I was introduced to community psychology through a module taught by Dr Ronni Greenwood in the M.A. (conversion) in Psychology at the University of Limerick. I was immediately attracted to community psychology, as it aligned with my values and research interests more than traditional approaches to psychology that I had encountered. I had previously studied Applied Theatre in the UK and had spent several years working as a facilitator of drama and storytelling for community youth groups, so I had an interest in community-based participatory methodologies. Community psychology represents an exciting approach to psychology that allows me to draw on my experience and design research and interventions that can address important social issues.
What makes community psychology special?
The ecological approach and the principles that underpin community psychology make it special. Appreciating the interdependence of individuals and systems (ideally) allows community psychology research and practice to identify and address the root causes of social issues.
Please tell us about an event that was formative for your engagement with community psychology.
Attending the virtual International Conference on Community Psychology in 2020 was a formative experience, in terms of connecting me with an inspiring and supportive academic network of like-minded people. As community psychology is still quite marginal in Ireland, opportunities such as the International Conference on Community Psychology have been invaluable for me to make international links.
How might community psychology be more influential at policy level in Europe?
This is a difficult question, but I feel that greater visibility and awareness of community psychology in general could increase the fields’ impact on policy-making. There seems to be a lack of understanding among the lay population about the value of applying ecological principles to addressing social issues, and an over-focus on individualised interventions.
How would you characterize a “successful” intervention in community psychology?
An intervention that improves the well-being of individuals and settings through empowering approaches that have positive ‘ripple effects’ on wider society.
Finally, a song? One that symbolizes what community psychology is about for you.
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”.
A song that, for you, symbolizes what CP is about.
I started my career as a systemic psychologist, but already looking into community-based projects as my main target of attention. I was attracted by the possibility to build collective projects, particularly with communities that were oppressed by the state. I started working as a field psychologist in peripheral neighborhoods in the outskirts of Lisbon, Portugal, where a majority of migrants and ethnic minorities lived, withdrawn from the privileges of the city center. I worked at a project that aimed at breaking the social barriers for youth that were living in these neighborhoods, finding new opportunities for social inclusion and the promotion of diversity. These were mainly young people racialized as migrants (although the vast majority were in fact Portuguese, of either African or Roma descendance). I was impressed with the effects of their spatial segregation from the urban areas, and how the cycle of exclusion perpetuated a series of stereotypes and mistrust between these communities and the so called “Portuguese community”, which was mainly self-perceived as white. I thought of community psychology as a means to innovate and co-create projects of inclusion that made sense for the people we aimed at “including”.
Any formative experiences for your engagement with community psychology?
I had two highly formative engagements. First, my time at the Federation of Roma Associations in Catalunya (FAGIC- Federació de Associacions Gitanes de Catalunya). I was employed by the Federation as a project coordinator, and supported Roma communities to apply for European funding that could suit their needs and support their projects. The Federation was totally run by Roma people, advised by a committee of elders, and they held relevant positions in municipalities, to forward the access of Roma people to basic services (education, transportation, health, etc). My time at FAGIC was highly formative in what involves witnessing the effects of the decision-making powers in marginalized communities. Having a “space at the table” promoted FAGIC as a stakeholder in relevant decisions usually taken without the advice of the communities, which facilitated city services, like healthcare centers, to receive relevant training to better serve Roma people and reduce the initial obstacles identified by community members themselves.
The second highly formative engagement was at the Roberto Clemente Center, in New York, a community-based clinic initially created by Puerto-Rican psychologists, to better serve the mental health needs and social inclusion of Caribbean communities. During this engagement I was supervised and trained by highly-skilled community psychologists from the region, who helped me to develop intercultural dialogue and more thoughtful clinical skills. I was rendered convinced that communities are the best catalyzers of scientific advancements in psychology, working with their own expertise and self-awareness.
What is special about community psychology?
I believe community psychology can be useful in bringing awareness to new knowledges, built from grassroots participatory action-research. It can bridge the gap between communities and mainstream academia/mainstream psychology, by simplifying well-being tools and language. When truly democratic, community psychology can be particularly relevant in raising the political participation and the struggles for equity and human rights. Furthermore, the focus on prevention and on social justice, combined with the openness to interdisciplinary collaborations, can go a long way in promoting and designing policy change, civic participation and solidarity.
How might community psychology be more influential at policy level in Europe?
