Volume 53   Number 1 Winter 2020

Special Feature: Racial Justice

Edited by Dominique Thomas, TCP Associate Editor

The current sociopolitical environment has many racially marginalized people who are left unheard, under resourced, and over surveilled. This exploitation renders many people as disposable according to dominant narratives and processes that reproduce coloniality such as mass incarceration, gentrification, and other forms of racial capitalism. The number of hate crimes has increased since the 2016 US Presidential Election and with the connections between racial capitalism and the ongoing climate crisis becoming clearer, it is crucial to discuss strategies of attaining racial justice. Recent conversations within the field demonstrate this urgency: both to provide our expertise in support and engaging in critical reflexivity regarding the field’s role perpetuating unequal power dynamics. In light of these conversations, we decided to organize this special feature around the theme of racial justice.

Critical race theory (CRT) can be a framework through which we engage with issues of racial justice. Five themes prevalent in CRT research are the centrality of race and racism, myth of meritocracy, interest convergence, White-washing of history, and counternarratives. It can also be a framework through which we conduct community psychology work. Common themes in critical race theory align with values and principles of community psychology; these connections are embodied by the pieces in this special feature. In Racial injustice and organizational leadership, organizational leaders have the opportunity to address racial injustice. Community psychologists can use community-based research and action to advocate for more just leadership and organization cultures. From Community-Based Research to a Movement – The Proclaiming Our Roots Project Case Study discusses the creation of a safe space for Indigenous-Black communities in Canada to confront their erasure and invisibility. Dually marginalized communities come together to share their stories and reclaim their histories. Resilience, Grit, Coping, and Justice discusses how CRT can focus attention to how concepts and issues are framed when working with marginalized communities.

Each of the issues discussed reflect larger epistemic and epistemological concerns. Power dynamics often come into play when determining expertise, often at the expense of marginalized groups. Epistemic violence erases, excludes, marginalizes, and delegitimizes the lived experiences of those deemed “Other.” Laws are an example of this; laws determine who is criminal, often coinciding with racialization. It becomes a basis for war by creating “Others” who violate laws and norms and become threats to “our” way of life. It takes on another form when it becomes legitimized through social scientific research; this is epistemological violence. The rhetoric of a “War on Drugs” was a justifying ideology to promote the mass incarceration of Black and brown communities: a backlash to the Black liberation and counterculture movements occurring in the 1960s and 1970s.

These concerns take on a greater importance when determining social change efforts. Given community psychology’s close relationship with the non-profit sector and SCRA’s status as a 503 non-profit, it is important to discuss how the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) as a political epistemology (a way of knowing social change) also reproduces racial capitalism. The NPIC historically served a symbiotic relationship with the State’s attempt to suppress counterhegemonic struggles through mass incarceration and other forms of violent social control. Social movements were often steered toward adopting structures that mirror the State and capital. Energy for social change was redirected to bureaucratic structures that promoted the status quo rather than grassroots structures that challenged dominant norms, structures, and institutions. This often legitimizes the racist fears of American civil society, forcing social movements into more “legitimate” methods of pushing for social change. Social movements are also pressured to conform to standards set by foundations that fund them, another example of how capital can co-opt social movements.

As a field of knowledge production, community psychology sits at the intersections of the academic industrial complex and the non-profit industrial complex. Unfortunately, this means many of the aforementioned issues merge within the field. Whose knowledge matters? Who decides what is social change? Where do we get our theories? How does a field develop when its founders are mostly White men?

NPIC epistemology promotes an insider/outsider dynamic; this is no different in community psychology in which we talk about community psychologists and communities as inherently separate or when we have “community member” labels at our conferences. Often in works describing the ideal community psychologist such as Kelly’s (1974) qualities of a community psychologist, the community psychologist is implicitly understood to be a White man; most of theories that are broadly cited in the field come from these perspectives. Many of the methods we use are inherently Eurocentric; for example, ethnographic research originally served colonial purposes, being used to promote social control over colonized populations. Additionally, much peer reviewed research in social science broadly (and psychology specifically) is based on WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic) samples, further justifying norms that uphold racial capitalism. Although a range of epistemologies are practiced and promoted in CP, there is still an emphasis on US-centric post-positivist research.

