Thursday, April 21, 2011

Psychology of Climate Change: Place and Community

In Psychology, Sense of Community means the connection an individual feels to their community. When the sense of community is both strong and positive, we can typically expect to see greater wellbeing.

Sense of Place means the connection an individual feels to a place. When sense of place is strong and people have their needs fulfilled in their space, we can typically expect to see greater wellbeing.

Community and place can overlap, but they do not necessarily overlap. For example, I no longer participate with the Middle Tennessee Storytellers Guild (since I live in Hawai`i), but I’ve been in the same online writing group for almost a decade despite multiple moves spanning 6,000 miles. A basketball team may no longer be a basketball team without a court. But a religious congregation who lost their church/temple/mosque could certainly still gather in another location, though they may greatly feel the loss or lack of their space.

For some communities, the connection to place and community are so integrated as to be virtually meaningless (or highly damaged) without each other. People identify themselves according to their place and their community. This is true, for example, with people who have lived their entire lives, or multiple generations, in one location. Spatial home, family home, and community home become interchangeable.

This interconnection is especially true for indigenous people whose cultural values and norms evolved over thousands of years in the same space. Daily activities, worldviews, traditions, stories, and life expectations of the community are defined by their place. In such cases, sense of place and sense of community are not so much interconnected as they are indistinguishable.

Which brings us to climate change.

At the recent climate talks in Cancun, climatologists offered a number of models ranging from best to worst case scenarios for mitigation and adaptation. The coming century may see nearly 200 million people displaced globally as land becomes uninhabitable. Climate change will not impact the world equally. This map from NASA, for example, shows that while the sea level on the coast of the U.S. mainland is dropping slightly, the increased winds are pushing the Pacific Ocean waters southwest, which is causing an extreme rise in sea level for South Pacific islands.

The unfortunate truth of climate change is that those least responsible are first and most affected. Developing nations do not have the money, power, or infrastructure necessary to mitigate or adapt to the rapidly changing climate. In the near future, multiple developing countries are faced with the loss of their countries’ land.  While this raises important legal questions on an international scale (e.g., is a government still a government without its homeland? ), many important psychological questions are also raised regarding community, culture, and place attachment.

For years, the Tuvaluan government has been an active voice in global forums advocating for wealthy industrialized nations to mitigate climate change by reducing consumption, waste, and burning of fossil fuels. In addition, the Tuvaluan government has called for wealthy industrialized nations to aid developing nations to develop the infrastructure necessary to adapt to climate changes. The goal for Tuvalu is to keep their home safe by limiting sea level rise.

My preliminary studies in Tuvalu show that the culture is strengthened by the integration of land and community. Tuvaluans’ identities are heavily reliant on their connection to their home island community. Even after migrating to the capitol atoll of Funafuti for economic or educational opportunities, families continue to identify strongly with their home island, even across generations. People invest a lot of time, energy, and emotional resources into church and community groups that are island-specific. Just as their island is home, so too is their island community home.

The Tuvaluan people are diverse in their opinions about climate change and future responses of the country. Some feel that migration is likely in the coming generations. But not all Tuvaluans would be willing to leave. One woman explained to me that some people do not want to leave because they feel that if they do not have land then they do not have a home. They will be lost. Another woman told me, “I will not go. I was born here and I will die here.”

Tuvaluans who have lived in other countries (e.g., Australia or New Zealand) often struggle with the individualistic culture and community norms. Tuvaluan islands are small and the people live close together in constant interaction. Homes are open and neighbors are close. Families are extended and community connections are strong. Living in foreign places where neighborhoods sprawl over vast areas with clearly delineated private yards and houses, Tuvaluans struggle from that lack of constant community interaction.

This is not to say that Tuvaluans cannot thrive in other places—many have and continue to do so. But Tuvaluans should not be forced into migration. Though many articles speak about migration as an inevitability, this is not so. With concerted and sustained mitigation and adaptation efforts by the United States and other nations with a high carbon footprint, Tuvaluans and others around the world can maintain their homelands.

Understanding the importance of place and community, the question becomes not whether Tuvaluans should be able to keep their home, but what right do we have to destroy it?

