Volume 50 Number 1
Winter 2017

The Community Practitioner

Edited by Olya Glantsman

Supporting our Professional Growth as Practitioners: A Look at the Community Psychology/Practice Council’s Peer Consultation Calls

Tom Wolff

Tom Wolff & Associates

I was asked to write about the Community Psychology Practice Council’s monthly peer consultation calls that I have been facilitating for the Council for the last four years. The calls are a format created by the Practice Council to provide support to each other in our community work, an informal chance to share our work with colleagues, and get some new ideas and help when we are stuck. We have met once a month by phone since March 2013 with a changing group of 6-8 students, new grads, and seasoned professionals showing up. We send out an alert inviting folks to a one-hour call on a Friday PM, at the start of the call we all go around and introduce ourselves, and say a bit about what we are presently working on and if we want some time to get some help with something we are struggling with, we then divide up the time so that everyone gets a chance. The calls have been a fascinating learning experience for all of us, so I am delighted to reflect on what we have learned. I have asked a number of participants to add their thoughts which appear later on in this column.

The practice of community psychology is often a very complicated and stressful process. As the consultant, facilitator, trainer one can be immersed in multi-level, multi-dimensional issues that can be conflictual and often muddy. So what is a practitioner to do when faced with these situations? Who does the community psychologist turn to? We do not seem to have a tradition in CP of modeling how to continue to gain support and clarity in our work as we transition from student into the workforce and even as we go on with our careers.

I did my graduate work as community psychology was emerging as a field and was in a clinical program under Emory Cowen at Rochester. I was always appreciative of the careful ways many of those doing clinical work approached the complications they experienced. Supervision by more experienced clinicians or by peers was almost always the norm. It was a given. Clinicians knew that their work is complicated and that they need a place to reflect, get feedback and fresh perspectives. The psychoanalytic concept of counter-transference focused on the clinician’s feelings and what ‘baggage’ the clinician brought to the situation. Community psychology work has no such model that I know of. So many are now calling for reflective practice to help us understand our own issues that we bring to our community work. Regina Langhout calls it developing an “ethical, critically reflexive anti-racist feminist praxis.” As a white male coming from privilege, it is required that I deeply reflect and understand that position as I work, especially in communities of color.

In my many years of doing CP practice I have tried different ways to puzzle this out. When directing Community Partners in Massachusetts one summer I came back from reading about Gertrude Stein’s Paris Salons – gatherings of intellectuals in Paris. I thought what fun – so I came back and suggested that we would have monthly “Social Change and Empowerment Salons.” I invited my staff, people from community institutions who we were working with, colleagues from the area to join us for a monthly gathering at a nearby inn – they bought their drinks, I bought the appetizers that we nibbled on. We talked, and we read, and we wandered – finally reading quite a bit about spirituality and social change. We also sponsored an annual conference where we could expose ourselves to some of the best thinkers in the field like John McKnight, Margaret Wheatley Robert Putnam, David Chavis, and Arthur Himmelman, Now, as I work in the area of health equity and racial justice, a group of us have created the New England Racial Justice Coalition, a voluntary unfunded quarterly gathering of those of us across New England who are working to promote racial justice as it relates to health care. The core group had worked together in CDC-funded racial justice coalitions and after the money ran out decided to keep meeting. This is another form of support for community work and has employed “Push back circles” where we re-play situations where we receive resistance to raising the issue of racial justice but this time with role played coaches. We also divide into Affinity Groups (White and People of Color) to do part of our support work.

What I know is that we need these kinds of settings desperately – for support, for colleagues, for clarity, for reflection, for growth. Let’s hear the voices of some of those who attend to get a real sense of how the Practice Council Peer Consultation calls really work.

A case for Practice Calls

Lizzie Rodriguez, PhD candidate, Pacifica Graduate Program

As a new Community Psychologist, the field at times can seem complicated and cumbersome. While my role is a community organizer and relationship builder, I often find myself feeling isolated in the work with ideas and questions swirling in my mind. I found myself yearning for a mentor or professional group that would process case studies with me, encourage me to be mindful of community needs, while staying true to the guiding principles of Community Psychology, and support the multiplicity of experiences I encounter while engaging in community work.

Thankfully, I have found the community of support I was yearning for in the monthly Community Psychology Practice Council’s Peer Consultation Calls.  Call participants include students, recent graduates, and seasoned professionals who come together to support one another through questions or introducing dilemmas we are facing in our work.

On several occasions I thought I was experiencing a very unique challenge and felt slightly self-conscious presenting the dilemma, only to learn that others have experienced the same challenges in their work. This process of hearing from others normalized the experience for me and allowed me to feel comfortable with a moderate amount of uncertainty. I consider the calls a practice of self-care, allowing me to settle in to the comfortable space provided to engage in the wonderful process of sharing and learning from a group of diverse colleagues which helps to facilitate personal growth and development. I encourage others to join the calls as we all have wisdom to share with one another.