Racial justice work that accounts for alternative and subaltern epistemologies remains on the margins of the field. This is especially problematic given CP’s quest to be legitimized by institutions such as schools, prisons, police, and non-profits rather than by communities. This need for acknowledgement and recognition from these institutions further justifies the status quo given the historical and contemporary ways these institutions oppress and dominate marginalized and minoritized peoples. Our discussions and conceptualizations of empowerment often have a neoliberal and masculine perspective. Riger (1993) talks about how empowerment is typically framed as mastery, control, and other individualistic constructs rather than ideas such as cooperation and communion. Such a framing of empowerment can lead to groups coming into conflict over one another, particularly in the context of racial capitalism in which racialized groups are often placed into conflict and competition over scarce resources or foundation funding. If we want our field to be a positive force for social change, we have to ensure that our work does not reproduce structures of racial injustice.

Racial Injustice and Organizational Leadership

Written by Vernita Perkins, PhD, Omnigi Research Lab

Race discussions are emotionally charged and socially uncomfortable. Not much question why racial injustice persists, when even a conversation about race is so difficult. The ongoing national dialogue on racial injustice is energized in social sciences, social media, and in entertainment, loaded with socioeconomic and political agendas, and inundated with commentary across social identity groups from blatant denial, to acceptance but inaction, to community action addressing underrepresented narratives. These individual narratives offer a new level of awareness not sufficiently acknowledged or addressed in organizational climates to date. Despite resistance from the privileged identities in U.S. society, it is time for a final racial disparities awakening. Although clarifying the subtleties of racial injustice proves to be difficult (Matthew, 2017), stalling the necessary social changes only delays the inevitable. This next process towards racial justice may be the hardest step for U.S. society to accept. The end of racial injustice begins with a united, uncomfortable global conversation and the subsequent acknowledgement of the depth of racial disparities by privileged social identity groups, threatened at the thought of losing the benefits of privilege (Smeda, 2018), but needing to move forward to cooperate in resolving racial injustice.

Organizational leaders have a unique opportunity now to build diverse, equitable, inclusive (DEI) and sustainable infrastructures, utilizing community psychology and interdisciplinary social sciences to achieve social change. The longer the denial and resistance persists, the more racial events will continue to shape and reveal the gross disparities between overrepresented, over-resourced group privilege, and the underrepresented groups that can no longer tolerate illegal racial inequities.

Organizational leaders can play an integral role in implementing DEI and applying racial justice in leadership-driven systems that recognize, manage, and deliver diversity through nonnormative processes (Berkman, 2018). The primary focus of organizational leaders centers on profit building and reducing their perceptions of external and internal threat. Yet, organizational effectiveness can increase as organizational leaders recognize the strategic value of diversity on organizational performance (Riaz, 2019) innovation, and resilience; and apply cultural competencies based in self-awareness, concern for others, and counterstereotypical thinking interventions (Randsley de Moura, Leicht, Leite, Crisp, & Gocłowska, 2018) in their organizational cultures. This lead-by-example practice prioritizes every employee’s value equally and equitably and encourages DEI, rather than denial, avoidance, and fear of legal liability.

When organizational leaders allow racial injustice, their influential behaviors impact organizational members (Okechukwu, Souza, Davis, & De Castro, 2014). Leaders influence how their organizational members, stakeholders, and consumer demographic views the organization and how the organization intends to represent DEI. Boldly challenging racial injustice positions organizational leaders to fully comprehend the underrepresented individual experience within the racial narratives expressed by the individuals and groups most affected. Too often the voices behind the fight against racial injustice have been the very individuals and groups that created the disparities, who can easily end or redirect the narrative when it becomes uncomfortable or inconvenient. The emerging underrepresented narrative delivers a new depth of social awareness that drives aware organizational leaders to introduce social cognitive processing styles and an improved praxis for creating collaborative, trusting and diverse organizations.

