“People who are engaged in social change in their communities – community organizers, grassroots social movement folks – have equally rigorous theories about how change works as we might have in academia.”
Dr. Natalie Kivell is an assistant professor at the Wilfrid Laurier community psychology program. She says there are “two…and a half?” community psychology programs at Canadian universities, and that those who work in the field tend to be a lot more involved with the ‘community’ part than the ‘psychology’ part of that job description.
Ann Marie Beals is one of those people. Ann Marie is a graduate student in the community psychology program at Wilfrid Laurier. They are L’nuk of Mi’kma’ki - African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq descent, and their work focuses on the erasure of mixed-blood Indigenous-Black communities historically and in the context of today’s society, Truth and Reconciliation, and the ongoing marginalization of both Indigenous Nations and Black communities in Canada.
Natalie’s student Ramy Barhouhe is originally from Lebanon and lived in the United States before coming to Wilfrid Laurier for the community psychology PhD program. His work is focused on colonialism and coloniality – how these power structures have shaped the development of whole community systems in North America and Southwest Asia. How this guides the way people perceive, feel, and experience the world in terms of time, space, morality, power, education, health, justice, politics, economics and more.
Ramy, Ann Marie, and Natalie have come to community psychology via very different paths, but all have similar outlooks in that they all put ‘community’ before ‘psychology’. They are all heavily invested in ways to dismantle our current systems – and they are all keenly aware that they themselves are working within some of those systems. Ramy is studying ways to decolonialize as part of academia, itself a structural vestige of colonial practices. Ann Marie is a member of the CPA, and the Treasurer of the CPA’s Community Psychology section, both institutions that are shaped by the legacy of colonialism. Natalie is a professor in psychology – a field of study that has long been complicit in not only colonialism but also the marginalization of minority populations.
Says Ramy, “the academic world is so intertwined within the neoliberal capitalist system that it’s really difficult to manage the disconnect. The power discrepancy between those who control the flow of knowledge and those that don’t is too big. For example, an academic is getting a grant in order for them to do some research, then they go use a community to get information from that community. But they don’t get approval from that community afterward with regard to knowledge distribution and mobilization. They get the credit, the acknowledgement, and the funding, but the community itself gets nothing from it. They’re just supporting and serving the academic. So that’s one problem with the structure of colonialism within academia that we still need to talk about further and to overcome.
We talk about this a lot in our program, and we acknowledge that we’re part of the problem as well. If we’re doing that research, we’re not absolved from the structure, and the impact it has on the community – we’re still part of that problem. We’re trying to find a way to reimagine this, and it involves a certain amount of respect and humbleness toward the community in which we work. Making sure they get their due, their respect, and even funding to serve their community’s needs. That’s where the shift is – how can we take the resources that are unfortunately part of a corrupt system and use them to benefit those communities? And, how to use their knowledge as their own, and not mine just because I did a survey.”
Ann Marie looks at the current situation, informed by the COVID-19 pandemic, as a window into the work that needs to be done. They say, “one of the things that’s been revealed from this pandemic is how neoliberal austerity policies and practices have affected our health care systems, and how precarious workers in minimum- and low-wage jobs – predominantly Black women, racialized peoples, newcomers, and Indigenous peoples, are disproportionately affected by a lack of compassion, care, and adequate safety nets that were dismantled by neoliberal governments.
As an example, our current Ontario government, within a capitalist system, legislated limited pay increases of 1% for public sector workers like health care workers, as inflation is looming over 4% [4.1% August 2021]. In our community psychology program we have student and faculty researchers who come from and live in communities that are directly affected by neoliberal and colonial practices, such as this one, that continue to widen the gaps in health care and economic stability. At the same time basic human rights such as housing, education, clean water, and quality of life remain not only unfulfilled but purposefully denied. So as a student researcher, I and other critical community psychologists examine the intersections of how power structures such as white supremacy, colonialism, neoliberalism and patriarchy intersect with human beings and with Mother Earth through myriad interconnecting identities.
We look at these power structures, through control of resources on stolen Indigenous lands, anti-Black racism, and colonializing policies. And by that I mean the people who support and hold up these power structures. Sometimes we speak almost abstractly or theoretically about power structures, but we have to be cognizant of the fact that people hold up and maintain these structures. They try to dictate how we live our lives, and systemically oppress anyone who does not fit the able-bodied white cisgendered heterosexual man dominated perception of what is ‘Canadian’. For me, it’s always about dismantling the power structures that oppress people in my communities.”
There are several words Ann Marie, Ramy, and Natalie all use quite often – intersection, dismantling, neoliberal, colonialism. Another word they all use, maybe even more often, is “collaboration”. Ramy speaks about working in collaboration with communities, so that the work done there is not extracting, but rather enhancing, the knowledge, the health, and the success of that community. Ann Marie speaks about collaboration in the sense that credit for the work done is not only not the end goal, but antithetical to the process of self-determination in communities. And Natalie talks about dozens of other community organizations, grassroots activists, and scientific disciplines with whom she works to advance the myriad causes of social justice. In fact, the very first word she uses to describe community psychology is “interdisciplinary”.
“Community psychology is an interdisciplinary, values-driven, action-oriented, community-engaged social science. It addresses social justice at the intersections of racial, climate, immigration, gender, prisoner, and disability justice. We work at the intersections of the complexities of how social justice issues touch each other in an interconnected way. Community psychology is guided by a set of theories. We approach these complex social issues from places of prevention, ecological theory, critical perspectives, and decolonial perspectives. We look to situate relationships between individuals, communities, and societies. If we have equitable and just communities, we have healthier people. And therefore the target of community psychology is figuring out how to rebuild, re-imagine, and co-create equitable school systems, health systems, prison systems and so on.”
Because Community Psychology tackles such a wide array of systems and structures, their work crosses many boundaries into other aspects of psychology – criminal justice, environmental, educational, and more. Although they are small in number, their collaborations across disciplines, sciences, community groups and activist organizations ensures that they will continue to have an outsized impact.