Why I Became a Community Psychologist

Ever since I could remember, I have always been interested in issues of social justice, particularly as it is related to African Americans and our place in this country. My grandmother would tell me about her experiences growing up and living in Mississippi. She was always very blunt and never sugar-coated things, particularly when it came to racism. There were things that she said and believed that I was unable to fully grasp at the time that she said it. A couple of those things being that racism never really went away and that they should have never integrated the schools. I did not agree with everything that she thought, but she definitely shaped my worldview and the lens through which I look at things.

As a child I read a lot of things related to Black history like the Civil Rights movement and ancient Egypt and Black historical figures like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali. While all those things really interested me, they felt distant and far away, things of a bygone time. I grew up and lived in a predominantly low-income Black neighborhood so I had limited interactions with White people; racism and race were not quite as salient for me then or at least it did not have the same type of salience. One thing that happened that started to change that for me was an issue involving the confederate flag.

On the beach near where I lived, there was a structure where several flag posts stood with different flags on them. Of course there was the American flag, but there was also the Confederate flag. One day someone started sitting out in front the flags in protest. Days and days went by and he refused to leave. He would not leave until the flag was taken down. This went on for about a month or so until he finally left and the flag was eventually taken down. The discussions and debates surrounding the flag showed me that racism was not a thing of the past; there were still wounds present that had not quite healed yet.

Those previous situations still felt somewhat external to me; they were important issues, but they did not really resonate with me that deeply. During the summer before my freshman year in high school, we were given a reading for our honors English class. One of the books on the list was Richard Wright’s Native Son. I thought it would be an interesting book so I chose it as one of the books I would read and write about. For reasons I’m still unsure about to this day, the book really hit me. I think it was the first time that issues of race, racism, and identity had been crystalized to such a degree that I internalized it. Through my immersion into the story I became more aware of how society viewed Black people and what our place was in it. Coincidentally, this came right before I was to be made hyperaware of my Blackness because I had my first experiences of being the only African American in the classroom.

Such an experience was initially very shocking and unnerving for me. I was constantly on guard and wondering how people viewed me, so much so that my performance started to suffer due to my high discomfort. Eventually, I got over the discomfort, but there would still be reminders of my otherness, particularly during one semester in which I was called names by a White student every time I walked in the classroom. High school was definitely a time in which I began try to make sense of the racial landscape immediately surrounding me and in general. I always found myself being the only one or one of few African American students in advanced classes, despite the fact that I knew other African American students who were definitely capable of excelling at that level. I also noticed that in many ways, the experiences and contributions of African Americans were largely absent in the curriculum. I began to wonder if something else was going on. In trying to figure these things out, I used a lot of my class projects to study things that both interested me and helped me learn more about being Black in America and just what it all entails. In my English classes I wrote about things from the Civil Rights movement to the history of hip-hop to why African Americans should receive reparations. In my government class, I wrote a paper about the Dred Scott case. All of these things were topics that were not really covered in our classes and at some point as I got older, I began to understand why.

An area in which I got an unexpected lesson about where Black people stand in America was the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. Living on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, I unfortunately have first-hand knowledge of the damage that was done and the lives that were changed. For the month or so after, we were pretty much cut off from the rest of the world because of the periods without access to lights, water, and cable. When we finally got access to television again, I began to have a better idea of how things were being portrayed in the media. One thing that I noticed was how similar acts were being reported differently based on the individual’s race. In newspaper articles, a picture of an African American getting food from a destroyed grocery store would be reported as “looting.” Yet, similar images of White Americans doing the same thing would be reported as “searching for food.” The African American hurricane victims were being portrayed in a negative light while the White victims were being portrayed in either a neutral or positive light. That difference in reporting angered me and I wonder what kinds of messages such reporting and information sharing sent to individuals. I was particularly angered because in times of desperate need, we were still denied our full humanity. Whether it was the lack of response on the part of the federal government or the unfair reporting, it was unfortunately clear to me that we were not valued.

Around the same time I had decided that I wanted to become a lawyer, because I thought the best way to help my community was through the justice system. An event happened, once again in my hometown, that paradoxically made me want to be a lawyer more, but shook my faith in making changes through the legal system. An African American man had been arrested by the police and taken to the county jail. Somehow he ended up dead after being in custody. Eventually video of what happened surfaced and it was revealed that the police officers had beaten him to death, while he was hog-tied and had a plastic bag over his head. Right there, plain as day, it was apparent something was terribly wrong and broken within the system. I believe whether or not the officers were charged, which they were, is irrelevant to the broader point of the complete disregard for Black lives. That has always stuck with me and it is something that I always think back about when I hear about the most recent tragedy or injustice.

