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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 55, Number 1 Winter 2022

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Education Connection

Edited by Mason G. Haber, Lamplighter Evaluation and Consulting, LLC

Introduction 

For this issue’s Education Connection column, I am pleased to share reflections of one of the practicum students from the recently concluded Racial Justice Inquiry, Discourse, and Action (RJIDA) practicum of the Society for Research and Action Council on Education (COE). As initially envisioned, the practicum was intended to involve efforts of a single graduate student to assist the COE in advancing priorities the SCRA Executive Committee (EC) in response to the SCRA Call to Action on Anti-Blackness. This included developing an anti-racist curriculum and guidelines for anti-racist CP training. The COE was also asked to participate in a multi-council effort to revise the CP research and practice competencies. 

Ultimately, as described in a prior Education Connection column in TCP (Haber, 2021), the practicum that was funded supported three students in the areas of Inquiry, Discourse, and Action, described in Rama’s reflections that follow, supervised by their mentors, identified by the COE as actively engaged in scholarship and action related to anti-racism and decoloniality. In addition, applicants to the practicum who were not selected to participate as practicum students were asked to join an “Advisory Group” (later, “Collective”).  The larger investment created conditions that allowed for the practicum to evolve in a different manner from what was originally intended. Building on dialogues regarding their personal experiences of racial identity, racism, and racial justice, the students sought to create forums in which an expanding circle of BIPOC students and their allies could participate in envisioning alternative settings that would, in the words of one of the students, “put the community back into community psychology.” This “loving takeover” resulted in a more grounded and emergent learning experience for all involved, including me. 

I think Rama’s reflections provide a glimpse of the potential of the type of setting that the students created, and I witnessed and supported as Coordinator for the practicum. The COE and I are eager to find ways to work with the students to continue their work toward establishing a new type of CP community, and we appreciate their genuineness and their courage in creating a practicum that was theirs, in which all involved hope a broader group can participate over time. Please feel free to contact me with any reflections on this piece or ideas for future Education Connection columns at mason.haber@gmail.com.

The RJIDA Initiative: Reflections on Embodied Practice 

Written by Rama Agung-Igusti, Victoria University | Whadjuk Noongar Boodjar

I, Rama, write as one of the three RJIDA practicum students to share, in part, what we and our various collaborators and supporters achieved, the barriers and constraints we encountered, and the deep learning and theorizing that emerged through the RJIDA initiative. However, I also acknowledge the knowledge, labor, reflections and dialogue shared throughout the practicum by the other two practicum students, Jamilah Shabazz and Hannah Rebadulla, the experience and knowledge of RJIDA student collective, and the ongoing support and guidance of our mentors Christopher Sonn and Nuria Ciofalo, including their input on this piece.

Each of us participating in the practicum – though situated differently across various identities and social locations, as Black or people of color, from migrant families as well as families of settlers on Indigenous land – had been drawn to the practicum not only for the opportunity to heed the Call to Action, but also to continue a commitment to anti-racist and decolonial action that we have sought to pursue in our lives. Collectively it was clear that we students, our supervisors, the advisory group, the COE coordinator and working group shared a desire for change, action, and justice. Less clear was how, together, we might get there.

We hoped to craft pre-figurative spaces that allowed for desired ways of being, doing, and knowing to emerge. The Call to Action compels us to uproot and unsettle our deeply held beliefs and assumptions, and to re-think the paths we might take to realizing racial justice within our institutions. We took this challenge seriously as a collective invitation to draw forth action from radical imagination – to act upon our world in ways that are consistent with a transformative vision of our institutions and the way that we relate to one another. We decided that “how we got there” was as important as where we were going and that we needed to begin from a place of shared understandings and ethical orientations. What follows describes our process of documenting and theorizing in our RJIDA journey, including how we came to develop our praxis from shared understandings, the transformations we ultimately hoped to seed, and the tensions or choques we encountered. 

Developing Praxis from Shared Understandings

Upon beginning the practicum, we found ourselves at a crossroads between working in ways that were guided by the expectations of the placement and ways that were more grounded in our values and empowering. Foremost, we imagined RJIDA could create spaces for enacting epistemic justice – a justice that seeks to redress the delegitimizing of the collective interpretive resources of communities, resources which we could otherwise use to better understand our social worlds (Fricker, 2013). We imagined spaces that would foster different ways of knowing, being, and doing that would support people to flourish and be valued. 

To realize these desires, we as a group needed to embody the same change we sought to effect through the initiative. Our map would be grounded in the Call to Action and informed by our own experiences and distillations from relevant CP, decolonial, liberatory, and critical literatures. A relational ethics of care would be our orienting compass (Montero, 2011). Relational ethics of care center on trusting, reciprocal relationships, critical dialogue, and transformative cultural action. In our initial efforts to apply such ethics, we modified the terminology used to refer to roles in the initiative to be less hierarchical and more horizontal and mutual. The “advisory group” became a “collective”; “supervisors'' became “mentors.” Language shapes our social worlds, and such changes in language both reflected and shaped how we thought of roles and relationships in RJIDA. Through these and other means, we sought to nurture the relationships we had begun to form among ourselves, the RJIDA Coordinator, our mentors, and the student collective. 

