Living Community Psychology-Judi Aubel

Photograph of Judy Aubel
Figure 1. Judi Aubel by Aliceorecchio - CC BY-SA 4.0

For this installment, we feature Judi Aubel of Rome, Italy (plus Senegal, Indiana and multiple spots around the globe where she works). With a very diverse educational background; fluency in several languages; and work experience in multiple countries, across diverse cultures, Judi has fashioned a robust career in international development. Her stated mission is nothing less than “changing the way development work is done globally, viewing culture as an asset rather than a
challenge.” Her current focus is squarely on providing grandmothers with opportunities for empowerment, viewing them as an invaluable asset, or resource, as agents of positive cultural change.

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Judi Aubel, Ph.D. Executive Director, Grandmother Project – Change through Culture, Rome, Italy

Several months ago, I saw a posting on SCRA’s listserv, offering opportunities to students for field research in Senegal, from SCRA member Judi Aubel. Her signature block stated that she is an Ashoka Fellow – Ashoka is an organization of social change agents to which I have donated since its beginnings. I had an inkling that she was, like me, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer – which my googling confirmed. That started an email exchange and an in-person interview during her March 2019 visit near my home.

Judi was born in the San Francisco Bay area, her family having moved from El Cerrito to San Rafael when the bridge to Marin County was built. Her father was an engineer for Standard Oil; her mother’s career in journalism was ended by immobility caused by the polio she contracted in 1950. This middle-class family was rounded out by a sister, three years younger. Judi attended the University of California (UC), Davis for two years, after which she transferred to UCLA, majoring in political science and international relations, minoring in African studies. Interested in a teaching career, she volunteered in Los Angeles to tutor in Watts (with African American students) and East LA (with Hispanic students) and studied a fifth year to obtain a teaching certificate. Her first teaching job was in Marysville, CA (near Davis), an area with a shortage of teachers for migrant schools. She taught elementary school for two years, learning Spanish in the process.

At that time, Judi developed an itch for another international experience, first planted by her well traveled, multi-lingual, uncle. She volunteered for the Peace Corps and was assigned to the Ivory Coast to teach English to secondary school students. Since the Ivory Coast is a Francophone country, her training was conducted in Quebec.

She had a head start by being a trained teacher and having earlier studied French. The Ivory Coast includes over 50 ethnic groups, speaking multiple dialects. Her students came from all over the country, so French was their only common language. She extended her structured job by making herself available to students to practice conversational English, sitting under a tree in a public setting. Her summer vacations allowed her time to travel around Africa.

After Peace Corps, she taught Head Start for two years in Santa Barbara, CA. In this role, she conducted home visits, meeting with and educating parents. This activity soon became central to her mission and introduced her to another crosscultural perspective.

Her itch for yet another cultural experience resurfaced, prompting her to buy a one-way ticket to Spain, intending to learn to speak Spanish fluently. She taught 3rd grade in an international American school in Madrid for two years. After leaving Spain, she moved to Arizona State University where she earned a MA in adult education, based on her having identified education of parents as her priority. She then worked as a teacher advisor for three years in Phoenix (where she also volunteered for Planned Parenthood, working in the local barrios). She also volunteered in the summers for World Vision in Guatemala.

Her work in Guatemala involved training community health workers, leading her to the field of public health. She went to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for an MPH in the health education department, known for its strong international health focus. The department included a strong community orientation and professors connected to Africa, the continent where she wanted to return to work. From Chapel Hill, she moved to Burundi for two years on a UNICEF project on women, nutrition and agriculture. From Burundi, Judi got a job based in Dakar, Senegal with a small American NGO, followed by working in other African countries for several years, on a variety of contracts. In Dakar, she met her now husband, Tom Osborn, an American expert in international agriculture who led the NGO, Winrock International in Senegal for six years.

A British academic encouraged her to study for a Ph.D., “suggesting the experience would provide an opportunity to better conceptualize my work.” Shuttling between England and Senegal, Judi earned a doctorate in Education and Anthropology from the University of Bristol in 1992. Her thesis documented use of an innovative qualitative method for formative research on health-related issues, in two projects (in the Sudan and Niger) on which she had coordinated development of culturally-grounded health education strategies.

