What attracted you to community psychology?
I had been interested in psychology more generally as a way of changing the world for the better by changing people for the better (it does sound a little messianic, hopefully youthful idealism is a good enough excuse). I enrolled in a BA in Psychology and explored psychotherapy as a practice that helps people improve their lives. During my studies I engaged in student activism. Studying psychology and doing organizing on behalf of a voiceless community led me to the realization that change is more feasible and perhaps more meaningful when it is planned and performed at a group level, not the individual level of therapy. As a student in a peripheral country (Bulgaria), I was not aware of community psychology; I was aware of social psychology as the “change” variety of psychology – it dealt with attitudes, social influence, conflict and cohesion. I would read Aronson’s The Social Animal and be thrilled by his description of jigsaw groups overcoming prejudice and the experiments on making people care more about the environment. Eventually I set myself a goal to get into a PhD program in Social Psychology in the United States (where all these great textbooks were coming from). I applied through the Fulbright Commission in Bulgaria and won the scholarship. The Commission facilitates and funds applying and studying in the US. I filled in their forms, described in my personal statements how much I wanted to do social-change oriented research and gave evidence from my experience as an activist. The result – I was not accepted anywhere. The Commission was quite dismayed with the US universities not accepting a Fulbrighter. I (and obviously Fulbright) did not know that social psychology in 2010 had moved quite far from Aronson’s textbooks (if it ever were there anyway). This discouraging situation turned for the better when the Commission hooked me up with Ron Harvey, a US student who was doing Fulbright research in Bulgaria. He happened to be a PhD student in community psychology (CP).
When we met his first words were: “I read your statement. What you are talking about is community psychology, not social psychology.” And then he told me about action research, community change, context, prevention and all the other ideas we like so much about the CP approach to social issues. It all seemed to fit great with my interests, my experiences and my goals. Eventually I went to DePaul University in Chicago, Ron’s home program in CP, on a Fulbright scholarship for one year as a non-degree student. From there I was able to obtain first-hand knowledge of our field, get the connections and the experience to apply to a full-time Ph.D. program. The gap between the Bulgarian academia and the US PhD programs is really big and I had to be both lucky and strategic to jump it.
What makes community psychology special for you?
The most important thing about CP for me would be that it is a set of social technologies that can be used by ordinary people, “the” people. Most knowledge, most technologies are capitalized on by those who already have power – corporations and state power. Knowledge is (more) power to them. If we looked at social psychology, for example, we would see that almost all its research and the knowledge it produced are being used by big business to control its workforce and its consumers (and to some extent by the corporate-owned state as well). And there is some “trickle-down science” for the self-help-oriented upper middle class. CP, on the other hand, is designed to work with and involve people in research that they can use for their own good, often against that control from above.
Other features of CP complement or make possible this liberatory potential. CP is action oriented, which is very motivating for both the researchers and the community participants – the interactive process of research is stimulating, and the practical, grounded goals are constant positive feedback to our efforts. CP is also relatively cheap and easy to apply in terms of money and materials. No labs, no sophisticated equipment is necessary. That was one of my personal reasons to enroll in a CP Ph.D. program – I could transfer my knowledge back to Bulgaria even as a psychologist-errant. A CP training also allows for very versatile jobs in and out of academia. On a personal level CP is also attractive in giving practitioners the option to work by their avowed values, self-express through their work, which is rare in a positivist science paradigm.
Please tell us about an event that was formative for your engagement with community psychology.
There was no single event – it was rather a gradual journey and realization. A very important experience was my engagement in student activism in my first years of the university. I felt the exhilaration of making your voice heard and changing reality through collective action; I also experienced solidarity and camaraderie; and I also encountered the frustrations and dilemmas of trying to make other people become active, or “free”. One important book I read at that time was Saul Alinsky’s biography (Let Them Call Me a Rebel) – it gave me a framework to think about collective action and empowerment – community organizing. The final step for me was to figure out how to engage with social change. Being a person of analytics and words, with some knack for personal interaction, I decided to go for the research route. And that led me to the application for US Ph.D. programs.
