Volume 52   Number 3 Summer 2019

Special Feature:  Dissertation and Early Career Award Winners Share Their Experiences

Edited by Susan M. Wolfe, TCP Editor

To give TCP readers an opportunity to learn more about the experiences of dissertation and early career award winners, we invited the 2018 and 2019 recipients to write articles to share their experiences, or anything else they would like to write about. This section features articles by Kyrah Brown (2019 Early Career), Erin Rose Ellison (2019 Emory L. Cowen Award for the Promotion of Wellness), Michele Stratton (2018 Emory L. Cowen Award for the Promotion of Wellness), Dominique Thomas (2018 Best Dissertation in a Topic Relevant to Community Psychology), and Amie Thurber (2019 Best Dissertation on a Topic Relevant to Community Psychology).

Early Career Reflections from a Black Community Psychologist

Written by Kyrah BrownKyrah Brown

I am excited about receiving the 2019 SCRA Early Career Award. I am so grateful to everyone within and outside of SCRA who has invested any amount of time and energy into me. For this column, I chose to describe my professional journey and share words of advice for other Black emerging professionals in the field of community psychology.

My Personal Journey

My journey in community psychology began as an undergraduate psychology student at Spelman College. I enrolled in an Introduction to Community Psychology course at Morehouse College taught by Sinead Younge, a Black woman community psychologist. This course exposed me to the action-oriented field of community psychology and provided me with my first participatory evaluation experience in a community setting. I was hooked. During my senior year, I joined SCRA and became involved with the Community Psychology Practice Council where I gained mentors, colleagues, and close friends. I went on to work with well-respected community psychologists during my doctoral training at Wichita State University. During graduate school, I had the opportunity to have a Black woman community psychologist, Rhonda Lewis, as my graduate research mentor. Since I attended an HBCU, I did fully understand how unique it was to have a Black woman graduate mentor was until later in my career.

Following the completion of my doctoral degree I faced a crossroad. I was not sure if I wanted to pursue an academic position at a university or a practice position at an organization or company. I found myself wondering if I could do both and I was often frustrated with the available options. Previously, I was open to picking up and moving anywhere. But, my long distance relationship with my now-husband, Carl, meant refining my search to specific geographic locations. Fortunately, with the support and leveraging of resources from my close mentors and colleagues (and unwavering support of Carl), I was able to co-create a postdoctoral appointment. This also meant staying in Kansas longer which was a compromise in my personal life. This postdoctoral appointment was created through an academic public health partnership between a local health department and a department of preventive health within a neighboring medical school. It was through this experience that I was able to engage in a good mix of community-based research, program evaluation and practice work with local health coalitions.

After two years, it was time to relocate and join Carl in Texas. I accepted a position as an evaluation consultant (again with the help of a mentor) at a nonprofit management organization. This was a more practice-oriented position that provided me with the opportunity to strengthen my skills in program evaluation, consultation, coaching, and capacity building. It was very different from the flexible world of academia and government/nonprofit. I struggled with the concept of billable hours and staying within those allocated hours even when our clients needed additional help. I also struggled with time tracking and feeling creative within a highly hierarchical organizational model. Despite these challenges, I developed a skill set (e.g., time tracking, process efficiency) that would later prove valuable for my next position.

I was able to reflect on the similarities and differences between these two positions and see more clearly what I wanted my day-to-day to look like. I knew that I wanted to return to my passion area in maternal and child health (MCH). I loved both research and evaluation—and my strengthened evaluation skills made me a better researcher. I loved working with the community and engaging in capacity building. I appreciated structure (but not too much structure). I loved academic and technical writing. I needed to have time to reflect, think, and co-create ideas. I let what I learned about myself guide my job search. After many applications, leads, and rejections, I finally came across a position that felt like a near-perfect fit in terms of work culture, value placed on work-life balance, and what I felt I could contribute.

In September 2018, I accepted a tenure-track assistant professor position at the University of Texas at Arlington. I joined the Department of Kinesiology public health program which includes an undergraduate and graduate program. I joined an environment that valued my multiple professional identities as a community psychologist, public health researcher and evaluator. This position was everything that I had willed for. But, it took a winding and largely unpredictable journey to get here (and I have much further to go). In my role as an assistant professor, I infuse community psychology principles into my undergraduate and graduate public health course.

I also direct the Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Equity Lab which includes a team of undergraduate and graduate students. The MCH Equity lab collaborates with communities to conduct participatory research and evaluation dedicated to improving maternal health and birth outcomes. Our guiding values draw on community psychology principles. We believe that transformative, sustainable change requires collaborative, equitable academic-community partnerships, strategies that address multiple levels beyond the individual (including systemic racism), recognition and leveraging of existing community strengths and an investment in strengthening the community’s capacity to understand and engage in research efforts. The goal of my research is to understand how individual, social, and systems-level factors shape Black women’s health across the life course and how those influences shape their reproductive and birth outcomes.

As I work to establish myself, most of my focus has been on maternal and infant health and engaging in community-based research that centers Black women’s voices and experiences using qualitative methods. My work also includes using population-level data to investigate patterns and associations between MCH outcomes and system-level factors. As an evaluator, I also work with MCH organizations and coalitions to provide training, consultation, and evaluation capacity building in an effort to ensure that initiatives designed to improve birth outcomes are efficient and effective. I leverage my program planning and evaluation course to partner with MCH organizations to provide evaluation capacity building support. For me, it is important that community organizations dedicated to maternal and child health equity have the technical capacity to implement research-informed practices and continuously improve their service delivery through evaluation.

Lessons Learned as a Black Early Career Community Psychologist

It is important to remember to recognize and retrieve the knowledge and wisdom that we have gained from our journey thus far (and the journeys of others) to guide our future steps. Sankofa is a Twi word and adinkra symbol created by the Akan and Gyaman people of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Sankofa means to reach back to reclaim that which is lost in order to move forward. It is easy to lose things along the way. These things may be our personal confidence, our voice, our sense of pride in ourselves, connections to the communities that we represent, or our guiding beliefs around authentic community engagement. Below, I share four lessons learned from my experience.

Remember What Makes You Unique

There may be times when you feel like an imposter, intimated, or even fearful of taking opportunities. I have experienced all of these feelings at some point. To deal with this, I have had to train myself to manage those negative thoughts and feelings (and remind myself not to compare myself to others). I do this by first acknowledging my feelings and taking time to determine the source of those feelings (Why is this really causing me such anxiety? Why do I really feel threatened or fearful of this?). Next, I challenge myself to think of one unique thing about me personally or professionally that adds value to the team or situation. It does not have to earthshattering. It may be that you offer the unique perspective of a Black first generation college or doctoral student or that you are the only community psychologist on a team of nursing professionals. It is about rethinking the things that we think are our deficits and seeing how they actually add value. Also, holding on to what makes you unique helps to center your unique experiences that might otherwise be othered.

