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Volume 49 Number 1
Edited by Susana Helm
Co-Editors Cheryl Ramos and Suzanne Phillips
The Rural IG column highlights rural resources as well as the work of community psychologists, students, and colleagues in their rural environments. In this issue, we are pleased to provide a ‘brief report’ from newly elected co-chair Dr. Suzanne Phillips. For future issues, please email Susana (Rural.IG@scra27.org) if you would like to submit your own brief rural report of if you have resources we may list here.
In addition to selecting the Rural IG when you become/renew SCRA membership, you may also become a Rural IG member by contacting Susana to be added to the Rural IG listserv, which we use for announcements (rural grants, rural resources, SCRA news, etc.).
Rural Sociological Society: http://www.ruralsociology.org/
According to their website, RSS “is a professional social science association that promotes the generation, application, and dissemination of sociological knowledge. The Society seeks to enhance the quality of rural life, communities, and the environment. This website is intended to serve all those interested in rural people and places.” RSS administers three publications, one of which is peer reviewed, with an impact factor of 1,409: Rural Sociology.
I learned about the national AgrAbility program while attending the National Association for Rural Mental Health Association meeting held in Honolulu this past summer. Sponsored by USDA, and affiliated with a number of universities and public service entities across 24 states, “AgrAbility helps to eliminate (or at least minimize) obstacles that inhibit success in production agriculture of agriculture-related occupations.” According to their website, their vision is to “enhance quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with disabilities. While the term ‘disability’ often brings to mind conditions such as spinal cord injuries and amputations, AgrAbility addresses not only these but also many other conditions, such as arthritis, back impairments, and behavioral health issues.”
Written by Suzanne Phillips, Rural Interest Group Co-Chair (2015-present)
White Mountains Community College
New England’s Great North Woods is a wilderness, spanning northern Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. At its heart is the City of Berlin, NH (pronounced BURR-lyn), once the site of a cluster of paper mills that drew power from the Androscoggin River, pulp from the surrounding forests, and immigrants from Scandinavia, Canada, Ireland, and Russia. As the U.S. paper industry faltered and mills closed, Berlin’s population shrunk from over 20,000 in 1930 to less than 10,000 today, dwindling every year. Simultaneously, poverty expanded, along with substance abuse and the number of empty houses abandoned to the city for unpaid taxes. The Catholic Church had to consolidate four previously flourishing parishes into one. The population decline has been especially sharp among youth: since the 1950s, the city has gone from seven elementary schools to two, and the city’s sole remaining high school now graduates just 100 students a year. Berlin’s growth sector is incarceration: a large federal correctional institution (FCI) opened three years ago, alongside the state prison. Absent any shopping malls in the region, the FCI provides orange light pollution from sodium-vapor lamps, obscuring what used to be a spectacular view of the night sky.
Berlin is one of thousands of once-vibrant rural communities, now in economic decline, set against a backdrop of stunning natural beauty. This essay reflects on the tension between the particularity and the generality of Berlin’s story, from the perspective of a community psychologist trying to find her footing in the Great North Woods. It is offered in response to Langhout’s (2015) invitation to “engage in affective politics” (p. 268), and to “make visible our own heart-work” (p. 269).
I relocated to Berlin two years ago, after 24 years of teaching college, with the goal of practicing community psychology. No one in my daily life calls me a community psychologist: I work ‘undercover,’ as the Institutional Researcher [See Footnote 1] for the region’s public community college. The National Center for Education Statistics describes our location as ‘remote.’ I love my new role and I value my work. My desire to increase access to higher education for people in poverty aligns well with my school’s mission. Even so, I have the persistent sense that I have cheated in coming to Berlin. Legitimate community psychologists “support communities that have been marginalized in their efforts to gain access to resources and to participate in community decision making” (Competency 2) and have “the ability to value, integrate, and bridge multiple worldviews, cultures, and identities” (Competency 3; Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). Those plurals–‘communities’ and ‘cultures’–give me pause. In seeking to practice community psychology here, I took a shortcut: I chose a community where I have family roots.
Inevitably, when I meet people in or around Berlin, they want to know where I am from. They know I have moved in: otherwise, we would at least recognize each other. So the question dangles like a test: Where am I from? My best (honest) answer is that I was born in West Stewartstown (a nearby village) and that my family has lived in northern NH for many generations. As I reply, I watch my questioner’s guard relax. We may trade family names until we find a connection, or not, but in any case, I know I am ‘in.’ Sometimes explicitly, always implicitly, I hear the phrase, “You get it, then,” a benediction over my presence here.
