Institutional GRACE-ism[1] and The Community Psychology Unit Reading list

By Warren Matofsky, Senior Lecturer and Clinical Psychologist

[1] GRACE-ism refers to reproduction of oppressive discourse relating to Gender, Race, Ability, Class, Ethnicity & Sexuality.

What’s in a reading list and its production?   Yet with Community Psychology, compiling a list that is informed by our collective commitment to decolonising the curriculum, seems to set an extra high bar.  Surely a concern with social justice and anti-GRACE-ism is bread and butter for community psychologists? At psychology school, I was taught that the catalysts for community psychology were post-WW2 collective action and the civil rights movement. Those early practitioners were seeking to expose and intervene with oppressive social conditions whilst also attending to the ideological functions and “soothing fictions” of the clinic (Epstein, 1999).  We were told that community psychology was researching and writing about coloniality, long before the more recent collective struggle of international activists pushed the psy-professions into responding.

Yet in reviewing the resources for the reading list, I reflected on the guild interests served in developing this official history, and also the unintended consequences of this romantic tale of psychologist as community liberator, ethically and theoretically sealed off from the legacy of psychology’s shameful past.  The historical lineage of community psychology itself is contested. The roots of community psychology in the UK may predate the North American coining of the phrase, with examples from the 1930’s of early pioneering work on unemployment lead by the psychology group at St Andrews (Oeser, 1937). Yet the history of community psychology as theory in the UK, may even extend back much further, to the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, and his proto-systemic theory of the 17th Century  (Billig, 2006). The Third Earl just happened to be the foster child of one John Locke (who in the days of patriarchal psychology text books was described as “The Father of Psychology”). So the individual/ community orientation debate, may have started as an oedipal struggle between white bourgeois academics, at the birth of European approaches to psychology. Later this psychology become a technology of colonial practice, with its pseudo-science of superiority; the legacy of which we are still trying to assess both within clinical psychology and the wider psy-professions (ACP, 2022).

But one danger in the official history idealising community psychology, is that we generate a purist monster of community practice that becomes impossible to fully enact in clinical or community settings. This can generate a learned helplessness in some practitioners drawn to the values of the community approach.  I recall a story from an old supervisor  whose critical training (at a celebrated centre for a critical research) left her feeling rather paralysed in her first clinical role, sensing she could never escape being part of the gaze; every attempt at support stigmatised the other by reinforcing individual responsibility for disabling environments over which they had no control, or failed to address the adverse community experiences that sustained current distress.

What stories do we want to tell about community psychology? What stories do I ignore, what am I blind to, and what am I not invited to deal with because of my more and less privileged social locations?  Perhaps community-oriented approaches chime with the prejudices of my community of origin, having grown up in an ethnically minoritized community, where  security and welfare needs drove the sustained development of extensive community institutions and self-organisation.  As a white-ashkenazi-jew, I’m documented as “white-other” , which never seems to capture the paradoxes of the privileges I experience, as part of a community facing significant levels of  prejudice & abuse (Finney, et al., 2023).  My white-otherness has given me invitations to join many groupings with other minoritized colleagues in public services, in campaigns and on marches. In these meetings and networks I have had the opportunity to explore the otherness of my white-otherness, where it’s been a standing joke with colleagues, about my being the token white guy in the forum. More importantly, I have experienced the deep generosity of colleagues, welcoming a white guy and trusting him enough to share the grammar and structure of how racism operates in our work places.

These forums have had lots of names over the years – Ethnic Minority Network, Black and Ethnic Minority Network, BAME network, Minorities Forum and the Minority Communities Forum. The politics of language plays out in these re-definitions and I often find myself curious about the range of interests served by these shifts. One proposed name change seemed to highlight my otherness in this group, as a suggestion of a “global majority forum” was considered, which would have excluded a colleague of Roma origin and myself. Our group worked through that one rather efficiently, recognising a “both/and” approach to the range of forums needed to deal with structural racism.  Yet whatever we call these important institutional arrangements, my experience of shared meaning making around our collective resistance to structural racism informs my hopefulness about community psychology’s potential to work at structural levels.

I probably learnt more about the whiteness of my white-otherness in my first community psychology post in La Vallee Jacmel, Haiti.  All five villages I would pass on my daily hike to La Vallee would greet me with hails of “Bonjour blanc”, a common-enough welcome in Haiti for “white folk”. It seemed warm and not unreasonable,  given that they had not seen  a “blanc” stop in the village for years (plenty of “blancs” drive through in shiny NGO-labelled 4x4s on the way to the NGO camp beyond La Vallee) . Your privileges as a “blanc” in Haiti are painfully evident, with life expectancy 20 years less than the UK. Other non-material resources are more plentiful, and the practical wisdom of indigenous psychologies were readily shared through a deeply collectivist approach to work organisation.  I recall my co-worker sharing some creole wisdom, after I had railed against the impossible bureaucracy and my inability to arrange the children’s transport to a festival, due to two collapsed bridges and a tyre shortage. He reminded me, “Warren, Deye mon, gen mon”.  “Beyond the mountains, there are more mountains.”  If community psychology was going to get a strap line, that’s my nomination.

In creole, this maxim seemed to embrace the seeming  contradictions of resignation, acceptance, and hope. With community psychology, more than most other psychologies, there will always be more mountains. Second order change is only a long-term project. At a professional level, finding your compass within UK community psychology is no mean feat, given its late flourishing, lack of a  formal career pathway/training (unlike USA and South Africa), and rich diversity of practice models, methodologies and critiques (Kagan et al., 2019). You could argue there’s as many community psychologies as there are communities.