Leaders are influencers and decisionmakers, and as decisionmakers, they are accountable for the outcomes of their objectives and decisions. Leadership that, whether through implicit or unconscious bias, reinforces racial injustice can damage the bonds of trust necessary for effective leadership and organizational wellbeing. What can community psychologists and interdisciplinary social scientists do to restructure sustainable infrastructures in these institutionalized patterns of injustice? How can community psychologists advise organizational leaders to reroute their organizations towards DEI education and fresh ideation? First, organizational leaders’ recognition and acknowledgement of racial injustice. Second, the narrative and decision making must be driven by those social identities experiencing the racial injustice, not the privileged identities perpetrating the injustice. Third, developing and managing cultural and leadership competencies through communities of action. And fourth, evaluation of social change efforts and strategic planning for continued social change.

Developing DEI Organizations

As social science research continues to reveal the distance between racial disparities and racial equality, perpetuation of racial injustice is impossible to ignore. Consider an innovative DEI focus that sees an organization as an opportunity for diverse professionals to meritocratically collaborate on meaningful product and service creation in a sustainable environment fertile with wellbeing and equitable wealth creation.

Homogenous senior organizational leaders may continue to avoid potential lawsuits by pacifying racial issues with normative diversity initiatives, fearing that diversity and inclusion means prioritizing and hiring underrepresented individuals, solely based on their social identity. These initiatives come in the form of forced attendance at harassment seminars that employees fail to take seriously because leadership fails to take the implementation of these seminars seriously. By revising diversity sections of the employee handbook, and promises on their website mission statements, job boards, recruiting materials, and investor presentations that offer their false commitment to diversity and inclusion. With each initiative only intensifying the disparities and exacerbating microaggressions, particularly among employees within the organization possessing greater power distance and homogeneity with leadership (Holvino, 2010). If an organizational leader is truly committed to DEI, the evidence will reside in their own self-awareness, accountability, business ethics, commitment to employee wellbeing, and most important, in their leadership decision making (Okechukwu, et al., 2014).

Held to new DEI standards, leaders cannot comply just to deflect liability or to quiet perceived discontent. Now the global expectation of leaders is actual commitment to diversity, resilience, innovation, and sustainability by investing in diverse organizational membership. Organizational leaders are advised to develop nonnormative competencies in self-awareness, concern for others, counterstereotypical thinking and decision making, and implementation of DEI, representative of architectural leadership, which centers on diffusing leadership influence in favor of improved infrastructures with evolving capabilities to address organizational issues (Kollenscher, Eden, Ronen, & Farjoun, 2017).

Organizational leadership is another rich area where community psychologists can utilize community and research action to advocate for improved leadership and organizational cultures for the communities and individuals they serve.  For more information on diversity, equity and inclusion in organizational leadership, contact Dr. Vernita Perkins at



Berkman, E. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70(1), 28-44. doi:10.1037/cpb0000094

Holvino, E. (2010). Intersections: The simultaneity of race, gender and class in organization studies. Gender, Work & Organization, 17(3), 248-277. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0432.2008.00400.x

Kollenscher, E., Eden, D., Ronen, B., & Farjoun, M. (2017). Architectural leadership: The neglected core of organizational leadership. European Management Review, 14(3), 247-264. doi:10.1111/emre.12108

Matthew, D. (2017). Racial injustice, racial discrimination, and racism: How are they related? Social Theory and Practice, 43(4), 885-914.

Okechukwu, C., Souza, K., Davis, K., & De Castro, A. (2014). Discrimination, harassment, abuse, and bullying in the workplace: Contribution of workplace injustice to occupational health disparities. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 57(5), 573-586. doi:10.1002/ajim.22221

Randsley de Moura, G., Leicht, C., Leite, A., Crisp, R., & Gocłowska, M. (2018). Leadership diversity: Effects of counterstereotypical thinking on the support for women leaders under uncertainty. Journal of Social Issues, 74(1), 165-183. doi:10.1111/josi.12262

Riaz, S. (2019). Rethinking strategic management: Sustainable strategizing for positive impact. In The inequality-aware organization (pp. 199-214). Cham: Springer International Publishing Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-06014-5_10

Smeda, K. (2018). Foul on the play: Applying mediation strategies to address social injustice protests in the NFL. Dispute Resolution Journal, 73(2).