Post By
Kati Corlew, University of Hawai`i, Mānoa

Friday, April 15, 2011

Community Stories: Trash Tree Triumph

It’s not often that volunteering gets a bad rap. Everyone praises and pushes volunteering - volunteering as a means to assisting your community, volunteering as a tool for learning, volunteering as a way to expose yourself to new experiences and cultures.  Even President Obama is calling on Americans to volunteer in order to help our country out of the current recession.

But what happens when volunteering just isn’t enough? Imagine that you’ve volunteered, volunteered and volunteered for “Cause X” (insert a cause close to your heart here). And after all the time you put in, you don’t see any progress. Where do you go? What are your next steps? Are you likely to volunteer again? Many individuals arrive at this critical intersection, one in which I think we often lose people to discouragement or boredom. This situation also represents an opportunity, a place where volunteering can develop into advocacy.  Here's one of my personal favorite examples of the volunteering to advocacy transformation.

A year ago, I had the privilege to work with members of the newly formed Youth Council in a small town in the Republic of Moldova. The youth members of the council are the first Moldovan generation to grow up under a democratic government.  To many Moldovans, the term “volunteer” still means something to the effect of “forced work one under the Soviet System.”

Location of the Republic of Moldova 

The Youth Council, run entirely by its members, has two goals: to better their community and to show the adults that they too can make a difference. The group started out with small projects, activities that could be done in a day with tangible results (very much in line with the Small Wins Theory). Their first project was cleaning the local park. And did they ever clean it. That first day they spent over six hours in the park picking up trash. It was a good day, and for many, marked their first involvement in a volunteer project. Over the next few days they showed off their handiwork in the park (a popular meeting place for members of the town, also the site of the local “piata” or market).

This pride was short lived, as less than a week later, the park could be described as “dirty.” So again, the youth decided to meet and clean the park. Their second effort took less time, but they also had less enthusiasm for doing a job they had already done. Another week goes by, and predictably, the same thing. Again the youth clean it. (It’s gotten to the point where people in the town have actually commented that they think the youth are being paid to clean the park).

Eventually the proposal to “clean the park” was met with strong resistance within the Youth Council. “Why clean it, when it’s just going to get dirty again?!” Giving up on it was discussed, as were other options, which got to the root of why people were littering in the park in the first place (laziness, lack of trash cans, lack of knowledge of the effects of pollution, thinking “it’s just one piece”). Installing trash cans was a possible solution, however, the youth didn’t have access to funding.

The conversation moved towards how we could get people to stop littering. As we know, changing behaviors involves changing attitudes, and advocacy is one tool that can be used to influence others’ attitudes.

Advocacy was a new idea to the youth council members. I presented what I knew about it - getting people’s attention, raising awareness, and lobbying for change. To them, at first, the idea sounded similar to “do nothing” especially because there weren’t guaranteed concrete results. They struggled with whether the activity would be worth their time, how they would gage success, and the reaction of the population (they wanted to err on the side of not upsetting others).

The group came up with a creative, idea - very specific to the beliefs and values of their community.  The next Saturday we gathered and cleaned the park, one last time. Instead of throwing out the trash, we stored it. In the morning, the youth tied strings to each piece of trash - from candy wrappers to empty beer bottle, and moved the trash into the center of town. They then tied the trash to the branches of a tree - it looked as if the tree was “growing” trash. Underneath they wrote in Romanian, “What you put in the ground, that, is what will grow.” This message was highly appropriate for the agriculture-reliant population.

They then stepped back to observe people’s reactions to the tree (Sunday is market day, so the tree got a lot of traffic). Many simply walked by the tree, confused. Others yelled at the youth for putting the garbage where it shouldn’t be. Many more stopped to talk. “What are you doing?” “Where’d you get this trash?” “Is it Christmas?” “Do you really think this is true?” “Who are you?” etc.

It was a great chance for them to talk about the Youth Council and their ideas for putting trash cans in the park. People were amazed at the amount of trash that accumulated over such a small time. The “buzz” generated by the “strange tree” the youth made lasted a few weeks.

At the time they weren’t able to capitalize on the buzz and secure funding from the local public authorities for trash services in the park. But the activity did get them recognized, gave them credibility in the town, and generated excitement about the environment. As a council, they started to attend the meetings of the local government. The next time they cleaned the park, others joined in. They kept this up for six months until something was done. Currently, there are eight trash cans through the half mile park at the center of town, and according to the youth, they don’t have to clean it more than once a year. A success in their eyes!