Build Your Village and Call on Them

Isolation can negatively impact your personal well-being and professional growth. We need our village to help us navigate our respective career paths. By village, I mean an informal network of seasoned mentors, peer mentors, and colleagues that you trust. Early on, it is important to think about what you need in a village (e.g., people with content expertise, people who are supportive, people who you can exchange ideas with) and how you can also reciprocate value to those in your village. My mentors have shown me through their actions how to pass the torch by mentoring and supporting others.

Use professional association directories, conference networking events, LinkedIn, or organization websites to search for people in your area or nationally who share similar interests. Send an email to invite that person to an in-person or phone meeting to learn more about each other’s work and interests. I usually offer to exchange CVs and keep the person’s CV in a folder to reference. After making initial contact, stay in touch by scheduling another meeting periodically sending the person information that they might find interesting (e.g., relevant news, articles) or information that might benefit their work (e.g., forwarding a funding announcement). These approaches can provide a solid foundation for lasting relationships with people who can help guide you along your path.

Once you’ve taken the time to build your village, call on them frequently and shamelessly. Your seasoned mentors are able to share their wisdom and advice, connect you to people and resources, and pull you in to their work. Your peer mentors and colleagues can provide a good support system as you navigate the same stages of your career and can serve as early collaborative partners. I’ve been qualified for every position that I’ve taken. More importantly, the reality is that with each of those job opportunities there has been someone from my village connected to it who has been able to vouch or advocate for me.

Speak Truth to Power

Black students and professionals navigate experiences embedded in racism. For instance, being overlooked, being viewed as threatening, having your professional credentials omitted, having your ideas stolen, being seen as a diversity token rather than for your merit, and so on. Having a strong village is crucial to navigating and coping with these experiences. One of my biggest challenges has been related to speaking truth to power as a Black woman in community spaces that are governed by deeply rooted power dynamics.

As a specific example, I have observed researchers and professionals (who are usually Caucasian) essentially colonize predominately Black communities by occupying the space to conduct run-of-the-mill research and hold claim to the flow of resources (e.g., control of partnerships, grant funding) in those communities. The difficult part is that while others (including Black professionals) tell me that they observe the same phenomenon, there tends to be a sense of demoralization and defeat which allows this issue to continue. It is an issue that keeps me up at night. My approach, however, to combatting this has been to acknowledge and speak on what I (and others) observe and to be very intentional about forming collaborations with diverse individuals and groups who share similar values rooted in empowerment and equity. By focusing on the work that we can and have done together, it has been a way for me to speak truth to power through action and contribute to change that way. As a Black community psychologist, you will continuously have to figure out how to navigate complex community issues and find your voice to speak truth to power in intentional ways.

Find Joy in the Journey

Finally, remember to slow down and find joy in your journey. During college and graduate school, I was on a relentless quest for the next thing to accomplish. Completing my doctoral degree had always been the long-term goal. In retrospect, I did not take enough time to reflect on my identity outside of my professional career. Who was I? What else did I like to do? Who do I want to become? I think I lost a bit of myself along the way because I was in such a hurry to get to the next phase. Hold on to what makes you you and to call on your village to help you remember to invest time and energy into the things that add joy to your life as you continue to advance your professional career.



I want to say a special thank you to my village within SCRA who has mentored and poured into me over the years (in no particular order): Rhonda Lewis, Susan Wolfe, Tom Wolff, Gloria Levin, Bill Berkowitz, Chris Corbett, Chris Nettles, Jean Hill,  Shawn Bediako, Sinead Younge, Jim Cook, Greg Meissen, Sharon Johnson-Hakim, Chris Kirk, Ashley Anglin, Ashlee Lien-Ramos, Olya Glantsman, Carlos Luis, Nicole Freund, Jessica Drum, Jasmine Douglas, Dominique Thomas, Jacque-Corey Cormier, Gina Cardazone, Katherine Cloutier, Ramy Barhouche, J’Vonnah Maryman, Jamie LoCurto, Michael Lemke, Chauncey Smith, and so many others.

“Let us be careful with each other, so we can be dangerous together”: A story of praxis

Written by Erin Rose Ellison, California State University, Sacramento


Dissertation Abstract

Collaborative competence as relational praxis among community organizers: The reproduction of, and resistance to, systems of oppression

This dissertation is a mixed-method, multi-level examination of relational empowerment processes among organizers of an academic workers’ union. Participants were union organizers; 29 organizers participated in a network questionnaire, and a sub-set of 12 participated in semi-structured, in-depth interviews. Using social network analysis (SNA) and qualitative analysis, this study investigated the relational empowerment element termed collaborative competence, which attends to the functioning of the organizing group and serves to build power via social support and group cohesion. This research is value-driven, examining, in context, how community organizers address systems of oppression (e.g., racism, sexism) in order to build power and make socially just change. Understanding transgressions in a visceral, embodied manner was instrumental for individuals to engage in this process. Additionally, respectful and supportive relationships were required for participants to understand and make sense of their complicity in systems of oppression in proactive and potentially transformative ways. Nevertheless, providing these relational resources requires relational labor, and social network analyses indicate that the distribution of relational labor was inequitable, thereby hampering the union’s collaborative capacity to make sociopolitical change. Thus, two overlapping practices – corporeal literacy and supportive relational labor – form the basis of a praxis model for collaborative competence. This study concludes with implications and future directions. 


In what follows, I briefly discuss how I arrived at my dissertation research through collective action, and how collective action informed my theoretical grounding in Social Reproduction Theory (SRT). SRT is a Marxist Feminist theory that explains the range of human activities that support the persistence of inequality under capitalism, such as activities that reproduce the worker, as well as the revolutionary potential for reproductive labor to foment systemic transformation (Bhattacharya, 2017). Activities such as teaching, care work (raising children, caring for elders, nursing the ill), as well as building, maintaining, and repairing relationships, are reproductive labor. I argue that this relational work is necessary to empowerment and needs to be recognized for the potential of repairing our world. We have to care for each other to do the dangerous work of social transformation.   

Praxis, or, how I developed my project

I came to Community Psychology from an interdisciplinary background, by way of community organizing and youthwork. When I began my doctoral research at UC Santa Cruz, a hotbed of organizing and theorizing for social justice, I became involved with a number of groups taking action against the privatization of the university, budget cuts, and tuition increases, and the many social issues that were constitutive of divestment in public education. Overlapping organizations were abuzz with activity for years: long hours of planning, building relationships, disagreeing with and sometimes confronting each other regarding political opinions and oppressive dynamics, and engaging in dangerous tasks, that may or may not have included striking, shutting down the university, or occupying a bank.