From Community-Based Research to a Movement: The Proclaiming our Roots Project Case Study

Written by Ciann L. Wilson and Ann Marie Beals, Wilfrid Laurier University


We would like to acknowledge and thank the community members who gave of their time, energy, and self, and committed to doing this important and crucial work as we came together to understand who we are and how we navigate in this world. Your voices are heard! A special shout-out to Denise Baldwin, Rashida Symonds, Kayla Webber, Keisha Erwin, Tonya Paris, Teresa Kelsie, Sarah Flicker, Conrad Prince, Melisse (Coyote) Watson, and Anique Jordan for your time and dedication to this community-based process. 

The Proclaiming Our Roots (POR) ProjectCiann Wilson10.Wilson._Photo_AM_Beals.jpg

We are Ciann L. Wilson (of Afro-, Indo-, and Euro- Jamaican ancestry) and Ann Marie Beals (Indigenous-Black L’nuwey), and we are sharing with you a glimpse of the phenomenal work and community-based outcomes of phase one of the Proclaiming Our Roots: African Diasporic and Indigenous Digital Oral History Project. After many conversations from 2014-2015 with community partner, and mixed Black and Anishinaabe Kwe woman, Denise Baldwin, I (Ciann) conceptualized what would become the POR project. A primary objective of the study is to utilize arts- and digital media-based processes to center the voices of mixed Indigenous-Black people who, through various socio-historical and colonial processes, have been rendered invisible in the national discourse about Indigenous peoples in Canada. This is despite an over 500-year history of Indigenous-Black intermarriage and partnership in Canada, and the proliferation of well-known Indigenous-Black communities in the United States (U.S.) (Sturm, 2002; Smith, 1994), such as the Black Seminoles of Florida and Oklahoma. To date, Indigenous and Black unions are common within many communities (e.g., Cherokee, Creek, Lumbee, Creole, Seminole, Iroquois, and Mi'kmaw) (Jolivette, 2007; Mills-Proctor, 2010; Sturm, 2002), many of whom are the stewards of territories that span across the arbitrary Canada-US border.

The POR project is a community-based research project primarily led by Black, Indigenous-Black, and allied scholars and community leaders. The three overarching objectives of the POR project are: 1) To gain an understanding of the nuanced and distinct intersectional forms of (interpersonal, institutional, structural) violence and erasure faced by people of mixed Indigenous and African ancestry, and how these phenomena relate to health and social service access in Canada;  2) To locate lived experiences in current discussions around Truth and Reconciliation (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015) for Indigenous peoples within the Canadian nation-state; and 3) To create written, visual, and narrative archives of the histories, geographies, and realities of Indigenous-Black people in Canada (Wilson & Beals, 2019), in directly usurping white-settler hegemonic revisionist narratives about the history of relationships between Indigenous and African diasporic peoples (Wilson & Beals, 2019).

Towards this end, we held two workshops, one in Toronto, Ontario and one in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which are two cities in two different Canadian provinces where we know distinct and sizeable communities of Indigenous-Black people reside. We utilized qualitative and arts-based methods such as digital storytelling, community mapping, individual interviews, and group conversations. The digital storytelling process afforded participants the opportunity to create personal videos where they could layer images, video, text, sound, music, etc. in expressing their lived realities and histories as Indigenous-Black people. The community map was generated by asking participants to pinpoint and provide short written narratives about the geographical locations across the globe where their family histories are rooted. The breakout group conversations throughout the workshops were audio-recorded, and post-workshop interviews were conducted individually with each participant, to garner their reflections on the workshop process and salient topics brought up throughout the workshops. The outputs of the POR project can be found on our project website: The intent is for the project website to become a digital repository for the community maps and digital stories of Indigenous-Black people across Canada. As such, the project team will continue to populate the website with articles, community reports, project related events, and associated resources and content produced from team members, collaborators, and community members.