Post by Sharon Hakim, Wichita State University

The group described in this piece was the "Counsilul Local al Tinerilor in Singerei"

This blog entry was part of an upcoming “Community Stories” series. 
Do you have a story from your own community work that you would like to share on our blog? ... a teachable moment? ... lessons learned? ... insights into a community? ... funny incidents? ... collaborations or achievements you are proud of? 

Please share your stories with us - and with the larger community. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bringing Communities Together

Recently the APA Monitor (a publication of the American Psychological Association) featured a profile on Tom Wolff, a community psychologist practitioner.  The article does a great job of highlighting how community psychologists work alongside community members to create better futures.   It also stressed the importance of making sustainable systems-level changes, with an eye towards prevention and health promotion.

"We have to stop pouring all our efforts into bandaging up the wounded and really look at systems change," Wolff said.  "That's really the field of community psychology."

The article is available to read here.

To find out more about Tom's work, visit:  or see his book new book "The Power of Collaborative Solutions"

Monday, April 11, 2011

Empowerment Evaluation

I’m here in New Orleans, where the incredibly massive and information-packed Annual Meeting of the American Education Research Association (AERA) is taking place. I had my eye out for topics that were relevant to community psychology, but thought I’d have to try a little harder to find some. As it turns out, the cross-linkages are everywhere, and I’ve been able to attend sessions on topics such as action research, mixed methods, and how to apply for federal grants.

But the highlight of the conference for me so far was a session on empowerment evaluation. This is a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of community psychologists, and I was fortunate to attend a session that featured David Fetterman, the man who literally wrote the book on the topic (or at least edited it). He was accompanied by a group from Canada who gave an inspiring example of empowerment evaluation in action as well as another speaker offering critiques. However, it was clear that Fetterman was the star of the show. The discussant leading the talk gave an intro to the session that, much like this intro, went on just a little too long, though I can’t really blame her since she was faced with the difficult task of trying to summarize a novel-length bio full of accomplishments.

David Fetterman is the guy on the left.

Empowerment evaluation has transformative potential, whether it’s used by education researchers, community psychologists, or anyone else. As David said in the talk, it was “the right idea at the right time,” and has been adopted widely, though it is still invisible in some settings, and controversial in some others.

What is empowerment evaluation? Well, first let’s define evaluation. According to Wikipedia, evaluation  is the “systematic determination of merit, worth, and significance of something or someone using criteria against a set of standards.” Program evaluation usually involves some kind of external assessment of outcomes or impact, though other factors such as program design or cost effectiveness may be measured. Evaluation is becoming increasingly important as funding agencies claim commitment to “evidence-based” practices. However, there are some significant challenges to traditional evaluation. Ideally, evaluation should not be used merely to determine whether some program has value or not, but as a tool that can help any program improve. Empowerment evaluation is far better suited to this task.

Fetterman introduced the empowerment evaluation session with a tongue-in-cheek remark about how it was exactly like traditional evaluation – just “turned upside down.” The short definition of empowerment evaluation is “the use of evaluation concepts, techniques, and findings to foster improvement and self-determination.” There’s an expanded definition in the newest book, but I think the key distinguishing word in this shortened definition is “SELF-determination.” In traditional evaluation, external evaluators act as experts who can objectively ascertain whether a program is successful. This can lead to distrust of the evaluator, especially if funding is at stake. Even more challenging is the problem of knowledge utilization – that is, does anyone actually use the information gathered in the evaluation? In empowerment evaluation, the evaluation is led by the program staff, and the evaluator acts as a “critical friend” or coach that assists them in conducting the evaluation, leaving them with increased capacity for self-evaluation. Some critique empowerment evaluation by saying that internal evaluations are bound to be biased. Fetterman counters that with his own examples, saying that when evaluation is truly used as a tool for continuous improvement, program staff are actually far more critical of themselves than outsiders would be – because they know exactly what is wrong with the program and they want to fix it. Not only are people more honest, but they are also far more likely to use the information gained in the evaluation to improve their program.

There’s a lot more to say about empowerment evaluation, but I’m just a noob in this area, and this post has been long enough, so here I’ll leave you with some of the many resources on the topic:

Empowerment Evaluation website:

Empowerment Evaluation blog:

Collaborative website:

Books & Publications: