Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How Am I Using Community Psychology? A Reflection on 6 Months on the Job

When I first was asked the question, “How are you using Community Psychology at work?” I thought to myself… “Am I?” This is something I’ve particularly struggled with over the last year, having graduated in May, 2010. It was a really tough transition for me, leaving an incredible Community Psychology program (at UMass, Lowell) where I had spent two years building strong networks, sense of community and, perhaps most importantly, a great family of peers and mentors. Despite all of that, financial and personal reasons brought me back home.

Moving home was difficult mostly because I felt that I was hitting reset. I did not have a community based in Community Psychology (hereinafter referred to as CP), and I didn’t know anyone who even understood what it meant. Anyone who has studied CP is most likely familiar with the question, “What is that, exactly?” This is a question I get monthly. Well, perhaps more like weekly. The truth is, I have learned to go from bemused to amused by my family and friends still not fully understanding what I went to school for (three years after the fact). I often overhear my family telling others “She studied Community Psychology.. she’s like a Social Psychologist… kind of like Sociology, I think.” So if no one around me understands it, how can I feel that I am using it?

When I finally found a job after months of searching, I landed in the non-profit sector at Planned Parenthood. I immediately thought, now this is exactly the job I’ve been wanting. I’ll be implementing all kinds of CP values – outreach and organizing, educating and resource-sharing, collaborating with the community, empowerment and consciousness-raising. This is the ideal setting, I remember thinking. The reality of it was that I found myself working in front of a computer the majority of the time. I was surprised with the bureaucratic nature of our meetings and the precedence of fundraising agendas over patient outreach. I was so consumed with our need for funding that I couldn’t focus on anything else. I knew there was room for—if not a need for—CP in our environment. Despite the dire times and alarming threats to our organization, we were still working so hard to maintain individual and community wellness. I realized I was struggling with my lack of involvement with CP relations, while immersed in an organization that exudes just that.

That’s when I finally realized what my graduate mentors had been telling me for months: I had to bring CP to me. I had to create it in my own environment, in my own ways. I started talking about CP values to people around me; to members in my department, my CEO, our education department and outreach coordinator. I started working on research projects off-site where I could learn more about our constituents within their communities. I started talking about volunteer opportunities and advocacy within our younger communities. I attended the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) conference, and signed up to write for this blog. After that, I started feeling as though there were so many opportunities available. All it took was talking about CP values, our organizational needs, and what I’d like to bring to the table. That’s when I realized I wasn’t allowing myself to feel empowered enough to do it.

Once I regained faith in my ability as a Community Psychologist, I was able to feel more useful. I realized that my previous experience with qualitative research and empowerment-raising was not only something we needed, but something that people were interested in hearing about. I have also found that my interests and knowledge of community outreach may be simple and common among a CP community, but in our organization, they are seen as unique and innovative. With my experience and goals, I am able to provide more resources and creativity to our already thriving environment with just a little touch of Community Psych; something my co-workers didn’t know they already had in them. For me, six months into a job post graduate school, I was finally finding what I could offer to my environment. And, well, to myself. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” and that, to me, is what Community Psychology is really about.

Danielle Gemell, M.A.
Planned Parenthood of NJ


  1. Danielle, thank you for this post! I posted the same comment on the UML site but I figured I should put it on the original post too because I love it so much.

    I find being in the Community Social Psychology program and not living in Lowell that I get a similar feeling as you in which people and professions do not understand what Community Psychology is. I appreciate the very valid point you are passing along, to bring CSP with you, to your life and your career. Wherever these places may be, CSP will be within us.