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Volume 54, Number 2 Spring 2021
Edited by Gloria Levin, firstname.lastname@example.org
“Living Community Psychology” highlights a community psychologist through an in-depth interview that is intended to depict both personal and professional aspects of the featured individual. The intent is to personalize Community Psychology as it is lived by its diverse practitioners. Prior columns (which date from the late 1980s) are available online at http://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/tcp-past-issues These past columns contain a wealth of life advice gleaned from over 65 profiled community psychologists, from graduate students to retirees, representing an invaluable resource for community psychologists.
For this installment, we feature Chris Beasley, whose personal background was the antithesis of his current role as a scholar. And yet his experiences as an incarcerated law breaker form the basis of his current scholarship and advocacy. His academic history was all earned post prison, proceeding from community college through a Ph.D. from DePaul University. He conducts research on formerly incarcerated persons who seek and achieve academic success but also is an active leader in the formation of social networks for these persons, encouraging a strong sense of community and possibilities for their futures.
Chris Beasley has described himself as an “academic, advocate and community organizer.” Yet one would not have ever predicted those descriptors for him in his youth. He was raised in Casey, a rural town in southern Illinois with a population of 2,000, all White, mostly poor. The area is characterized by “cornfields, factories and service jobs.” His parents were both intelligent, although both had few educational opportunities. His father worked in the oil fields until, when Chris was a pre-teen, he went on disability as schizo-affectively disordered, complicated by alcoholism, depression and a bad back. His father “suffered a lot,” often secluded in his bedroom. His mother worked 2 full-time service-related jobs, putting food on the table for the family, including four children – 3 boys and a girl. Says Chris, “I was definitely from the wrong side of the tracks, even in a small rural town.” The family moved from one rundown house to another throughout his childhood. Chris was educated, K-12, in Casey schools, his native intelligence (rather than any work ethic) getting him through.
Chris slowly gained an awareness that he was gay, but “rural gayness” was something one struggled to hide. He had enough awareness of the stigma against gays that he knew he could not pursue his dream of becoming an Air Force pilot (because at that time, the military did not admit homosexuals), and he avoided sports because of the anti-gay locker room culture. For him, sex with other males was emotionally disconnected; most of his exposure to gay culture came from gay chatrooms.
In high school (around 1992, in the days of MS-DOS and Netscape but before firewalls), he found that he had an aptitude for computers, advanced for his peers. His computer teacher encouraged him to teach himself about executable files. While exploring files, he strayed into the school’s account; he was accused of hacking into the school’s computer system, and he was sentenced to detention, which he refused. His punishment was a short suspension and being barred from any computer use in school.
Hanging around with a group that was considered “wayward,” he began racking up offenses, such as breaking into vehicles to steal, for which he was charged with his first felony. He was regularly drinking and smoking cigarettes and pot (which he was also selling). Fortunately, his native intelligence allowed him to pass his high school courses, without much effort. After graduating high school, he began using, manufacturing and selling methamphetamine, “not for income but to keep everyone supplied in and to earn respect from my peer community,” he says. His loving parents tolerated this misbehavior in their son. After high school, he began working as manual labor at a printing factory. After his parents moved, Chris continued living in their old house which became his group’s party house. Meth was prevalent in his community, in part because of the easy availability of fertilizer used in the cornfields which was also a base ingredient for meth’s manufacturing process – made in basements, sheds and the woods in his community.
Chris was constantly stopped and searched by the local police, who found illegal substances on him, including Ecstasy and cocaine. He cycled through short jail stays and probations, meanwhile earning enough income from his factory job and from dealing drugs, that he was able to hire attorneys to fight charges against him. Eventually, he was fired by his employer because of frequent absences for court and jail. Meanwhile, his health suffered, being chemically dependent and undernourished. “I slept with a meth pipe next to me.” He did not take advantage of treatment or criminal justice reform opportunities. Yet, he realized his life was out of control and his distress from paranoia was overwhelming. However, he could not stop … until he was sentenced to an 18-month prison sentence.
