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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 55, Number 1 Winter 2022

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Student Issues

A Conversation with Student Representatives Struggling in Community

Written and edited by Aaron S. Baker, Student Representative (2021-2023), National Louis University, asbakercervantes@gmail.com; Jessica S. Saucedo, Student Representative (2020-2022), Michigan State University, sauced23@msu.edu; and, Camilla Cummings, Student Representative (2019-2021), DePaul University, ccummi17@depaul.edu

We present this column in the spirit of transparency, within the context of shifting landscapes, and with the intention of building relationships and sparking conversation. We resist the urge to carry on with “business as usual” and instead endeavor to assert our values and invite the SCRA community into our private conversations. This narrative is meant to identify questions, challenges, and opportunities facing students within the SCRA community. We aim to collectively vision about our ideal future within community psychology rather than highlight or boast about our individual work or accomplishments. We hope readers will approach this column and conversation with curiosity and a sense of shared responsibility for our collective work.

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It is a rare occasion that both of the current Student Representatives (SRs) Jessica (2nd year) and Aaron (1st year) were able to meet up, albeit virtually as is most interpersonal interaction these days, with the most recent outgoing SR, Camilla. It’s a timely occasion as the change in seasons from summer to fall mirrors the smooth, yet stark transition that happens each year among the Student Representatives--the offboarding of one representative and the onboarding of another. After catching up on life, work, and school among other things since the last virtual get-together in August 2021, the triad turns to the topic at hand--the upcoming edition of The Community Psychologist. Camilla describes the historical tradition of the outgoing and incoming SRs writing articles for the TCP outlining the outgoing SRs accomplishments and the incoming SRs goals. Camilla goes on, “I don’t know if that’s helpful to anybody… and I honestly feel like that’s not a superficial view of what it’s like to be an SR and what we do.” In practice, these types of articles tend to rely on an overly individualistic, capitalistic approach that ends up listing duties of the position. Often, the two perspectives are written as separate pieces, mashed together in the end, completely ignoring the other current SR. “I totally agree,” chimes in Aaron. Camilla continues, “and if we are going to be visioning it is important for us to engage more collaboratively and it feels not only weird, but antithetical to our values, to do it without Jessica.” As Jessica joins, she laughs while saying, “I totally trust you two, and I am also happy to help!”

Aaron jumps in, “I remember when I was writing my candidate statement for the elections, I had a vague idea of what goals I had or what vision I had for myself in the position, but it was also difficult to truly understand the scope of the experience without having entered into the space and context of the role and the Executive Committee, and even now having been in this role since August, I still feel like my head is spinning trying to keep track of all the changes going on in SCRA and on the Executive Committee, let alone devise some innovative goals for the position.” Camilla empathizes with Aaron, highlighting the extraordinary impact of the institutionalized culture of the SCRA Executive Committee on the SR experience. Jessica chimes in, “not only that, but there also has been a lot of change in the past few years.” “Exactly!” responds Aaron, “especially these past few months! It feels like these rapid, unexpected changes and the efforts to address organizational climate and communication have taken precedence when it comes to our time and effort. So much so, that I feel like I’ve neglected to outreach and connect with community psychology students.” 

Aaron proposes this as a central part of the SR vision for this year--connecting with the community psychology student community-- though Aaron is concerned about how that might work. Aaron recounts, “I remember talking to a few people about their experience on the Executive Committee as I was debating whether to submit a self-nomination for the position and bouncing around ideas for initiatives. Someone told me that it was extremely difficult to develop initiatives that were not specifically outlined within the position’s tasks in the SCRA Policies and Procedures Manual. At the time, Aaron thought that was strange. He wondered, “as representatives, shouldn’t we be able to engage in initiatives to connect with our constituents as long as whatever the initiative was did not conflict with any policy or procedure?” But now, from the vantage point within the organization, Aaron understands why people have that sentiment. Coming up with novel and effective ways to connect with community psychology students may be challenging if initiatives are stalled by institutional bureaucracy. 

The other challenge is that the pool of community psychology students is much larger than the number of SCRA student members. Although the SR positions sound as if they are aimed to cultivate a community among students engaged in community research and action, in reality, SR duties are aimed at serving current student members through service (i.e., planning and implementing student research and travel grants) and increasing student membership. Moreover, based on feedback provided formally and informally to SRs, many community psychology students perceive SCRA as an imperialist organization. Current and past SRs have heard from students about their lived experiences of being harmed within SCRA, within community psychology, and within academia. So, while on the one hand, SRs want to build a sense of solidarity, build a framework for sharing resources and experiences with community psychology students across the globe, it is important to be aware that these spaces may not be safe, and these spaces potentially are not welcoming and supportive, especially for marginalized and minoritized students. It’s challenging to envision these roles charging forward in a sort of belligerent way, asking students to give and give of themselves for our benefit, for the benefit of the organization, when no one can promise them that it will be appreciated, that their labor, knowledge, or gifts will be valued, or that harm won't occur. 