After I graduated from high school, I attended Morehouse College. This was partially because I had attended a summer program hosted at the school and also because I tired of being the only Black person in my classes. I knew how important representation was and I wanted to see more people who looked like me in both the classroom and in the curriculum. While at Morehouse, faculty and administration had the goal of instilling in us a sense of responsibility to the community and that is one thing that I definitely took to heart. As previously mentioned, I originally wanted to be lawyer, but I became a psychology major rather than a political science or other major because I believed that having an understanding of how people behave would help me in my law practice. Eventually I became disillusioned with the idea of becoming a lawyer because I did not believe that it would be the best route for me to do work related to social justice. I decided that I would be a psychologist instead.

My first research experience was my time in the Ronald E. McNair program. As part of the program, I had to work in a research lab under a faculty mentor. I started working in Dr. Bryant Marks’ Morehouse Male Initiative lab. The research we did in the lab was related to the experiences that Black men had in college. My first project in the lab was examining racial identity as a predictor of mental health. Specifically, I looked at how racial centrality, private regard, and public regard predicted self-esteem and depressive symptoms. That was the first project that sparked my broader research interests that I would continue to develop. At first my research interests were mainly involving mental health outcomes as they related to racial identity, but I started to become more interested in education related outcomes given that our lab’s focus was the Black male college experience. During my senior year, our thesis project was examining the relationship between the attachment that an individual has to their school and their self-esteem. After that, I started to consider how such things were related to factors such as racial identity. My interests in racial socialization started to emerge because I realized that these aspects of identity did not come out of nowhere; they had to have come from some source whether it was parents, media, or schools.

My consciousness grew and through community psychology, I was able to better understand and articulate the various m phenomena I witnessed both in my personal life and in society. I first heard about community psychology at Morehouse. One of my professors was a community psychologist, but I did not really have an idea what community psychology was, yet it seemed interesting. During my senior year, I took a community psychology course with that same professor. Once in the class, my interest in community psychology grew as I was exposed to more of what it entailed. Perhaps coincidentally, I took this class during the same time I was applying to graduate school. I applied to other programs, but I made sure to apply to a community psychology program.

I wanted to go into community psychology because of the focus on enacting social change and engaging in community based research. I also felt that community psychology was the best blend of the different things I wanted out of a future career. I believed that community psychology, more than other areas of psychology, paid attention to the various contextual factors that influence people’s behavior. Also, the idea of a strengths-based perspective appealed to me very much as an alternative to the typical deficit-based perspective that is common in mainstream psychology. There was also something that gave a sense of hope that things can be improved to some extent. A positive outlook was something that was refreshing to me, given the pessimism that I have at times. I hoped that community psychology would be the vehicle through which I could help enact some level of change.

Through my first three years in the program, much of that time was spent trying to determine the direction in which I wanted my research and future career to go in. I used many of my class projects to develop ideas and get feedback on them. For example, in the Community Intervention, Prevention, and Social Change class, we each had to pick specific social issues and frame our weekly discussion questions and final position paper around this issue. The social issue I chose was the achievement gap between African American students and White students. For the final paper, I proposed advocacy and creating alternative settings as two intervention strategies that could be utilized to reduce the achievement gap. The reason I chose those two particular strategies were because of the ongoing internal dialectic I have. My preference for practical solutions and my exposure to political science and law lend me to see the utility of using political and legal avenues to enact social change. On the other side, my pessimism born from experience, has me wary of using political and legal means due to those systems being used to disenfranchise and oppress African Americans. That part of me wants to not bother with that and just create something outside of those existing systems.

In weighing the pros and cons of these approaches, I came to have a better understanding of what happens in schools, particularly those with large proportions of African American students. Reading the literature reminded me of my own experiences in school and I saw the same themes and trends over and over again. Disproportionate tracking places large proportions of African American students in lower tracks; couple that with the social isolation that the few African American students in higher tracks experience. Disparate disciplinary actions remove African American students from class at higher rates and too often expose them to the criminal justice system. It was at this point that I realized that aside from studying issues of race such as socialization and identity, I definitely wanted to do work that would help to improve the educational prospects of African American students, whether they are in K-12 or post-secondary institutions.

