Early Career Reflections from a Black Community Psychologist

Photograph of Kyrah Brown
From The Community Psychologist-Summer 2019, 52 (3).

I am excited about receiving the 2019 SCRA Early Career Award. I am so grateful to everyone within and outside of SCRA who has invested any amount of time and energy into me. For this column, I chose to describe my professional journey and share words of advice for other Black emerging professionals in the field of community psychology.

My Personal Journey

My journey in community psychology began as an undergraduate psychology student at Spelman College. I enrolled in an Introduction to Community Psychology course at Morehouse College taught by Sinead Younge, a Black woman community psychologist. This course exposed me to the action-oriented field of community psychology and provided me with my first participatory evaluation experience in a community setting. I was hooked. During my senior year, I joined SCRA and became involved with the Community Psychology Practice Council where I gained mentors, colleagues, and close friends. I went on to work with well-respected community psychologists during my doctoral training at Wichita State University. During graduate school, I had the opportunity to have a Black woman community psychologist, Rhonda Lewis, as my graduate research mentor. Since I attended an HBCU, I did fully understand how unique it was to have a Black woman graduate
mentor was until later in my career.

Following the completion of my doctoral degree I faced a crossroad. I was not sure if I wanted to pursue an academic position at a university or a practice position at an organization or company. I found myself wondering if I could do both and I was often frustrated with the available options. Previously, I was open to picking up and moving anywhere. But, my long distance relationship with my now-husband, Carl, meant refining my search to specific geographic locations. Fortunately, with the support and leveraging of resources from my close mentors and colleagues (and unwavering support of Carl), I was able to co-create a postdoctoral appointment. This also meant staying in Kansas longer which was a compromise in my personal life. This postdoctoral appointment was created through an academic public health partnership between a local health department and a department of preventive health within a neighboring medical school. It was through this experience that I was able to engage in a good mix of community-based research, program evaluation and practice work with local health coalitions.

After two years, it was time to relocate and join Carl in Texas. I accepted a position as an evaluation consultant (again with the help of a mentor) at a nonprofit management organization. This was a more practice-oriented position that provided me with the opportunity to strengthen my skills in program evaluation, consultation, coaching, and capacity building. It was very different from the flexible world of academia and government/nonprofit. I struggled with the concept of billable hours and staying within those allocated hours even when our clients needed additional help. I also struggled with time tracking and feeling creative within a highly hierarchical organizational model. Despite these challenges, I developed a skill set (e.g., time tracking, process efficiency) that would later prove valuable for my next position.

I was able to reflect on the similarities and differences between these two positions and see more clearly what I wanted my day-to-day to look like. I knew that I wanted to return to my passion area in maternal and child health (MCH). I loved both research and evaluation—and my strengthened evaluation skills made me a better researcher. I loved working with the community and engaging in capacity building. I appreciated structure (but not too much structure). I loved academic and technical writing. I needed to have time to reflect, think, and co-create ideas. I let what I learned about myself guide my job search. After many applications, leads, and rejections, I finally came across a position that felt like a near-perfect fit in terms of work culture, value placed on worklife balance, and what I felt I could contribute.

In September 2018, I accepted a tenure-track assistant professor position at the University of Texas at Arlington. I joined the Department of Kinesiology public health program which includes an undergraduate and graduate program. I joined an environment that valued my multiple professional identities as a community psychologist, public health researcher and evaluator. This position was everything that I had willed for. But, it took a winding and largely unpredictable journey to get here (and I have much further to go). In my role as an assistant professor, I infuse community psychology principles into my undergraduate and graduate public health course.

I also direct the Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Equity Lab which includes a team of undergraduate and graduate students. The MCH Equity lab collaborates with communities to conduct participatory research and evaluation dedicated to improving maternal health and birth outcomes. Our guiding values draw on community psychology principles. We believe that transformative, sustainable change requires collaborative, equitable academic-community partnerships, strategies that address multiple levels beyond the individual (including systemic racism), recognition and leveraging of existing community strengths and an investment in strengthening the community’s capacity to understand and engage in research efforts. The goal of my research is to understand how individual, social, and systems-level factors shape Black women’s health across the life course and how those influences shape their reproductive and birth outcomes.

As I work to establish myself, most of my focus has been on maternal and infant health and engaging in community-based research that centers Black women’s voices and experiences using qualitative methods. My work also includes using population-level data to investigate patterns and associations between MCH outcomes and system-level factors. As an evaluator, I also work with MCH organizations and coalitions to provide training, consultation, and evaluation capacity building in an effort to ensure that initiatives designed to improve birth outcomes are efficient and effective. I leverage my program planning and evaluation course to partner with MCH organizations to provide evaluation capacity building support. For me, it is important that community organizations dedicated to maternal and child health equity have the technical capacity to implement research-informed practices and continuously improve their service delivery through evaluation.

Lessons Learned as a Black Early Career Community Psychologist

It is important to remember to recognize and retrieve the knowledge and wisdom that we have gained from our journey thus far (and the journeys of others) to guide our future steps. Sankofa is a Twi word and adinkra symbol created by the Akan and Gyaman people of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Sankofa means to reach back to reclaim that which is lost in order to move forward. It is easy to lose things along the way. These things may be our personal confidence, our voice, our sense of pride in ourselves, connections to the communities that we represent, or our guiding beliefs around authentic community engagement. Below, I share four lessons learned from my experience.

