Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tapping our passion for addressing systemic racism and social justice:

Keeping your coalitions going after your grant money runs out

Tom Wolff, Tom Wolff & Associates,  Amherst MA.

Over my forty years in the nonprofit world I have seen many multi-site coalition efforts come and go. They rise and fall with the funding whims/fads of government whether it is substance abuse, violence prevention, teen pregnancy prevention etc. I’ve never seen one of these multi- site networks of coalitions sustain themselves without either new funding or the support of the original lead organization.

The New England Racial Justice and Health Equity is the exception, so it is story worth telling.
The original network of Health Equity and Racial Justice coalitions was created by CDC REACH (Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health) grants awarded to the Boston Public Health Commission’s Center for Health Equity and Racial Justice. The BPHC Center funded efforts at 13 sites across New England from Manchester NH to Springfield MA and Bridgeport Ct and obviously in the Boston area as well. I was a consultant/trainer to the Center and many of the New England sites over the five years of funding (See below for references to the Center’s work and to my writing about their work).

The core approach of addressing health equity was through a model (see chart) that acknowledges the critical role of systemic racism in health outcomes.


The goals of the coalitions were to create policy changes to address systemic racism in the social determinants of health (exs. food access, educational disparities).

The issue of racism was central to these efforts from the start. For example the first BPHC brochure focused on breast and cervical cancer in Black women. The brochure language was explicit: “If you are a Black woman living in Boston and you have a greater chance of dying from breast or cervical cancer than a White woman. Why? Racism may play a key role in determining your health status. It may affect your access to health services, the kind of treatment you get and how much stress your body endures”.
Based on this health equity framework each team at all 13 sites went thru anti-racism training and learned to re-frame their community health issues in racial justice /health equity terms. This led to struggles to come to grips with racism in both their community and in themselves regardless of their racial and ethnic identity. Over time each community faced significant ‘push back” from some forces in the community to the explicit focus on and use of the term ‘racism’. In fact,  most efforts to address health disparities in the U.S. avoid explicitly using this term and instead create programs that ‘blame the victim’ i.e address health disparities in diabetes in Black men by running programs for Black men on eating well.

By acknowledging that racism is the core issue in health disparities, we stirred the social justice roots of the staff and communities at the sites. This was powerful enough to keep the discussion going after the money ran out. At the last meeting before the funding ran out in October 2012, the leaders and staff from many communities expressed the desire to keep meeting. The CDC no longer was providing money, and the BPHC being a city health department could not take responsibility for organizing a New England wide group; but the group was determined. There was a strong desire to keep the discussion of race and the struggle for social justice alive.
So we named ourselves the New England Racial Justice and Health Equity Coalition and have kept meeting quarterly on a purely voluntary basis. One site acts as host for each meeting and designs the meeting, and provides the food. Sometimes if the site is short of resources we pass the hat to cover food costs.

At the first meeting we did ‘push back circles” a process designed by one site to allow the group to role play real examples where they experienced difficult ‘push back’ around racism from their community. However, this time in the role play they have three coaches to help them with feeling supported, finding the language to respond, and managing their emotions. Everyone found the experience very helpful and brought their learning back to their communities.

This process of quarterly meetings has now lasted for a full year. Part of each meeting is now spent in ‘affinity’ groups with the White participants, and communities of Color meeting separately for part of the meeting. This allows for a different level of discussion on race than usually occurs in mixed groups. As a White man I have certainly found this approach allows me to explore how I can use my White privilege to best advantage in moving this work forward without making things worse (see the work of  Tim Wise as an outstanding example of understanding white privilege

I have learned many things in the process of this experience. The lesson around sustainability seems to be that when we tap into people’s strong passions for social justice we are able to keep many people at the table even when the money has disappeared. Thus, we have another great reason to keep issues of social justice high on our agenda.
After the Trayvon Martin trial there was a national outcry for discussions of race in America. Is there a place for Community Psychology in those discussions? And for tackling the work on health equity and racial justice through a transformative change lens?    