I walk away from these exchanges reflecting on what my best (honest) answer does not reveal. My parents moved away from northern NH when I was an infant, to escape poverty. My father found work in southern NH in construction. My parents endured criticism from extended family for the move, which demonstrated that “they think they are too good for the North Country.” Though I remained connected to northern NH through my grandparents and cousins, I have no personal memory of living in the region. After high school in southern NH, I went to a private 4-year liberal arts college in Massachusetts, then to graduate school at SUNY Buffalo (studying with Jan Hastrup, Paul Toro, and Murray Levine). I then taught college, first outside Pittsburgh and later in the Boston suburbs, before returning to NH in my current ‘undercover’ role. Most of my adult life so far has been lived in eastern MA, origin of the much despised MA**holes, reputed to be a loud, rude, fast-driving race of people who care only for themselves. If I were to reveal these things to my questioner, particularly the Massachusetts influence, I would likely be branded as ‘not getting it.’
My angst around being perceived as ‘getting it’ or not has led me to wonder what ‘it’ is, where I got it, and why this is so important to me. First, what do I ‘get’?
Subpoint: Some of these experts cloak their agenda with rhetoric emphasizing their “collective empowerment perspective, [claiming] to support communities that have been marginalized…” (Competency 2; Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). These in particular are not to be trusted.
While Berlin has significant social problems, the fabric of this community is strong. Dignity and pride live here, alongside shame. Parents struggle with how to advise their teens: Cling to rich family ties and the beauty and hope of this place? Or get out of town and make a ‘better life’ elsewhere (as my own little family did)? Shame comes from parents not providing the level of local economic opportunity to their own children that they experienced as young people.
In constructing this list, as in writing the first paragraph of this essay, I sense that I am simultaneously describing a particular place and most rural communities in the U.S. In the particularity, the list above catalogs lessons from my childhood, scraps gleaned from eaves-dropping on adult conversation about what is wrong with the world. In my inner ear, the voices of my parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts resonate through the points above. However, as an adult, I have begun to learn about the generality of these issues. I could substitute ‘steel’ for ‘paper’ and be transported back to my years teaching children of miners and iron workers in the ‘rust belt’ western Pennsylvania. My new rural-interest-group friends in Hawai’i could substitute ‘sugar’ for ‘steel’ and tell a similar story. If this is a common story, why do the lessons feel so personal, so unique, that outsiders are sure to misunderstand?
The concept of solidarity helps me here. Langhout returns time and again to the importance of being aware of whether one is “doing with” or “doing for.” She advocates attending to affect as a “barometer of my ability to conduct research from a place of solidarity” (2015, p. 266). Being perceived as ‘getting it’ carries the sense of working alongside, of doing-with-ness. The shortcoming of the experts critiqued in the list is not that their ideas are necessarily bad; it is that the process by which they are developed and delivered is hierarchical and patronizing. When I present myself as a native of northern NH, people assume that I am ‘doing with’ unless I prove otherwise. My motivation for working here is clear: we are peers, working in solidarity, in caring about our community.
This brings into relieve what I expect would be most challenging if I did not have local credibility: my motives would be suspect. Why would I want to meddle in this corner of the world? What do I gain from living and working in a poor, remote rural area? Would people believe I am operating from the lofty and selfless stance of a community psychologist, that I am not seeking “white savior work” (Langhout, 2015, p. 270)? If we could get past questions of motive, another set of concerns would arise. What could I contribute as an outsider? If I think I can contribute solutions, I fall under the criticisms listed above. If I don’t offer solutions, what do I offer? If my answer is facilitating and building process, why do I think the community can’t do that for itself?
All this causes me to wonder how all of you practicing community psychologists work effectively in places without the local credibility that comes from having a personal connection to a place. I would be delighted to hear others’ thoughts about all of this. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dalton, J., & Wolfe, S. (2012). Education connection and the community practitioner. The Community Psychologist, 45, 7-13.
Langhout, R. D. (2015). Considering community psychology competencies: A love letter to budding scholar-activists who wonder if they have what it takes. American Journal of Community Psychology, 55, 266-278.
Footnote 1. Institutional researchers (“IRs”) get almost as many blank looks when they identify their profession as do community psychologists. For readers who do not know: IRs generally work in higher education, supporting evidence-based decision making processes and evaluating initiatives, primarily for an internal audience. There is a significant overlap between the practice of community psychology and IR. Learn more at www.airweb.org.
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