Challenge: Confronting Anti-Blackness and Indigenous Erasure in Communities Rendered Invisible

Importantly, in stark contrast to the US, which centers conversations between White and African American communities, the nation-state of Canada has facilitated a dominant discourse between White and Indigenous peoples. White-settler society in Canada has intentionally divorced itself from its involvement in, benefits from, and promulgation of the transatlantic enslavement of Black-embodied people. Instead, Canada has re-imagined itself as the altruistic savior of the same said enslaved African peoples who sought refuge via the Underground Railroad from the US into Canada. Erased is the fact that Canada, being part of the British-North American Empire, was also a site of the enslavement of African peoples (i.e., Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia) and Indigenous peoples (i.e., members of the Pawnee Indian Tribe or as they were colloquially called – the Panis) for two centuries, starting in 1628 (Cooper, 2006; Historica Canada, n.d.). Despite an over 500-year presence in the territories now referred to as Canada, Black people continue to be homogeneously regarded as ‘just arriving’ to Canada from elsewhere - often thought to be from the Caribbean and the continent of Africa. Black people are never thought to rightfully ‘belong’ or have a place in Canada. 

In Canada, Indigenous-Black communities are dispersed and hard-to-reach across the country. Further, Canada defines Indigeneity within its borders as comprised solely of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis (a distinct Nation of Indigenous and French ancestry) peoples. There has been a long and complex history of state-defined definitions of Indigeneity and the conflation between blood quantum, phenotype (people’s physical characteristics and traits), and Indigenous ancestry (Sturm, 2002). Amadahy and Lawrence (2009) write that Black- or ‘other-’ looking Indigenous people are often deemed inauthentically Indigenous. This has been particularly problematic for Indigenous people who have ‘undesirable’ Black ancestry, and who are Black-passing. These individuals are often made to feel excluded from claims to Indigeneity, face lateral violence from within Indigenous communities and Black communities, and may be alienated from full participation in their cultures. As such, Indigenous-Black people may often be left to navigate not feeling “Black” enough or “Indigenous” enough, as their physical persons are confronted by the prevalence of Indigenous erasure and anti-Black racism (Beals & Wilson, in press). 

As a result of the dual marginalization Indigenous-Black people face, these communities are often invisibilized in broader Canadian society, and are assumed to identify with whichever part of their ancestry they phenotypically “pass” for. Often, this has meant contending with Blackness due to the dominance of the one-drop rule ideology that is nested in colonial past and present. Indigenous-Black people are not permitted to occupy the dual space of being both African diasporic and Indigenous the way folks mixed with European and Indigenous ancestry are (Beals & Wilson, in press). That space of being both, as well as in between, of finding oneself in and through complex identities and histories is seemingly forbidden in the same way Indigenous and Black unions were forbidden by white-settler society. These unions were forbidden out of fear of crossed and complex racial/colour lines, and the possibility of an Indigenous and Black revolt like that of the 30-year war waged by the Black Seminoles, starting in 1812 (Hill, 2009), or the Taino and Afro-Haitian army that fought and successfully defeated colonists, culminating in what we now refer to as the Haitian revolution (Beauvoir-Dominique, 2016). 

Solution: Cultivating a Space By and For Indigenous-Black People

Indigenous-Black community members were involved in the POR project from the very conception of the project. Indigenous-Black community leaders were a part of the community advisory committee that met four times a year to inform the direction of the project. At both of the Toronto and Halifax sites, Indigenous-Black folks helped to organize the POR workshops, choosing accessible locations, organizing catering for the workshops, promoting the recruitment flyers throughout their communities, appointing local Elders for ceremony, guiding ethical research principles, reflecting on research outcomes, sharing the findings of the research, etc. This level of involvement from community members was important for cultivating a community-driven process that was transparent, respectful, open, empowering, and afforded community members opportunities for involvement on their terms. This effort was noticed by participants, as one participant stated:

“This space has been a very safe space … and I felt extremely comfortable…I appreciate the unity, and the sense of family that was established” (Workshop).

