Sunday, August 28, 2011

Psychology of Climate Change: “Intention, Everyone!”

Despite what some conspiracy theorists may believe (or what some environmentalists may mutter to themselves when feeling frustrated), anthropogenic climate change is not happening by plan. There is no grand design or league of evil geniuses who have set in motion a nefarious plot to slowly raise the earth’s temperature over a few centuries. Climate change isn’t something we caused on purpose; it is something that started happening while we were busy focusing on other things.
The fact is, climate change was an easy thing to create once we kick-started the Industrial Revolution. At the beginning, it would have seemed impossible that a world so big could ever reach the limits of what shocks and pollution it could absorb. Our world is much smaller now in this age of the internet, cellphones, and ubiquitous airline travel. And our planet seems much smaller now in the age of garbage landslides , groundwater contamination, deforestation, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
We hit our limits while we were looking the other way.
This is one reason that stopping climate change poses such an enormous psychological challenge. It happened without our intent—a grand series of pollution coincidences on our road to development and modernization. How could something so inadvertent require such an extraordinary amount of money, effort, and international coordination to stop? It is something we cannot comfortably comprehend. But successfully addressing climate change requires sustained intent and huge changes to the way we have come to behave as a species.
Is everyone willing and able to commit?
Social scientists have recently been studying the increasing polarization and politicization of climate change in the US. In general, they have been finding that liberals and Democrats are more willing to believe in climate change sciences, and are more willing to support efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The question then becomes, why are conservatives and Republicans less willing to believe in climate change sciences and less willing to support mitigation and adaptation? The answer has a great deal to do with human psychology. People are much more willing to believe in ideas that fit easily into our current worldview. Certain values commonly associated with the Republican party (free market, deregulation of industry, and smaller government) are diametrically opposed to the expensive, restrictive, and highly coordinated efforts needed to address climate change.
It is difficult for people to accept changes that fundamentally go against what they believe, and it is difficult for people to make 180 degree changes in their behaviors (skeptical readers, I ask you to convert to another religion today, and to think about all of the New Year’s Resolutions you’ve made and broken). People have fair success with small, non-threatening changes, but sweeping and belief-challenging actions are difficult to sustain.
In Community Psychology, we assume that people do not exist in a bubble but that they influence, and are influenced by, their settings. We look at the many contextual issues that contribute to the status quo, and then look for “levers of change” – key points that, if changed, will change everything. For climate change, we must seek levers of change for our behaviors and our intentions. How do we change human civilization to mitigate and adapt to the changing climate? And how do we change ourselves so that our sustainability intentions are, well, sustained?
One thing is sure: no intergovernmental panels were convened to figure out how to cause climate change. But in order to address it, we need massive coordination of action and intent.

Kati Corlew, M.A.
University of Hawai`i, Mānoa 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

New Hospital Community Benefit Requirements: Who Will They Benefit?

