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International Conference on Community Psychology: South Africa Summaries

In late May, I was a participant in the 2016 International Conference on Community Psychology in Durban, South Africa. This year’s theme was “Global Dialogues on Critical Knowledges, Liberation and Community.” I will be publishing a few blogs on the experience, this one highlighting my presentations at the conference.  Future posts will highlight other contributing scholar-activists and notes from presentations I attended.

Interested folks can also check out the video made by the conference organizers, highlighting the keynotes and key themes that emerged:

My Presentations:

I made three presentations at the conference. I give BIG thanks to the mentors, professors, family, friends, colleagues, and cosmos– all of whom have initiated, contributed to and helped further these ideas. Heartfelt thanks.

  1. Decolonizing Reconciliation Processes for Historical Harms: A Dialogue for Action
This image represented on a poster of "expressions of community psychology."
This image represented on a poster of “expressions of community psychology.”

This presentation emerged from my experience as part of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR-USA) delegation to Japan at the invitation of the Japanese Fellowship of Reconciliation (JFOR) in recognition of the 70th commemorations of the use of atomic weapons. The question being asked here is, “how do we mobilize across racial, ethnic, and class communities to create consensus around processes of reconciliation… especially if those events happened before our lifetime?” As intergenerational communities seek to do repair for historical wrongdoing, psychological cultural-workers must also negotiate their current diverse positionality in contemporary and historical webs of violence as the basis for reconciliation.

In other words, when a hibakusha (Japanese term for “bomb survivor”) begins their testimony of the bombing by imagining their place and their ancestor’s place in relationship to the harms cause by Japanese imperialism on Korean, Chinese, Pilipino… even USA… citizens, they are locating themselves in a web of relationships. Many Hibakusha use this awareness as the beginning of their testimony.

In the case of our FOR delegation, we realized that if we were to do similarly—if each of our delegation members “located themselves” in the web of relationships (positionality) as racialized, gendered, economically-informed beings, particularly around issues of racialized militarization in the USA, we would each be led to different ways of responding to the people in front of us, even if our intention (reconciliation and healing) was the same and our sense of wrongdoing about the use of nuclear weapons was the same.

Social location—naming and claiming our relationships and differences—matters in reconciliatory work.

Why is this important?

  • It challenges the belief that reconciliation requires a coherent consensus of a history, an individual or an organization. In fact, it relies on us emphasizing the differences, contradictions and complexities in order to and as part of really get to the interconnectedness.
  • It also decenters the overemphasis that can occur to “find the similarities” when doing difficult relational work.
  • In our experience in dialogue with Japanese activists, the most impactful experience was our willingness to share our ancestral and present locations and speak from that experience.
  • Reconciliation is not about a fantasy future of unity or an imaginary past “before” the rupture—rather, it involves standing in our particularity in order to accurately imagine and/or re-member the threads that connect us. In the words of Watkins and Lorenz (2001), it is about gathering around the “rupture” to see what new possibilities may be emerging.

II. Life in the Rupture: Towards an Eco-Psychological Sense of Community (EPSOC)

My second presentation focuses on some of the ideas within the field of community psychology itself.

“Psychological Sense of Community (PSOC)” is a model of measurement that has been described as a “lynch-pin” that holds the field of community psychology together. It has been used as a tool by community psychologists to determine the aspects of community that create the feeling of community, roughly grouped into (1) membership, (2) influence, (3) integration and fulfillment of needs, and (4) shared emotional connection (McMillan and Chavis 1986).

While PSOC has led to innovations in analysis and measurement in efforts to replicate what exactly makes community “work,” there have also been critics that name that the ways PSOC breaks down component parts of community might not capture the essential quality of an experience of community that we are all working hard to identify and move towards. For example, communities with a higher level of homogeneity (for example, the KKK), will likely score higher on PSOC than a community with more racial and ethnic diversity (which may be labeled a “disordered” community by these measurements and by some measurers). In response to these kinds of critiques, McMillan acknowledged that PSOC will never quite capture the “spirit” of what the we are really talking about—and, further, that PSOC “is a theory to describe reality, not a theory to prescribe reality” (2011).

However, for community psychologists who value interrupting and disrupting systems of power and domination that are part of our described reality, we may be seeking to measure and move towards a different kind of PSOC—something that does guide us towards nourishing and sustaining communities that honor and engage differences and interrupt oppressive power dynamics.

