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Keon West


What SPSSI Can Do in a Crisis

Keon West, SPSSI President,
Associate Professor, Goldsmiths, University of London

We are living in a time of crisis. You must forgive me for saying so.  It is exactly the kind of thing leaders like to say: supposedly rousing, and focusing, and a great reason to re-double our efforts. After all, we’ve clearly been in a time of crisis for a while. Psychology has recently struggled with a “replication crisis” that called into question the accuracy of many of our findings. Some are now saying that we’re also going through a “crisis of relevance” that calls into question the meaning and importance of our findings. Surely, there has always been some crisis or another.  

However, this time feels different, at least to me. The entire world is struggling with an epidemic for which so many countries were woefully underprepared. Families have been forced to suddenly renegotiate work and caring responsibilities, leaving some careers devastated and some relationships painfully fractured. There are huge, frightening, global concerns about violence, prejudice, and impunity in policing, the failures of our collective justice systems, the break-ups of hard-won international collaborations, and the collapse of the social contract between the government and the people. For a while, the sky over California was orange.    

SPSSI has not escaped these tremors unaffected. For example, it was profoundly sad for me when the council was forced, for reasons of safety, to cancel SPSSI’s annual conference that should have taken place this year (2020). I am aware that many members felt that loss and sadness quite keenly. The conference is so much more than networking: it’s a welcoming space to engage with friends, loved ones, and like-minded people who remind us that we belong and should take up space. Perhaps a small thing when some are fighting for the right not to be killed in their sleep. But, as they say, it’s the last straw that breaks us.  

I once read that a crisis is just a sign that your old strategies are no longer working. This seems to me to be a most useful perspective, as well as a comforting one. Perhaps the crisis has indeed altered the effectiveness of our behaviours. Perhaps it has merely revealed the gaps that were always there. In any case, this perspective takes our focus away from our obstacles and anxiety. It turns us instead toward the opportunities that each crisis also represents—opportunities to see problems we previously ignored, to re-evaluate the way we’ve done things so far, and to change our systems for the better. We have the chance to emerge from this stronger than when we entered it. 

SPSSI has already begun this work. In the face of a pandemic set to endure longer than most of us anticipated, we’re re-imagining the ways that we benefit our members, the effects we can have on wide-reaching policy, and the ways that we can come together to preserve and strengthen our community.  I invite each person reading this to join us in that work, and specifically to move beyond individuals and think in terms of the systems (in SPSSI, in our communities, in our governments) that we can change. To borrow from the theme of our 2020 conference, the time for “Transformative Research and Social Action” is now.  

Lofty goals, and goals that contrast sharply with the worry, overwork, and emotional exhaustion so many of us are feeling. Still, this is the moment when SPSSI needs your energy, your drive, your unique perspectives, and your brilliance. This is a great moment to get in touch, to volunteer, to offer your expertise, to share your ideas. As our most recent president—Professor Stephanie Fryberg—reminded me, even in times of difficulty, we should not forget the power and the privileges we bring with us. If the old systems (whether internal or external) no longer work, let this be the year that we change them for the better.  

After all, as Rahm Emanuel, the 23rd White House Chief of Staff has said – “you never let a serious crisis go to waste . . . it is an opportunity to do things you thought you could not do before.”

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