A bit overstated? Perhaps not, when we recall that one definition of champion is "one who fights for another or defends any person or cause." Community psychologists are often champions for those most at risk in our society, for example, the mentally ill, the physically challenged, the homeless, and victims of abuse and neglect. But let's back up and start by trying to answer the vexing question: what exactly is community psychology?
What is community psychology?
There's a short answer and a long answer. The short answer (definition) I like comes from George Orford (1992, p. vii): "community psychology is about understanding people within their social worlds and using this understanding to improve people's well-being."
The long answer is that community psychology represents a new perspective for looking at the problems of everyday life, a paradigm shift. It recognizes that many of the problems people confront arise not from disturbances within their individual psyches, but from the failures of community systems to adequately socialize and support its citizens. It replaces the traditional clinical perspective on helping that sees people in terms of their pathologies and deficits with the notion that all people have strengths and competencies.
For community psychologists, successful helping is viewed as a mutual process. We work with people and groups; we try not to do to. We take seriously the admonition of George Miller (1969), a former president of the American Psychological Association, who said that our job as psychologists is to "give psychology away."
Community psychology is ultimately about empowering others. But how do we do this? In the following paragraphs, we present several examples that show the range of ways community psychologists work to this end.
What do community psychologists actually do?
Gaye Rizzo: Librarian as Community Innovator
"Wilson [Conn.] is a more fragile community than it once was. Suburbanization and urban renewal have taken its churches and entire blocks of business from its center. Wilson has also had an infusion of new people who have not always settled in comfortably with the old. Fortunately, a new center of the community has emerged: the library. This is no accident. It is due directly to Gaye's concern, innovation and effectiveness" (from remarks prepared to honor Gaye Rizzo as the recipient of 1995 Vocational Service Award from Rotary International). Gaye Rizzo is an unlikely librarian. With a BA in Spanish and an MA in community psychology from Central Connecticut State University, she views the library as a community center and has introduced such innovations as a book delivery service for senior shut-ins and an after-school tutoring/mentoring program for latchkey children staffed by seniors as well as other adults in the community. Working with other community agencies, the library has been involved in a number of prevention-oriented programs: a Rites of Passage program that focuses on building self-esteem in preteens, parenting skills for teen mothers, and a "shut-in buddy" program which builds telephone networks among isolates.
In Gaye's words, "Community psychology helped me look at the big picture. By working with other agencies and combining resources, we can do a much better job of meeting the needs of people who come to us."
[PICTURE CAPTION: Librarian Gaye Rizzo, left, used her education in community psychology to turn the Wilson, Conn., library into an innovative center that meets a variety of community needs. Above, she works with schoolchildren as part of the library's after-school tutoring/mentoring program, one of many programs she has developed.]
Jeff Elias-Frankl: Clinician with a Community Conscience
For Jeff Elias-Frankl, community psychology "is more a state of mind than a place of work." Jeff completed a PhD in clinical/community psychology at the University of Maryland and is now a managing partner of the Colt's Neck Consulting Group in Monmouth County, N.J. Jeff and his colleagues combine a traditional clinical practice with a variety of innovative, community-oriented projects; the College House Project is one such program.
Recognizing that high school graduates with learning disabilities often experience considerable difficulty in college settings, the consulting group is developing a two-level program of appropriate support services at a local community college. At the more intensive level, a small group of undergraduates will live in a group-living situation with graduate student mentors who provide training in social and life management skills. Students with less intensive needs will be assigned a liaison who is responsible for monitoring the student's progress, facilitating the use of needed resources, and acting as an advocate for the student. Consistent with George Miller's admonishment to "give psychology away," the consulting group will train staff of the community college to provide these services directly in the third year of the project.
A program on Black-White relations entitled "Bridging the Great Divide" was developed which utilized acting students trained in socio-drama methods. A large audience (80+) included students, police, and community members who explored their own emotions and attitudes toward ethnic issues through various scenarios that were "brought to life" by the actors. Using a stop-action technique, participants were able to explore alternate ways of handling potentially confrontive situations. For Jeff and his colleagues, the integration of traditional clinical work with community-based activities such as these have allowed them to earn a good income and move beyond traditional models of service.
