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Volume 48 Number 2
Remembering Alex Ojeda through his Work and Reflections
Written by Alexander P. Ojeda & Nyssa L. Snow-Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org)
University of South Carolina
By the age of 27, Alex Ojeda had already begun making an impact on the field of community psychology. Alex was a Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) student representative for the Southeastern region and had formed many contacts with other students, practitioners, and researchers through his participation in SCRA, The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), and Southeast Ecological-Community Psychology (SE ECO) conferences and community psychology sessions at American Psychological Association (APA). In line with his drive to be involved with the political realm of APA, Alex planned to run for SCRA national student representative. Combining his training at Cal State San Bernardino and at the University of South Carolina with his life experience, Alex was enthusiastic about the promise of community psychology, particularly empowerment, to help address social inequity and social exclusion for people who are too often marginalized in our communities. He was also passionate in constructive criticism about where we fall short as a field and how we can improve and was very sensitive to how power differentials and intersectionality influence the work done in this field. We all remember Alex referencing his experiences working on a Photovoice project with LGBT youth in California, his advocacy of open-source projects to promote inclusion and equality (especially the TED talk he showed our lab about food planters in apartments, see below), and his incorporation of empowerment ideals into his clinical work.
Alex passed away unexpectedly in October, 2014, coincidentally following a successful Southeast ECO conference weekend he was very involved in planning and organizing. In memory of Alex, the following discussion is a combination of Alex’s own thoughts and statements to call the fields of clinical and community psychology to action in order to continue addressing social inequity and exclusion.
Alex’s primary research interests included empowerment and community-based participatory research (CBPR). Alex defined CBPR as "A collaborative research approach that aims to incorporate and develop equal partnerships with members of a community in the research process and recognize the unique strengths they bring. More importantly, CBPR aims to combine knowledge and action to create local change with disempowered communities" (Andrews et al., 2012; Minkler & Wallerstein, 2008). That said, guided by these assumptions, CBPR aims to: (1) develop genuine partnerships that will lead to joint learning with the community; (2) community projects that include capacity building along with the research efforts; (3) collect information that is beneficial to all that are involved; and (4) includes long-term commitment to reduce inequalities (Israel et al., 2003).
Alex believed that CBPR should not simply be considered as a research method, but as an “orientation to research that emphasizes relationships and collective transformation.” In addition, he emphasized that CBPR should also not just be “a community outreach tactic, but a systematic effort to produce competent research.”
Researchers that practice CBPR have long believed CBPR to be empowering and an appropriate research style to address communities at-risk of health disparities (Wilson et al., 2007)…However, advocates of CBPR continue to face an uphill battle to produce enough CBPR to compete with traditional research and academic demands, [which is] impacting and preventing CBPR researchers from possibly creating real social transformation in communities.
He often discussed the need to “systematically analyze the process and outcome of empowerment” in communities where CBPR has been used. Since empowerment was another tenet of Alex’s research, he wondered that “if the goal is to produce sound research and empowered change, how can we create settings that motivate change?” Alex defined empowerment as
Gaining mastery over issues of concern (Rappaport, 1987)…It integrates beliefs of control, competence, and understanding of sociopolitical environment that impact emotional, cognitive, and behavioral aspects of individuals (Zimmerman, 1990, 1995; Speer, 2000)…[It] refers to how individuals think about themselves…their environment… [and] to individual actions that influence outcomes (Zimmerman & Rappaport, 1988).
As a rite of passage in the clinical-community psychology program at the University of South Carolina, many classes include posting responses online to assigned readings. Alex always gave 100% effort when writing his posts, something that we are very grateful for now. The following is a call to action that Alex wrote in one of these posts. It is important to note that the following excerpt comes from Alex after having been inspired by reading Rappaport (1981).
As I read this article, I was reminded how much my own thoughts echo the words of Rappaport’s. That said, over the last month, I have made similar points in classes arguing the need for similar actions and urgency. I will outlie three of these points here I believe will move us in that direction Rappaport speaks of and conclude with my thoughts of empowerment.
I have repeatedly brought up in class and discussion the value and need for participatory methodologies (e.g., CBPR & PAR). I believe these methods meet some of the goals outlined by Rappaport, and more. In particular, I believe participatory methodologies force us to be more dialectic and challenge us to be more balanced and diverse in our solutions. Although these forms of research are more time consuming and difficult, I believe they potentially lead to greater results. I state greater results, not just as better health scores, but solutions towards fixing the image of psychology (relationship), citizen engagement (community buy in), sustainability (community ownership), culturally sensitive interventions (uniquely developed with the community), and so on. From personal experience, these methods make us and put us in uncomfortable situations. Yet, they lead us to places we could of never imagined using one-sided approaches. They move us towards the direction of empowerment.
