Edited by Gloria Levin
For this installment, we feature Dominique Thomas, an early career community psychologist, 3 years after earning his Ph.D. from Georgia State University. Unlike many people in our field who work with and/or study minority and often poor communities, he brings to his work lived experience, both as a black person and raised within a lower-income family. Surrounded by a supportive village of nurturing teachers and a determined grandmother, and being named “gifted” early, he has been able to succeed academically. Nevertheless, his early disadvantages can bedevil him as he endeavors to secure a stable foothold in life and to make a valuable contribution to persons who are not blessed by a village such as his.
What Does a Community Psychologist Do?
“Living Community Psychology” highlights a Community Psychologist through an in-depth interview that is intended to depict both personal and professional aspects of the featured individual. The intent is to personalize Community Psychology as it is lived by its diverse practitioners. Most of the prior columns (which date from the late 1980s) are available online at http://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/tcp-past-issues These past columns contain a wealth of life advice gleaned from over 65 profiled Community Psychologists, from graduate students to retirees, representing an invaluable resource for the field.
When community psychologists name the individuals who have most influenced their achievements, they typically identify teachers and work supervisors. In the case of Dominique Thomas, the heroine of his life story is – hands down – Ella Thomas, his family’s matriarch who had an eighth-grade education and an employment history that included household domestic work. She had retired on Social Security, concentrating on raising Dominique and heading her 3-generation household. As you’ll read, other women – all teachers — from kindergarten through graduate school, also went “beyond the call of duty” to support his development.
Dominique was born and raised in Gulfport, Mississippi, a small city of about 72,000 people located on the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 80 miles east of New Orleans. A majority of the population is White, and over 1/3 are African Americans. Mississippi resisted desegregation for years; his high school was not integrated until 1978. Dominique lived in a neighborhood on the west side of town, called “The Quarters,” the historic home of Gulfport’s black population; the name derives from its “slave quarters” legacy. Gulfport is a tourist destination, offering sandy beaches and casinos, but few good job opportunities.
Dominique was his mother’s first child, born when she was a 22-year old, single high school graduate. After living with Ella initially, his mother moved out to live on her own, but his grandmother kept him with her. (His mother later raised his two siblings, Darius and Destiny, with whom Dominique frequently played). Dominique first “met” his father over the telephone at the age of 8, followed by their first in-person meeting 3 years later. His father visited him periodically beginning in his teenage years.
Dominique was raised as the only child in a small house by Ella and two of her adult sons – uncles Ray and Steve, both of whom had left high school early. Dominique is especially close to Uncle Steve, so much so that many people thought they were father and son. Somewhat hyperactive, from an early age he was fascinated by electronics, “how things work.” The only child in his kindergarten class who was able to read, his kindergarten teacher, Miss Suzy, targeted him early for special attention. He was identified as gifted as a first grader and skipped a grade in elementary school.
Dominique excelled in school, especially in math and sciences, with physics being his favorite subject. He was bused to Gulfport High School, located in the more affluent side of the city. The school was split 50/50 racially, but Dominique quickly noticed that he was the only black student in his Advanced Placement classes. “It did not make sense to me that my classroom didn’t look like my neighborhood.” He did not feel connected with the other kids in his classes, due, not only to race, but also on the basis of socioeconomic class. One incident at his senior picnic impressed on him the class difference between him and his (white) classmates: a group of his classmates rolled up to the event in a big boat, in stark contrast to his transport in his mother’s old and borrowed car. And he did not apply for admission to the National Honor Society, knowing that he could not fulfill the extracurricular activity emphasis because he was unable to stay after school, dependent on the school bus for his transportation.
Financial struggles and housing insecurity have been constants in Dominique’s life. One eviction, in 2003, was the result of nonpayment of rent due to a dispute with the landlord. Uncle Steve had withheld rent to protest the landlord’s refusal to repair a plumbing lead that resulted in excessive water bills. Two years later, Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast and the apartment complex to which they had moved. Although the family “got off easy” compared to the devastation suffered by their neighbors, Ella and Dominique were relegated to couch surfing.