I felt to navigate these intensely ideological environments we’d need a practical text on our list, supporting everyday discourse analysis, to ground our readers. Fortunately Pluto Press have recently re-issued Dorfman’s seminal “How to read Donald Duck”, which satisfies the other requirement for a suitably critical reading list, that at least one of its recommendations has been publicly burned.   The book had been out of print in translation since it was sued by a major US entertainment corporation and banned in its country of origin, Chile, following the CIA-sponsored assassination of President Allende.  The role of power and how it structures subjectivity, so richly set out by Dorfman 50 years ago, will be a key theme explored across Unit teaching, as will practice options that seek to address these wider domains and power structures.

But as I reviewed resources for the unit, I have to confess feeling intimidated by the breadth and diversity of research and practice, and my task of ensuring coherence across the unit as a whole. At the same time, it needed to raise questions about psychology’s legitimacy as community partner, given the historic and more contemporary colonial uses of psychology.  I was supported in finding resources to explore the latter concern, through  Mukkawi’s (2015) penetrating analysis of colonial practices in contemporary mental health work in Palestine.   Mukkawi’s Arab community psychology acknowledges and criticises its link to indigenous Arab psychologies and ethics. The value for me, and hopefully the cohort, is the rare clarity with which Mukkawi highlights how the dilemmas and contradictions in the practice of community psychology unfold in colonised Palestinian lands, where the discourses of coloniality operate through the traditional power of bulldozers, bullets, and checkpoints.  This research explores how western-backed mental health programmes reproduce colonial power relations, that marginalise both the group experience of intergenerational trauma and replace grassroots organisations with clinics offering individualised PTSD treatments. 

Reviewing these practices raised hard questions for me when reflecting on my own work with other marginalised communities in the UK and the Caribbean. This related to how effectively I sought out legitimacy, authority, and meaningful collaboration to support my doing of community psychology.  This will be a further dilemma explored in the teaching.

Revisions were made to the reading list, guided by the Service User and Carer Advisory group (SUC) and regional specialists, who supported unit-wide revisions. In terms of the reading list, our equalities audit (see Table 1) showed some progress had been made on the 2022 list, but much further work is required, not least to explore the ethics and methods of completing such an audit.

Table 1: Equalities audit

Reading listEM**Non-EMMaleFemaleOther***Working classNon-working class
2022 Com Psy Unit List17%*83%*39%61%0%Not KnownNot Known
2023 Com Psy Unit List26%*74%*50%50%0%Not KnownNot Known

Note. *This data relates to named editors of books by multiple authors. Two of these edited texts were selected as they were internationalist in terms of author/theory/practice included. Eye-balling these authors suggests there would be greater reported diversity if they had been focus of analysis. This data does not include editorial boards on recommended journals or other media; ** This short hand is used to specify membership of a range of ethnically minoritized and minority groups; *** based on brief web search

The conversations with SUC raised questions about effective ways to critically engage the cohort with questions about power and broader social dynamics.  This intention informed the inclusion of Adam Curtis’ landmark documentary series “Can’t get you out of my head” (BBC Films, 2017) on the watching list, which we hope to review as a group in the second teaching session. The SUC recommended Loach’s  (2016) landmark production, “I, Daniel Blake”, to deepen the understanding about the psychology of welfare in austerity Britain. To be honest though, I think I would have preferred his 1993 “Raining Stones”. Whilst no less direct in its depictions of the violent structures that regulate late capitalism and class prejudice, it includes more of the comedic and hopeful interludes of life. Loach’s shift in tone may reflect the challenges in finding hope through the period: between 1993 and 2016, there’s been 109 wars or regional conflicts, 4 UK recessions, the global financial crisis, the European refugee crisis, UK austerity and the assault on social security, the Home Office hostile environment policy, the Brexit debate, and rising incidence of reported racist and xenophobic abuse…

As a unit, it probably wouldn’t fit with community psychology values to have a compulsory assignment, completed by a heroic individual, approved by an all-knowing expert. We have adopted a more co-developed approach, recommending a set of voluntary tasks completed in groups.  One key task for the trainees is critically evaluating the reading list, developing sharper equalities metrics for it, and making recommendations to fill in the gaps. Perhaps my primary outcome measure could be the number of new references and resources this year’s cohort put forward for next year’s list. At least then, in next year’s blog reviewing the reading list, if it does not pass muster, I could blame it on them.

Association of Clinical Psychology (2022). Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy. ACP

Billig, M. (2008). The hidden roots of critical psychology. Sage

Finney, N., Nazroo, J & Becares, L. (2023). Racism and ethnic inequality in a time of crisis: Findings from the evidence for Equality National Survey. Policy Press.

Epstein, W. (2019). Psychotherapy and the social clinic in the United States: Soothing Fictions. Palgrave

 Kagan, C., Burton, M., Duckett, P., Lawthom, R., & Siddiquee, A. (2019). Critical community psychology: Critical action and social change. Routledge.

Makkawi, I. (2015). Critical Psychology in the Arab World. In A. Parker (Ed). Handbook of Critical Psychology. Routledge.

Oeser, O. A. (1937). The methods and assumptions of field-work in social psychology. British Journal of Psychology, XXVII(4), 343-363.