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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 53   Number 1 Winter 2020

The Education Connection

Edited by Simón Coulombe, Wilfrid Laurier University

Can SCRA Live Up To Its Diversity and Social Justice Values With Regard To Race?

Written by Mason G. Haber, Harvard Medical School; Dawn Henderson, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Simón Coulombe, Wilfrid Laurier University; and Laura Kohn-Wood, University of Miami

Recent discussions of the Council on Education (COE) – echoing similar recent discussions in SCRA as a whole – have focused on whether the Council and SCRA more broadly may be unintentionally excluding minority groups within the organization, especially with regard to race, ethnicity, cultural and national origin. These conversations were first initiated in the context of a review by SCRA members of a recently disseminated guide to community psychology (CP) training programs (https://www.scra27.org/what-we-do/education/academic-programs/), which seemed to lack representation from programs reflecting these dimensions of diversity. Directly related to the topic of this issue, some of this discussion focused on whether the guide failed to include education and training opportunities available at Minority-serving institutions, especially HBCUs. Failing to represent these opportunities appropriately in efforts to promote CP education such as the brochure would clearly be a detriment to the field in terms of missed opportunities for contributions from these institutions, whose interests and values tend to be well aligned with those of SCRA. Even more importantly, such exclusion would be directly at odds with core values of CP and SCRA of diversity and social justice, undermining through our own institutional practice efforts to champion these values in working with communities, especially with community members of color.

In this issue, the Education Connection reflects on the extent to which the COE and SCRA appear to be making sufficient efforts to live up to our diversity and social justice values with regard to race, and if not, what we can do to remedy the situation. We hope these reflections help to initiate a broader dialogue in SCRA about this important question. Our first section focuses on whether the strategies that SCRA is currently using toward the priorities of interest to the COE are consistent with diversity and social justice values as they intersect with race. In examining this question, we first critically review how diversity and social justice are currently represented in the SCRA strategic plan. Following this, we summarize findings of a recent report by SCRA member Dr. Dawn Henderson, on the ways in which SCRA could promote education and training in Minority-serving Institutions (MSIs) – including HBCUs and Hispanic serving institutions (Henderson, 2017). We end this section by reflecting on the extent to which issues of racial justice are or are not being addressed in the COE’s work. The second section considers possible barriers that might explain a lack of alignment between our diversity and social justice values in regard to race and the education promotion strategies we have been using in the COE and in SCRA to promote the field. We then close by considering some next steps to address the issues rising from our reflections.

Diversity, Social Justice, and SCRA Priorities

Organizations of all kinds focus resources on their priorities – areas that are seen as essential to their survival and growth and to achieving their mission and vision. Typically, these priorities include increasing and better engaging individuals and programs. The more numerous and engaged the membership, the more resources are available to contribute to other priorities. However, increasing resources alone will not necessarily lead to achieving an organization’s mission and vision. For these to be achieved, resources need to be deployed in a manner that is consistent with an organization’s values. The values provide the bedrock for the organizational enterprise – the mission and vision cannot be understood (much less achieved) without them.

SCRA’s strategic plan includes both individual-level (“Membership”) and program-level (“Educational Programs”) priorities (https://www.scra27.org/who-we-are/scra-strategic-plan/). Several objectives are listed for each level, which to some extent parallel one another. Table 1, below, identifies objectives by common theme. Briefly, each priority contains objectives focusing on improving capacity, increasing participation, increasing opportunities for participation, and enhancing benefits of these opportunities. But is the manner in which SCRA is focusing its resources toward these priorities consistent with its diversity and social justice values, especially with regard to racial justice?

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Diversity and Social Justice Values in the Strategic Plan

The strategic plan references diversity and social justice as two of the seven “SCRA Values” that provide the plan’s foundation (Figure 1). These values appear again in the Vision, at least implicitly – social justice is explicitly referenced, and “fostering collaboration where there is division and empowerment where there is oppression” would seem to connote inclusion of diversity.

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What appears to be missing in the Strategic Plan material available on the SCRA website is how the organization gets from A to B, as the values seem to stand alone and do not connect explicitly to objectives related to membership or educational programs.  As shown in Table 1, none of the objectives related to membership or educational programs focus on diversity or social justice. In fact, by omitting these values in this context, the objectives appear to be at odds with diversity and social justice values. One might ask, increase participation, opportunities, value, and the capacity to support these for whom?