POR was the first community-based project in Canada that afforded Indigenous-Black people an opportunity to commune in a welcoming space to listen to each other’s stories and validate each other’s histories and realities. Storytelling, in all of the forms we engaged with in the POR project - be it digital storytelling or our group conversations -  are important expressive decolonizing methodologies (Smith, 1999) that allow both Indigenous and African diasporic peoples the opportunity to engage in their oral traditions and cultures, as well as to heal from the collective and intergenerational traumas stemming from colonial processes. In cultivating this safe space, important connections were made and a community consciousness was fostered. One participant remarked that in bringing together Indigenous-Black people, they felt validated in knowing there are others like them, they are not alone. And this was one of the big messages from the gatherings, that there are many Indigenous-Black communities across Northern Turtle Island, with varying histories and interconnections. 

One of the most transformative outcomes of this work is witnessing the upliftment of Indigenous-Black people who are naming and claiming their identities in a way they had felt shamed from doing so before.  In centering the voices of Indigenous-Black people throughout the research process, participants rightfully felt a sense of ownership of the POR project, and have actively participated in sharing the research findings, and helping to shape the future directions of this work, by applying for funding resources to train community leaders to be able to facilitate the digital storytelling process in their own communities. 

Participants have gone on to do tremendous things. One community member has gone on to document in various ways the history of his people, the Ojibwa of Anderdon, and is in the process of getting the necessary approvals to have his community acknowledged as a reserve, the first Indigenous-Black reserve in Canada. One community member whose digital story spoke to the racism he faced in the education system that was so violent it stumped his progress in school, has since gone back to pursue higher education. Another community member has written an article for the Huffington Post, where she acknowledges the POR project’s role in her own process of navigating her identity. Several community members incorporate their cultures in their arts-based practice and cultural productions. Many have gone on to make important connections with Indigenous-Black people in the US and around the world. From this work, we now have a growing network of Indigenous-Black people who are mobilizing and carving out room for themselves in national and international discourse, and who are taking the work forward. 

 From thoughts and ideas, to a community-based research process and a social movement that is gaining momentum to write and speak into being Indigenous-Black history in Canada, the POR project feels very much like the ‘little engine that could.’ In the honouring of our ancestors, Elders, and community leaders, we recognize our gratefulness for those who have deconstructed, educated, and shown us the way. We continue to work in claiming our place as Indigenous-Black peoples on Turtle Island, and to have a say in the Truth and Reconciliation process to acknowledge and address the harms of the nation-state of Canada. Thus, our work has just begun.

Write our stories. Draw our stories. Paint our stories. Sculpt our stories. Do so without reservation, without qualification, and without hesitation so we REMEMBER.” 

 --Dr. Jomo Mutegi, 2013 

Author Contact: Ciann L. Wilson and Ann Marie Beals


Amadahy Z., & Lawrence, B. (2009). Indigenous peoples and Black people in Canada: Settlers or allies? In A. Kempf (Ed.) Breaching the colonial contract anti-colonialism in the US and Canada (pp. 105-136). Dordrecht: Springer.

Beals, A. M., & Wilson, C. L. (In press). Mixed-blood: Indigenous-Black identity in colonial Canada. AlterNative.

Beauvoir-Dominique, R. (2016). Reclaiming Indigenous heritage in Haiti: Our Taino culture is alive and well. Taino Legacies. Retrieved from

Cooper, A. (2006). The hanging of Angelique: The untold story of Canadian slavery and the burning of Old Montreal. Harper Perennial. Retrieved from

Hill, G. (2009). 500 years of Indigenous resistance. Oakland: PM Press.

Jolivette, A. (2007). Louisiana Creoles: Cultural recovery and mixed-race Native American identity. Plymouth, United Kingdom: Lexington Books.

Mills-Proctor, D. (2010). Born again Indian a story of self-discovery of a Red-Black woman and her people. Kola, 22(1), 44-137.