The adults in Dominique’s life viewed education as his only way out of Gulfport. His grandmother would gently but insistently prod him with homework reminders. Although the adults had to scrape together their rent money, he was not expected to contribute financially with an after-school job. His “job” was to study hard, undistracted by television or video games, so he would excel academically and attend college eventually. His guidance counselor, Dr. Catherine Newkirk, advised him of the availability of (and assisted him in applying to) a six-week summer STEM academy for low-income black children from the South, held at Morehouse College in Atlanta. “I was happy to escape the water shutoffs and evictions back home.” At the Morehouse program, he had the opportunity to discover practical scientific solutions in building a solar oven and in robotics. The summer at Morehouse introduced Dominique to college-level work and the social experience of dormitory living. Another significant benefit from the summer was in meeting Anthony McQueen, his forever friend.
Back home, Dominique prepared for college applications. He qualified for fee waivers for standardized tests as a low-income applicant, and his English teacher, Mrs. Sarah Miller, footed the bill for an AP test. As Dominique says, “it took a village.” He applied to 3 colleges – Yale (rejected); Old Miss (offered small scholarship assistance) and Morehouse (a full scholarship including room and board). Yet, the admission offer required $500 to reserve a space – “a lot of money to us, but my grandmother worked her magic, calling in favors from our village again.” No one in the family could take off time from work, so his father, located in Augusta, GA, picked him up and transported him to Morehouse.
Dominique declared a psychology major, with a secondary interest in the law, influenced by his exposure to police brutality in his hometown. He took courses in research methods and community psychology with Dr. Sinead Younge on Morehouse’s faculty. Like prior teachers who had recognized and nurtured his talents, Dr. Younge brought Dominique to his first SCRA biennial conference in 2011, paying his travel expenses. She remains a significant mentor in his life to this day.
Living again in Morehouse’s dormitories, he participated fully in college life, including leadership in residential hall life. Dominique organized academic enrichment programs as well as social activities for fellow students. He was honored with Psi Chi and Phi Beta Kappa memberships. And notably he enrolled in Morehouse’s McNair scholars program – set aside for high achieving undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds who are promising candidates for science Ph.D’s. In addition to the enrichment opportunities for research, McNair provides financial resources that allow the potential scholars to apply to graduate schools.
Dominique applied to several graduate programs that emphasized social justice and empowerment. He was accepted into the community psychology program at Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta, matriculating in 2011. At GSU, he was again a leader and organizer of efforts to mentor college students and taught courses and labs as a graduate teaching assistant.
The training at GSU was primarily oriented to academic careers, but Dominique became less enamored of academia once he experienced it up close. Although he enjoys teaching, he also observes that academia has become increasingly caught up in the capitalistic trap of grants and awards. He fears becoming an “academic grifter making a profit off of people’s suffering.” One student project he worked on at GSU gave him the satisfaction of having made a tangible contribution to a community, i.e., consulting with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta to create an evaluation questionnaire. The students’ product, rated “impressive,” was used for an organizational evaluation. His doctoral degree was awarded in 2017; his dissertation was titled Black Scholars Matter: Development and Validation of a Campus Racial Climate Measure for African American College Students.
A mutual friend introduced Dominique to Josie, a GSU graduate student in communications. Having moved in together, Dominique was able to stay in Atlanta through a visiting lectureship at GSU (2017-2018). He had applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan’s (UM) National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) which supports early career diversity scholars. Although he was not selected for the fellowship, NCID’s director, Dr. Tabbye Chavous, took note of his having received, in 2018, SCRA’s award for best dissertation that was highly relevant to her own interest in the relationship between diversity and higher education climate. She invited him to apply for a different NCID fellowship program. Josie was still enrolled at GSU’s graduate program but gave Dominique her full support to live separately (by then, they were renting a house in Decatur, GA) so he could pursue the great opportunity offered by UM’s fellowship. “August 2018, I packed my belongings into my Mazda hatchback and drove to Ann Arbor,” a 12-hour drive that he made regularly between Ann Arbor and Decatur. The couple were married in October 2018.
Never having lived outside the south before, his regular visits to Georgia were necessary because of the isolation and culture shock he experienced up north. “I knew no one and was sometimes the only black person around, even though I worked in an office devoted to diversity.” Michigan’s long, cold winters only added to the misery, as did the long distance from family and friends. “When I lived in Georgia, family members from the south could usually scrounge enough money to visit me but that was not possible for the long trip to Ann Arbor.” Dominique drove into Detroit to feel more at home, often hanging out at that city’s public library. In addition to the racial isolation, Dominique was uncomfortable with class differences (“the median family income of UM students was $150,000”) and the fact that he was the youngest person in his workspace. “I did not feel like I fit in; the staff did not invite me to hang out with them.” Add to these factors Dominique’s general tendency to introversion. “When I worked once at a Foot Locker store, I preferred working in the back, stacking boxes, rather than being up front, in direct sales.”