Secondly, I have talked about psychologists needing to be engaged and strategic about making change within psychology. I believe the goals to empower individuals in the community also applies to us as researchers. We must be aware, knowledgeable, and engaged of how psychology is shaped and who has the power. Recently, I have had conversations with others about my goals to be a strong research, but also strategically engaged in APA to make change and challenge those in power (to be more aware of diverse solutions). For example, I am fully aware that APA is dominated by clinical psychology. I could have easily applied only to community psychology PhD programs considering my interests and not have enrolled in a clinical-community psychology program. However, for my goals to contribute to the field of psychology, I see value in both perspectives, but strategically, I see the potential benefit of also being labeled a clinical psychologist if I ever decide to run for APA “political” positions.
Third, I have talked often about the role technology will play in the future of psychology. I believe many of the ideas put forth by Rappaport can potentially be maintained and solved by technology. For example, the internet has made sharing information vastly easier. This alone has made it easier for consumers and researchers to access information and to be more engaged. However, it is not fully there yet, as many barriers (e.g., cost of journals) to fully accessing information still exist. Yet, work being done in other sectors have already begun to challenge the status quo, by developing participatory (like discussed above) information platforms that may potentially overcome these barriers. Furthermore, we may use technology (e.g., phone apps) to receive better feedback from participants that may lead to better, more balanced interventions.
Empowerment is a fascinating topic that should be of interest to everyone. The process of empowerment benefits others, as well as us. I think we all should embrace it and develop our own paths to Rappaport’s goals. I know participatory methodologies are definitely not for everyone. Likewise, the strategic political route through APA to develop checks and balances is not everyone’s career goals. The important point here is we should all find our own ways, as there is not just one solution.
In early February 2015, Anne Brodksy and Fabricio Balacazar gave talks about collaborative approaches, empowerment, and resilience at the University of South Carolina. Students and faculty in our program could not help but think about the conversations Alex would have had and his excitement at engaging these scholars in shaping and changing his ideas. We share Alex’s words as a call to action that we are sure that he would have made and encourage others to find their own ways to respond.
Andrews, J. O., Tingen, M. S., Jarriel, S. C., Caleb, M., Simmons, A., Brunson, J… & Hurman, C. (2012). Application of a CBPR framework to inform a mutli-level tobacco cessation intervention in public housing neighborhoods. American Journal of Community Psychology, 50(1-2), 129-140.
Israel, B. A., Schulz, A. J., Parker, E. A., Becker, A. B., Allen, A., & Guzman, J. R. (2003). Critical issues in developing and following community-based participatory research principles. In M. Minkler & N. Wallerstein (Eds.), Community-based participatory research for health (56-73). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Minkler, M., & Wallerstein, N. (2008). Community based participatory research for health. San Francisco, CA US: Jossey-Bass.
Rappaport, J. (1981). In praise of paradox: A social policy of empowerment over prevention. American Journal of Community Psychology, 9(1), 1-25.
Rappaport, J. (1987). Terms of empowerment/exemplars of prevention: Toward a theory for community psychology. American Journal of Community Psychology, 15(2), 121-148.
Riley, B. (2011, May). Britta Riley: A garden in my apartment [Video file]. Retireved from http://www.ted.com/talks/britta_riley_a_garden_in_my_apartment?language=en#t-49134
Speer, P. W. (2000). Intrapersonal and interactional empowerment: Implications for theory. Journal of Community Psychology, 28(1), 51-61.
Wilson, N., Dasho, S., Martin, A. C., Wallersteing, N., Wang, C. C., & Minkler, M. (2007). Engaging young adolescents in social action through Photovoice: The Youth Empowerment Strategies (YES!) project. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 27(2), 241-261.
Zimmerman, M. A. (1990). Taking aim on empowerment research: On the distinction between individual and psychological conception. American Journal of Community Psychology, 18(1), 169-177.
Zimmerman, M. A. (1995). Psychological empowerment: Issues and illustrations. American Journal of Community Psychology, 23(5), 581-599.
Zimmerman, M. A., & Rappaport, J. (1988). Citizen participation, perceived control, and psychological empowerment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 16(5), 725-750.
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