Although he was incarcerated in minimum security, he was nevertheless fearful of what faced him as a gay man in prison. He stayed to himself and focused on his eventual release. With good time and other sentence reductions, he only served 4 months in prison plus an 8-month post-prison jail sentence. “By then, I was sober and began to think about making something of my life.” His uncle, president of a local community college, encouraged him to enroll for an associate degree at Lincoln Trail College (a small community college in eastern Illinois) where he studied psychology, intending to become an addiction counselor. “Attending college was, in large part, an effort to regain a sense of success and the social status I had in the drug world.” He received considerable support from the TRiO Student Support Services program at the community college. But his most avid supporter was his father who, despite a degenerative spine, chauffeured Chris (whose driver’s license was revoked) to/from school – a 3-hour journey. “This effort on his part made it apparent how much my attending college meant to him.” Through his work/study assignment in the computer lab and mentoring other students, Chris, for the first time, realized that you could be paid for your mind. In other words, “work was no longer about payment for labor performed but about being valued for having knowledge and being able to share this knowledge with others.” He obtained his associate degree in 2004 with a major in psychology.
Having met someone from Duluth, MN on a gay chatroom, he began visiting Duluth on weekends via Greyhound bus trips. That relationship was his first emotionally connected gay connection. After it ended, he established another relationship, carried out long distance for a year. At that time, he was enrolled in a 4-year college in Illinois but transferred after a year to the University of Minnesota, Duluth (majoring in psychology) to pursue yet another relationship. Chris had relapsed into substance abuse several times post-prison until his move to Duluth, at which time he entered recovery (a journey he continues to this day).
In 2005, he met (Philippine-born) Ev, a fellow student at UMD at a gay pride event. Finding the university and Duluth an affirming environment, he came out as gay, and the UMD Queer and Allied Student Union became an important center of his life. Ev was a stabilizing influence, always a good student without behavioral issues. (Chris and Ev married in 2013 in Minnesota, a state that was an early adopter of same sex marriage.)
In Chris’ final year of college (2007), a professor inquired if he was applying to graduate school – a thought that had never occurred to him. Having obtained reasonable scores on the GRE, he applied for a master’s program at Roosevelt University in Chicago “mostly because it did not require a research thesis, since I had done terribly in statistics classes in college.”
At a Psi Chi mixer at Roosevelt, he met Dr. Susan Torres-Harding who became an important mentor for him. She put him in touch with Lenny Jason, her mentor and a professor at nearby DePaul University, who had an active research program in addiction recovery. Chris volunteered on Lenny’s research team. Needing paid work, Chris eventually took a paid position on the same team. Ironically, despite Chris’ earlier aversion to statistics, he discovered he had a talent for research methods so began working on data management exclusively. He opted to write a research thesis at Roosevelt after all! (Adding to the irony, he later employed advanced statistical methods in his doctoral dissertation.)
He planned to obtain a Psy.D. and become a clinical psychologist, specializing in substance abuse treatment. However, due to the influence of Susan (from whom he had taken a community course) and from Lenny and his colleagues in DePaul’s research lab, he switched to a community focus because of its macro orientation. Chris joined SCRA as a student member; he attended SCRA biennial conferences, where he participated on panels and organized social events for gay students and special interest meet-ups.
Along his journey, he had an epiphany: He wanted an academic career. “Reflecting back on my academic mentors, I realized that I could become what I looked up to.” Before obtaining his 2010 master’s from Roosevelt in clinical psychology, he applied to 3 community-oriented doctoral programs, accepting DePaul’s offer. He assumes DePaul’s acceptance of him was due to his much-improved GRE scores and from having proved his ability to operate as an independent researcher, after obtaining and completing a SPSSI research grant. Lenny not only accepted Chris’ past history of substance abuse and incarceration (“valuing learned experience”) but actually mentored 3 students with similar histories simultaneously in his research lab – a world’s record, Chris claims. While at DePaul, he was awarded a NIDA F31 grant that allowed him to carve out his own, independent, area of research, apart from the research lab.