Affinity groups formed and were in flux over time. One of those groups, for me, was an anarcho-communist feminist collective. We started our meetings with check-ins, and often read feminist scholarship, academic and otherwise. We discussed issues of hegemonic masculinity within our social, academic, and organizing circles, supported and fed each other, and strategized about how to address the oppressive dynamics salient to us, usually sexism and sexist racism, within these settings. We individually and collectively confronted individuals who had perpetuated oppressive dynamics, including call-outs and call-ins when a male organizer shut down discussions brought up by one of our members, as well as more volatile survivor-led confrontations with perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault. Yet none of the confrontations, nor other strategies for dealing with patterns of patriarchy, seemed effective.

We needed our organizing settings to be empowering for all of us in order to keep up the fight, and we were expending energy trying to create healthy settings and care for each other, with little recognition for the contribution to organizing efforts. Nevertheless, when we directly addressed someone who had done harm, it was often followed by more conflict, and the disintegration of important relationships, even among those who attempted to hold transgressors accountable. I needed to learn how to promote an ethos of being careful with each other. In light of not only the entrenched and persistent issues our affinity group encountered, but also some that we perpetuated, I needed to ask: How are settings transformed into empowering ones? How can organizing groups increase participation and power of those who often lack an equal share of resources? How do groups employ prefigurative politics? These questions focus on the relational work of collective empowerment and liberation.

I did not come up with these questions in isolation; in addition to my advisor and colleagues, I owe a debt of gratitude to those with whom I engaged in collective struggle. My thinking about this project arose out of conversations and actions with friends at the barricades, the occupations, the oh-so-long meetings, and the bar or dinner debriefs. The reading discussions, and writing of my friends, especially on social reproduction, have influenced my program of research. My ability to connect the subtle injustices (e.g., microaggressions) to the more obvious ones (e.g., sexual assault), and connect all of the above to the maintenance of an unjust social formation, is rooted in collective action. Moreover, my capacity to recognize the reproductive, relational work that happens within social movement organizing (and that is necessary for socially just transformation) was sparked in those moments of praxis.

It became evident to me that organizers were facing similar challenges across the country. Years before formulating my dissertation research, I had been asked to attend an emergency meeting. An organization (on another campus) was faced with the report of sexual assault committed by a member of the leadership. Organizers grappled with legal, organizational, and interpersonal issues. This event has had lasting effects, including burnout, and a change in leadership and participation (queer, mostly white, women took over leadership after this event). I chose this site for research because their organizing had been impacted by the very phenomena I was interested in understanding, and they continued to thoughtfully discuss building power for change, as well as relational processes of accountability and care implicated in that project.

Relevance to Community Research and Action

Empowerment, a key process in community organizing, is integral to social movement organizations’ ability to build power and change unjust social systems (Rappaport, 1981). It is a collective process through which groups lacking an equal share change inequitable power dynamics, increase access to resources, and promote wellbeing (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010; Rappaport, 1981). Empowerment is hampered by the many ways that members of a collective engage in oppression, from microaggressions to assault. Sometimes members of an organization create harm for others within the setting, even when unintended; harm can be done irrespective of intent (Bonilla-Silva, 2010; Sue, 2010). These behaviors also foster a hostile environment, perpetuate a white supremacist and/or patriarchial culture, and therefore create a setting that is disempowering. This harm is deleterious to individuals and the collective, and therefore, the capacity to address it is integral. That is, empowerment requires reproductive activities in the form of relational labor: building, maintaining, and repairing, relationships. This is attended to in the empowerment literature, particularly in the articulation of relational empowerment, which is described as “interpersonal transactions and processes that undergird the effective exercise of transformative power in the sociopolitical domain” (Christens, 2012, p. 121). Of particular relevance is “collaborative competence”, an element of relational empowerment defined as the ability to act within a collective for transformative power, and “bridging social divisions”, which refers to the capacity to develop trusting relationships across difference (Christens, 2012).

Relational labor aligns nicely with this conceptualization of empowerment. Relational labor holds organizations together in order to achieve goals (Fletcher, 1999). Like other forms of reproductive labor, it is feminized, under-recognized and inequitably distributed (Crittenden 2001; England, Budig, & Folbre 2002; Fletcher, 1999; McDowell, 1992; Tronto, 1993; Williams, 2000). I consider relational labor in community organizing as that which holds the group together, works through socially constructed differences, and sustains the ability to exercise power to transform and repair our world (Ellison, in prep A). Thus, our understanding of empowerment can be deepened by including contributions rooted in the theorizing of Women of Color feminisms and Marxist materialist feminisms, which elucidate that: a) relational labor is gendered, raced and classed and thus an under-recognized labor, and b) that race, class and gender are mutually constitutive and thus by definition, intersecting complex social arrangements that cannot be understood, nor dismantled, in isolation (Bhattacharya, 2017; Collins, 1990; Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1983). That is, seemingly disparate struggles, for example anti-racism, women’s rights, and workers’ rights, must be connected for transformation, and connecting these struggles requires the ability to work across difference, and hold each other accountable.

I used Social Network Analysis to measure access to, and burdens of, relational labor – a measurement of empowering settings that takes this under-recognized activity into account – and found an imbalance of relational labor at my research site (Ellison, in prep B). Yet, I do not argue that we should eliminate burdens of relational labor all together; these burdens come from being implicated in the lives of each other and working collectively. Indeed, when working in collaboration, toward creating an empowering setting for every person in the collaboration, we should want to provide relational labor in the form of caring, supporting, holding each other accountable, and providing other relational needs. This is the work of changing inequitable social relations within an organization to change inequitable social relations outside of it. Relationships make organizations strong, sustainable, and powerful (Fletcher, 1999; Speer & Hughey, 1995; Speer et al, 1995). I add myself to the many others who call to include social reproduction activities at the center of our understanding of social change. Concerns over asymmetric relational labor in social movement settings and society are long-standing ones (see Moraga, 1983, who wrote in the preface of This Bridge Called My Back about experiencing and confronting racism in the women’s movement). Nevertheless, these labors continue to go under-recognized in the functioning of organizations and social movements, should be illuminated, and be more equitably distributed. My hope is that my research complicates and contextualizes the way Community Psychologists understand, engage with, and measure empowerment, and centers social movement work that is often undervalued. Taking care to mend our settings, and our relationships is necessary to mend our world, which is indeed a rather dangerous undertaking.


