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Volume 54, Number 1 Winter 2021
Edited by Dominique Thomas, Independent Scholar
Written by Corbin J. Standley, Michigan State University
Community psychology aims to use research and action to promote positive change at the individual and systemic levels (SCRA, n.d.). This vision guides our research, activism, and community engagement efforts. As graduate students in the field, we learn that this vision is guided by values such as participation, collaboration, and diversity (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010; Rappaport, 1977). Recently, I have had the opportunity to engage in state-level change efforts and have been reflecting on how these values have influenced this work. Two major state-level initiatives—the passage of the Save Our Students Act and the ongoing work of the State Suicide Prevention Commission—provide powerful examples of these values in action.
Youth Advocacy for Policy Change
In addition to my role as a student and researcher, I also serve as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Michigan Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). In this role, I help to oversee AFSP’s research, education, advocacy, and support efforts to prevent suicide across Michigan. I also bring my expertise as a suicide researcher and community psychologist to advocacy and have been engaged in policy work at both the state and federal levels. Earlier this year, we organized a State Capitol Day advocacy event in Lansing, Michigan bringing volunteers across the state together to advocate for mental health and suicide prevention legislation.
As a part of this event, we partnered with students from the Student Mental Health Committee at a local high school in mid-Michigan. This gave the students the opportunity to learn about the legislative process, talk to their state legislators face-to-face, share their stories of suicide loss and survival, and use their voices to advocate for change. As community psychology values teach us, “participation entails individuals playing an active role in decisions that affect their lives and meaningfully contributing to their communities” (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010, p. 35).
Joined by three faculty advisors, the high school students came to the State Capitol on a Spring morning in early March. Together with over sixty other volunteers from across the state, the students participated in an hour-long advocate orientation to learn about the legislative process, discuss the bills for which we would be advocating, and role play a legislative meeting to practice sharing their stories and key talking points. After an informal open house lunch with legislative staffers, the students joined their chaperones and other volunteers for meetings on the hill with state senators and representatives.
Along with the other attendees that day, the students met with over 50 legislators and their staff and helped to drop off briefing material to the other 100 or so offices around the Capitol Complex. In one meeting I had the pleasure of attending with the students, we met with State Senator Curtis Vanderwall, who Chairs the Senate Health Policy and Human Services Committee. Senator Vanderwall is known for asking tough questions in committee hearings and brought a similar, though toned-down energy to this meeting.
Among other things, the students talked with Senator Vanderwall about House Bill 5482. Colloquially known as the “Save Our Students Act,” House Bill 5482 mandates middle and high schools in Michigan to print a suicide prevention hotline phone number on all student ID cards and display Michigan Department of Health and Human Services-provided suicide prevention materials and resources in school buildings and on their websites. They talked about their own struggles with anxiety and depression; about friends they had lost to suicide and the grief, guilt, and hopelessness that can follow; and about wanting—more than anything—to turn their experiences into action to create change. They also talked about the practical implications of the legislation—that students carry their ID cards with them everywhere; that the legislation does not require school districts to incur any additional costs; and that something as simple as a suicide hotline number lets students know that they are not alone, that others care about them, and that help is available.
House Bill 5482 passed through the House of Representatives in June, through the Senate in September, and was signed into law by Governor Whitmer on October 15, 2020. For these students, learning about the legislative process and being able to influence it by sharing their stories and talking directly to their legislators gave them a sense of purpose, a renewed sense of activism, and a rekindled passion to create change. As one student put it in that meeting, “I’m here to help prevent suicide, and so that no one has to feel alone again.”
Community Engagement to Fight Suicide
In another policy win, Senate Bill 228 was signed into law in December of 2019 establishing the first State Suicide Prevention Commission in Michigan. After helping to draft this legislation and providing testimony in various House and Senate Committee hearings to support it, I was appointed by Governor Whitmer to serve on the Commission in March of this year. As a Commissioner, I also serve on the Data and Policy Subcommittees helping to inform the recommendations made to the state legislature—recommendations made in an annual report developed by the Commission.
The Commission represents a broad range of stakeholders from various backgrounds, geographies, and professions across the state. This was an intentional aim of the legislation in order to meaningfully and authentically represent the diversity of the state of Michigan and the diversity of those impacted by suicide. As Kelly (1971) states, “Being able to see the variety in the way persons cope with tragedy, how they confront social inequities, initiate legal action, and celebrate good times is the measure of the community psychologist” (p. 900).
In an effort to broaden this diversity, more holistically understand how people experience the issue of suicide and ascertain how local communities across the state are tackling it, the Commission is hosting four public town hall meetings later this year. These town halls will provide Commissioners with an opportunity to hear from people across the state. From a community psychology perspective, these town halls “represent our laboratory and require that we be in attendance to observe and participate and earn a right to contribute” (Kelly, 1970, p. 528) while also ensuring the Commission remains accountable to communities across Michigan.
