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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 53   Number 1 Winter 2020

From the President

Notes from the President

Susan Torres-Harding, Roosevelt UniversitySTHPicture.jpg

I’d like to communicate with you all regarding the diversity and inclusion agenda that the Executive Committee has recently brought to the forefront of our work. For those of you who care about social justice and empowerment of disempowered groups in the US, it has been a very difficult last few years. It seems like the work is never ending. It is very disheartening and stressful to observe more overt violence and exclusionary tactics being enacted upon so many vulnerable groups in our communities, including undocumented individuals, people who are religious minorities, people who come from low-income backgrounds, people who are gender and sexual minorities, people of color, and people from indigenous groups. The rise of the ‘free speech’ on campus movement has also served a cover for an agenda to allow overtly racist speakers to have a loud and unquestioned voice on campus. I have been particularly alarmed by the resurgence of White nationalism and White supremacy, and all of their advocates and supporters in positions of power in the US who are seeking to normalize such dehumanizing views.

As an organization, many of us have been working hard to try to counteract these extremely harmful forces that are seeking to take away people’s rights, opportunities, and resources, and to make them silent and invisible. If you are a member of such a group, there is nothing quite like the knowledge that others literally do not want you to exist, which is incredibly threatening and frightening. And, of course, this is all happening within a backdrop of ongoing environmental destruction and climate change that has reached crisis proportions, but which has received insufficient responses. This also disproportionately impacts people of color and people in economically challenged communities; and a second ongoing crisis of gun violence that is an additional threat to young people in schools and to our youth of color in particular.

I am really proud of the hard work of our members who are working to counteract these harmful and disempowering forces and movements. While the field works to address racial justice and many other types of injustices in our communities, it is also important to revisit how SCRA operates as an organization to ensure that our processes also support this larger agenda of diversity, inclusion, and liberation. In order to really address this, we need to ensure that we are living out our values, not just outside of our organization, but within our organization. Given that we have so many people doing the very difficult, challenging, and cognitively and emotionally draining work of advocacy and activism on behalf of the people we work with in our communities, it is especially important to ensure SCRA is and continues to be a safe space and supportive organization for everyone doing this courageous work. We need to ensure that harmful power differentials that we see all around us are not being inadvertently reproduced within our organization as well. In order to be successful, we need to have a positive and collaborative organizational climate for all of our members. Thus, when our members tell us that SCRA is falling short in some regards, as an organization we should take steps to ensure a fairer and more inclusive climate for all our members.   

Diversity is a central value of the field, and fortunately, community psychology as a field has the theories, tools, and means to work for social justice both within and outside of the organization. We know from theories on power, privilege, and oppression that the people in a setting on who have less power or who are in subordinate groups will be the ones who have a clearer perspective and awareness on ‘ism’s’ and problems of injustice. It is very helpful to remember our own privileged and oppressed identities, and also to remember the lessons of social justice and power/privilege theories—that if we are in the dominant group, we just will not be able to really see where the problem lies in a way that someone who is in the subordinate group can see the problems, so we need to center the voices and feedback of our members who come from traditionally underrepresented groups and who have less power, including students.  We know from power theory that power doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, but we can also see power as a renewable resource, one that we can grow for everyone. Therefore, encouraging people to work together to have a positive climate where all members can speak up and have a chance to participate is a way to grow power in an inclusive and collaborative way.

We know from microaggression theory and critical perspectives that cultural slights, offensive comments, or marginalizing interactions towards less powerful people may sometimes be inadvertent, subtle, and not intentional. Despite the lack of intentionality, they can still have a significant and harmful effect on the person who perceives such racially-related slights.  Thus, we need to focus on understanding outcomes of such experiences and providing support for people who have experienced microaggressions. We can do this by encouraging ways of interacting with each other that are culturally respective, to become more aware of when microaggressions might be occurring, to listen and understand people’s experiences around such microaggressions even when it is hard to hear and accept, and also be ready to recognize when we ourselves might behave in an insensitive manner towards others. I am most definitely including myself in that last recommendation! Racial justice is a key value that I work for, and I study racial microaggressions and their impact on the health and well-being of people of color in my own research. I also know that I am not immune from inadvertently making unfair, culturally insensitive, or hurtful statements towards others. When these ‘cultural ruptures’ in interpersonal relationships happens, it is hard to acknowledge that I have done something like this to someone else, but I know that I need to be aware that I am not perfect and that I make mistakes. I also know that I cannot let fear of saying the wrong or insensitive thing be an obstacle to engage in dialogue because engaging in these difficult dialogues to address injustice will, ultimately, help us to develop an action plan to address these difficult issues in a meaningful way. Also, I think that it helps to recognize that we are all working from different perspectives, but that each of us has a stake in and a desire for a more truly inclusive and justice-oriented organization.

Kelly’s ecological framework is also a helpful guide for our diversity and inclusion work.  The principle of succession reminds us that we need to be cognizant of how well SCRA is working now, in our constantly changing community, societal, and global contexts. This helps me to remember that, perhaps the mentoring and advice that was helpful for me as a student and young professional in the field may not be the kind of mentoring, advice, and support that students and young professionals, especially those from traditionally underrepresented groups, need to function in their current academic, political, workplace, community and societal context.  Thus, we need to make sure that the students and new professionals’ voices and needs are heard if we want SCRA to be an organization that is relevant to their careers and contributions moving forward. This is also why revisiting our goals and values, to ensure that this is how we want to move forward as a field, is important. Also, all of our wonderful empowerment theories and models, and the critiques of those theories, tell us that true empowerment comes from listening the people with less power and who are more vulnerable in a given setting. Watts and others remind us that when we give up power, we have less power and control over the outcomes; this reminds us that that we may disagree with what some of the less powerful people’s voices are telling us or what they want, but that is the nature of empowerment work.  

SCRA has many strengths, theories, and principles, that will allow us to work towards the agenda of social justice and racial justice, and we have many diverse voices and perspectives that we see and celebrate at our conferences and events, through our awards, and that are visible on our websites. And, it is also true that we can do better in this respect, and there are problems that members have brought to our attention in relation to both racial justice and power differentials that have alienated or excluded some members, and this is something that we should address in a real and meaningful way. Focusing on diversity and inclusion and figuring out how we can address these problems is an important and exciting opportunity for us to continue to strengthen SCRA and work towards a more inclusive and supportive climate for all of us. I would greatly welcome your thoughts, ideas, and feedback on this agenda: storresharding@roosevelt.edu.

Susan Torres-Harding, Roosevelt University, storresharding@roosevelt.edu