Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THEory into ACTion
A Bulletin of New Developments in Community Psychology Practice
August, 2015

Facilitating Engagement in Our Communities

Tabitha Underwood
Missouri Campus Compact, Missouri State University

Little Free Libraries are the product of a nonprofit organization aptly titled Little Free Library that seeks to provide everyone easy access to books. Their mission is “to promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide and to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations”. Initially, the organization set out to exceed the number of libraries built by Carnegie (2,509) and has done so by leaps and bounds. A Little Free Library (LFL) is a small structure, typically placed in the front yard of a home or business, containing used books spanning a variety of genres and age groups. The idea is simple “Take a Book, Return a Book.” (see website for more information:

Little Free Libraries have the potential to (1) help community practitioners engage in their own communities and (2) to facilitate engagement in the communities within which practitioners work. As a community psychologist and practitioner, I have found Little Free Libraries as a way to engage with my community outside of the work environment. Many of us work within the realm of community engagement every day, helping others find their place and connection in the world. However, what do we do in our own neighborhoods? Does our own engagement as community psychologists stop when we leave the office? Little Free Libraries are an avenue for involvement within our neighborhoods, while also espousing the competencies and values of Community Psychology. They are also both an engagement and a literacy tool to be used by community practitioners to help others improve their communities and potentially improve educational outcomes through access to literacy. As John McKnight has stated, Little Free Libraries are an easy and accessible intervention because they do not require a lot of effort or resources (Aldrich, 2015).

Little Free Libraries (LFL) have a natural connection to many of the Community Psychology competencies as outlined by the Society for Community Research and Action. The following provides examples of these connections (SCRA, n.d.).

      Sociocultural and Cross Cultural Competence: The LFL helps us to get to know other cultures through books. You can learn about others’ reading preferences and sometimes worldviews through what they take and leave from the library; however, this knowledge can really only be acquired by combining the library with actual discussion (either online or in person).

      Community Inclusion and Partnership: LFLs are an easy way to include others in neighborhood initiatives. For the library to function, residents need to come together to supply the books and use the library. The library provides a passive way for residents to become involved. Anyone can take or leave a book without judgement or sometimes even notice.

      Resource Development: The collaborative nature of this project requires you to involve the resources of others. This project often takes more than your own resources to be successful. You must rely on others to leave or donate books in order to keep a rotating, fresh supply for the avid readers in the neighborhood. Once they see a lack of turnover in books, what will keep them returning?

      Program Development, Implementation, and Maintenance: This might be the simplest competency of all to practice. LFLs are programs in and of themselves. You can flex your program management muscles through the planning, building, placement, maintenance, and even evaluation of your own small library.

Little Free Libraries also help us live out one of our greatest values as community psychologists, that of building a sense of community. As we know, Sarason (1974) proposed that sense of community was the core to our field. Indeed, this is the entire focus of the Little Free Library initiative. It is a way for residents to get to know one another, grow a sense of belonging and connection, and rely on one another, even if only for reading material. The newly published Little Free Library Book (Aldrich, 2015) sheds light on this outcome. Stories of LFLs across the world show how they have helped neighbors get to know one another and develop a connection. The book outlines “Building Community” as an essential use of the libraries.

Little Free Libraries have great potential for our work as community practitioners, not only because of their inherent connection to community psychology principles and practices but because of their associated outcomes for the individuals and the communities in which we work. Through their exchange of resources (books), LFLs help neighbors connect, facilitate a love of reading, make books more accessible, serve as a common space and an anchor to other community activities, demonstrate creativity and innovation, and ultimately build social capital (Aldrich, 2015). They also have the opportunity to build neighborhood leadership. As Todd Bol, the founder of Little Free Library, says of library stewards, “they are the perfect concerned citizens, ready to pick up the charge, improve their neighborhoods, and ensure that all their neighbors read well and often” (Aldrich, 2015 p. 2)

Beyond being a tool in our community practice arsenal, I would argue that Little Free Libraries are also a way for community psychologists and community practitioners to engage with our own neighbors and practice what we preach. As we work day in and day out as practicing community psychologists, helping others to find their voice, work together to solve community problems, and improve quality of life, what do we do for our own personal growth and development within the realm of engagement? I propose that Little Free Libraries are one way that we can serve as role models of the principles of community psychology in our own life.  

This is what Little Free Libraries have done for me as a community practitioner. A few years ago, we purchased a house in a neighborhood that was just getting started with its organization. A group of interested residents were in the process of setting up a community watch, there were discussions of reopening a park that had been closed, and a neighbor had started to organize regular neighborhood gatherings. Community engagement is my passion and my work, but with an incredibly demanding schedule at work, I found it difficult to find the time, and quite frankly the energy to engage with my neighbors as fully as I wanted. However, the Little Free Library provided an answer. It was a resource I could provide my neighborhood and became a way to start conversations with my neighbors. Our house became know as the one with the little book exchange in front of it. When meeting new neighbors that was the only defining feature I needed to mention to explain where our house was positioned in the neighborhood.

Once we moved cross country and settled into our new home, it was time for the Little Free Library to once again work its magic and help me get to know my neighbors. As my husband and I worked to level a small patch of land in our yard and place the cinder blocks as a base, our neighbors took notice. Almost immediately our neighbor to the right came out to see what we were doing, which initiated a conversation. Another neighbor across the street brought over her toddler grandson to take a peek. In the evening when I return home from work I find people walking with their dogs and those pushing strollers searching for that next great read. I should mention that our neighborhood does contain other Little Free Libraries, so some people are accustomed to their presence and understand their purpose. However, our library has given us an opportunity to teach the occasional passerby about this common good. These interactions are not unique to our library. There are countless stories of this same phenomenon occurring in neighborhoods around the world (Aldrich, 2015).

In all, my Little Free Libraries have helped me to meet new people, provide a resource to my neighbors, generally observe neighborhood behaviors, and build my own sense of community. Through the two libraries that we have placed in our yards, I have witnessed first-hand what they can do for me as a practitioner and how practitioners working in other communities may help others utilize Little Free Libraries as an engagement tool. I don’t pretend to claim that Little Free Libraries will change the world, but they may in fact add to the quality of life of neighborhoods, help build relationships with neighbors, and provide a venue for you to live community psychology practice at home.


Aldrich, M. (2015). Little free library book: Take a book, return a book. Coffee House Press.

Sarason, S. B. (1974). The psychological sense of community: Prospects for a community psychology. Jossey-Bass.

Society for Community Research and Action (n.d.). Competencies for community psychology practice. Retrieved from

Friday, August 21, 2015

THEory into ACTion
A Bulletin of New Developments in Community Psychology Practice
July, 2015

Interview with Helen Louise Azzara, Creative Facilitator with a Master’s degree in Creativity Studies and PhD Candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute

Libby Christenson, B.A. and Olya Glantsman, Ph.D.
Depaul University Prenger
“We do have this natural ability, through play and through expression, to change things” - Helen Louise Azzara

As a student in an advanced Community Psychology course at DePaul, I wanted to learn how to use creativity to help others, therefore, I searched online for information on community psychologists who use creativity in their work. My search led me to Helen Louise Azzara who is a creative facilitator, and is presently working on her dissertation exploring the value of creative arts in dementia care.  In the interview, Helen Louise shared her journey that led her to the field of community psychology and how she incorporates art and creativity in her work with communities.

While pursuing an acting career for nearly 20 years in New York City, she re-discovered her love of psychology and became a certified psychosynthesis practitioner (a transpersonal psychology). While completing her certification, she experienced the powerful effect the creative process has in helping people develop a greater understanding of self, their relationships and the world they live in. In 2001she founded The Heart of Creativity program, facilitating workshops throughout the New York metropolitan area.

In 2007 she earned a Masters of Science in Creative Studies from SUNY Buffalo State’s International Center for Studies in Creativity (ICSC), and is currently enrolled in a PhD program for Depth Psychology with emphasis in Community Psychology, Liberation Psychology and Ecopsychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California.