In planning our work, we sought to focus on the goal toward which the products that we were initially tasked with creating were intended– to strengthen the capacities of CP towards racial justice, through furthering the development of racial justice in CP education. Yet, though we shared an excitement and hope of the possibilities of racial justice, each of us held different visions of what these possibilities were – what they looked like and felt like. The work of developing shared understandings of racial justice was the focus of our first meeting with the student collective. We invited each person to articulate their understandings of racial justice and its resonances in their personal histories and experiences. Fernández et al. (2021) have highlighted the importance and necessity of both identifying the roots and forging a route for developing a decolonial community psychology praxis. With this idea in the fore, we reached back through our personal journeys to imagine how we could begin to move forward together as a complex group of students from different places and social contexts, each with different stories, and different desires. In reaching a shared set of understandings, we did not wish to flatten our collective experiences and obscure the nuances of our varied positionalities. Rather, we strove to allow the bounds of what we could imagine together to fall away and resist premises about our differences rooted in white authority, domination and control (Mingo et al., 2021). Together, we articulated a vision of racial justice as equity, healing, love, vulnerability, and humility in the context of mutual relationships and shared responsibilities. We also described racial justice as reflexive, unsettling the comfort and complacency that power offers. These ideas and others did not represent “the answer” to our inquiry into the nature of racial justice, as such meaning is not set in stone but is rather dynamic and negotiated. Yet, they led us to important frames and conceptual tools through which we could orient our work. 

A Desire for Transformation

Through these meaning-making processes, a collective understanding began to emerge of what we imagined racial justice to be, about which we continued to engage in important dialogue with one another, the collective, and CP students and faculty more broadly. The commonalities in what was shared in these spaces were not groundbreaking or unexpected. Though we differed in many ways, all of us have developed our identities in the context of racializing and marginalizing colonial states and institutions, among which are the academy and its disciplines, including our own. Our dialogues echoed much of the writing, thinking and calls to action that have turned the lens back towards CP and the complicity of the field in upholding and perpetuating coloniality and white supremacy, including and beyond the Call to Action on Anti-blackness (e.g., Beals et al., 2021; Mingo, Balthazar, & Olson, 2021; Wilson et al., 2021). They also aligned with the work of those who have called for the decolonization and indigenization of curriculums and programs (cf. Carolissen & Duckett, 2018).

What was shared in these spaces was a goal of developing common understandings and fostering collective critical consciousness of how power works within CP settings. There was a desire for the centering of reflexive, participatory and relational practices, of learning and unlearning as co-creators of knowledge. There was also a wish for authentic forms of engagement, trust, compassion, and connection embodied in of CP values. We envisioned communities within our CP programs that reflect rather than just “include” or “tolerate,” and embrace and work alongside communities outside of academic institutions. Most of all, there was a desire for epistemic justice. This necessitated deconstruction of knowledge as it is currently understood in many “scientific” circles (Mingo et al., 2021) We envisioned a CP that values the diversity of knowledge and experiences which exists within its settings and that problematizes “taken for granted” knowledge within the academy. This extends not just to asking “who are we reading?” but the nature of our communication. We wished to unsettle persistent Eurocentric ideas in CP through a welcoming of non-Western epistemologies and Indigenous practices such as storytelling and creative practice. There were calls for better representation of marginalized and racialized peoples amongst institutional power holders and for mechanisms for accountability and learning to open new pathways and shift structures and norms. We discussed the possibilities for faculty serving not merely as allies but also “co-conspirators” with student-led movements to guide transformative work within CP and academic institutions. 

We hoped these efforts could be fostered and sustained through the creation of spaces for discussions among students, faculty, and staff both within and outside of classrooms. These spaces would be oriented towards collective actions to change our institutions. They would facilitate critical dialogue, community-making, and sharing of experiences and resources. These transformative desires for new spaces, as in other aspects of dialogues, were not new. They are part of an ongoing chorus of those demanding change (Beals et al., 2021; Mingo et al., 2021; Wilson, et al., 2021), enactments of racial justice and decolonial vision, which students and faculty continue to carve out and nurture despite the harsh realities of the neoliberal academy. 