Remember What Makes You Unique

There may be times when you feel like an imposter, intimated, or even fearful of taking opportunities. I have experienced all of these feelings at some point. To deal with this, I have had to train myself to manage those negative thoughts and feelings (and remind myself not to compare myself to others). I do this by first acknowledging my feelings and taking time to determine the source of those feelings (Why is this really causing me such anxiety? Why do I really feel threatened or fearful of this?). Next, I challenge myself to think of one unique thing about me personally or professionally that adds value to the team or situation. It does not have to earthshattering. It may be that you offer the unique perspective of a Black first generation college or doctoral student or that you are the only community psychologist on a team of nursing professionals. It is about rethinking the things that we think are our deficits and seeing how they actually add value. Also, holding on to what makes you unique helps to center your unique experiences that might otherwise be othered.

Build Your Village and Call on Them

Isolation can negatively impact your personal well-being and professional growth. We need our village to help us navigate our respective career paths. By village, I mean an informal network of seasoned mentors, peer mentors, and colleagues that you trust. Early on, it is important to think about what you need in a village (e.g., people with content expertise, people who are supportive, people who you can exchange ideas with) and how you can also reciprocate value to those in your village. My mentors have shown me through their actions how to pass the torch by mentoring and supporting others.

Use professional association directories, conference networking events, LinkedIn, or organization websites to search for people in your area or nationally who share similar interests. Send an email to invite that person to an in-person or phone meeting to learn more about each other’s work and interests. I usually offer to exchange CVs and keep the person’s CV in a folder to reference. After making initial contact, stay in touch by scheduling another meeting periodically sending the person information that they might find interesting (e.g., relevant news, articles) or information that might benefit their work (e.g., forwarding a funding announcement). These approaches can provide a solid foundation for lasting relationships with people who can help guide you along your path.

Once you’ve taken the time to build your village, call on them frequently and shamelessly. Your seasoned mentors are able to share their wisdom and advice, connect you to people and resources, and pull you in to their work. Your peer mentors and colleagues can provide a good support system as you navigate the same stages of your career and can serve as early collaborative partners. I’ve been qualified for every position that I’ve taken. More importantly, the reality is that with each of those job opportunities there has been someone from my village connected to it who has been able to vouch or advocate for me.

Speak Truth to Power

Black students and professionals navigate experiences embedded in racism. For instance, being overlooked, being viewed as threatening, having your professional credentials omitted, having your ideas stolen, being seen as a diversity token rather than for your merit, and so on. Having a strong village is crucial to navigating and coping with these experiences. One of my biggest challenges has been related to speaking truth to power as a Black woman in community spaces that are governed by deeply rooted power dynamics.

As a specific example, I have observed researchers and professionals (who are usually Caucasian) essentially colonize predominately Black communities by occupying the space to conduct run-of-the-mill research and hold claim to the flow of resources (e.g., control of partnerships, grant funding) in those communities. The difficult part is that while others (including Black professionals) tell me that they observe the same phenomenon, there tends to be a sense of demoralization and defeat which allows this issue to continue. It is an issue that keeps me up at night. My approach, however, to combatting this has been to acknowledge and speak on what I (and others) observe and to be very intentional about forming collaborations with diverse individuals and groups who share similar values rooted in empowerment and equity. By focusing on the work that we can and have done together, it has been a way for me to speak truth to power through action and contribute to change that way. As a Black community psychologist, you will continuously have to figure out how to navigate complex community issues and find your voice to speak truth to power in intentional ways.

Find Joy in the Journey

Finally, remember to slow down and find joy in your journey. During college and graduate school, I was on a relentless quest for the next thing to accomplish. Completing my doctoral degree had always been the long-term goal. In retrospect, I did not take enough time to reflect on my identity outside of my professional career. Who was I? What else did I like to do? Who do I want to become? I think I lost a bit of myself along the way because I was in such a hurry to get to the next phase. Hold on to what makes you you and to call on your village to help you remember to invest time and energy into the things that add joy to your life as you continue to advance your professional career.
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I want to say a special thank you to my village within SCRA who has mentored and poured into me over the years (in no particular order): Rhonda Lewis, Susan Wolfe, Tom Wolff, Gloria Levin, Bill Berkowitz, Chris Corbett, Chris Nettles, Jean Hill, Shawn Bediako, Sinead Younge, Jim Cook, Greg Meissen, Sharon Johnson-Hakim, Chris Kirk, Ashley Anglin, Ashlee Lien-Ramos, Olya Glantsman, Carlos Luis, Nicole Freund, Jessica Drum, Jasmine Douglas, Dominique Thomas, Jacque-Corey Cormier, Gina Cardazone, Katherine Cloutier, Ramy Barhouche, J’Vonnah Maryman, Jamie LoCurto, Michael Lemke, Chauncey Smith, and so many others.

Written by Kyrah Brown. This piece originally published in The Community Psychologist (TCP) Summer 2019 Volume 52 Number 3. All TCP columns are available online, at https://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/