Helen Louise had never heard of community psychology until attending Pacifica. During her three years of formal classes, her fieldwork projects involved working in community settings that focused on conducting creativity programs for older adults diagnosed with dementia.  It was while doing this work, she realized she has been a community psychologist all along “I was doing it, but I didn’t know I was doing it. I was very involved with the communities and teaching them various ways to handle stress or use conflict resolution,” says Azzara. 

At Pacifica, Helen Louise was able to focus on the concepts of well-being and learn more about community psychology as a field of study. “It has led me now to deepen my study of dementia, and how we as a society can provide better resources to help improve their  quality of life.  So I see myself more working in the field as a community psychologist rather than an ecopsychologists. However, I do think they are all interdependent on one another.”

Helen Louise has found that creativity studies seem to have an inherent connection to community psychology. When she started her work, using creativity as a forum to open dialogue and to manage stress, bringing it into community contexts was novel. She loves creativity workshops and using them with different groups—artists, social workers, health professionals, older adults, caretakers— there are a lot of different venues where creativity does link, where everyone comes together and solves problems more through self expression. Creative mediums using improvisation, poetry, painting, dance, theatre games, listening to music, and silent meditations are some of the ways in which can bring community together and deepen connections. Moreover, such workshops incorporate many community psychology values such as the strength-based approach, collaboration, and empowerment. According to Helen Louise the workshops promote self-awareness and collective efficacy towards addressing participants’ challenges and expressing everyone’s voices.

In conducting conflict resolution workshops with social workers, Helen Louise has been inspired by the work of Augusto Boal (c), the founder of Theatre of the Oppressed. She uses many of his improvisation techniques such as “sculpture” (using the body to create an image of an oppressive situation or emotion), theatre games, and role play to create a community-oriented space. According to Helen Louise, the workshops promote cohesion among group members who report feeling much more harmonious, more together, more open to listening and solving problems together. “It is a bridge that brings the community to a place of coexistence where we can hear, respect and value each other. And we are all there for the same reasons, for our own well-being, for our loved ones and beyond. To help people.”

Her fieldwork in an adult daycare allowed her to bring creativity and workshops to the center [for people with dementia]. “It was quite lovely to see everyone getting together and seeing the positive changes.” In addition, Helen Louise has lived in a small residential facility for eight days in the New England area to experience what it is like to live in an actual home for people with dementia. Now, she is looking forward to getting involved with the Alzheimer’sAssociation and volunteering with them in the near future. Her dissertation focuses on researching dementia care and she hopes to work with memory care communities of Santa Barbara.

Helen Louise’s involvement with communities allows her to participate and experience a sense of empathy among her clients and according to her, empathy is a big part of her work. Azzara comes from a depth psychological point of view, which means one has to look at his or her own unconscious patterns of behaviors, attitudes and biases.  According to Helen Louise empathy is not something that is revered in this country as much as it should be. To her, empathy promotes more understanding, kindness, caring and patience; we are able to see and hear the other and have respect for diversity.  This, to her, is especially important for community psychologists to whom empathy may also mean inclusion. As community psychologists, we should ask ourselves: “What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? Who is benefiting from this work?” Who is making the decisions? “Am I able to make a positive impact?” Is my work ameliorative or is it transformative?  In other words, to borrow community psychologists’ Nelson and Prilleltensky’s concept, am I participating in placing a temporary band aide over a problem or situation, or does this work have the potential to create real change for individuals and within the community.

When Azzara reflects on one of the turning points of her career, she recalls a child that she worked with many years ago as a social worker. The child was a young girl about nine years old and she was not able to talk. At that point, Helen Louise had not yet explored creativity in her work, but decided to use it to let the client express herself. Through self-expression, Helen Louise empowered her to take more control of her own treatment, which included various types of artistic media such as art and dance. Over the course of three months, the client began to show progress and eventually started to sing and talk. It was a profound, life-changing experience that helped Helen Louise realize why creativity was powerful for healing. The transformations happen over and over again and this is why the work is always new and fresh. Someone is always affected. People can work together, understand differences and see the other and themselves. This interview sheds light on the possibilities of community transformation through art, creativity, and self-expression. Imagine the change that may occur throughout a community when community psychology practitioners begin to fully utilize strategies of creativity.