Living Community Psychology – Jacob Tebes


Gloria Levin

For this installment, we feature a distinguished community psychologist who has made significant scholarly contributions as well as applying the field’s scholarship to social problems that besiege communities. He attributes much of his success ultimately to the example of resilience and courage of his parents, survivors of World War II and immigrants to a new country.

What does a community psychologist do?

Living Community Psychology highlights a community psychologist through an in-depth interview intended to highlight the personal and professional lives of those working in our field.  The intent is to personalize Community Psychology as it is lived by its diverse practitioners. These past columns contain a wealth of life advice gleaned from over 60 profiled community psychologists, from graduate students to retirees, representing an invaluable resource for community psychologists.

*All columns are available online, at

We know him as the highly accomplished director of The Consultation Center at Yale and the editor of the American Journal of Community Psychology, but I wager most readers do not know that Jack Tebes was fundamentally shaped by the immigrant experience, if indirectly. Before he was born, his parents and two older brothers had escaped central Europe during and after World War II.

Caught between the Nazis and the Russians, his Roman Catholic, Austro-Hungarian parents became separated. His father was taken with other men of the village to a Russian work camp where he lived for 5 1/2 years, working as a tailor. His mother with her two sons, Jack’s older brothers (ages 9 months and 3 years at the time) were transferred to what we would today call an ethnic cleansing camp run by Serbian partisans and populated by women, children and old men. Malnourished, she was no longer able to nurse her two young children and so volunteered as a cook so she could milk the goat and bring the excess milk back to her sons.

Desperate to save her sons, one moonless night she escaped the camp with her two young sons and a niece. Eventually, the family reunited in Munich in a displaced persons camp but, not having a German identity, the children were ridiculed in school. Shortly thereafter, the family emigrated to Windsor, Canada where Jack was born. Soon after, the family was able to immigrate to the U.S. (which had recently loosened restrictions on immigration) and relocate to Chicago.

Jack’s parents (having had few educational opportunities) felt strongly that education was the ticket to a good life for their sons. With the help of scholarships from his father’s union, Jack attended a Jesuit college prep school in Chicago and Georgetown University. Inspired by the civil rights movement, he intended to study business and then go to law school to become a constitutional lawyer. However, not enjoying his business studies, he explored other majors, notably philosophy and theology. In his sophomore year, he found his home in psychology. A course taught by Norman Finkel, a clinical psychology professor who was trained in community psychology, introduced him to the field.

At Georgetown, Jack ran a rat and pigeon lab which taught him the intricacies of the principles of learning. He was elected president of the undergraduate psychology students association and organized his Department’s first undergraduate conference with other students. He graduated magna cum laude and was inducted in Phi Beta Kappa. “It was a heady time, and I was a Big Man on Campus, at least in the psychology department.” He was, therefore, devastated that he did not get into any of the seven clinical or clinical/community psychology graduate programs to which he had applied. After a few days of agonizing over what to do with his life, he picked himself up, drawing from his parents’ examples of resilience.

He decided to stay in the Washington, DC area and work in psychology, while studying to improve his GRE scores. Jack accepted a position in Arlington, Virginia as a Resource Aide in an experimental program for severely disturbed youth. At that time, in the mid-1970s, an omnibus federal law had been enacted that required states to mainstream special education students in public schools. For two years, Jack worked in a middle school, a high school and a self-contained classroom for court-adjudicated youth to teach core subjects and to develop token economies where he put to good use his knowledge of the principles of learning.

With the added confidence and maturity gained from his two years of work experience “in the trenches,” he was ready to reapply to graduate schools. Fortuitously, one of his prior professors went on sabbatical, leaving Jack to housesit his house (and cat) in Georgetown. There, Jack studied for his GREs, learning 30 new words a day and taking GRE practice tests. He was admitted to most of the graduate schools to which he applied.

Jack chose to attend SUNY/ Buffalo and was mentored primarily by David Perkins and Murray Levine. His program encouraged students to take courses in both clinical and community. Although most of his student peers were heading toward clinical careers, he was committed to pursuing community psychology in combination with clinical psychology to enhance his impact on solving social problems. During this time, he attended community psychology conferences where he met some of the authors whose work he had been reading. He obtained his PhD from SUNY/Buffalo in 1984, the same year he completed his clinical internship year at Yale.

Jack knew he wanted an academic career, because he believed it would give him the freedom to pursue his ideas and interests and also would be conducive to raising a family. While he was on internship, a rare tenure-track faculty position in Psychiatry became available at the Yale Consultation Center, for which he was selected.

After a few years on faculty, he met his eventual wife, Debby Kraemer, another SUNY/Buffalo graduate who had recently accepted a faculty positon in the Psychology Department at Yale. He took her out to dinner, and she reciprocated afterwards by sending him flowers and a thank you note. “Within six weeks, we knew. We were married 11 months later.” For those struggling to find names that accommodate two professional identities, you may be interested in Jack’s example. He and Debby, both avowed feminists, decided to swap last names for each of their middle names — Jacob Kraemer Tebes and Deborah Tebes Kraemer. They named their two sons Daniel Kraemer Tebes and Jonathan Kraemer Tebes.