Mutegi, J. (2013). The so-called “father of modern gynecology” actually tortured slaves, killed babies, says professor. Naturally Moi. Retrieved April 26, 2017, from

Historica Canada. (n.d.). Black history Canada timeline1600-1700. Retrieved from

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous peoples. New York, NY: Zed Books Ltd.

Smith, M. (1994). Behind the lines: The Black Mardi Gras Indians and the New Orleans Second Line. Black Music Research Journal, 14(1), 43-73.

Sturm, C. (2002). Blood politics: Race, culture, and identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from

Wilson, C. L., & Beals, A. M. (2019). Proclaiming our Indigenous-Black roots at a time of Truth and Reconciliation. In S. Wilson, A. V. Breen, & L. DuPré (Eds.), Research and reconciliation: Unsettling ways of knowing through Indigenous relationships (pp. 29-45). Toronto: Canadian Scholars.

Resilience, Grit, Coping, and Justice

Written by Kyle Hucke and Leonard A. Jason, DePaul University – Center for Community Research

Community Psychologists seek proactive approaches to preventing or alleviating suffering. One strategy using this proactive approach is to promote psychologically robust individuals by fostering those positive characteristics, coping strategies, and behaviors in individuals that have a positive impact. Over the years there have been many terms used to describe similar ideas [e.g. resilience (Luthar & Cicchetti, 2000) and grit (Vela et al., 2018)] but their underlying potential value to society and individuals are best encapsulated by the quote “if we encourage and nurture these dispositions and competencies in our children as best we can, we have a basic survival kit for meeting adversities that tax the human spirit” (Werner & Smith, 1992, p. 204). Thus, we need scalable, cost effective, interventions that accomplish this. However, this framing places responsibility on the individual to build robust coping to adversity and does not critically assess the nature of the adversity itself. Not all adversities are created equal. Is it fair and just to require an individual or community to build robust coping in response to any type of adversity? For individuals and communities who have suffered from racism, violence, sexism, economic disinvestment or exploitation, religious bigotry, and/or other forms of discrimination, the answer is no. It is not fair or just to ask people to cope when the adversity is the direct result of structural and systemic forces that are now and always have been immoral.

As scientists we dissect phenomena leading to very detailed and nuanced descriptions. For instance, stress can be acute or chronic and it can be cognitive, interpersonal, physical, and many other iterations. These terms are important as they have very different implications for psychological well-being and how best to overcome the adversity (Compas et al., 2017). Terms like these provide clarity, often a basis for empiricism through quantification, but they are not objective and without connotations. Our conceptualizations of these phenomena are shaped by our culture as is the language we use to describe them. It is important to reiterate how the language we use to discuss adversities frames them and has deeper implications than we sometimes appreciate or intend. For instance, using the term chronic fatigue syndrome versus myalgic encephalomyelitis can have significant effects on individuals’ well- being (Devendorf, McManimen, & Jason, 2018)

Critical Race Theory requires that we utilize race not as a variable within our analysis, but as a lens through which to examine and critique the practices of both ourselves and society. Applying a critical lens to all of our work, including those projects that may seem unrelated to race or class, is important for recognizing systemic injustices and blind spots in our thinking. For Community Psychologists who work in minority communities, it is important to be mindful of Critical Race Theory when we are framing our results. For instance, we must empirically validate interventions for individuals who need support today to cope with racism. We must also attest that racism, and similar adversities, are not acts of nature or chance. They are the result of our policies and cultural values, and it is incumbent on us to change them. Racial discrimination at the point of job entry is not the same as not being hired. One is an adversity that is reasonable to expect, and with which one needs to be able to effectively cope. The other is a result of a legacy of institutionalized oppression, current de facto oppression, and interconnected traumas that likely affects the majority of those you love. Thus, our discussion of the effect size of our intervention at reducing negative effect of racism on an individual’s well-being needs to include a call for addressing second order change, or the systemic nature of the racism which makes the intervention necessary (Jason, 2013).