It would not necessarily have been difficult to attend to this question in the Membership and Education Program objectives. For example, a possible re-write of Objective 4.2 (under the Education Priority) might be: “Increase the number of undergraduate and graduate students, especially those who self-identify as a member of a historically oppressed and marginalized community who learn about, engage with, and join the field of community psychology.” This example of a potential re-write acknowledges a need for better representation and inclusion of individuals from these communities. Naturally, appropriate resources would need to follow for such a reframed objective to be achieved.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and their Engagement with SCRA

Training in CP, whether at the graduate or undergraduate level, requires exposure and engagement with the field. Perceived barriers that limit engagement in SCRA can influence whether individuals from these institutions see SCRA as an organization of value for them. A facilitated roundtable at the 2017 Biennial and a survey administered to SCRA members sought to understand barriers to engagement among members affiliated with HBCUs and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). The report on these activities (Henderson, 2017) revealed practical barriers such as a lack of funding or schedule flexibility prevents members from attending SCRA events such as the Biennial, as well as perceptions of more subtle types of lack of inclusivity. With regard to practical barriers, the survey found that conflict with work and school priorities (44%) is the primary barrier to attending a SCRA regional or biennial conference.

Another finding from the survey indicated that financial challenges (27%) are one of the top barriers to attending conferences for those who identified as faculty, administrators, and students. Related to these challenges, survey respondents and session participants indicated that the small size or focus on undergraduates in programs at HBCUs and HSIs excluded them from some types of support from SCRA that are focused on graduate training. These types of barriers were identified alongside perceptions of a lack of interest in engaging students from HBCUs and HSIs in SCRA, and a perceived lack of intentional outreach by SCRA to HBCUs and HSIs. In general, findings suggest that key activities for creating a sense of community in SCRA are inaccessible for a substantial proportion of its members at HBCUs and HBIs. In turn, failing to create opportunities to engage with the SCRA community, along with the lack of intentional outreach to HBCUs and HSIs, may be contributing to the sense of not being valued that was expressed by some participants.

COE Discussions of Racial and Other Diversity

The topic of promoting ethnic and cultural diversity institutionally in SCRA has come up recently in the COE in multiple ways. First, when some of our COE members were reviewing a new brochure on CP programs a little over a month ago, just prior to its posting on the SCRA website, we noted that certain HBCUs as well as international programs seemed to be missing. We looked back at records used to contact programs to collect information for the brochure and found that some of the programs were not included because they did not respond, although there were still a number of others that were simply not on the list. Apparently, some of these programs had been added to the COE website at one point, but then not included in the brochure.

In reviewing websites for programs not included in the brochure during a recent COE meeting, members were impressed with both the thoroughness and distinctiveness of the curriculum of some programs like the Florida A & M training in CP with a black psychology and multicultural mental health emphasis. We all seemed to agree that any exclusion of training programs was an unfortunate mistake that should have been avoided. In other cases, HBCU-based training programs may not have been included in the brochure due to being delivered through individual courses rather than programs.

Regardless of what happens in the specific cases of the programs identified as having been omitted, the lack of representation of HBCUs in the current version of the brochure indicates a need for SCRA to find ways to more consistently recognize CP training at HBCUs and other institutions that are international or serve majority racially and ethnically diverse populations. In follow-up conversation online about this issue, a suggestion was made to conduct outreach to HBCUs and HSIs such as sending representatives to “Psychology Research Days” or other such forums at those institutions to introduce their students to SCRA and to CP (notably, this suggestion had also been made previously, in Henderson’s 2017 report to SCRA).

The issue of promoting diversity more generally was raised during the pre-conference “Clarifying out Vision” that the COE hosted at the 2019 SCRA Biennial. The pre-conference, attended by 25 program directors and representatives, faculty, and students, was designed to help identify strategies for the COE, SCRA and broader field to promote the sustainability, growth, and vitality of CP education and training. Through a series of goal setting and planning activities, we established an initial action plan organized by five broad themes. Diversity was included as part of one of these (the theme was entitled “Diversity/Identity”). Although we might have liked diversity to be more prominent – its own theme – we ended up collapsing diversity with a broader range of identity-related issues due to the fact that there were relatively few, concrete, practical suggestions from our group on how to increase ethnic and racial diversity among students, faculty and practitioners in the CP field.