Roderick Watts: Academic and Community Builder
Rod Watts, associate professor and director of clinical training at DePaul University in Chicago, divides his time between traditional academic activities and empowerment research in the community. A graduate of the clinical/community doctoral program at the University of Maryland, Rod teaches a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses in such areas as community psychology, program evaluation, psychology of men, and human diversity.
Beyond the classroom, Professor Watts has developed a "Young Warriors" program to help African American males think more critically about the images of masculinity they receive from TV shows, rap videos, and other media. The program facilitates empowerment by helping young men explore new meanings of manhood and by building social/political consciousness. The "Young Warriors" program has been offered in a variety of settings (e.g., schools, youth service agencies) over the last five years. The program offers both an opportunity for personal development and a venue for Professor Watt's continuing research on a theory of social/political development.
The Organization of Community Psychology
The Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) is the primary organization of community psychology. It is associated with the American Psychological Association (Division 27). Within the SCRA, there are over a dozen different interest groups reflecting more specific areas of focus, for example, aging, community action, children and youth, cultural and racial affairs, disabilities, prevention and promotion, women, self help/mutual help, and rural issues. (See below for information on how to join SCRA.)
What kind of education do I need to be a community psychologist?
As suggested above, community psychology is a way of looking at the world. People who identify with community psychology values hold a host of degrees (including some not in psychology!). Most community psychologists hold advanced degrees (MA or PhD), and there are a number of colleges and universities that offer programs in this area.
There are several sources of information about community psychology programs. First, you can check Graduate Study in Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, which lists graduate program information on all areas of psychology. Community-oriented programs can be found under a number of headings in the index (e.g., community, clinical-community, community-clinical, community-rural, community-school).
A second source of information is the survey of graduate programs conducted every few years by the Society for Community Research and Action. This information is then published in The Community Psychologist (see the next section for more information about getting this journal). The most recent survey information was published in the Summer 1995 issue. Reprints of the survey can also be obtained from Greg Meissen (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Finally, a more detailed description of different types of programs in community psychology can be found in Education in Community Psychology: Models for Graduate and Undergraduate Programs (C. O'Donnell & J. Ferrari, Eds., Haworth Press, 1997). This book contains a wealth of information regarding the philosophy and focus of various programs as well as sections written by students currently in the program. Copies can be obtained through your library or bookstore or by calling (607) 722-5857, ext. 321.
Where can I get more information?
As a student, you can join the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) for $18 a year and receive subscriptions to The Community Psychologist, a quarterly publication that describes current activities in the field, and the American Journal of Community Psychology, the primary research journal. For a membership application, contact: William Davidson, SCRA Treasurer, Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, 129 Psychology Research Building, East Lansing, MI 48824-1117; e-mail: william.davidson@ ssc.msu.edu.
The SCRA also has a listserv network [SCRA-L] to which you can subscribe by sending the following message: SUBSCRIBE SCRA-L YOUR NAME, to email@example.com. SCRA also maintains a home page at www.apa.org/divisions/div27.
Community psychology represents a challenging yet rewarding career choice for those who would be champions. We hope you will join us!
Miller, G. A. (1969). Psychology as a means of promoting human welfare. American Psychologist, 24, 1063-1075.
Orford, J. (1992). Community psychology: Theory and practice. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marc B. Goldstein, PhD, is professor and chair of the psychology department at Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Conn. Dr. Goldstein earned his BA in psychology at Syracuse University and his PhD at the University of Michigan. He teaches graduate-level courses in community psychology and primary prevention, and undergraduate courses in organizational psychology. His research interests are in the areas of substance abuse prevention, community mobilization, and program evaluation. He has served as an evaluation consultant on a number of federal, state, and local projects.
Winter 1998 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 20-21, 42), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1998, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.