'Transforming the urban edge’ illustration by Paul Kearsley from the Urban Permaculture Guide 始まる新しい生き方 and the 2016 Permaculture Calendar
‘Transforming the urban edge’ illustration by Paul Kearsley from the Urban Permaculture Guide 始まる新しい生き方 and the 2016 Permaculture Calendar

I think Hughey and Speer (2002) move us closer to the “spirit” in their use of network and systems analysis to demonstrate that actually healthy environments require “individuals and groups to develop and exercise features of social networks that function to position themselves at the boundaries of networks” (p.74). Here, boundaries and edges are opportunities—opportunities to access different kinds of resources, build resilience, and generate the changes that allow for communities to survive. By bringing their language into dialogue with PSOC, we can challenge metaphors and models that value or prioritize “orderly,” linear, homogenous, progressive and cohesive patterns—we can create measurements that value the seemingly disordered, the diverse, the creative and the boundary-crossings that make life evolutionary. This is a language often used to describe aspects of ecological systems—a system that requires the edges, the chaotic and the adaptive in order to survive and thrive.

With guidance from these critiques and some support from depth and liberation psychology (Watkins and Lorenz 2001), here is where we might imagine an “Eco-Psychological Sense of Community (EPSOC).” These contributions to the language of PSOC suggest that there is something beyond the component parts of being an individual as part of a cohesive system—even hinting that the fantasy of a cohesive system (and “orderly” communities) is not a universal reality at all, nor would its measurement and duplication make meaning out of the diverse locations and experiences where healthy community happens.

Perhaps “E” stands for “Eco” or perhaps “E” stands of “Edge”—no matter what, it means we engage the way our measurements maintain rather than interrupt systems of power and domination.

Why is this important?

  • PSOC as a measurement model may not go far enough in (a) the decolonial project of deconstructing the fantasy of a unified, progressive self or community nor (b) sufficiently valuing the rupture of that fantasy (and the role of conflict) as a sign of life within a social system as an ecological system.
  • We need to acknowledge the implicit values of our “measurement tools” in our field—and re-imagine what we are really looking for as signs of health and vitality that support us in interrupting status quo power dynamics.
  • Community psychologists should be looking for edges as a sign of health and well-being—edges are where our vitality, creativity, and resilience emerge.

III. Eve, Adam, Snake and the Garden of the Global North: Decolonizing Theologies Through Theatre

Photo by G. Zhuang
Photo by G. Zhuang

This presentation was an “Innovative Presentation”—a part of the conference that allotted me a ninety-minute session to use theatre, story and movement to engage issues of coloniality in theology.

 

This presentation might be captured in a pseudo-mathematical equation:

(Scriptural exegesis of Genesis II) + (Anti-Racism) + (Bibliodrama) + (Academic and faith-based interrogation of borders, walls, and border-crossing) + (Theatre of the Oppressed techniques) = The Real Story of Eve, Adam, Snake and Tree

I relied on writing from Rev. Rebecca Parker’s essay, “Not Somewhere Else But Here: The Struggle for Racial Justice as a Struggle to Inhabit My Country” from Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue. Parker imagines the ways that the story of “The Fall” in Genesis II acts in support of white privilege in that it describes a relationship with God where to know one’s self as capable of both “good” and “evil” is to lose one’s relationship with God—to stay obedient, innocent and pure is to stay in relationship with God. Yet, in the work of anti-racism, we need white people who are able to see ourselves and our history more clearly and more honestly.

Parker’s writings are supported by Chicana scholar-activist Gloria Anzaldua’s work on the seven stages of conocimiento from “Now let us shift… the path of conocimiento… inner work, public acts”—a coming into consciousness that requires the bridge-builders, the in-between walkers, that are willing to have reality torn apart and brought back together in new, more life-giving and more generative ways. She writes, “According to Jung, if you hold opposites long enough without taking sides a new identity emerges. As you make your way through life, nepantla itself becomes the place you live in most of the time— home” (p. 548). We need the tearing apart of what isn’t working as part of creating something new.

Anzaldua’s imagining of the border as something to bridge makes for an interesting dialogue partner with Wendy Brown’s Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. The wall around Eden and the wall through the southwest deserts of the USA are a form of “psychic insulation,” maintaining USA fantasies of purity, innocence and goodness—keeping the privileged and abundant lives of those within it without a horizon worth questioning and the people beyond it as invading, marauding, evil force to be stopped (Brown, p. 120-121). This, embodied in the Judeo-Christian story of Adam and Eve, becomes a theological value. While Brown does not go so far to make the theological connection that Anzaldua makes in her first movement towards consciousness, both are seeking a bridge over the wall—and Parker’s Eve is alongside them.