Given, we covered a broad range of topics – and so we were limited in the extent to which any one type of issue could be considered in depth during the event. Still, the lack of specific suggestions for promoting diversity was somewhat surprising. During the event, working in small groups, participants developed a list of goal statements for the COE related to each theme. They were then asked to rate for each theme the importance and feasibility of each goal statement. Figure 2 shows the frequency of identification of any, important, and feasible goal statements by theme (Diversity and Identity thematic content are disaggregated for purposes of illustration). Notably, almost all the suggestions related to diversity were rated as “important” by participants; however, only a minority of these were rated by participants as “feasible.” Also, only one of the suggested goal statements explicitly addressed racial diversity (“Increasing racial diversity of students and faculty”).

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Why are Racial Diversity and Justice Not Higher Priorities in SCRA?

At minimum, it should be clear based on our discussion to this point that racial diversity and justice could – and should – be higher priorities. As previously asserted, organizations will direct resources to those priorities they see as essential to their survival, mission, and vision. Identifying that issues exist is important, but to be successful, efforts to address racial diversity in SCRA require committing to specific strategies. Certain recommendations have been made but not implemented (e.g., Henderson, 2017). For this to happen, we need to consider a question that is seldom posed in these discussions because of its sensitivity – in a word, why. There are many reasons why an issue may fail to be given adequate priority by an organization; some are resource-related, but not all. As a starting point for discussing the “why,” question, we would like to propose three possible reasons in turn.

  1. Everyone is busy and inadequately incentivized to contribute to positive change in the SCRA community on a sustained basis.  While many of us commit some resources for periods of time toward SCRA's goals, there are very few people available who are able to pay consistent attention to the same set of goals over the long-term. Those individuals are spread too thin to steward efforts toward specific goals on an ongoing basis. Consequently, the more complex the issue, the more likely it is that when someone takes a significant step in a positive direction, regardless of the relative level of priority of the issue involved, needed follow-ups to the step (like following the recommendations in a specific report) will not occur, and even if they do occur, will be undone. For example, it appears the specific programs were omitted from SCRA brochure of CP programs, but not because these programs were not valued. Value was demonstrated in that a SCRA member successfully advocated for the addition of missing programs to the website list, but because an inadequately updated list was used, these additions were nevertheless not included in the brochure. Miscues of this sort are bound to happen where objectives are pursued on an ad hoc basis. Reaching out to HBCU or HSI programs on an individual basis – and not just reaching out, but reaching out repeatedly, and making sure that these programs are not inadvertently excluded – involves sustained effort, and sustaining effort requires a systematic strategy that can be consistently implemented.
  2. There is a tension between issues of diversity and identity in a field like CP that tends to resolve at the expense of diversity. Promoting racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in SCRA is valuable in its own right, given that diversity and social justice are recognized values of the organization. Further, it is likely that efforts to promote diversity  could improve the capacity of SCRA to address priorities related to the overall sustainability of the organization – recruiting new members, new programs, and retaining those members that are already a part of the organization but may not feel included or valued. Unfortunately, threats to identity – especially existential ones, which all identity threats are to some degree, – tend to provoke impulses to exclude rather than diversify (e.g., Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997). Further, organizations experiencing identity threats – some of those characterizing our field would be difficulties in self-definition, or a perceived lack of acknowledgement of CP contributions to other fields – may try to find what looks to be the shortest, most direct path to promoting sustainability. They may be prone to revert to strategies that have worked in the past, a conservative impulse that inevitably excludes groups that have historically been less represented. One example of this phenomenon would be privileging graduate over undergraduate and master’s programs. Undergraduate and master’s programs – and certainly undergraduate and master’s courses – are often seen as less prestigious, less likely to produce future faculty members (at least in isolation) and thus, may be seen as less important.
  3. In the context of a history of racial injustice, working across racial and ethnic boundaries is an inherently fraught, effortful process. Members of both majority and minority racial and ethnic groups are reluctant to speak freely about ways to further inclusion, for fear that they will offend or be offended. An article in the American Psychologist's recent special issue on racial trauma addressed this discomfort from the perspective of minority group members and majority group allies, identified multiple sources of discomfort, and provided recommendations for overcoming it and achieving mutual healing (Liu, Garrison, Kim,  Chan, Ho, & Yeung, 2019). Clearly this article is only one recent, prominent example from a vast literature in psychology and other fields to guide more intentional efforts to address racial injustice.  