Bhattacharya, T. (2017). Introduction: Mapping social reproduction theory. In T. Bhattacharya (Ed.). Social reproduction theory: Remapping class, recentering oppression (pp. 1 – 20). London, England: Pluto Press.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2010). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States (3rd ed.). Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Christens, B. D. (2012). Toward relational empowerment. American Journal of Community Psychology50, 114-128.

Collins, P. H. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.  

Crittenden, C. (2001). The principles of care. Women & Politics22(2), 81-105.

Ellison, E.R. (In preparation A). Situating relational labor within empowerment theory.

Ellison, E.R. (In preparation B). Relational labor among organizers: Implications for the measurement of empowerment.

England, P., Budig, M., & Folbre, N. (2002). Wages of virtue: The relative pay of care work. Social Problems49, 455-473.

Fletcher, J. K. (1999). Disappearing acts: Gender, power, and relational practice at work. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

McDowell, L. (1992). Gender divisions in a post-Fordist era: New contradictions or the same old story? In L. McDowell and R. Pringle (Eds.), Defining Women: Social Institutions and Gender Divisions (pp. 181-92). Cambridge, England: Polity Press. 

Moraga, C. & Anzaldúa, G. (Eds.). (1983). This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of color. 2nd ed. New York: Kitchen Table Press.

Nelson, G., & Prilleltensky, I. (2010). Community psychology: In pursuit of liberation and well-being. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. 2nd ed.

Rappaport, J. (1981). In praise of paradox: A social policy of empowerment over prevention.  American Journal of Community Psychology, 9, 1-25.

Speer, P. W., & Hughey, J. (1995). Community organizing: An ecological route to empowerment and power. American Journal of Community Psychology23, 729-748.

Speer, P. W., Hughey, J., Gensheimer, L. K., & Adams‐Leavitt, W. (1995). Organizing for power: A comparative case study. Journal of Community Psychology23(1), 57-73.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Tronto, J. C. (1993). Moral boundaries: A political argument for an ethic of care. New York, NY: Routeledge.

Williams, J. (2000). From difference to dominance to domesticity: Care as work, gender as tradition. Chicago-Kent Law Review76, 1441-1493.

Identity Attunement and Awakening the Capacity for Intercultural Accompaniment

Written by Michelle Stratton


Dissertation Abstract

Culture, Resilience, and Adaptation: The Voices of Rwandan and Congolese Refugees

This research explores the experience of displacement and resettlement for Rwandan and Congolese refugees in New Hampshire, USA, highlighting cultural perspectives and values that contribute to psychosocial resilience and a restored sense of well-being in these communities. Participants elaborated on their childhood experiences of culture, the disruptions of war and displacement, and their experience of resettlement and adjustment to life in the U.S. The research considers the cultural perspectives and values that have contributed to well-being within African refugee communities, and that can generate a sense of stability as refugees negotiate cultural expectations in new homes. The research also considers intercultural relationships and relationships of psychosocial accompaniment. Phenomenological and ethnographic methodologies were used to gather and analyze data through the lens of liberation psychology and depth psychology. Decolonizing methodologies, including a commitment to reflexive practice and psychosocial accompaniment, were also integrated. Data was gathered through semi-formal interviews, focus groups, observations, and researcher field notes. Rarely are refugees invited by resettlement researchers, to reflect on patterns of repair, restoration, and the generation of culturally informed adaptations. Participants in this study reveal their experience of culture, overlooked challenges, and the creative adaptations that generate possibilities for success and restored balance in families and communities. The research offers an approach to engaging cultural communities in responding to the challenge of resettlement with integrity, while drawing on resilience and familiar cultural patterns.


Worldwide we have seen a dramatic increase in the displacement and migration of people responding to war, climate change, poverty and violence, as well as movement by those with the means to explore global opportunities (United Nations, 2017). As a result, schools, social services, neighborhoods and political systems are challenged to respond to the needs of immigrants who bring significantly different values, experience, and cultural perspectives. However, immigration also presents an opportunity to create strategies for mutual engagement in efforts that promote a sense of belonging and collective well-being. This article explores the use of identity attunement and intercultural accompaniment with the aim of shifting our focus toward strategies that strengthen intercultural communities.

In my doctoral research I was able to reflect on this opportunity and to look closely at the intercultural dynamics that both promote understanding and that get in the way of recognizing and responding to one another. The aim of my research was, “to create opportunities for African refugees to explore and identify cultural values and perspectives that contribute to sustaining and regenerating psychosocial resilience and community well-being” (Stratton, 2016, p.4). In addition, the research considered the impact of a liberatory approach on “…strategies for effective intercultural relationships oriented toward accompaniment, understanding, and commitment to overcoming the challenges encountered by refugees and host communities in the United States” (Stratton, 2016, p.8).

While getting to know the experience of Rwandan and Congolese refugees I was frequently reminded of an observation expressed by a Congolese friend, “New Hampshire people do not see my people deeply” (Stratton, 2013, p.6). This concern was reinforced by many stories shared by research participants. African immigrants frequently described the experience of feeling misunderstood, and a sense that their cultural perspectives remained invisible or disregarded despite determined attempts to make their needs, interests and cultural strengths known. They were often treated, both intentionally and unintentionally, as “foreigners” and struggled to feel a sense of belonging, even after many years of living in the U.S. The wish to be seen and understood speaks to their desire to have others recognize their complex and adapting identities and their place in the fabric of society.

While I became increasingly adept at noticing interactions that reflected these concerns, I also became increasingly aware of how unprepared I was to begin to “see” African immigrants, or indeed any immigrants, in the ways that they so desired. It was tempting to study Rwandan and Congolese culture, history and experience, drawing on “experts,” while accumulating stories from participants that would reinforce what I was learning. However, while gathering published information was helpful, it was not enough. Despite a solid background in social justice and a commitment to a reflexive practice aimed at stemming personal contributions to inequity and bias, it became increasingly evident that my internal compass often got in the way of “seeing” African immigrants. Martín-Baró, (1994) writes of this experience as “opening toward the other” in order to create space for relationships that may not have been imagined before.

I found that the concept of attunement fit well with my desire to bear witness to the complex and diverse histories and experience, the impact of loss and trauma, and the cultural patterns that could too easily remain unrecognized or marginalized. As I built relationships with African communities, I wished to pay close attention and develop the capacity to respond with authenticity to their stories and to accompany them in the journey of understanding the shape and nuance of identities framed by complex and unexpected circumstances. Mary Watkins (2015) writes that, “Those involved in psychosocial accompaniment are mindful of the power of each individual to construct meanings and to transform the world. Interventions are not to be proposed ‘from the outside,’ but determined with participants, alongside, through dialogue and critical reflection” (p.329). With full commitment to attunement and accompaniment I began to “see” African immigrants more fully, not only as I learned about history and experience, but as I began to notice their extraordinary efforts to adapt while also holding on to a rich cultural heritage.