Nevertheless, Dominique was productive during his postdoctoral stint, helping coordinate a 2019 black graduate conference in psychology and carrying out a survey (The Black Scholars Matter Project, patterned after his dissertation) and presenting the findings at conferences. The fellowship allowed him to fully exercise his considerable writing skills. “I consider writing an art, and I like art in general, including editing and playing with design.” He wrote and edited essays and made numerous presentations. At the same time, 2018-2020, he served as Associate Editor of The Community Psychologist (TCP), a part-time position, apprenticing under the Editor, Susan Wolfe, gaining editorial and production experience to prepare him to assume the editorial helm at the end of Susan’s term (in 2020). (His “lab-twin,” another graduate student at GSU, Allana Zuckerman, is now his Associate Editor at TCP.)
Dominique has been active in SCRA since his student days. He was elected a Southeast Student Regional Coordinator (2014-2017), served on the planning committee of the 2016 Southeast Eco Conference and recently co-chaired the Council on Cultural, Ethnic, and Racial Affairs (CERA, 2019-2021).
And then arrived the COVID pandemic, an event that upset all our lives. Coincidentally, Dominique’s 30th birthday was March 12, 2020; determined not to spend that milestone alone, he had driven to Decatur to celebrate with Josie and friends. His visit coincided with the national shutdown, and he was quarantined, working remotely but relieved to be with Josie. COVID was not finished with Dominique — although he had a year left on his fellowship, he was subject to a personnel technicality that caught him in a hiring freeze, ending his UM appointment July 30, 2020. Dominique retrieved his belongings from Ann Arbor and resettled in Decatur to wait out the pandemic.
Long beleaguered by financial hardships and even with a Ph.D., Dominique has been applying for jobs in a particularly tough market and is disheartened by the nonresponsiveness of the potential employers who fail to even acknowledge applicants with any feedback. “The pandemic has thrown everything into chaos. Everything is piling on at the same time,” he observes.
In addition to actively seeking employment, ever-productive Dominique has used his shutdown time to complete or initiate significant projects including co-guest editing special issues of the American Journal of Community Psychology and the Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice and developing a podcast for TCP. Dominique refers to this period as “taking a breather” (!)
When asked what lies ahead that could constitute his future legacy, Dominique has in mind authoring a book whose approach he mulls over often. “I want to break down colonialism with real experiences, but I want it to be approachable and accessible, communicating scholarship to the general population.” His aims for his book include locating structural inequities in history and treating people as the complex beings they are rather than as objects of study. For now, he is contributing, orally and in writing, to SCRA’s conversations about systemic racial inequities. But having the unique perspective of a black community psychologist who was raised in a lower economic class, he offers much more to the dialogue – of race AND class inequities, especially in higher education. He asserts that college admissions’ diversity initiatives tend to favor minority applicants from affluent families. Dominique cites data showing that the more socially conscious, radical ethnic minority applicants are often screened out, and the kind of financial assistance needed by applicants without any family safety net is neither extended nor even recognized. “Educational institutions can be cruel reminders of your class. People tend to get uncomfortable when you connect race and class. Real social mobility involves having to do extra work to compensate for a rigged game. I could go on all day about how race, class, and education are all intertwined and the mess it creates.”
“It is highly unlikely that someone from my neighborhood would ever end up earning a Ph.D.,” Dominique says. Yet, we have seen in the arc of his life story that several teachers recognized and nurtured Dominique’s prodigious inborn talent. He even sports a tattoo that honors lifelong learning which he calls “the core of my life.” However, herein lies what Dominique terms the “cruelest joke”: His grandmother, Ella Thomas, died in his last semester at Morehouse, before he earned his B.A. (much less his Ph.D). During Christmas break in his senior year at Morehouse, he made his last visit to her, caring for her for a month, and she died shortly after. Nevertheless, Dominique more than fulfilled his promise to his cherished grandmother, by going as far as he could educationally.