I have been inspired, in the last years, while my doctorate research lasted, by european solidarians. I met many common people, during my fieldwork in Europe, who were transformed by what researchers refer to as “the event of the encounter”. By “the encounter” I mean the solidarity actions with people on the move, usually people racialized as migrants. Motivated by moral or political positionalities (e.g. “lives are more important than borders”), these solidarians have been engaged in an intentional resistance to the political orientations taken by EU governments around migration. The perception of structural inequalities has intensified the flow of struggles and social movements, producing these community solidarity dynamics between people, alongside the new hostilities and animosities that have been shaping EU’s reactions to migrants. I think community psychology can be determinant in amplifying these natural and informal solidarity systems, arranged around the needs and injustices faced by people on the move. The harshening of the European border regime has forced asylum seekers to endure precarious living circumstances and limited their ability to use their agency and regain control over their lives. By legitimizing and supporting the solidarity networks that offer safety and resistance to people on the move, community psychology can become a voice of resistance and a partner for migrant communities that want to impact policy change.
A piece of advice for aspiring community psychologists?
I recommend that the engagements with the communities are made in the spirit of the liberation theories, recognizing the flaws of mainstream psychology and daring to go one step further in taking action for social injustices, as true allies, rather than “experts”. An interplay between community psychologists and the communities they work with needs to involve a lot of unthinking, engaging and renovating knowledge. One needs to be prepared to also question (and even “diagnose”) the institutions, rather than focusing on the “issues” presented as dysfunctional or pathological. Displaced communities in the world are giving us a chance to improve our discipline, and we should take it, by getting more deeply involved in their social struggles.
Finally, a song? One that symbolizes what community psychology is about for you?
As a student in 1971-74 a small part of the curriculum was devoted to social psychology. At the time, I was involved in social action groups via Christian Aid (regarding homelessness) and International Voluntary Service (regarding women migrants who did not speak English) and had previously worked with young women caught up in the criminal justice system. The social psychology course addressed none of the issues arising from these experiences. The Tavistock Institute advertised a post for a ‘community psychologist’ and, as chair of our Psychology Society, I invited the contact person to come and speak – the post was really about clinical work in the community – but got a group of us thinking about what a community psychology could be. To my delight in 1976, Mike Bender published a book (Community Psychology, Methuen) which, although somewhat clinical, in which I had no interest, revealed further possibilities for a community psychology. I was a social psychology post graduate (1974-76) during the ‘crisis’ in social psychology and the relevance (or not) of social psychology was being called. Nigel Armistead’s reconstructing Social Psychology (1974) was an important influence as were Hare and Secord’s Explanation of Social Behaviour. In 1979 I spent a year at University New South Wales where I met Sidney Engleberg (a USA-trained, mostly quantitative community psychologist); worked with Alez Carey (a political and industrial psychologist) and gave a public lecture on Psychology of Women (which was in its infancy) – from an all-male department. These factors combined with a growing interest in Latin American politics and encounters with community psychologists from that continent shaped my interest in community psychology.
What makes community psychology special?
A number of things. A concern with social justice; a concern with social change which inevitably means taking a political stance to social issues like inequality, migration, patriarchy, and the economy; working with people about issue that concern them (beyond mental health) and that are not prescribed by service organisations; a systems perspective that throws up the possibilities of understanding and working with complexities; possibilities for interdisciplinary perspectives and for working collaboratively through progressive alliances; an action research orientation; possibilities for incorporating non-professional knowledges into theory and practice. I worked in academia in UK and we had the opportunity to develop a particular approach to community psychology, untrammeled by the pressures and priorities of service or other organizations.
An event that was formative for your interest in or engagement with community psychology?
Meeting and working with Alex Carey who was doing some work in partnership with the Australian Telecomms Union. Nothing in my training had ever raised the possibilities (and actualities) of working politically, or of partnering with a trade union.
What is the future of community psychology in Europe?
There is a strong network across national boundaries, which has done some great work in networking; academic developments; cross-national research. For many years European community psychology suffered from the perception of a strong in-group, making it difficult for others to permeate. This group is now beginning to expand to include younger community psychologists or those interested in community psychology. There is still a lot of work to convince active people (in the UK) of the benefits of working at a European – or indeed international – level and the major challenge is processes of communication between those interested at a European level and those working in the different countries. The zeitgeist is in favour of better collaborative links – at least in academia, possibly not amongst practitioners.
One piece of advice for aspiring community psychologists?
Be thick skinned and keep a sense of humour: never take the ire you might be confronted with as people’s power is challenged personally. Always work collaboratively.
How about a song? One that symbolizes what community psychology is about for you?