Restoring and honouring community

Sally Zlotowitz, with thanks to Ebinehita Iyere and Rachel McKail from MAC-UK.

It's 2040. You're still working in Psychology, but it has changed. How?

When we look back from 2040, we remember the Covid-19 pandemic as a turning point for psychology and for wider society. The importance of community – of solidarity and of collective action that looked beyond our own self and family interest – was brought back into sharp focus.

We were thrown back to our ‘community’ being our neighbourhood, our place. Locked into our homes, people didn’t wait for formal public services to look after their neighbours. Instead mutual aid groups sprung into action, creating a hyper-local system to ensure all neighbours had access to food, medicine, social connection, emotional support and anything else that could be shared or donated across households. Communities had become more self-determined, not waiting for permission from formal agencies to look after each other in whatever way was needed. As Rebecca Solnit explained in her incredible 2010 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, ‘the conundrum we call human nature readily rises to the occasion of a crisis and as readily slacks off when the living is easy.’

Of course, for many people this was not a ‘new’ experience. For some marginalised communities in the UK this informal mutual support (albeit not in mutual aid groups) was their status quo so as to survive and thrive in ‘normal’ times. ‘Normal’ times were not easy in the first place: full of adversity, inequities and injustices generated by years of social and economic systems that seemed to forget people are people. It treated them, and our natural world, as commodities or as less important than profits. Yet despite this, marginalised communities took care of each other and took pride in their self-determination.

Pause, pain and opportunity
The pandemic created pain, loss and grief. But it also created reflection, humility and a deep wish to #buildbackbetter (see www.buildbackbetteruk.org). After 10 years of ruthless austerity – which had impacted disproportionately on marginalised communities and those who had least to do with creating the financial crisis of 2008 – the importance of bringing about a more equitable, just and humane society was critical.

The pause..
Whilst recognising the value that psychological research and application had brought to society, the pause also created a moment to stop and assess the ways in which psychological research and its applications had contributed to generating inequalities, injustice and maintaining the status quo of power structures.

The pain...
We considered psychology’s historical role in the hyper-individualisation of experience – putting the bulk of responsibility on individuals to change and neglecting structural factors. We reflected on the ways our practices created support that for many was inaccessible and de-contextualised from their cultural, economic, political, spiritual and social realities (see Deanne Bell in the March 2020 issue). We recognised that the model of public services offering mostly one-to-one psychological interventions for people in distress, though valuable, were mostly ameliorative and not transformative – often sending people back to the conditions causing the toxic stress. These psychological interventions did not adequately learn from the people and communities they served and were too separate from them, often relying on evidence produced by academic institutions and methods that felt alien and removed from many communities. We knew these interventions would not suffice in the recovery.

Moreover, we had to face up to the problematic use of psychology for marketing, advertising and behaviour change as utilised by corporations, and to some extent, governments (including the military; see Ron Roberts’ 2015 book Psychology and Capitalism). These industries fed into the wider systems that produced a psychologically and ecologically unhealthy culture of consumption, materialism, extraction, exclusion and status-driven societies.

The opportunity..
Ecological and spiritual activist Joanna Macy had long spoken about the ‘great turning’ – the transition into a new way of being and organising society. Similarly, indigenous communities from across South America had established and long been calling for a ‘Buen Vivir’ (‘good living’) movement, which understands health and wellbeing in the context of harmony with community, the natural world and living well together (see tinyurl.com/juu2o4u).

So as psychologists we began to understand our role in the context of this great turning, becoming part of a broader movement for social and ecological justice. For many psychologists this meant moving towards communities and place-based working.

Communities, places, people, histories
Psychology researchers and applied psychologists began to spend more time embedded in local places, people and organisations, coming to know their unique histories, ways of knowing and understanding the world. Now accessible to or embedded in local agencies, such as schools, local authorities, the evolving mutual aid groups plus grassroots, voluntary and community organisations, the field finally stepped wholeheartedly into the community.