"FLAG" questions from Frank Rogers, Practicing Compassion (2014)
“FLAG” questions from Frank Rogers, Practicing Compassion (2014)

Bibliodrama and Theatre of the Oppressed techniques (Peter Pitzele 1997 and Augusto Boal 1993) give us a way to engage this story as both problematic and potentially generative.

 

Methodologies: Sharing a new version of the story generated from my time in seminary that imagines Eve, Snake and Adam as escaping the garden to go beyond the wall—with the possibility that there had been people on the other side of the wall along—is the starting point for our embodied play using character embodiment, followed by character interviewing in dyads, and an “empty chair” technique to imagine the characters who are part of our story. Each person in the workshop takes an empty chair, embodying the character with a pose. We then imagine the internal longings associated with that character to understand more clearly what they may be trying to tell us and make those statements to one another out loud.

Having told this new version of the story in different contexts, sharing it in the South African/international community psychology context led to important conclusions and realizations:

  • It was an important revelation to interrogate the wall in the Garden of Eden: what is this wall? Who is outside the wall? Who built the wall? Who does the wall serve? What would the wall say to us now as we deal with issues of borders and walls in our communities?
  • Workshop participants longed for a more equitable relationship between Eve and Adam—even in my own re-telling, my story chooses to center the story on Eve as agent of social change as an anti-dote to the dominant narrative that tends to degrade her being. Still, what would be a more satisfying relationship between the two?
  • One workshop participant who expressed a “resistance” to changing the story, acknowledged that in his role as “the fruit,” he felt a strange and unexpected longing to be eaten. How might we activate and animate the “non-human” creatures and beings in the garden and what might they tell us? What voices have been left out by our over-emphasis on human voice?

I look forward to bringing this story and workshop methodology to other communities as dialogue partners in re-imagining this story—clearly, there is much more to be said by many more of us.

The next ICCP conference will be held in Chile in 2018. 

A Prayer for Cities

A pastoral prayer inspired by the work of Urban Partners Los Angeles, a ministry of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, prepared for worship at UULA on April 19, 2015.

withoutcracks

Pastoral Prayer for Cities, for Los Angeles
By Samantha Gupta

Spirit of Cities,
We are gathered in your concrete
 And wood
  And dust
   And asphalt
    in worship and in gratitude.
You who are worthy of our loving attention,
Hear us.

We gather in sorrow for what aches and moans
 Beneath the weight of sky scrapers,
  Bank buildings, pay checks,
   Food trucks, dandelions in the cracks of cement.
    Crushed beneath the weight,
Sometimes the shadows of these too-tall-trees
leaves us wandering if we are seen at all,
if any light will come.
See us.

In times of shadow, we gather around this chalice
with reverence for those who make themselves known.
  Graffiti prophets tagging story and name to wall
  refusing to go quietly.
  And corner prophets singing praises to a God
  they know who might see them.
  And the mothers and fathers and children who live each day
  wondering if the day will come where life moves with a greater gentleness.
And the lives of the women and men
who sat in these rooms, responsive to what they heard outside them.
Guide us.

Spirit of Cities,
  Spirit of Life,
   Lady of Los Angeles,
Open our ears that we may hear more deeply the sounds of these streets,
Our eyes that we may see more clearly the stories of these faces,
Our hearts that we may respond from a place of connection
The connection that we may know in our bones, whispering:
We belonging to these people,
            We belong to this place.

Spirit of Life, of Cities,
Teach us how to be at home, and how to be a guest in the homes of others.
Right here. Right Now.
Amen.

Story of (de)Centered.

When one initiates a blog, it is important to put some context around where the words are coming from– who is this person, why is this topic important to them and where do they locate themselves in the conversation? While no blog aiming to be less than 1000 words (already too much) could cover a human story, this is a start. Future blogs will fill in the rest.

My name is Samantha. I’m from Moreno Valley, CA.