Framing complex challenges in terms of individual level changes and responsibility while omitting systemic change serves to sustain the existing system, and at times this is a purposeful act. We see it currently in the efforts to shift the focus of combating climate change to individual actions like using fewer plastic straws instead of public policy or industry level reforms. Likewise, framing racism as an individual challenge with individual level solutions reduces focus on changing the systems that produce racism. While often unintentional, for those of us who work with communities who are victims of racism and similar adversities, it can be a challenge not to fall into this framing. After all, often our programs are directed at helping the individual to cope more effectively, which may be necessary for their survival. However, McIntyre (2000) warns that there is a potential pitfall here.

“Many scholars would interpret the participants’ responses to violence as survival strategies that are developed in order to stabilize one’s sense of self and gain a sense of control over one’s environment. That may be a realistic assessment, yet, labeling young people’s responses to violence, trauma, and ongoing oppression as “survival strategies” does more to assist us in “treating” the individual than it does to alter the social conditions that contribute to the development of behaviors necessary to live and function in one’s environment.” (p. 141)

It is therefore important that we remind ourselves and persuade our readers that those underlying social conditions can, and should, be changed. That these adversities are not accidents or anomalies, but the deliberate outcome of policies designed to harm or exploit those without power, and non-White communities in particular. 

Clarity in nomenclature is very important for articulating complex results with subtle nuance, but when are we clarifying and when are we sanitizing? Sometimes when we sanitize our language, we also erase injustices. “Low-resourced urban neighborhoods” sounds rather unfortunate. It certainly sounds different than “neighborhoods that were created by racist, but legal, banking policies to isolate people by race, targeted for incarceration to disrupt community cohesion and political power, vilified on the nightly news for decades, and denied quality education or employment opportunities.” While the second description may be a bit too verbose, there is likely a compromise between the first and the second that better acknowledges historic injustices impact on current circumstances.

Researchers have voiced concerns of how findings are understood by the public and policy makers, and with good reason. For instance, Luthar and Cicchetti (2000) caution against using resilience in a manner that can be misinterpreted as a personality trait, which can lead to blaming the individual. We must be diligent in following their advice about clearly stating the limits of our own results and being very mindful of language and framing. The power structures that perpetuate inequalities are vigilant for counter examples and counter narratives to calls for justice and reform. Therefore, we must be equally vigilant that our framing of results in communities of color include addressing systemic, unjust, and man-made policies. We have demonstrated the value of second order changes in addressing homelessness (Nelson, 2013) and alcohol use (Wagenaar, 1999), and previous civil rights work shows it can for racism (Jason, 2013), but more is needed. For those who benefit from the status quo, if racism can be coped with, then the solution is to provide everyone with that ability. Thus, people of color remain disenfranchised, but better able to handle it. This is not justice.

Author Information:

Kyle Hucke Ph.D.,, DePaul University- Project Director, Center for Community Research

Leonard A. Jason, Ph.D.,, DePaul University- Director, Center for Community Research


Compas, B. E., Jaser, S. S., Bettis, A. H., Watson, K. H., Gruhn, M. A., Dunbar, J. P., ... & Thigpen, J. C. (2017). Coping, emotion regulation, and psychopathology in childhood and adolescence: A meta-analysis and narrative review. Psychological Bulletin143(9), 939.

Devendorf, A. R., McManimen, S. L., & Jason, L. A. (2018). Suicidal ideation in non-depressed individuals: The effects of a chronic, misunderstood illness. Journal of Health Psychology.

Jason, L.A. (2013). Principles of social change. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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Nelson, G. (2013). Community psychology and transformative policy change in the neo-liberal era. American Journal of Community Psychology52(3-4), 211-223.

Vela, J. C., Smith, W. D., Whittenberg, J. F., Guardiola, R., & Savage, M. (2018). Positive psychology factors as predictors of Latina/o college students’ psychological grit. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development46(1), 2-19.

Wagenaar, A. C., Gehan, J. P., Jones‐Webb, R., Toomey, T. L., Forster, J. L., Wolfson, M., & Murray, D. M. (1999). Communities mobilizing for change on alcohol: Lessons and results from a 15‐community randomized trial. Journal of Community Psychology27(3), 315-326.

Werner, E. E., & Smith, R. S. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.