Carlos Luis, CP M.A. student, Wilfrid Laurier University

I started joining the Peer Consultation Calls in 2013, before I began graduate school. The very first thing that impressed me was how welcoming everyone was. Even though I did not have a degree in CP my voice was heard and my work experiences was valued. This made me come back every month and helped me learn from real life dilemmas in community psychology practice. Additionally, it helped me learn from topics I had never heard of. Usually there are follow up e-mails which include references to the topics that were discussed on the call. This proved to be a very helpful and enlightening resource.

I remember having a complicated challenge at work once, and I shared it at the Peer Consultation Call. The feedback I got helped me maintain the course despite the adversities I was facing at my job. It helped me understand the values CP is founded upon, and the challenges we will face as we attempt to practice community psychology. I am very grateful for this reflective space and for the valuable input of participants as well as Tom’s leadership.

Kyrah K. Brown, PhD, Early Career Community Psychology Practitioner

I began actively participating in the Peer Consultation calls in 2014. During this year, I graduated with my doctorate in Community Psychology from Wichita State University. My journey was somewhat unique in that I was able to help structure my own postdoctoral appointment through a partnership between a local health department and a nearby medical school. So, I was doing a mixture of capacity building work as well as leading community research and evaluation. I’ve always found myself on a ‘fence’ between academia and practice. So, the space created on this call was important for me because I was able to hear the wide range of work in which my colleagues were engaged. In addition, I needed peer support as I was navigating very new territory while also building on my professional identity. Now that I work as a consultant engaged in evaluation capacity building among non-profit organizations, I face a number of new experiences and challenges (embedded within a new and different community). As an early career, self-identifying Community Psychologist, it has been helpful to me to bring issues or questions to the Peer Consultation Call to gain feedback. Usually, colleagues on the call share examples of what strategies worked for them in the past or probe you with questions to help you think through the issue and come to a resolution. I believe that the Peer Consultation Calls can be especially important for students and early career Community Psychologists even if they do not yet have their own community experiences to share. I think you gain so much from listening to others experiences in which case may end up serving you well if you ever find yourself experiencing a similar situation. In closing, there is so much to learn and share on the Peer Consultation Calls. It really is a valuable space for colleagues to connect reflect, discuss, advise and, most importantly, learn!

How Are Practice Calls Helpful? Let me Count the Ways!

Susan M. Wolfe

I have been attending these calls as often as possible since they began. They have been helpful to me on a number of levels. First, for a long time I was the only Community Psychologist in my geographical area and it was wonderful to touch base monthly with a group of people who share my professional interests and orientation. Second, for most of those years I was an independent consultant and working solo. It was helpful in reducing the sense of isolation for me to have this group to bounce ideas, frustrations, successes and other information off. Third, the struggles and dilemmas that were shared often struck a chord with me and were relevant to my own. At times I accidentally found solutions to problems I didn’t realize I had, and at others I felt validated in the way I had managed some challenges I encountered in my own practice. Finally, it’s just interesting and enjoyable to hear from so many wonderful community psychologists with such a range of experiences and situations.

One of the best features of this group is the range of experience – there are some longtime practitioners and some new ones. It is a great example of how different levels of experience and interests can merge together to provide so much better feedback than a single person is able to provide. I am grateful to have this network of peers to engage with each month. Even when I can’t attend because of conflicting demands, it is nice to know they are there.

Academic as Practitioner?

Vincent T Francisco, PhD

The Society for Community Research and Action has been a second home for me since 1991 when I attended a Biennial conference for the first time in Tempe Arizona. I was hooked from the start, but not because of what I learned in methodology or theory (although I learned, and have much more to learn about that). It was because of the values of the people who have become some of the most significant friends of my life. I have the great privilege to have a faculty position at a major research university, but my work has always been about a combination of learning and making a difference in the lives of others. At a university, I found that I can do both, but the draw to integrate more with community practitioners has been strong from the beginning. It helps me to create opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to learn and contribute. It helps me to feel connected to my roots, and to learn about what can work (and not work) so that it informs my teaching and scholarship within the academy.

I was more active on the Community Practice calls at the beginning, before my schedule changed to having department and committee meetings on Fridays, but I miss it and plan to attend regularly when I am able. There I find guidance and support and excitement for making a difference in people's lives. I brought to the group some of my challenges and found a group of people who include some of the most amazing teachers. People who span the breadth of training from the early days of community psychology through the present. I learned more in listening to them about how important and relevant it is to be a community practitioner, who is also an academic teacher and researcher. Continuing to learn and be challenged by others, having to clarify my language and intent, getting advice from others who think about things from very different points of view from me, are all critical to the work I do with communities.

There are more and more academics identifying themselves as community practitioners. The Peer Consultation calls led by Tom Wolff are an important base of support and guidance for us. We have a lot to learn with full-time practitioners, and this is the best opportunity I know for it. As always, the participants’ words say it best.

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