The Center for Health Equity and Social Justice’s work has been published and is available at:

I have also written about this work (, and have had articles and videos published in the Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice:
For more of Tom Wolff’s blogs and newsletters

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A new look for the Community Tool Box!

The Community Tool Box team just launched a new site, full of tools to change our world. If you’re not yet familiar with the Tool Box, it contains over 7,000 pages of practical information for skills such as those related to community assessment, strategic planning, intervention, evaluation, advocacy, and sustainability. The Tool Box is now used by over 4.4 million unique users from 230 countries worldwide, and builds the skills of professionals and local leaders working collaboratively to improve socially-important issues.
Exciting updates to the Tool Box include:
  • Responsive design: fits mobile devices and tablets
  • Easier navigation
  • Resources available in English, Spanish, and now Arabic

Visit the new Tool Box and share what you think - on Facebook, Twitter, or via 

Learn more about the Tool Box


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Reconciliation of Guilt and Grief – The Contributions of Ezer Kang in Uncovering Unspoken Animosity in Rwanda

THEory into ACTion

A Bulletin of New Developments in Community Psychology Practice 
October, 2013
By Michael Lemke

Reconciliation of Guilt and Grief – The Contributions of Ezer Kang in Uncovering Unspoken Animosity in Rwanda

The principles and values of Community Psychology – in particular, collaboration – can serve as powerful driving forces behind improving the lives of members of diverse communities around the world, even those with brutal pasts.  The ideological violence that swept the nation of Rwanda in 1994 resulted in extreme acts of brutality and great loss of life; however, the origins of the division between the Hutus and Tutsis had existed for decades prior to the outbreak of extreme violence.  Reconciliation between the two groups is of dire importance, as failing to mitigate the division and discord between these two groups could result in negative attitudes being passed across generations and persistently threaten the stability of Rwanda.  As may be expected, reconciliation between perpetrators and victims is an extremely difficult task, and one that is made even more difficult because there are strict laws that forbid any expressions that are deemed “genocide ideology,” thus potentially constraining open and honest dialogue.  Despite the difficulty task and its challenges, reconciliation is critical in moving the country forward.

      One group that has focused on reconciliation efforts is Christian Action for Reconciliation and Social Assistance (CARSA).  CARSA is a faith-based social justice organization based in Kigali, Rwanda, and has developed innovative programs for survivors of the 1994 genocide events.  This group specializes on the youth of Rwanda, fighting against the ideologies of segregation and divisionism.  The focal point of their work is assisting perpetrators of the genocide events in reintegrate into their communities following their release from prison.  Part of this effort includes community reconciliation workshops, where perpetrators and victims who live in the same districts of Kigali are brought together to attempt reconciliation.  However, generating honest dialogue between both parties may conflict with the strict laws about expressing “genocide ideology.”

      Dr. Ezer Kang of Wheaton College was a visiting student intern in Kigali in August of 2012 when he met Christophe Mbonyingabo, executive director of CARSA.  He observed the community reconciliation workshops firsthand, and was overwhelmed by the challenges faced in processing guilt for perpetrators and grief for victims.  Discussion between Dr. Kang and Mr. Mbonyingabo also revealed concern about the potential for victims to continue to harbor animosity and prejudice toward their perpetrators that, due to the legal repercussions, could not be publicly acknowledged.  

      In response to these concerns, Dr. Kang and Mr. Mbonyingabo engaged in a collaborative research effort to uncover the relationship between types of exposure to the genocide events in 1994 and implicit prejudice and negative stereotypes of perpetrators, and, if a significant relationship is found, if there is a difference based on gender or based on whether individuals participated in the community reconciliation workshops.  Through a 1-year cross-sectional study of approximately 400 genocide survivors living in Rwanda, and with the help of funds from SCRA through the Community Mini-Grant program, this research partnership hopes to answer these questions that are important to the reconciliation process.