In addition to the values of diversity and participation, the Commission is committed to providing evidence-based recommendations in its report to the state legislature. This includes a thorough understanding of successful programs and initiatives in other states, a commitment to strengthen data infrastructure and funding in the state, and an understanding of how research can meaningfully be used to inform the policy change (e.g., Standley, 2020; Tseng, 2012).
The successes described above were possible because the work was rooted in key community psychology values of participation, collaboration, and diversity. Multiple organizations, legislators, and volunteers across the state have made these successes possible. Progress is slow and iterative, and there is much more work to do, but the passage of the Save Our Students Act and the ongoing work of the State Suicide Prevention Commission exemplify community psychology values in action. By extending beyond the walls of academia, engaging youth and community members, and centering the stories of lived experience, we have been able to create state-level change in Michigan.
Corbin J. Standley is a Ph.D. student and University Distinguished Fellow at Michigan State University. To contact Corbin or learn more about his work, visit www.CorbinJStandley.com
Kelly, J. G. (1970). Antidotes for arrogance: Training for community psychology. American Psychologist, 25, 524-531.
Kelly, J. G. (1971). Qualities for the community psychologist. American Psychologist, 26, 897-903.
Nelson, G. & Prilleltensky, I. (2010). Community psychology: In pursuit of liberation and well-being (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan
Rappaport, J. (1977). Community psychology: Values, research, and action. New York, NY: Harcourt School.
Society for Community Research and Action (n.d.). What is community psychology? [Website]. Retrieved from https://www.communitypsychology.com/what-is-community-psychology/
Standley, C. J. (2020). Policy change to prevent suicide. Turning research into action. [Web blog post]. International Network of Early Career Researchers in Suicide and Self-Harm (netECR). Retrieved from https://netecr.org/2020/09/10/policy-change-to-prevent-suicide-turning-research-into-action/
Tseng, V. (2012). The uses of research in policy and practice. Social Policy Report, 26(2), 1-24. Retrieved from: https://wtgrantfoundation.org/library/uploads/2015/10/The-Uses-of-Research-in-Policy-and-Practice.pdf
Written by Christopher Sonn, Samuel Keast, Emma Scott, Victoria University, Australia
Rachael Fox, Charles Sturt University, Australia
The 8th International Conference on Community Psychology (ICCP) was held 11-13th November 2020, and for the first time, delivered as a virtual event. Our conference builds on a rich tradition of ICCPs that was started in Puerto Rico in 2006, and that has gone from strength to strength since that time. We set out on our journey over two years ago now with the support of the Australian Psychological Society’s Events Team, and were ready to circulate the final program in May 2020 for the face to face conference, initially planned for June 2020.
Then the COVID-19 Pandemic halted our progress.
The virus has made its way effortlessly around the world with devastating effect, causing major disruption and much uncertainty. Our organising team have had to regroup and start again, which we did, collectively. We have learned new technologies, new ways of working, and we have found new ways to stay connected in and beyond place during the lockdown.
At the 7th International Conference of Community Psychology (ICCP) held in Chile in 2018, many delegates called for re-examination and reconnection with the field’s commitment to social justice and for critical and deeper engagement with what some have referred to as the ‘decolonial turn’. This turn has been described as a paradigm shift that can disrupt colonial legacies of power, knowledge, and being (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018).
The current moment of colliding crises reverberating around the world have magnified: continued racialized social injustice; deepening ecological crises; the struggles of First Nations people; Black Lives Matter; LGBTQI struggles for rights and safety and more. This reality, this moment, calls for reawakening the sense of injustice - a call to community and allied psychologists, social scientists, and beyond. It is a call to critically interrogate our field, the profession, the university afresh, to examine the possibilities and limits of various underpinning worldviews, methodologies and practices, to push beyond disciplinary boundaries and to learn from, with, and in dialogue with the various movements, activisms, and other agents about processes of social and societal transformation to advance transformative praxis.
With our core theme of Fostering and Sustaining Solidarities of the 8th ICCP conference, we have received inspiring responses to our call. The conference showcased the rich range of methodologies and critically-oriented research and action that are based on feminist, liberation oriented, and Indigenous and critical race approaches in our fields. We were excited by the stimulating program, which delegates commented inspired them and fostered new visions and solidarities in, across, and beyond our local contexts.