In 1999, with Yale as the host, Jack was the local chair for SCRA’s 7th biennial conference which was well attended. He credits Jean Ann Linney for giving him good advice – that, in contrast to the earlier conferences, attendees began to expect better service, accommodations and food, “as high end as possible.” The conference planners also subsidized lower student fees by instituting higher fees for professional members; developed a business plan to turn a profit; and prepared a guide to planning future biennial conferences. In the same year, Jack was elected to Fellow status in SCRA and in APA.

Jack notes that being a faculty member in a medical school is very different than being situated in a psychology department. “The rhythm of working 12 months, without summers off and without semester breaks, is different.” In 2011, he was promoted to the tenured faculty at full professor and, in 2015, he received SCRA’s award for Distinguished Contributions to Theory and Research. Jack’s CV shows that he holds a number of faculty and administrative positions. Currently, in addition to directing The Consultation Center at Yale, he also serves as Chief Psychologist for the Connecticut Mental Health Center where he oversees the work of psychology faculty across 12 sites.

In addition, he directs one of the research divisions in the Department of Psychiatry – the Division of Prevention and Community Research – where he also directs a prevention research training grant funded by NIDA for postdoctoral fellows. Through his diverse roles, he has prioritized systems and strengths-based approaches in clinical and community settings, as well as hiring and promoting a diverse faculty.

Jack’s values of social justice are inculcated in the American Journal of Community Psychology (AJCP), SCRA’s flagship journal for which he has served as editor-in-chief since 2010. When invited to apply for the position, he originally demurred because of his concern that all prior editors had been white males like himself. When selected by SCRA anyway, he emphasized expanding the diversity of the editorial board, incorporating a wider range of methods and types of articles published in the journal (including first person reports) and making the journal more relevant to practice and policy issues. He devotes about two days a week to his editorial duties (usually including weekends) but calls it “a labor of love.” Jack’s pride in AJCP is accompanied by his delight in the editorial team.

Jack agreed to extend his editorial term through 2017 to smooth the transition to a different publisher (Wiley) and introduce new features, including an enhanced social media presence. Recently, Jack (along with Anne Bogat) received a special contribution award from SCRA for negotiating the new publishing contract — according to the award,“crucial for enhancing the SCRA financially, as journal revenue constitutes the majority of SCRA’s operating budget.”

When asked how he manages his time for the many roles and functions he performs, he says he sleeps only a few hours and focuses on the task at hand. He also delegates tasks, trusting his faculty colleagues to do their jobs as leaders in their own right, and is aided ably by his valued administrative associate, Susan Florio, who also serves as the AJCP editorial assistant.

Good time management is also crucial for Jack because a main priority in his life has always been family. He and Debby (an associate professor of psychology at Southern Connecticut State University) have always built into their schedules specific time for their family life. For years, he reserved Monday and Wednesday afternoons to be with his sons, including coaching their basketball teams in the evenings.

When his sons left home for college, he found more free time. Part of this time he has spent on being Warden (similar to president) of an Episcopal Church to which he belongs in New Haven and supporting community and church initiatives to serve homeless and poor people. For example, most Sunday afternoons he serves lunches to 150-200 persons and helps coordinate a regular clinic and clothing drives. Through his job, he takes on projects to enhance the capacity of organizations that serve marginalized populations to help them evaluate and improve their services, such as enhancing food security and reducing poverty in Philadelphia, PA. Recently, he has thought about ways to bring his professional work in other cities and states to New Haven in order to address some of the challenges he sees as a community volunteer.

Jack’s oldest son, Daniel, age 26, is enrolled in a master’s program in International Agricultural Development at the University of California, Davis, having earlier earned his BA degree at Kenyon College. His passion is sustainable agriculture for small farmers as an approach to improve the environment. To that end, he is working with a Silicon Valley startup company to develop a smart phone app for organic farmers. Son John, age 24, earned his bachelor’s degree at MIT in economics and public policy. His passion is intergenerational poverty with a focus on education. In the fall, he will be enrolling at Harvard’s PhD program in economics.

Jack and Debby are proud that their sons are pursuing the “family business” in their own ways. They have always emphasized social justice in their family. An example of this was when they supported a homeless family for a few years, and had one of the boys in the family live with them for a while.

“Turning 60 this year has concentrated my mind,” says Jack, and he tries to “live life as if I could die tomorrow.” His parents and oldest brother died several years ago, and his other older brother had some health problems that recently were resolved. Ever the mentor, in a 2013 address to graduating psychology interns at Yale, Jack urged them to put their relationships first. “Make your relationships a priority. Unless you do so, your career will make this choice for you without you even knowing it, and there you will be years later with a career and pretty much nothing else of value.”

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