A Call to Intentional, Systematic Action

Although there appears to be relatively little focused discussion of concrete actions to improve racial and other diversity in SCRA generally, outside of specific contexts (e.g., the Council on Ethnic and Racial Affairs [CERA]: http://www.scra27.org/who-we-are/committees-and-interest-groups/cultural-ethnic-and-racial-affairs/), and still less on how to do so systematically, some specific strategies have been suggested that are worthy of further consideration. We suspect based on the considerations raised in this article that none of these ideas will have an enduring impact if pursued in isolated ways rather than through a sustainable, systematic strategy receiving support from the organization as a whole. The discussion of how to arrive at such a strategy involves recognizing the extent and complexity of the problem – which we hope this piece has begun to do – and the barriers that interfere with responding to it, particularly barriers that can be difficult to acknowledge. Clearly, the idea that there could be a tension between CP’s sustainability and diversity efforts is a potentially uncomfortable and controversial one. This possibility, however, needs to be considered, its validity and specific manifestations identified, and where identified, the tension needs to be addressed. Because efforts to achieve greater diversity may compete (or be perceived to compete) with sustainability goals, they also cannot be considered in isolation, but rather should be discussed in the broader context of the SCRA’s overall priorities, strategies, and resources.

As a starting point, we would like to suggest the following types of actions as critical to systematic, intentional, sustained efforts to improve racial and ethnic diversity in the organization. These are deliberately process-oriented, and need to be further developed through participatory discussion, informed by diverse perspectives, and the best available theory and data – in short, the best of what our field may have to offer.

  • Identify possible barriers to achieving greater racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity and justice in SCRA and investigate these systematically. There has been at least some attempt to do this – but further efforts are clearly needed.
  • Discuss possible changes to the SCRA strategic framework that better encompass diversity and social justice values. Diversity and social justice are largely not represented in an actionable manner in SCRA’s current strategic plan. More explicitly and elaborately acknowledging their importance in actionable ways would be an important step in guiding impactful efforts to improve diversity.
  • Confront and test ideas about how to best sustain, grow, and achieve the mission of SCRA. Foremost among these would be ideas of “prestige” as traditionally defined in academia. As discussed earlier, these can undermine efforts at greater inclusivity generally and outreach to HBCUs, HSIs, and international universities in particular. They may undermine sustainability as well.
  • Empower a representative group to accomplish the actions listed above and pursue greater diversity and justice in the organization on an ongoing basis. Currently, the existing group in SCRA that would seem to be best aligned with this mission would be the Council on Cultural, Ethnic and Racial Affairs (CERA), but to be effective, an empowered group likely needs to involve a wider range of perspectives and resources than CERA alone could provide. As a starting point, we would suggest CERA and the COE collaborate and through support from both councils advocate for changes in SCRA.
  • Be willing to have difficult, humbling discussions. The sensitivity of issues of racial and other types of diversity naturally discourages candid, genuine participation – there is too much to lose. Unfortunately, there is more to be lost by not having these discussions. Members of both majority and historically marginalized racial, ethnic, and cultural groups in SCRA need to take risks for these discussions to happen. Majority groups, in particular, need to be willing to get things wrong in order to learn to get them right. Marginalized groups can then allow majority group allies to learn from well-deserved criticism, admit where they have been wrong, and rally with them around solutions. To the extent such discussions are meaningful, they may be uncomfortable for all involved, but a willingness to address them head on nonetheless creates possibilities for progress.

We are extremely interested in reactions to this article. We know that there much work to do and that ample guidance is needed to do it. If you would like to help us advance our discussion, please let us know, either by participating in our regularly scheduled meetings (publicized on the listserve), or by emailing the corresponding author. We welcome your collaboration in finding the best forums and methods for making such discussions successful

References

Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., & Pyszczynski, T. (1997). Terror management theory of self-esteem and cultural worldviews: Empirical assessments and conceptual refinements. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 29, pp. 61-139). Academic Press.

Henderson, D.X. (2017). Forging pathways for community psychology at Historically Black/Hispanic-serving institutions. Report to the Society for Community Research and Action.

Liu, W. M., Liu, R. Z., Garrison, Y. L., Kim, J. Y. C., Chan, L., Ho, Y., & Yeung, C. W. (2019). Racial trauma, microaggressions, and becoming racially innocuous: The role of acculturation and White supremacist ideology. American Psychologist74, 143.

 

Author Contact

Mason G. Haber, mhaber@jbcc.harvard.edu