I had the good fortune of developing honest and genuine relationships with African participants and informants who were willing to challenge me on my perceptions and assumptions. At times this felt like an unfair arrangement that risked replicating persistent demands on African immigrants to accommodate or inform people from my social and cultural location. I often grew discouraged by my inability to remain oriented toward, and attuned to, different expressions of culture and wondered if I was doing my part as a committed learner and listener. This commitment to “seeing” African immigrants was further complicated by the rapid pace of change for newly arrived immigrants responding to the experience of emersion in very different cultural contexts. I was also very aware that my efforts to attune to their experience and to witnessing their stories, remained a choice for me. As is true of many communities colonized toward the margins of society, African immigrants must practice their skillful observations for survival, protection, and to take advantage of limited opportunities for success. Participants in the study could not afford to shift their focus or relax their careful observation and response to the demands of U.S. dominant culture.

This vigilant attention to those who hold dominant social power, privilege and mobility clearly places an unfair burden of accommodation and subordination on recent immigrants. However, there is also value in this capacity to attune to others so carefully. In its functional form attunement weaves together and strengthens collective cultural communities. When attunement is absent, weakened or relegated to a protective stance, our sense of belonging and our capacity to respond to and feel connected to others is diminished. African participants not only spoke of the loss they felt as their families and communities adapted to U.S culture – becoming less collective and attuned to others – but they also spoke of their concern for an American society where they observed people longing for genuine connections and social supports that were overshadowed by a dominant focus on the concerns of the individual. As I listened closely a new possibility arose – the possibility for mutual attunement to identity that both affirms cultural perspectives and recognizes multiplicity and change that takes place over time.

Why Identity Attunement and Intercultural Accompaniment?

I contend that our capacity to accompany one another with skilled attunement to identity is central to the work of advancing intercultural community wellbeing. We must develop this capacity for attunement to the ways that identity presents recognizable cultural and familial patterns, while also developing the capacity to notice multiplicity and changes in identity that are influenced by complex social, emotional and political circumstances.

Donna Hicks (2011) succinctly identifies the link between our inner struggle to both individuate and integrate and the damage that is incurred when identity is compromised.

Throughout our lives, our inner worlds are dominated by a struggle between the ontological drives to individuate, to become who we are, separated from all others, and to integrate, to remain connected, to belong, to be a part of something greater than ourselves. Thus, it makes sense that an assault on one’s identity and the exclusion that results from it can be emotionally devastating. (p.35)

The negotiation of individuation and integration is complicated for immigrant families who encounter pressure to adjust to a status quo that disregards important cultural patterns that have long shaped their identity. Familiar patterns of identity formation and cultural identity are often disrupted as family members adapt and change to accommodate a new cultural environment. Their experience of feeling invisible to the broader society also contributes to this difficult process.

Participants in my research who had lived in the U.S. for many years spoke about their process of “taking the best from both” cultures. In our initial interviews, those who arrived in the U.S. more recently expressed their worry about the loss of language and culture for their children. However, before the end of our work together they had begun to confidently identify the values they were not prepared to give up and were becoming more comfortable with the new cultural frame in which they now live.

As we look to provide a welcoming and responsive community for refugee families, I propose that we develop our skills to be attuned to identity that is shaped by culture, the complex experience of displacement and resettlement, and the process of adapting to a very different cultural context. Orienting our lens toward identity allows us to attune to the individual, the family or the community with a curiosity about the multiple layers of influence on their sense of self. This attitude of attunement brings us closer to the possibility of “seeing” our immigrant neighbors, coworkers, students, and peers more fully, allowing us to notice identities that are rich with history and culture, but that are also influenced by a changing world. As we learn to accompany newcomers and to create permeable and safe borderlands for cultural expression, intercultural sharing, and the capacity to “see” one another, we will all benefit from the rich expression of diversity and collective wellbeing that unfolds.


Hicks, D. (2011). Dignity. Yale University Press.     

Martí­n-Baró, I., & Mishler, E. G. (1996). Writings for a liberation psychology. In A. Aron & S. Corne, (Eds.) (Reprint edition.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Watkins, M. (2015). Psychosocial accompaniment. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, vol.3(1), 324-341.

United Nations. (2017). International Migration report: 2017 Highlights. Retrieved from

The Emancipation of Black Futures: Racial Capitalism, Education, and Decolonizing Knowledge

Written by Dominique Thomas, University of Michigan


Dissertation Abstract

Black Scholars Matter: Development and Validation of a Campus Racial Climate Measure for African-American College Students

Recent events have brought the issues of campus racial climate to the forefront. Research supports campus racial climate’s impact on a host of academic outcomes for African American college students (Chavous, 2005; Tynes, Rose, & Markoe, 2013). While there has been a significant amount of research, there are several limitations. One issue is the varying definitions and measures of campus racial climate used across studies. These differing conceptualizations of racial climate preclude adequate integration of the existing research. Another area of concern is that studies lack representative samples of African American students. Many studies either compare African American students to White students or include African Americans within a broader group of students of color that is still compared to White students. Many measures are also unidimensional. Before campus racial climate research can be advanced, it is vital to formulate a measure of campus racial climate that is multidimensional and encompassing of different levels within the college setting. The purpose of the study was to develop and validate a multidimensional measure of campus racial climate for African American college students. The study employed a mixed-methods design. I conducted five group interviews to identify emergent themes in African American college students’ perceptions of racial climate. Based on these themes, a racial climate measure was constructed and then validated using survey data from 334 participants split into two samples. Exploratory factor analysis supported a three-factor solution with 15 items. Confirmatory factor analysis suggested a good model fit and the measure demonstrated reliability, convergent validity, and criterion-related validity. Recommendations for improvements to campus racial climate are provided.


Mental health is a major concern in the current U.S. sociopolitical climate, especially for those who experience multiple forms of oppression rooted in colonial structures. This colonial matrix of power is driven by a White supremacist capitalist patriarchal ideology that inflicts structural, epistemic, and physical violence against those deemed “other” (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018).  How is this coloniality/modernity maintained? What are strategies that have been used in resistance of coloniality?