I was recently invited to present at a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) meeting in Atlanta regarding new requirements in the recently passed Affordable Health Care Act and also in new IRS regulations concerning Hospital Community Benefits.
Yes, the IRS is regulating hospital community benefits!
Sounds boring? Think again. This is a real opportunity for communities to partner with local hospitals on key community issues.
What are Community Benefits? Non profit hospitals earn their non-profit status by demonstrating that they have met community health needs that have been determined by a community health needs assessment. This can be a meaningful community collaboration process or it can be window dressing. So, new regulations by HHS and the IRS are trying to ensure that the process has meaning.
A number of years back I was involved in a process of voluntary community benefit guidelines for hospitals and HMOs being piloted by then Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. Through the trials and tribulations of that process we all learned many lessons that can be brought to bear on this present effort. My role, as the founder of  Healthy Communities Massachusetts, in this earlier process was to organize the community side of the equation – local groups that mobilized to hold their community hospitals accountable.
What we discovered was that a few hospitals took the community benefits process seriously and did a great job of partnering with their local communities and developing effective, responsive and relevant community programs. However, most hospitals tried to do the minimum. Their Community Benefits Committees did not represent those most affected by the issues from the grassroots in their community but rather represented the “usual suspects” like local community non-profits, many of whom already held contracts with the hospital.
It was a major effort just to get many of the hospitals to submit their annual reports that described their required community assessments and their community benefit activities in the community. Most fascinating was that when we looked at the reports in many cases we saw almost no correlation between the community assessments and what the hospitals actually did. Their community needs assessment process may have determined that their community need was X and yet they provided Y because Y was more in tune with their mission and plan. Clearly this voluntary process needed more bite to be effective.
So fast forward to 2011, and we see potentially much the same scenario. At this excellent conference, we heard of outstanding examples of hospitals doing a great job of community benefits. I think of the work of Dory Escobar at St Joseph’s Health System in Sonoma County California. Dory is the Director of Healthy Communities and is a community organizer and her work represents those values. Her organizational framework has three areas: Advocacy Initiatives, Healthy Communities Programs and Community Health Programs. (See
We also heard of valuable tools from Julie Willems Van Dijk (U.Wisconsin) like a county system of health rankings. The Rankings are based on a model of population health that emphasizes the many factors that, if improved, can help make communities healthier places to live, learn, work and play. Building on the work of America’s Health Rankings the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute has used this model to rank the health of Wisconsin counties every year since 2003. Rankings are now available for all counties in the country
Check it out for your county.
When I had my ten minute chance to present -( ) -
I urged hospitals to engage in true collaboration with those most affected by the issue in the community – with true collaboration described as relationships where we enhance the capacity of each other. I also suggested that community engagement go beyond the needs assessment stage of the process. Rather community partners need to share decision making throughout the community benefit process including setting priorities, implementation, and evaluation. I used the work of the Center for Health Equity and Social Justice at the Boston Public Health Commission as a model of this approach (see
So what happens from here on out?
These new regulations are an occasion for all of us to engage with our local hospitals. We must ask what they will be doing to meet these new requirements and tell them how we would like to partner with them in the process of creating their community needs assessment and then continue to work with them on the implementation of their community benefit programs that will meet the identified needs.
My good colleagues at the Community Tool Box ( at the University of Kansas have been contracted by the CDC to develop “Recommended Practices for Enhancing Community Health Improvement”. This will be a very comprehensive tool kit based on the wonderful resources of the Community Tool Box for the community needs assessment process.  I will try to keep you informed as to when these resources will go public.
Tom Wolff

Friday, August 12, 2011

Building Community and Transforming Our Helping Systems

The time has come for us to rethink and transform the health and human services system in this country. These services cover a vast array of organizations providing a very broad range of services and consume large parts of federal, state and local budgets. The services are often critical for the consumers but the core premises on which the system is based and the system of delivery itself is highly dysfunctional.
The delivery system is characterized by:
1)      A focus on individuals not communities and ignores the environment in which the individual lives
2)      Focuses on the deficits of the individual and the community not their strengths and assets
3)      Services remain targeted at crises and remedial services ignoring how prevention could prevent the problem from occurring in the first place by catching issues upstream
4)      Our systems fail to respond to the diversity of our communities much less address issues of structural oppression, racism etc.
5)      Our helping systems excessively rely on professionals and fail to acknowledge and engage the natural helping systems of families and neighborhoods. Increasingly our helping systems have become detached from the communities they serve.
6)       Our helping system fails to engage those most affected by the issue as equal partners in planning, delivering and evaluating their interventions.
7)      As a system the health and human services in any given community tends to be: competitive rather than collaborative; fragmented so that individuals are treated for distinct problems rather than as whole beings; efforts are duplicated due to lack of information rather than coordinated
8)      Finally the helping system and many of those working in the system have lost their spiritual purpose. They may have chosen their fields with hopes of addressing the common good and now end up counting billable hours.

These system dysfunctions are discussed at greater length in my book The Power of Collaborative Solutions
I have been preaching these dysfunctions and their solutions for decades so it was  a delight to find a fellow traveler and another community psychologist on this campaign in Isaac Prilleltensky , the Dean of  the School of Education at the University of Miami.
Isaac contrasts systems that he describes as SPEC vs DRAIN with SPEC systems standing for systems based on  Strength, Prevention, Empowering and Community. While DRAIN stands for Deficit, Reactive, Arrogant, Individual.
More details on Isaac's system are available at their web site:
Many of us have some stories of individual systems, agencies or interventions that have been able to move from SPEC vs DRAIN (see community stories in my book, or previous issues of my Collaborative Solutions Newsletters ). These stories need more public airing.
However, the urgent questions now facing all of us are how do we transform our dysfunctional helping system to a strength based system that addresses the system shortcomings noted above and moves in new positive directions.
The present fiscal crisis is leading to dramatic cuts of funding to this helping sector but as noted in my last newsletter (Thriving and Surviving in Hard Times) this is not leading to system transformation but rather retrenchment to a more dysfunctional system. We are cutting prevention and keeping remediation, cutting community wide healthy community programs and keeping services for individuals, etc.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on how to convert our dysfunctional helping systems to ones that are focused on communities, prevention, strengths, our community's diversity, build on community helping systems, bring those most affected by the issues to the table as equal partners, operate collaboratively, and engage our spirituality as the compass for social change. What are your ideas for transformation of our nation's health and human service systems?

