeting with county commissioners, prepared with overwhelming empirical evidence collected by my students. My students have reported that they found meaningful work with the youth fellows a much-needed motivation and singularly rewarding experience in the difficulties of the current context. I am grateful to have the opportunity to share this ongoing community engagement course with you – stay tuned for Fall 2021.