As a Black man born in the U.S. Deep South who has spent most of my life in educational spaces (student, researcher, lecturer, post-doc) and who also studies the Black experiences in these spaces, I propose that this coloniality — in the form of racial capitalism — informs and reproduces through educational institutions, leading to negative effects on Black people’s well-being. I will also discuss Afrofuturism as a critical practice for intervention efforts in support of emancipation, liberation, and psychological well-being.

What is racial capitalism?

Racial capitalism is an economic system with its roots in slavery, imperialism, colonialism, and genocide (Robinson, 2000). The acquisition of the means of production, goods, and value was achieved largely through the exploitation of indigenous communities and people of color. Racism and capitalism are not two independent phenomena, but an intersection of various epistemologies, philosophies, and ideologies that serve to maintain and reproduce a power structure built along racial lines (Robinson, 2000).

Black people across the diaspora have been subjected to displacement, segregation, institutionalized oppression, deculturation, and destruction of capital. Some refer to climate change as a future apocalypse, but as stated by Public Enemy “Armageddon Been in Effect” for many in the African diaspora (Anderson & Jones, 2016). The transatlantic slave trade ripped millions from their homelands and dispersed them across the world. By the 19th century, as much as 90% of the world was controlled and/or colonized by western (European and European-derived) nations (Young, 2003). This “Armageddon Effect” of racial capitalism continues to persist, but how? As with any hegemony, individuals must be socialized into it.

Race, capitalism, and education

Like all institutions, education does the work of culture: defining and organizing the way people interact with societies. Education determines levels of economic participation and outcomes (Jones, 1997). In capitalist societies, educational institutions reproduce the status quo of inequities such as racism/racial capitalism/colonialism (Potts, 2003). Black students’ educational experiences have always been racialized, and how could they not? Several ivy league institutions engaged in the slave trade in order to keep the institutions operational: some of these schools would not be open now if not for their participation in the slave trade. In addition to this, Black people were largely prohibited from even learning how to read (Du Bois, 1935). After reconstruction, those public institutions serving Black students lacked the funds and resources to match schools for White students once the federal government removed support. The lack of resources was one impetus for desegregation efforts, but the psychological health of Black children was also at stake; Mamie and Kenneth Clark’s doll studies demonstrated the psychological harm segregation inflicted on Black children. Even after Brown v. Board of Education, racial capitalism still worked to subjugate Black people. Southern White people established private segregation academies and used their political power to divest funds from public education and invest in private schools (Bell, 2004). Efforts to circumvent the court-ordered integration would set the stage for the future privatization of education.

The growing push of school choice echoes attempts by Southern White people to establish their own segregation academies to avoid integrating with Black students. Public education has evolved to serve the corporate interests of training people to take their place in the world and identify those best prepared or with the most talent. Schools engage in practices such as tracking, standardized testing, and culturally biased curricula. Narratives are pushed that fail to recognize and respect different epistemologies, worldviews, and cultures (Jones, 1997). The message remains the same, quality education is only guaranteed for those with the social, economic, and political power to decide who matters. These are all examples of the epistemic violence that Black students face in educational institutions.

Epistemic violence is the destruction of viable ways of thinking that are rooted in their natural context with ways of thinking that are maladaptive (Adams & Estrada-Villalta, 2017). It erases, excludes, marginalizes, and delegitimizes voices and perspectives of already marginalized people. The ability to define the truth is indistinguishable from the ability to control others. Knowledge is always related to systems of power (Foucault, 1980). A version of this is expert power, “a type of power based on the perceived knowledge, skill, or experience of a person or group.” Epistemological violence involves interpretations of social science on “the Other” that problematizes them or proposes their inferiority to the exclusion of other equally viable interpretations; the academic context legitimizes these interpretations as knowledge (Teo, 2010).

The Black Scholars Matter Project: Campus Racial Climate

The university setting is where all these practices come into stark relief. Campus racial climate in many ways is emblematic of the intersections of race, capitalism, and education. Based on my research with Black college students, I define campus racial climate as the perception of how the college/university reproduces cultural and institutional racism towards Black students across four dimensions:

  1. Quality of interracial interactions among students
  2. Experiences with racism on campus
  3. Attitudes people have toward Black students
  4. Policies and practices universities implement

An important concern that comes up is the role that Black students have in improving their campus climates. Afrofuturism is a critical perspective that can frame intervention efforts including Black students. But what is Afrofuturism and how is it connected to campus racial climate and creating alternative settings for Black students?

Imagineering Black Spaces/Creating Alternative Settings. Afrofuturism was first coined to refer to Black literature with elements of speculative fiction, the intersections of race and future technology, and projecting Black people into the future (Womack, 2013). Since the inception of the term, the concept has been broadened to be more than just a literary genre, but as a theoretical perspective and critical practice. The perspective is not bound by European/Western/White Enlightenment ideas of universalism, critical theory, science, or technology (Anderson & Jones, 2016). Scholars have pointed out that Afrofuturism has always existed as a phenomenon among diasporic Africans, being equated with the West African concept of Sankofa which promotes using the past to move forward toward a better future. This also overlaps with the Black radical tradition (Robinson, 2000). Afrofuturism is Black people making it with what they got and projecting themselves into futures they weren’t supposed to be in. As a critical project, the goal of Afrofuturism is to imagine Black futures.

Imagineering as a conceptual analytic. Much of Afrofuturist literature references cyborgs, post-racial identities, alien encounters, and other science fiction concepts. Some have called for interventions that consider the current material realities that Black people grapple with. Imagineering (Im)possibility is a conceptual analytic that allows for the use of materials that can address material concerns of Black people (Daniels, 2016). “Imagineering (Im)possibility ushers in the use of materials, texts, embodied expressions, and art that has been constructed, imagineered from contexts that are available for mining.” One can see this Afrofuturist impulse in many aspects of Black culture such as hip-hop and Black Twitter.

Afrofuturist writers and scholars make the point that “all organizing is science fiction.” This rings true in so many ways given the epistemic and epistemological violence inflicted on Black people through knowledge production. Black student activism and organizing has consistently taken place on college campuses for decades (Rogers, 2012). Black students have had to assert their humanity in spaces that were not built for them: spaces that in many ways perpetuate and reproduce their marginalization. Students became radicalized via campus visits of radicals and militants such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Stokely Carmichael. The Black Panther party was born out of Black student activism and many future Black student unions (BSU) would model themselves after the Black Panther Party (Rogers, 2012). Decades of research has supported the efforts of Black students, citing negative racial climates for Black students (Cabrera et al., 1999; Chavous, 2005; Rankin & Reason, 2005; Tynes, Rose, & Markoe, 2013). In terms of improving campus racial climate and resisting the violence of colonial structures and thought, Black college students come to the table with a wealth of cultural resources accessible for their activism and organizing. This makes Black students an ideal group of stakeholders to identify problems and solutions.