I first became interested in ministry during high school. As a youth I attended leadership development camps and summer/winter camps at our local Unitarian Universalist camp, deBenneville Pines. My activism was formed by an alchemy of mentors, make-shift leadership positions, our high school “Anti-Hate” Club and 9-11. I was a freshman in high school when the twin towers fell, and I was awakened to how little I knew of the world outside of Moreno Valley—particularly about my Muslim brothers and sisters.

When I announced my desire to become a minister, my mentor at the time was less than thrilled; “The church is too small for you,” he said, “you need to be in the world.”

I attended my undergrad at UC Riverside and committed myself to Religious Studies and Global Studies. My college sweetheart and I ultimately went off to India together to study abroad and India had much to teach us—I was medically evacuated with an unknown illness that mimicked malaria, lived in a beautiful city (Hyderabad) that had experienced a terrorist attack and ultimately broke up with my partner. India kicked me out.

Rightfully so. Ivan Illich has something say about privileged folks using volun-tourism, no matter the “good intention,” only to realize their own powerlessness. Although I was a student, my ultimate realization was how little I knew, how fragile I was and how ultimately unprepared young people my age were to be in transnational dialogue that did not perpetuate the same oppressive frameworks as our colonial  ancestors. These are lessons anti-racism communities have already formed, but have yet been taken to the transnational context– where nationality, mobility and history matters in different and similar ways.

It was not a matter of “stop doing global work” (as some local activists told me), because the choice of having global impacts on other lives is the ultimate illusion—our choices do have an impact. And if we were not talking to each other to care for our world then evangelist missionaries, corporations and governments would do the talking for us—we had to dialogue, but we had to do it in a better way.

I applied for funding upon my return to start what was supposed to be a small, one-year project—a transnational youth leadership experiment that named leadership as acting in ways relevant to local communities and in dialogue with global peers, inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The Child Leader Project (CLP) organically grew into its own non-profit, becoming one of my primary learning spaces of spirituality, community and connection over the next five years. In 2013 I stepped down from leadership into a support role to the USA- and Indian-based leaders who continue to this day in youth organizing that creates the container to hold young people in reflecting, connecting, dialoguing and acting in the world.

For me, this was how we “know” something—we live into it. In collaboration with the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, I drafted a proposal for a community-based participatory action research office at the University of California-Riverside to institutionalize this way of “knowing”. The goal was to mentor undergraduate students to connect with community organizations on projects that matter to the non-profits and their community members. The best education was praxis (reflection-action) oriented: requiring a reflective mind and curious intellect, but ultimately a body that was willing to show up, listen deeply, speak from the heart and be changed.

Two years at a research university quickly reminded me of the message from my high school mentor. Was this enough? I was negotiating the tensions of the “hard sciences” with a community- and student-centered model of research as uncovering new knowledge(s) through honoring the experience of the individual or the community. I knew I needed to be learning, teaching and practicing in communities where the words “love” and “justice” were taken as seriously as “qualitative” and “quantitative”—and where does one do that? Was that at the public university as a professor, in the parish as a minister, on the street as an activist, in the home as a member of a family or community or environment?

By then, at age 24, I applied to and was accepted at Claremont School of Theology for my Master of Divinity. I wasn’t sure if ordained UU ministry was the specific calling, but I knew it pointed to something— it named my hunger to be in the world as a thoughtful, action-oriented and healing presence.

At 26, I find myself writing this blog. Having worked within multiple non-profits—from faith-based to social service-oriented—as well as directing my own, I know the struggle and the joy of organizing around a mission, meeting some goals and missing the mark on others. Having served in parishes, youth ministry, preaching as a guest or developing curriculum on spiritual activism, I know the desire for faith movements to be relevant and yet deeply rooted to their past, to provide a framework of meaning-making in an awesome and awful world. Having worked in the university as a student, researcher and director—I know the joys of learning and the necessity for access to knowledge but the dangers of knowledge narrowly defined, definitions codified and truth canonized to exclude. As a new with my incredible husband, I am learning what it means to be in relationship, to craft a kin of intention, negotiate in-laws or family members who disapprove of me as well as reclaim those relationships that are life-giving and need tending.

This is where I am learning what it means to minister, to attend to the world—beginning with my own, and spiraling outward. I learn in my skin, centered. I learn from others, decentered beyond my own experience, my own ancestors, my own context.

This blog is a reflection of what I have learned, what I am learning and all the things I do not know about what it means to be a de-centered activist hungry for wholeness. I look forward to sharing, dialoguing and being changed with you!