By Tom Wolff

This post first appeared at:
July 22, 2011:
August 8, 2011:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How Am I Using Community Psychology? A Reflection on 6 Months on the Job

When I first was asked the question, “How are you using Community Psychology at work?” I thought to myself… “Am I?” This is something I’ve particularly struggled with over the last year, having graduated in May, 2010. It was a really tough transition for me, leaving an incredible Community Psychology program (at UMass, Lowell) where I had spent two years building strong networks, sense of community and, perhaps most importantly, a great family of peers and mentors. Despite all of that, financial and personal reasons brought me back home.

Moving home was difficult mostly because I felt that I was hitting reset. I did not have a community based in Community Psychology (hereinafter referred to as CP), and I didn’t know anyone who even understood what it meant. Anyone who has studied CP is most likely familiar with the question, “What is that, exactly?” This is a question I get monthly. Well, perhaps more like weekly. The truth is, I have learned to go from bemused to amused by my family and friends still not fully understanding what I went to school for (three years after the fact). I often overhear my family telling others “She studied Community Psychology.. she’s like a Social Psychologist… kind of like Sociology, I think.” So if no one around me understands it, how can I feel that I am using it?

When I finally found a job after months of searching, I landed in the non-profit sector at Planned Parenthood. I immediately thought, now this is exactly the job I’ve been wanting. I’ll be implementing all kinds of CP values – outreach and organizing, educating and resource-sharing, collaborating with the community, empowerment and consciousness-raising. This is the ideal setting, I remember thinking. The reality of it was that I found myself working in front of a computer the majority of the time. I was surprised with the bureaucratic nature of our meetings and the precedence of fundraising agendas over patient outreach. I was so consumed with our need for funding that I couldn’t focus on anything else. I knew there was room for—if not a need for—CP in our environment. Despite the dire times and alarming threats to our organization, we were still working so hard to maintain individual and community wellness. I realized I was struggling with my lack of involvement with CP relations, while immersed in an organization that exudes just that.

That’s when I finally realized what my graduate mentors had been telling me for months: I had to bring CP to me. I had to create it in my own environment, in my own ways. I started talking about CP values to people around me; to members in my department, my CEO, our education department and outreach coordinator. I started working on research projects off-site where I could learn more about our constituents within their communities. I started talking about volunteer opportunities and advocacy within our younger communities. I attended the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) conference, and signed up to write for this blog. After that, I started feeling as though there were so many opportunities available. All it took was talking about CP values, our organizational needs, and what I’d like to bring to the table. That’s when I realized I wasn’t allowing myself to feel empowered enough to do it.

Once I regained faith in my ability as a Community Psychologist, I was able to feel more useful. I realized that my previous experience with qualitative research and empowerment-raising was not only something we needed, but something that people were interested in hearing about. I have also found that my interests and knowledge of community outreach may be simple and common among a CP community, but in our organization, they are seen as unique and innovative. With my experience and goals, I am able to provide more resources and creativity to our already thriving environment with just a little touch of Community Psych; something my co-workers didn’t know they already had in them. For me, six months into a job post graduate school, I was finally finding what I could offer to my environment. And, well, to myself. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” and that, to me, is what Community Psychology is really about.

Danielle Gemell, M.A.
Planned Parenthood of NJ

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Students: What do you think? - Debt Ceiling Deal and Student Loans

The response to the Debt Ceiling Deal, passed today, seems to be short of a collective sigh of relief.  While most are happy that the country will not go into default, no one seems completely happy with the outcome, and even fewer Americans are satisfied with the process.

All of that aside, one outcome of this bill is to cut subsidies for graduate student loans.  As of July 1, 2012 federal loans (yes, including the Stafford and the Perkins) will accrue interest while the student is in school.  Currently, these loans don't start accruing interesting until after graduation. The motivation behind this cut? To ensure funding for Pell Grants (up to $5,500 per year in grant money) which are awarded to America's lowest income students. 

Pell Grants are considered an important tool in creating access to higher education for poorer students.  As students of Community Psychology, promotion of the Pell Grant is in our blood.  As graduate students, we are struggling to get by financially as it is.  This bill has the potential to be a barrier to us, financially, in our studies (see some calculations here).

What do you think? Was this the "right" thing to do? How will these changes affect you? Any new strategies needed for financially surviving graduate school?