Thematic Map from Dissertation Research. As a part of my dissertation research, I conducted group interviews to create a thematic map of campus racial climate based on Black students’ perspectives. Three broad themes emerged from the group interviews. Institution: characteristics, practices, and policies within the structure of the university that promote racial/ethnic diversity, multiculturalism, and the support of Black students at multiple levels of the institution. Perceptions of Black Students include beliefs that individuals hold about Black students at multiple levels of the institution. Interracial Interactions are the day to day interactions that Black students have with students of other races and ethnicities and that students of all race and ethnicities have across racial lines.

Campus Racial Climate Recommendations. Students were asked this open-ended question: “What do you think can be done to improve the experiences of Black college students?” Based on preliminary analyses of the responses (N = 307), these are broad categories of recommendations:

  1. More Resources to support students
  2. More Black students
  3. More Black faculty and staff
  4. Black spaces
  5. Diversity/cultural sensitivity trainings
  6. Courses on Black history and culture
  7. Less racism/anti-Blackness

Black students recommended mostly institutional level interventions and changes. While they did address individual level bias and discrimination experienced, students pointed to actions the university could take to improve the environment for Black students. They are also consistent with demands that Black students have been giving for decades and their recommendations are supported by decades of peer-reviewed research. What I hope to demonstrate in this project is that students from marginalized backgrounds are knowledge creators who play a vital role intervening against the epistemic and structural violence inflicted on students via racist educational practices and knowledge production.


Adams, G., & Estrada-Villalta, S. (2017). Theory from the South: A decolonial approach to the psychology of global inequality. Current opinion in psychology18, 37-42.

Anderson, R. & Jones, C. E. (2015). Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness. Lexington Books.

Bell, D. (2004). Silent covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the unfulfilled hopes for racial reform. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Cabrera, A. F., Nora, A., Terenzini, P. T., Pascarella, E., & Hagedorn, L. S. (1999). Campus racial climate and the adjustment of students to college: A comparison between White Students and African-American students. The Journal of Higher Education, (2), 134-160.

Chavous, T. M. (2005). An intergroup contact-theory framework for evaluating racial climate on predominantly white college campuses. American Journal of Community Psychology, 36(3-4), 239-257.

Daniels, D. M. (2016). Imagineering Black (Im)Possibility: Unearthing Afrofuturist Materialist Interventions. Theses and Dissertations. 2563. Retrieved from

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935). Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York, NY: The Free Press

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Pantheon.

Jones, J. M. (1997). Prejudice and racism (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Mignolo, W. D., & Walsh, C. E. (2018). On decoloniality: Concepts, analytics, praxis. Duke University Press.

Potts, R. (2003). Emancipatory Education vs. School-Based Prevention in African American Communities. American Journal of Community Psychology, 31(1/2), 173-183.

Rankin, S. R., & Reason, R. D. (2005). Differing perceptions: How students of color and White students perceive campus climate for underrepresented groups. Journal of College Student Development, 46(1), 43-61.

Robinson, C. J. (2000). Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Rogers, I. (2012). The Black campus movement: Black students and the racial reconstitution of higher education, 1965–1972. New York, NY: Springer.

Teo, T. (2010). What is epistemological violence in the empirical social sciences? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(5), 295-303.

Tynes, B. M., Rose, C. A., & Markoe, S. L. (2013). Extending campus life to the Internet: Social media, discrimination, and perceptions of racial climate. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 6(2), 102-114.

Womack, Y. (2013). Afrofuturism: The world of black sci-fi and fantasy culture. Chicago Review Press.

Young, R. J. (2003). Postcolonialism: A very short introduction. OUP Oxford.

The Neighborhood Story Project: Lessons from the Cutting Room Floor

Written by Amie Thurber, Portland State University

Amie Thurber

Dissertation Abstract

The Neighborhood Story Project: Keeping More Than Our Homes

Gentrification--commonly understood as the transformation of areas with high levels of affordable housing into areas targeting middle and upper income uses—provokes a range of losses. People may lose their homes, neighbors, and sites of historical significance, along with their sense of place, belonging, and history. Yet, policy makers and community practitioners often restrict interventions in gentrifying neighborhoods to the material effects, such as trying to reduce displacement through the creation and preservation of affordable housing. While such responses are critical, they fail to recognize and address other harms residents may be experiencing concurrent with or independent from a loss of housing. This study explores the Neighborhood Story Project, a 3-month action research intervention engaging residents as researchers in their communities. Through a multi-case constructivist study of the intervention in three gentrifying, Nashville neighborhoods, I find that participants deepened their place-knowledge and place-attachments, strengthened social ties, and developed an increased sense of agency to advocate on behalf of their community. Results suggest that interventions such as the Neighborhood Story Project can complement efforts to build and preserve affordable housing in important ways. Through creating a learning, caring, and empowering environment, The Neighborhood Story Project offers a practice model for fostering attachments to people and places, and facilitating collective action in gentrifying neighborhoods. This study also suggests the need to retheorize gentrification to better account for the more than material dimensions of neighborhoods, and for researchers to engage residents as theorizers and agents of change in their communities.


In June of 2013, my family and I packed up a life we loved in Missoula, Montana, and drove to Nashville, Tennessee so that I could begin doctoral study at Vanderbilt University. Trading hiking trails for highways, crisp mountain air for sweltering summer heat, a mountain-ridged horizon for a skyline dotted with cranes, the transition was stark and disjointing. Grieving the loss of a beloved place and cherished people I had willingly removed us from, I tried to get my bearings where we had landed. And as I rode my bike through my new neighborhood, attended community meetings, and talked to people about their city, I found that many Nashvillians were grieving the loss of a place and people too, only they hadn’t moved.

Nashville was changing, adding people and jobs at a record-setting pace. Entire neighborhoods were rebranded and rebuilt to attract a wealthier, younger, and whiter market; boutiques and breweries steadily replaced corner stores. More times than I can count, people waved their hands desperately at the ever-encroaching new construction and asked, “who is this being built for?” And while many people laud the development for accelerating the economic engine of the city, others—particularly within communities of color—are suffering its consequences, from lost housing to severed social ties; disappearing place histories to dissolving political power.