      One of the principles of Community Psychology that is apparent in this effort is the use of community research and action as an active collaboration among researchers, practitioners, and community members.  Such research is undertaken to serve the community members directly concerned, and therefore should be guided by these community members and include their active participation.  A critical part of this task is the active collaboration that exists between Dr. Kang and the researchers, practitioners, and community members in Rwanda.  The research questions that this study seeks to answer originate directly from the lived experiences of Kigali community members, and the experience of listening to victims and perpetrators at the table together and the discussions with Mr. Mbonyingabo were vital to the development and implementation of the study itself.  CARSA is the lead organization in this project, and the role of Dr. Kang has been to provide his expertise in the methodological aspects and the data analysis.  The results of this approach have been powerful.  Thus far, the active collaboration with community partners has been, according to Dr. Kang, “an extraordinarily productive and personally meaningful collaboration.”

      The mission and objectives of the CARSA organization further exemplify the power of the Community Psychology principle of collaboration.  CARSA’s overall objective is national reconstruction by promoting citizens’ attitudes and cooperative behavior as a part of holistic development.  Other organizations in Rwanda share a similar mission of fighting against ideologies of segregation and divisionism, yet focus on different aspects of the task or different segments of the population.  CARSA views these other organizations and considers collaboration to be “indispensable since it is difficult to work for holist development in isolation.”   

      Engagement with CARSA has been deeply meaningful to Dr. Kang.  He has been able to witness academic principles be applied with great success in a community with exceedingly unique and difficult challenges.  Such work can serve as an example of the power of Community Psychology to create change in diverse and challenging contexts.  It is hoped that this work will contribute to efforts to ensure that the horrors of the past are not repeated.  

      If you’re interested to learn more, the work of CARSA has been highlighted in the film, “As We Forgive” here:

This is part of a series of bulletins highlighting the use of community psychology in practice. Comments, suggestions, and questions are welcome. Please direct them to Bill Berkowitz at  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Sequestration and the Government Shutdown

The sequestration continues to impact the well-being of US citizens through its shaping of the spending levels currently under negotiation in the House and Senate. An agreement on how to fund the government was not reached prior to midnight last night, and we now must endure a government shutdown.

While 8 in 10 Americans believe that a government shutdown is an unacceptable outcome, many members of the House are using this shutdown as leverage to repeal certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, the Senate has consistently rejected House Bills that include provisions related to the ACA. A visual representation of the negotiations between the House and Senate can be found here.

Unfortunately, the immediate impacts of a government shutdown are not directly endured by those who caused it (members of Congress and the Senate are still paid). Over 800,000 individuals will be involuntarily furloughed; services for Veterans and individuals who receive Social Security will be disrupted; national parks will be closed. These represent just a few of the consequences of government shutdown; more can be found here.

Even if the House and Senate reach an agreement, their agreement will most likely preserve the sequestration cuts. If these cuts are preserved now, there is little chance that they will be replaced with a more sensible solution within the next year.

As the sequestration began months ago, it is worth remembering that these cuts were never meant to be an ideal solution to curb spending. In fact, they were intentionally constructed as incentive to motivate the Supercommittee to agree on a more rational solution to reduce the deficit. Unfortunately for US citizens who have since lost access to housing, meals, and work, this tactic failed and the sequestration was enacted.

A recent article in the Atlantic aptly stated, “A rational political system would find a way to bring budget discipline without endangering these areas, along with food safety, homeland security, national defense, the air-traffic system, and on and on. Instead we are careening toward economic disruption triggered by outrageous demands that jeopardize the economy and endanger the most vulnerable among us. Shameful is the only way to describe it.”

Josh Gordon, policy director at the Concord Coalition, made a similar observation in a recent CNBC article, stating, “You've never come out of a recession with such dramatic deficit reductions. But very little if any of the short-term deficit reduction is in any way related to preparing for the long-term challenges. It's really bad fiscal policy."

Recent negotiations serve as an unfortunate reminder of the direct and indirect effects of the sequestration. The consequences of the government shutdown, coupled with program cuts caused by the sequestration, will even more acutely impact the welfare of our fellow citizens.

Madison Sunnquist (
Sarah Callahan
Lenny Jason