How can community psychology contribute to the debates/work regarding environmental justice and climate change?
First of all, with its participatory community-based action research approach, CP can help communities living at the fringes of world capitalism engage in the global debate about climate change and nature destruction. Even the green transition is in reality based on further exploitation of local communities in the resource bowels and dumping grounds of the world economy. CP produces and publicizes research that can make the extraction activities, the climate change effects and the local resistance visible. As CP involves communities as equals (ideally), the voices of these communities can partake in the debate around environmental justice directly, often circumventing the oppressive development-bent local corporate state. Now, the problem here would be getting those voices and experience out of our journals (where they do get published) into the public sphere and politics.
CP is also well-equipped to facilitate the production of local knowledge, which is always crucial for the particular implementation of an exploitative technology. In other words, if local people can produce evidence on the side effects, harms and risks from the local application of a “modern” technology, they are in a much better position to oppose it. Who else is more knowledgeable of the local context than the people who inhabit it? With its pragmatic approach to research – mixed-methods, goal-driven, participatory – CP can be very helpful in making that knowledge explicit and applicable in policy-making debates.
Community psychologists as experts can also contribute to the expertise conflicts around development. Most environmental issues have some complex technology-nature interaction at their heart. This makes the participation of experts in the conflict about development very likely. Usually, experts are paid to explain away the risks and certify the benefits of techno-industrial development. They act as a shield for political-economical decisions and close off the debates by limiting them to an expert discourse. It is very difficult for lay people to defend their interests in legitimate, expert knowledge terms. Community psychologists can help local people demystify expert knowledge, use research competently and even become experts themselves.
A significant question remains about the generalization of local knowledge and lessons from resistance: How can local efforts cross-pollinate and even grow to something global? Do we bring knowledge in when we go into a community? Do we facilitate direct local-to-local exchange? Do we write books on local organizing? What else?
What are some challenges associated with being a community psychologist in Bulgaria?
The greatest challenges come from the fact that CP is unknown in Bulgaria and there are very few (probably almost none) community psychologists. Sciences in Bulgaria are very compartmentalized and formalized, so not having a clear identity or definition of the field creates extra issues. When I came back to Bulgaria with my Ph.D., I had to go through a process of certification of my credentials by a public (state-run) agency. I was officially pronounced a sociologist because this was the box where my multidisciplinary dissertation seemed to fit best. From this follows that I can develop my career in universities as a sociologist – either in Sociology or in some more multi-disciplinary department such as Public Health. Funding, hiring, grants depend on that box you are put in.
Another issue with the outlandishness of CP is that it is difficult to find colleagues to work and partner with. The academia here is very conservative in the sense that university scholars avoid value-driven research and politically controversial topics. This is partly a remnant from positivism, but also the public universities are strongly dependent on subsidies from the national government so critical research or research-based advocacy is awkward. Even conclusions from research that is by design focused on public policies (like in public health) is coached in abstract and cautious terms and is not widely publicized.
One interesting thing I have encountered is how activists regard experts (see my previous response). When I studied the anti-fracking movement in Bulgaria, I was also a fringe participant in the actions. Nobody from the activists would regard me as an authority on organizing, and ask me about organizing techniques, tools. Everyone must prove themselves as an activist and that would be the only authority recognized. This was due to the activists’ meanings around organizing – that it should be “natural” and spontaneous, not formalized and institution-like. And there was an interesting discrimination among experts in the movement. To believe experts, you need to be sure they are autonomous – not mouthpieces. Therefore, the trustworthy expert is the one who speaks spontaneously as a citizen, and not the one that speaks as a professional when they are hired to speak on an issue. Only the citizen-expert was considered autonomous. You need to participate in the action to prove you are speaking “the truth”.