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A Day with SPSSI in the Community

By Michelle Fine, SPSSI Council and Chair of SPSSI’s 75th Anniversary Committee

The yellow school bus approached. I was exhausted. Two days of SPSSI Council meetings and now I had signed up for a pre-conference set of site visits to "low income community projects." I spend my life doing this work. I was tired. As I looked around the bus at the young people, local and visitors, film makers, activists, budding scholars, and wise elders gathered for a day to learn together. I took on the thrill of a braided adventure of intellect, politics, and soul as we drove out into the Jane-Finch community.

On the bus, Michaela Hynie framed the trip as a visit to very significant community based research projects, deeply embedded in and owned by the communities. Then a woman from Jane-Finch, Zahoor Unnisa, spoke to us about how much the project meant to her - to learn to be a researcher, to work for and with her community, to engage in work of meaning and action, to reclaim the reputation and the relationships of strength in Jane Finch. She seeks to rewrite the newspaper reports of gun battles as the primary way to appreciate the neighborhood.

We arrived at a mall; the community center was embedded on the second floor. Vacant seats grew sparser as the room filled with multiple generations of women, men, and children, and young adults across national and ethnic lines who came to support their colleagues who were presenting. The walls were covered with a photo-voice project completed by members of the community – lovely and frightening photos of what it means to grow up in neo-liberal Canada. I read the photos through US eyes. Through the tears, I grew envious, nevertheless, that Canada seems to welcome their "newcomers" – at least in comparison to the US where we assault, detain, intimidate, threaten, and deport so many of our "aliens."

The projects presented seemed like full-body university partnerships woven into community life, struggle, and joy. They breathed dignity, humanity, and justice into social research. Here was Lewin in resurrected practice. New faces, accents, and pride circulated the room as each person spoke, overcoming a bit of anxiety and then capturing the audience with charisma, passion, and commitment. A teenage girl in the audience, active in Caring Village, was identified as a poet in the program. She offered, with a shy smile, to send me her poetry. As the young men of the project got up to speak, a younger girl seemed to recognize "they need females!" as maybe one of the young men beckoned her up. She moved to the front to address us. They all stole our hearts and embodied radically new ways to conceptualize the making of science.

Alma framed Caring Village in ways that made me want to be in the program, know the program, invite them to NY so that our students and faculty could partake of the wisdom of theory, method and ethics.
I left there filled with a sense of work worth doing; a project well designed, well lived; a set of social psychological principles in action moving across communities and generations - and into the soon-to-be-born baby of a wonderful speaker, Kofi Frempong.

We arrived at The Wellesley Institute, late, tired, hungry and needing bathrooms. Anticipating our needs – as seems their signature strength as researchers, practitioners, and community members – they fed us, gave us bathroom keys, and set our minds and souls on fire -- again. Here we met Sarah Flicker and Susan Flynn and heard about the remarkable Toronto Teen Sexuality survey, a rich participatory project with teens and practitioners from the many offices of Planned Parenthood in Toronto. The project was cataloguing sexuality, risk and desire, and educating youth – by youth. An authentically peer based model of education, research and advocacy, this project is stunning for the ways in which it sharpens what we mean by action research and participation.

And then The Dream Team presented their work - a participatory project by formerly homeless and former psychiatric patients on supportive housing. With the brilliance and dedication of WEB Du Bois in the Philadelphia Negro, they sought to study how supportive housing affects community life. Worried initially that they would find "bad outcomes" due to their presence in the community, they were delighted to report that their presence in the community did NOT threaten community well being, as the NIMBY movement (Not In My Back Yard) would predict, but instead contributed to community safety, stability, and positive relationships. Finally we heard from the community researchers of St. Jamestown who import immigrant wisdom, cultural variations and a sense of urgency to the project of documenting and advocating for community change. Nimira Lalani, Research Associate at the Wellesley Institute, framed the design of this unique organization, dedicated to quantitative and qualitative research to study the social determinants of health and to improve well being for all of Toronto, but particularly those most vulnerable to economic and cultural arrangements of injustice. In their own words, the Wellesley Institute advances urban health through rigorous research, pragmatic policy solutions, social innovation, and community action.

The projects were exhilarating. The bus ride enjoyable. We were surrounded, throughout the day, by cameras and microphones to capture our impressions of the work.

These visits combined powerfully with the SPSSI programming at APA; the combined wisdom of Susan Opotow and Michaela Hynie. The program enjoyed a strong presence of papers drawing from Toronto and USA community-based research partnerships and papers elaborating SPSSI's historic struggle with the science and advocacy dialectic. At the intersection of visiting these projects and listening to these rich papers, I was motivated to learn more about SPSSI's 75 year pendulum swing around value neutrality and advocacy; how our desires to be engaged have vacillated with disciplinary fears about legitimacy, McCarthyism, shifts in funding streams, and shifting methodological fashions. I wanted to know more about our past and to imagine what social psychology as a public science might look like. As a student of Morton Deutsch who was a student of Kurt Lewin, I am involved with justice studies and action research. After the Toronto visits, however, I came home and re-read DuBois' Philadelphia Negro, John Dewey and Jane Addams, Lewin and Jahoda on values and science, neutrality, objectivity, and advocacy. All of these dynamics, controversies, and positioned need to be centrally represented in our 75th Anniversary Gala - they have been so crucial to our understandings of ourselves yesterday and today, and to our work in the world.

In times of globalization and neo-liberalism, as monies and bodies float across the borders of nation states, as inequities grow, the bold work of SPSSI and engaged scholarship grows more complex, more significant, and more endangered. In 1984 Carolyn Payton asked, in American Psychologist, Who must do the hard things? Indeed, with yellow buses and on the second floor of malls, with science and spoken word poetry, with affects of joy and anger, with rigor and outrage, the applied work of SPSSI –always informed by theory and chutzpa – I think we concluded that we must do the hard things.

I do hope that with this pre conference and its filming, SPSSI is marking three new commitments to our future work:
•    Annual gatherings with community and activists to sharpen our sensibilities of action research;
•    Filming and documentation of these moments of psychology as research-advocacy-policy; and
•    Securing a space, the SPSSI suite, where faculty, students and community members can discuss the practice, theory, ethics, and politics of engaged scholarship. In the SPSSI suite this year, designed by Maria Elena Torre, Jennifer Ayala, and Kim Case, conversations flourished about community based research, participatory action research, and the history and future of SPSSI across generations and nations.

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