Psychologists offered their knowledge and skills to explore the issues most important to local people. Consequently, they became more aware of their own biases and diversified their practices, which was especially important to marginalised communities. For instance, community-based participatory research, like that so well role modelled in South Africa, became increasingly important (e.g. see Lazarus et al., 2012). These participatory approaches do not privilege quantitative conceptions, short term ‘targets’ or prescribed goals, instead they have different types of impact (Pain et al., 2016) generating long term knowledge exchange, long term employment and transformative change. It wasn’t always easy to be in these places and other psychological research, skills and experience were invited in and shared, such as understanding group dynamics, the effects of living in adversity, the role of different identities and intersecting identities in places, individual and collective trauma, meaning-making, restorative justice, advocacy and conflict resolution.

Other psychologists became involved in developing and scaling up innovative examples of local inclusive economic projects that had been emerging in response to the great levels of inequality growing in the UK, such as Community Wealth Building in Preston, Participatory City in Barking and Dagenham and the ‘Big Local’ programme across the many ‘kept behind’ communities of the UK. These place-based, economic and social development projects created opportunities for citizens to participate in local decision-making, engage in new forms of democracy and initiate community- and cooperatively-owned businesses and activities and paving the way for a wellbeing economy (see the Wellbeing Economy Alliance). We embraced localism and built back the local social infrastructure so crucial to our collective health and resilience.

These systems change projects had to fight for their place in the context of an ongoing attempt by vested powers to maintain business as usual neoliberalism. Psychologists had to work hard to support the building of grassroots movements (e.g. see Social Movements for Health, NESTA), along with policy work and lobbying (see Browne et al., 2020), to challenge inequalities to ensure society moved in a more hopeful direction.

Preventing further distress
More generally, psychologists (now more representative of the communities they served) shifted the balance towards making sense of the wider determinants of psychological health and wellbeing and preventing economic, ecological and social adversity rather than just reacting to it. This provoked more co-produced, multi-level interventions and practices from liberation and community psychologies (Afuape et al., 2015; Kagan et al., 2019); inspired by examples such as the Advocacy Academy, User Voice, The Reframe Collective, MAC-UK, Resistance Lab and many other collectives and groups working for personal, group and social change. Research funding was released to understand these different interventions as implemented in the real world. Additionally, supporting citizens to use place-based datasets, such as the Thriving Places Index, to guide decisions and enable community-owned data usage, challenging the corporate control of data and learning with people the changing impact of technology in their lives

Applying ideas such as the ‘community capitals’ framework, psychosocial accompaniment, harnessing people’s creativity, use of the arts, peer support, social action and political education, as well as strengthening culturally and spiritually-led projects meant psychologists’ theories and methods were significantly diversified.

Now in 2040, we are proud of the role psychology and psychologists have had in strengthening communities and playing our part in moving us towards a psychologically healthier society, one which is more just, equitable and participatory.

-  Sally Zlotowitz is a Clinical and Community Psychologist, Past Chair of the British Psychological Society Community Psychology Section, and Psychologists for Social Change campaigner: www.psychchange.org

Let's bring society into psychology: Please join http://communitypsychologyuk.ning.com/

Illustration: Nick Taylor

References

Afuape, T., & Hughes, G. (Eds.). (2015). Liberation practices: Towards emotional wellbeing through dialogue. Routledge and Kagan, C., Burton, M., Duckett, P., Lawthom, R., & Siddiquee, A. (2019). Critical community psychology: Critical action and social change. Routledge.

Browne, N., Zlotowitz, S., Alcock, K., & Barker, C. (2020). Practice to policy: Clinical psychologists’ experiences of macrolevel work. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice.

Lazarus, S., Taliep, N., Bulbulia, A., Phillips, S., & Seedat, M. (2012). Community-based participatory research a low-income setting: An illustrative case of study. Journal of Psychology in Africa22(4), 509-516.

Pain, R., Askins, K., Banks, S., Cook, T., Crawford, G., Crookes, L., ... & Jeffes, J. (2016). Mapping Alternative Impact: Alternative approaches to impact from co-produced research. 

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