Choques

Perhaps the most important learning of RJIDA was drawn from significant points of divergence within the initiative. These points of divergence, fed by differences, in power, in subjectivity and knowledge contributed to choques that ultimately were generative but nonetheless, difficult to navigate. Choques have been described as:

“Moments when perspectives clash, arguments erupt, and tensions boil over. These disagreements may emerge across and within power lines, between academics and “community members,” or within cross-class, generation, racial, and gender dynamics.” (Fine & Torre, 2019, p. 435)

The choques within the initiative became an important dialectic, from which critical learning emerged. They were necessary, as a desire for working in decolonial ways sat in tension with structures and practices that still bear the marks of coloniality and white supremacy. Such structures and practices are found throughout the academy, our disciplines, and organizations and are easily naturalised and internalised by each of us (Beals et al., 2021). In this sense, RJIDA was an echo of existing structures that brought with it familiar assumptions and responsibilities to the larger organizational structures– in this case, SCRA, and as the custodian of our funds, the American Psychological Association (APA). Thus, RJIDA had to first and foremost be a site of change. The choques we experienced served as a form of generative unsettling through which we could question the normative assumptions that we encountered. The Call to Action shared the writing of Jones and Okun (2001) on markers of white supremacy culture found in organizations, markers that are often encountered by those who have engaged in racial justice work and are echoed in the broader experiences of racialized communities as they engage with colonial institutions. Markers of white supremacy identified in these ways provide a useful frame through which we can understand two of the key choques that shaped our work.

One choque that emerged related to a focus on quantity over quality. This focus became apparent in discussions of accountability. The RJIDA initiative was funded through SCRA, and consequently, was accountable to the organization for how the funding was spent. This accountability, as originally defined, included the products from the EC response that had been delegated to the COE –the “anti-racist curriculum and training guidelines,” as well as a “self-assessment of the current status of racial justice practices in CP programs.” These products were expected over a very short period of time – less than a year. Rather than binding ourselves to rushed products, we placed primacy on developing relationships and participatory and dialogical processes that reflected our understandings of racial justice and decolonial praxis. The processes in which we engaged, and what we were learning from engaging in them, became a key (perhaps the key) outcome of the initiative. Shifting resources and creating opportunities may not be transformative if the settings and practices that utilize them are not also transformed.  Process, especially process that emphasizes relational ethics of care, is sometimes not valued as a “product” in itself. It is not always readily measured and may not have straightforwardly demonstrated “reach” or “impact.” The process of negotiating this choque required repeated discussions and resisted easy solutions.

A second choque that emerged centered on instances of paternalism. Hierarchized forms of decision making and defining of what is right and proper are central features of academic and professional institutions. Academic entities also limit permitted knowers and forms of knowledge. Although there were many instances in which we felt empowered to exercise agency and shape the initiative in the ways we wanted, there were also times when we experienced being “shown our place” in the hierarchy, when we felt our voices were not valued and our experiences not fully acknowledged. We felt at times subjected to white supremacist rules of the academic hierarchy. For example, our mentors and the initiative coordinator were instructed to speak on our behalf at meetings, to relay our plans as if our words passing over their lips would take on new gravitas. These moments emerged from our resistance to working in particular ways. While difficult, they were also moments of solidarity that allowed our mentors and the coordinator to conspire with us to resist and contest such disempowering processes and reclaim our voices.

Conclusion

Looking back from what seems an endpoint of this leg of our journey, there is a lot to be proud of, especially the spaces we created to be in communality with one another, affirm, and heal. Through these, we found our collective voice and power, and we were able to push back and change the things that we saw around us that seemed broken. But the barriers, detours, and distractions we encountered also took their toll. When our restorative spaces mirror the contexts that we seek respite from, they and relationships that maintain them become hard to sustain.

 The RJIDA initiative set out to engage widely with programs and institutional students and staff, but it perhaps was most useful as a case study. Undertaking transformative action towards decoloniality and racial justice takes more than creating spaces and opportunity. It takes more than shifting material resources, than leveraging power vested in white colonial institutions and systems. It necessitates an orientation and opening to relational ethics of care, humanizing relationships, and participatory practices that together allow for connection, mutuality, solidarity critical consciousness, and healing” (Beals et al., 2021). 

References

Beals, A. M., Thomas, D., Fernández, J. S., Wilson, C. L., & Palmer, G. (2021). Resisting the coloniality and colonialism of a westernized community psychology. Global Journal of Community Psychology, 12(1).

Carolissen, R. L., & Duckett, P. S. (2018). Teaching toward decoloniality in community psychology and allied disciplines: Editorial Introduction. American Journal of Community Psychology, 62, 241-249

Fernández, J. S., Sonn, C. C., Carolissen, R., & Stevens, G. (2021). Roots and routes toward decoloniality within and outside psychology praxis. Review of General Psychology, 1-15.

Fine, M., & Torre, M. E. (2019). Critical participatory action research: A feminist project for validity and solidarity. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 43(4), 433-444.

Fricker, M. (2013). Epistemic justice as a condition of political freedom? Synthese, 190(7), 1317-1332.

Jones, K., & Okun, T. (2001). White supremacy culture. Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change.

Mingo, E. D., Balthazar, C., & Olson, B. (2021). The premise of persistence: Deconstructing colonial authority in community psychology curricula and structures, towards liberative andragogy and practice. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 12(3).

Montero, M. (2011). From complexity and social justice to consciousness: Ideas that have constructed community psychology. International Community Psychology, 51.

Wilson, C. L., Singh, A. K., Beals, A. M., Sharma, R., Hunt, B., Furman, E., Darko, N. A., Fante-Coleman, T., Liu, V., & Kivell, N. (2021). Dialogues of disruption: Confronting oppression in the academy. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 12(3).