Nearing his 2013 graduation from DePaul, he dove into the academic job market. He and Ev were willing to move anywhere, except “south of the Mason Dixon line because of that region’s attitudes to gay couples,” later amended to also exclude very cold, snowy climates. For his first year post-PhD, he did not land an academic appointment, but was kept on for another year at the DePaul research lab. The next year, he accepted an offer from Washington College in Chestertown, a Chesapeake Bay town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It is the first college chartered in the U.S. (1782) with a student population of 1,400. He was attracted to the college because it claimed to be research and community oriented. However, upon arrival, he realized that the college’s emphasis was decidedly more on teaching than independent research, nor were there many opportunities for community work. He also came to realize that a better fit for him would be a setting with a more diverse student population.
A classroom incident (in which he used his criminal background as an example of lived history) led to a student complaining to his department; his supervisor advised him to hide that part of his background in the future. This felt stigmatizing and led to an “existential crisis because I did not want to be silenced. Also, I was being energized by my active involvement in post-prison networks at that time.” He did not want to sublimate such a critical part of his persona. At the same time, Ev, who was then self-employed, desired an urban environment that would offer him better career opportunities. Discouraged, Chris considered relinquishing his dream of an academic research career so began monitoring ads for administrative positions in higher education.
During this search, Chris learned of a position at the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) that seemed perfect, emphasizing social justice values across the whole campus. The social demographics of UWT’s student population are lower income, ethnically diverse and first-generation college. Nontraditional (older) and transfer students are heavily represented also. Chris’ cover letter for his application did not mention his criminal background, and he was shortlisted for the position. However, in his telephone interview, Chris informed UWT about his past. He was offered the job and readily accepted.
After 3 years in Chestertown (2014-2017), Chris moved to UWT, where he was welcomed with open arms. “Here, my background is valued rather than silenced, and I can be open about my life experience.” UWT has more than lived up to its stated values and has ample supportive systems in place for its diverse student population. His current position, in UWT’s School for Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, is not in a community psychology degree program but nonetheless shares many of community psychology’s values. A UWT colleague, Rachel Hershberg, is a community and developmental psychologist. In view of the large, unmet need in the local area for direct mental health services, including for opioid addictions, an eventual aspiration is to launch a master’s degree program that would train clinicians with a community orientation.
Now in his fourth year as an assistant professor at UWT, he is steadily working toward tenure. There, he founded and leads the Post-Prison Education Research Lab (PERL) that studies social and psychological influences involved in transitioning from prison to college. The university’s research expectation for faculty is broad. While a solid publication record is valued, so too are acts of public scholarship, such as educating the public. Chris has been very active, both in leadership of advocacy organizations related to criminal justice and in delivering keynote addresses around the topic of formerly incarcerated persons who then obtain college degrees.
A critical part of his emergence as a scholar has been his immersion in post-prison higher education networks, constituting his life’s mission and giving his life a sense of purpose. Chris is now (and has been since community college) engaged in a number of reform-minded advocacy groups. In an earlier effort to develop a mutual-help program for this population, it was difficult to identify potential peer-mentors. So he co-founded the Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network (FICGN) – a national organization of college-degreed persons who have been imprisoned. The core mission of this network is to promote the education and empowerment of formerly incarcerated people through a collective community. At this time, he is a board director for both FICGN and for From Prison Cells to PhD. He also is spearheading the development of the Husky Post-Prison Pathways (HP3) initiative, which seeks to provide support to formerly incarcerated students entering and progressing through UWT. Also at UWT, he is the advisor for the Formerly Incarcerated Student Association (FISA) and regularly mentors and advises formerly incarcerated students through his work with these organizations.
Through these network-building activities, he aims to “broaden the narrative about formerly incarcerated people to make it more inclusive of professional careers and lives of service to the community.” In so doing, stigma (and external barriers) may be reduced and formerly incarcerated persons’ vision of possibilities for themselves may be broadened.
Chris explains: “Prisons are meant to strip away antisocial identities and replace them with prosocial ones, but without a new prosocial choice, incarcerated persons are only left with a sense of being further marginalized and part of a deviant group. The period of incarceration is a prime opportunity to encourage scholarly pursuits and an academic identity. However, federal funding is not available to support efforts to promote scholarship among incarcerated persons.” Chris’ work aims to develop a collective capacity for personal and structural change for formerly incarcerated persons, through academic achievement and a broader vision for their possibilities in life.