This realization helped me to figure out what I would be writing for my master’s thesis. The thesis merged together my interests in race-related factors such as socialization with my interests in academic outcomes for African Americans. My topic was the effect that racial discrimination has on the academic attitudes (educational expectations and educational value) of African American college students and whether being prepared for that discrimination (preparation for bias) can lessen the negative effects of that discrimination. I thought about this topic through an ecological perspective. At the individual level, there is the student and the attitudes of the student. At the microsystem level, there is preparation for bias from the family within one microsystem and there is the racial discrimination experienced in the school setting within another microsystem. These two processes interact at the level of the mesosystem to influence the student’s attitudes regarding education. Not surprisingly racial discrimination had a negative effect on both types of academic attitudes. Preparation for bias had a positive relationship with only educational value and did not lessen the effect of racial discrimination on any of the academic attitudes. In my head, it would make sense that being prepared for discrimination would in some way better protect a person from the harmful effects even though this was not reflected in the data. I started to wonder whether there was something more to it that I was not really thinking about. I thought that there may be something related to the experiences of African American college students that facilitated positive academic outcomes in the face of likely racial discrimination.

I realized that something that was likely missing from my analyses was the actual experiences of people. Although my strength is in quantitative methods, I do realize the weaknesses in such an approach given the reliance on numbers and data rather than people and experiences. For this reason, I took a qualitative methods course. My hope was that learning another skill set would allow me to better answer the questions that I had. I also hoped that I would come out of the course being able to ask better questions. For the final project, we had the option of creating an interview guide and piloting it. I chose to create an interview guide that I could use to attempt to understand the lived experiences of African American students in the education system. I wanted the guide to be able to help me find themes across people’s experiences and to determine what were the kinds of things that influences decisions about education. One thing I learned from the project was not to necessarily assume that the information that I get from the interviews would be negative. I acknowledge that I came into the project with a particular lens that colored the types of responses I thought I would get. I realized that I needed to be more intentional in framing the work within a strengths-based perspective. So my broad question ended up morphing into: what are the experiences of African American students that lead to positive academic outcomes? This question could be answered in several likely ways, so the goal now is to determine the best way of answering this broad question and figuring out more specific questions that help to answer the larger question.

In trying to answer questions like the one above, I often find myself trying to figure out what kind of scholar I want to be. My experiences both in school and outside school have shaped my worldview and in many ways I wonder how that influences my current and future development as a scholar. One thing I know for sure is that I do not want to be good at just one thing. I want to be able conduct face-to-face interviews with the same ease that I can run regression analyses. I want to do work that helps me personally and professionally and I also want to do work that helps to make a difference in the community. I think that if the research that is done does not have the potential to make a positive societal contribution, then it is not really worth doing. I do not want to be one of those ivory tower scientists that only worries about publication numbers and grants.

In wanting to be an effective community psychologist, I want to make sure I stay informed of not just the most recent research, but also the current events. I think that if one is not connected to what is actually going in society, then there is the risk of producing research that is irrelevant and outdated. In addition to reading current research articles, I also keep track of things going on through the news. I also read books about various issues that are mostly written by academics, but are written for broader audiences. A lot of those books get at the some of the issues that we study as community psychologists, but often it seems it is without all of the esoteric theory and jargon. It is much more grounded in the reality of these problems and is more relatable. I believe that there is a place for both in the field: empirical and theoretical articles and books for non-academic audiences. I want my work to be relatable and relevant to people, but I also want it to be accessible. I would like to be able to reach people in a way that has an impact. I do not want my work to be limited to journal articles that only a privileged few may have access to. I want the work to matter and to get to those who need it.

Related to the previous points, community psychology has come to mean several things to me. First, it means being able to see the larger picture of what goes on in society. Understanding how different levels of society impact people’s behavior allows one to get at the root of certain problems and be better prepared to intervene. Second, it means using our scholarship to help make people’s voices heard who would have not been heard otherwise. Community based research should incorporate the needs and input of those it would affect. Third, it means finding the inherent strengths within a community in order to build upon them to improve people’s lives. Too often mainstream psychology uses deficit-oriented approaches to research without acknowledging people as functioning and contributing members of their community. Finally, it means using our scholarship to enact social change. If our scholarship does not help to enact some level of change, then we need to rethink what it is that we are actually doing.

When I engage in those kinds of activities, I feel most like a community psychologist. There are some times when I question my place in the field and do not necessarily feel like a community psychologist. A lot of these situations stem from my racial identity. I feel out of place many times when I go to community psychology conferences and see how few African Americans are present. I feel out of place when I read all of the seminal articles in the field and most of them are authored by White men. I feel out of place when there are serious issues in society that are related to African Americans and the field seems to be relatively silent on these issues. I feel out of place, but then I remember that I have to change the situation by contributing to the field and helping to bring in more African Americans to the field.

For my future career as a community psychologist, I want to continue doing research, specifically on African American students across different stages. In addition to conducting research, I would like to be able to evaluate and consult programs that serve African American students.  I also want to use my position to expose more African American students to the field of community psychology, while also making sure that it is a field that is more ready to support them. In short, the reason I became a community psychologist is to improve the situation of the broader African American community.

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