I designed the Neighborhood Story Project to offer one vehicle for residents to give voice to their own experiences of neighborhood change. Throughout 2016, I worked with small groups of residents in three gentrifying Nashville neighborhoods. Meeting together over 12-weeks, participants in each group identified guiding research questions about their neighborhood, collected and analyzed data, and shared what they learned through culminating community-wide events (for a summary of the three projects, visit One team, concerned about frayed social ties and lost neighborhood history, hosted an interactive arts exhibit featuring large format photographs and quotes from their neighbors alongside a ‘build your own’ neighborhood timeline. Another team, troubled by the way gentrification heightened the stigmatization of their neighborhood high school, created a feature length documentary film that drew on interviews with alumni and teachers from every decade of the school’s history. The third team, devastated by the displacement of their neighbors, created a set of organizing tools that included a video and report documenting the ‘state of emergency’ in their community, and a comic strip explaining how residents can get involved in zoning hearings.

The three neighborhood-based action research projects were nested within my dissertation study (Thurber, 2018). The data collected by residents in each neighborhood—oral histories with neighbors, archival photographs, and videos—was their own, the bulk of which the teams decided to archive in the Nashville Public Library. While residents were studying their neighborhoods, I studied our work together. I wanted to understand how participation in the project impacted residents, and what insights from this project might be beneficial to other communities grappling with similar social/spatial transformations. I analyzed recordings, transcripts and field notes from each of the team’s 12 weekly sessions as well as follow-up interviews and artifacts created along the way.

Findings from the study suggest the Neighborhood Story Project offers a practice model for building attachments to place and people, and mobilizing collective action in neighborhoods undergoing rapid demographic change (Thurber, in press). More broadly, the results underscore the need to reimagine the role of community practice beyond helping people find or keep housing, and expand the use of interventions that engage residents in place-making, public pedagogy, participatory research, and/or community organizing (Thurber & Christiano, in press). I also drew insights from this study to conceptualize a ‘more than material’ framework for theorizing gentrification (Thurber, 2017), which recognizes the constellation of losses residents may experience as neighborhoods gentrify, including, though not limited to, a loss of housing. Ultimately, I hope this emerging body of work assists those of us in social work, community psychology and related fields to better understand and more effectively engage in neighborhoods. But I also learned lessons in humility and reciprocity that are more difficult to parse into generalizable findings.

As the facilitator of the Neighborhood Story Project, I was frequently struck by how little the residents needed from me to achieve their goals: they did not need a facilitator to spark their curiosity or desire to affect change; most team members entered the project already invested in their neighborhoods and compelled to make a difference. Without a doubt, members highly valued being part of a facilitated process. The design of the project was accessible to people with varying skills and abilities, required a manageable investment of time, and provided the necessary scaffolding for each team to move from ideas to action.

But though all neighborhoods need facilitation to organize for change, not all need outside facilitators to do so. I was reminded of this one evening soon after the Neighborhood Story Project wrapped up, as I happened to tune my radio to The Moth—true stories told live—to hear Aaron Naparstek recount the story of honku ( After months of working from his home-office on the third floor of a Brooklyn apartment, Aaron lost his cool over the incessant honking from the intersection below. Realizing the need to find a productive outlet for his increasing distress, he decided that every time he found himself agitated by honking, he would “sit down, take a deep breath, and observe the honking on Clinton Street.” As he explains, “and then I take those observations, and I start boiling them down into three-line, twelve-syllable, 5-7-5 haiku poems. And I call them honku.” His “honking therapy regimen” progressed to sneaking out at night to tape copies of honku to lampposts up and down Clinton Street.

On one such evening, he was greeted by a neighbor who excitedly referred to him as “the bard of Clinton Street.” She shared that her family loved his work, and that her daughters had started writing honku as well. Indeed, seeing other honku taped to lampposts, Aaron soon realized there were others with shared concerns, and he began organizing his neighbors. They made up letterhead for ‘the honku organization,’ sent letters to their city council leaders, and attended community meetings, where they called on elected to enforce the city’s no honking ordinance. Eventually, the police agreed to a three-week blitz enforcement of the rule. While there were some improvements, Aaron acknowledges, tongue in cheek, “the honku organization—I’ll just be honest with you—we did not accomplish our ultimate mission of ending horn-honking in New York City. Like, that battle is still there to be fought for someone else.” But the group did stay involved—with each other and with their neighborhood—and went on to make tangible improvements for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users. “The real success,” as Aaron concludes, was that “instead of sort of being in our little bubbles of honk-anger, we started talking to each other, we were really trying to fix something. Clinton Street wasn’t just a street anymore; it was a neighborhood.” Honku had helped knit together a community.

Listening to Aaron’s story as I scrubbed my kitchen floor, I was struck by the similarities between his work and my own. Though the concerns on Clinton Street are a bit afield from those of the Neighborhood Story Project, both efforts brought people together to give and receive support, to build a collective understanding of their problems, and to organize for solutions. And yet, Clinton Street did not need a social worker, community psychologist, community organizer, or neighborhood association to facilitate their work together—they had the Bard of Clinton Street. As part of professional fields that often find themselves scrambling to legitimize their value, there’s something important about recognizing one’s own dispensability.

But there certainly are neighborhoods in which outside facilitators can be helpful—neighborhoods that are full of people with creativity and frustrations and skills, though perhaps not the skill of facilitation. And these are important places for those of us working in community practice to engage. But Aaron’s story heightened my awareness of the reciprocal nature of these engagements. We are not only facilitating processes for the benefit of others, but knitting ourselves into the communities we call home. Indeed, just as the 28 participants of the Nashville Neighborhood Story Projects invested in one another and in their communities, they also invested in me. As they deepened their attachments to their neighborhoods, I too—through their place-stories, generosity, and care—came away more deeply connected to the place I lived and the people with whom I had the honor of working. It was not only participants who gained a sense of efficacy, but me as well, buoyed by our collective accomplishments and more hopeful than ever about the differences small groups of neighbors can make in one another’s lives and the life of their neighborhood. Grounded in my grief of a community left behind and guided by the wisdom of the community I formed through the Neighborhood Story Project, I left Nashville with a deeper understanding of the kind of scholar, practitioner, and importantly, neighbor, I hope to become.

Acknowledgements: The author gratefully acknowledges the members of the three Neighborhood Story Projects for contributions to this work. 


Thurber, A. (2018). Keeping more than homes: A more than material framework for understanding and intervening in gentrifying neighbourhoods. In J. Clark & N. Wise (Eds.), Urban Renewal, Community and Participation – Theory, Policy and Practice. Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-72311-2

Thurber, A., Christiano, J. (in press). Confronting gentrification: Can creative interventions help people keep more than just their homes? Engaged Scholar Journal.

Thurber, A. (in press). The Neighborhood Story Project: A practice model for fostering place attachments, social ties, and collective action. Journal of Prevention and Intervention. 49(1).