“And honestly, in a way, we can promise that you will be harmed.” This is a sentiment shared by the three Student Representatives, given the organizational climate, and having seen the ways in which members treat one another. Members of the SCRA community are ignored and dismissed, some members continue to clamber to maintain control and to wield power over others, members are quick to debate each other instead of dialoguing with each other, and microaggressions are commonplace. “It’s wild because sometimes emails will come across the listservs by SCRA members who are long-standing community psychologists and who seem like they have a good grasp of the basic principles and values of community psychology, and I’m just thinking, like, did you even read that before you sent it out, because it is problematic.” 

After a long pause in which the representatives sit and reflect on their dialogue so far, Jessica asks Camilla about her experience in creating goals within the position. Camilla pauses for a second to think before sharing some vulnerable experiences she had while on the Executive Committee which led Camilla to try to forge a new path with the new SR joining the team. To do this, Camilla made a commitment to radical genuineness, to show up as her true self, honest in her true thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Camilla goes on, “so when Jessica came into the position, my goal was to really build a strong community between the two of us.” Camilla expresses how she wanted to transform the SR experience from operating as two individuals performing separate, rigid roles within a sterile system that urges productivity and outcomes to a focus on relationships, a system of support for one another’s goals and well-being, and prioritizing community. “Building solidarity, building a strong sense of community with one another has been deeply important to my mental health, to my personhood, as well as helping me cope with the dynamics and climate of SCRA and the Executive Committee,” continues Camilla. Technically, Camilla’s term as SR concluded in August 2021, and even now, Camilla remains active in the SR group chat with Jessica and Aaron, providing support, advice, and context. 

Aaron grins, expressing gratitude for Camilla’s effort in building this community, even if it’s just the three of them. “Coming into this role, I have felt very supported by you and Jessica,” shares Aaron. “I like this idea of cultivating this community among SRs now and in the future, because it helps us conceive of ourselves as not just replacing one another, not just filling this slot, year after year, but more so building together, building on top of the foundation of SRs that came before us.” The representatives recognize that although SCRA is a volunteer organization, there definitely seems to be the same phenomenon of corporatization happening that has been happening in many universities and non-profit organizations, at least within the United States. SCRA, especially the Executive Committee, sometimes feels like it has become this big machine that just keeps churning, day after day, with no natural beginnings or ends, no ebbs or flows. Therefore, any efforts to refocus on relationships, refocus on people and not just process or policy, refocus on more organic engagement versus sterile completion of work, or refocus on community seems vital to our survival.

“Oh my goodness, we’ve gone over time. Jessica, didn’t you have to leave 20 minutes ago?” asks Camilla. “It’s okay,” responds Jessica. “I was able to tweak my schedule to be able to stay on a little longer, especially since our conversation was on a roll.” Aaron adds, “I’m glad you were able to stay, especially since technically coming up with these goals and contributing to this article is really my ‘task’ as the First Year SR. I’m glad we are able to do this together! But, yeah, so where does this leave us now in terms of our vision?”

“Good question,” chuckles Camilla. “We have been able to really talk through a lot today, but, you know, I really want us to resist the urge to wrap things up in a pretty bow and to pretend as if us waxing on and sharing platitudes is going to fix things and to resist the urge of performative wokeness, of saying things just to say them or pretending or acting as if this is going to solve everything. Because the reality is that we entered a pre-existing system and it will continue existing and changing, even after we leave our positions or perhaps the organization.” Jessica mentions, “I don't know if I have any visionary plans for the future for SCRA… I don't know how to move on.” Camilla agrees, “I just want to say that I love and appreciate your honesty with not having answers. I don't think any of us have answers, and that's the reality.” 

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We conclude our narrative with a recognition of the work ahead of us, with a commitment to honor our limits for the sake of sustainability, and in solidarity with one another. As community psychologists in training, we value our sense of community, the need to view social problems within their ecological and historical contexts, and to leverage our interdependence in the service of our collective liberation and well-being. We are rooted in relationship and hope to continue struggling in community with one another and with members of the SCRA community.