Two webinars preceded the conference. These were very significant preludes that provided us with a sense of what was possible, along with the confidence that we could deliver an online event. We produced two power pre-conference webinars; one on Indigenous Knowledge, and Radical Imagination Decolonisation (featuring Pat Dudgeon, Aus, Linda Nikora, NZ, and Nuria Ciofalo, US) and a second on Critical Transnational Conversations on Structural Violence and Radical possibilities (featuring Paola Balla, Aus, Jesica Shiham Fernández, US; and Michelle Fine, US). Each webinar attracted over 400 registrations and are still accumulating views on our ICCP youtube channel.
Some described these webinars as a labour of love. For us, it was indeed a very rewarding labour of love to be able to foster connectedness and community during a very challenging time using a digital platform. And, it was this connectedness that reaffirmed the need to move forward with the delivery of the ICCP Conference in the 2020 year despite the technological, time zone and language obstacles we would face.
The 3-day conference schedule was split into morning and evening segments AEDT to cater as best we could for various time zones. Sixty-one scheduled conference sessions were delivered within those three days, with 80 gallery presentations (i.e., eposters, 5-minute ignite presentations, and short papers) available to view on-demand, and Spanish language translation made available for many sessions.
The behind the scenes production was labour and time intensive compounded by the fact that this was all very new to most of the team, academics and events staff alike. Finding the right technology, within budget, and training a team to deliver a multi-faceted conference within it, took many resources over many months. The technology used to deliver the conference was the OnAIR platform within the suite of EventsAIR event management software. Accompanying this conference delivery platform, we used Zoom Webinar and Meetings for live conference content, Twilio for conference networking and Slack for post-session and conference discussion.
We had over 350 registrations for the live event, and more people are signing up now to access the content asynchronously. Registrants were from all around the globe and came from a range of academic discipline areas, with distinguished professors, early career researchers, practitioners, artists, and activists joining in dialogue in zoom spaces. Over 188 speakers from 25 countries presented. The papers were varied both in terms of content and style showcasing amazing critical work but also the creativeness of delegates in producing impactful digital presentations.
We delivered three invited keynote panels with commentary from leaders in their respective fields during the event. These included a session on Southern Theories and Actions, Anti-Capitalist Solidarities and Creating Inclusive, Empowered Cultures and Communities, a closing plenary and a hand over session in which we announced the 2022 host city of Naples, Italy and for the first time, a second host city, Montevideo, Uruguay for the 2024 event.
From our perspective as conference organisers, we were very pleased with the event and people who completed our post-conference survey agree. We asked people standard questions, including if they liked the virtual format and what they liked about the virtual platform. Most of those who responded said that they liked the platform. Most people were happy with the quality of the content as well as the volume of content. All respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the event.
Two comments below illustrate some of the experience with the platform.
“I liked because it allowed for the conference to proceed despite COVID. ICCPs are expensive so I hope it allowed others to attend who may not have otherwise been able to afford it. The organization and sessions went well.”
“I have attended a previous conference that utilized a different virtual format and I liked the OnAir format much better. It was easier to navigate and I appreciated being able to change the time zone to see the times of the presentations in my own time zone. That was really helpful.”
Some were not as positive as expressed by one person who captured a range of challenges related to the format, everyday life, and the realities of the changes we are negotiating:
“I am glad the conference was still able to be held despite the pandemic; however, the online format did not go as well as I had hoped. It was difficult to be interactive due to the different time zones. It was also a challenge still having to do other day-to-day activities, work, and school, along with attending the conference (whereas attending in person allows people to be able to focus on just the conference). I also felt like it was hard to promote presentations, and it was disappointing to not receive any feedback. It was great to be able to participate in this conference, but sadly the online format can't compete with the in-person experience”
A couple of general comments capture the overall tone of feedback that we received:
“I liked online because it was accessible across the world, but really missed that in-person experience for informal conversations.”
“All in all it was a wonderful experience, I learnt a lot. I know it must have been a challenge to accommodate different time zones. My sessions started at 4:00 am until 6:00 am, and then they began again at 5:00 pm until 11:00 pm. I just wish next time they could begin a little later in the morning , but I understand the complexity of arranging a convenient time for everyone. Thanks for the opportunity.”
We also asked people about moving forward, and what format they would prefer to see in future events. Most people indicated a preference for a hybrid event, followed by face to face, and online/virtual.
For us, the conference was a significant achievement given the turbulent context. We learnt many valuable lessons about perseverance, creating good working relationships in our teams, thinking outside the square and trusting the expertise of respective teams brought to the table. We developed a deeper appreciation and respect for our colleagues, locally and globally, in and outside the university, who generously supported this coming together and sharing their gifts of knowledge, collegiality, and solidarity. We have all been re-energised after a tumultuous 2020, buoyed by the visions, ideas, and possibilities of critical solidarities for the future that was enacted in the lead up to and through the virtual ICCP2020.
Mignolo, W.D., & Walsh, C.E. (2018). On decoloniality: Concepts, analytics, praxis. Duke University Press.