In 1998, Judi moved to Fiji for six years for Tom’s next assignment. While based in Fiji, she continued to contract for consulting assignments, in southeast Asia and Africa. The couple left Fiji in 2003 for Rome, where Tom took a job at the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (from which he recently retired). The couple’s home base has been Rome since 2003.

In her community work with various NGO’s, Judi took notice of the very significant, if underappreciated, role of grandmothers in non-Western cultures, initially pertaining to maternal and child health. For example, in almost all non-Western societies, grandmothers advise and supervise their offsprings’ pregnancies. While the content of their advice differs, depending on the cultural context, the nature of the grandmothers’ role is consistent. Judi further observed that the advisory role of grandmothers continues throughout the life cycle of their family members. Yet development programs overwhelmingly focus on the younger part of the population, ignoring the contribution of elders.

Around the same time, Dixon Chibanda, one of only 12 psychiatrists in Zimbabwe (population 16 million), observed grandmothers sitting in pairs or small groups around town on park benches. Grappling with the overwhelming gap in mental health resources in his country, Dr. Chibanda realized that these wise women were an untapped resource which, if trained, could be mobilized into a corps of lay mental health advisors. In 2007, he, with a colleague, created the concept of the Friendship Bench for Zimbabwe (and being adopted elsewhere in Africa and even in New York City) in which grandmothers are trained in basic mental health counseling techniques. Called “community grandmothers,” these lay counselors sit on designated benches outside health centers to advise people with mental health needs, using psychosocial problem-solving techniques in which they were trained.

With the encouragement of  Elisabeth Mealey, an Australian journalist, Judi decided to create a non-profit organization devoted to the empowerment of grandmothers in the Global South. She founded Grandmother Project (GMP) – Change through Culture in 2005, raising the initial money from U.S. donors. A small board of directors was formed, initially composed of Judi’s American friends. Over the years, the Board has increased in size and in managerial effectiveness. Annual meetings are held in Washington, DC. The annual budget for 2018 was $240,000 of which 30% was raised from individual donations and the rest came from foundations, UN entities, several western embassies and contracts for technical assistance. Judi does not receive a salary as Executive Director.

A big challenge in the nonprofit world is that donations are almost always designated for program activities but rarely for an NGO’s operating costs. Further, few grants or contracts extend beyond one year, so fund-raising is a constant pressure. Funds raised from conducting regional workshops on GMP’s approach have supported salaries of the GMP team members in Senegal. Recently, there is some promotion in the NGO donor world to encourage funders to earmark a significant percentage of their donations to the recipient NGO’s operating costs. “However, this noble concept is more aspirational than it has been operationalized by donors,” Judi observes.

GMP’s program consists of two “prongs”: First, action research with communities in the Kolda Region of southern Senegal to develop, test, refine and codify innovative community programs; Second, building capacity of other NGOs through training to adopt and adapt GMP’s Change through Culture approach. For example, the organization has developed and conducts 5-day workshops for NGO program managers and some university academics. (UNICEF has contributed some of the funding for these workshops.)

The Girls’ Holistic Development program operates within schools and communities to promote all aspects of girls’ health, education, and rights. Judi observes: “Our grandmother-inclusive and inter-generational approach contributes to bringing about lasting positive impact by increasing girls’ success at school, while promoting broad change in ending harmful traditions such as favoring boys’ education over that of girls, child marriage, and female genital cutting.” Evaluations of the Girls’ Holistic Development program have shown that a grandmother-inclusive strategy contributes to building community-wide consensus for adoption of more girl-friendly norms and practices. These include helping girls stay in school and delaying marriage and pregnancy until they are older.

Learn more about The Grandmother Project Here:

Judi has made an effort to generate theory and research findings based in the applied nature of the Grandmother Project. Always an eclectic reader, she was strongly influenced by the work of Noel Chrisman (Professor Emeritus, University of Washington) and medical anthropologist, Arthur Kleinman, among others. Later, she discovered a natural fit with community psychology theory and research, finding it highly relevant to promoting system change in communities. Over the years, she found a kinship with the work of the late Seymour Sarason and, later, Mark Zimmerman, Pennie Foster-Fishman, and Abe Wandersman. She presents at SCRA’s biennial conferences, as well as those of the American Community Development Association in the off years, facilitated by her annual summer stays in Indiana, her husband’s family home.

Her substantive contribution to the field of community studies includes the consideration of three generations (elders, parents, children), rather than the usual two generations typically addressed in intergenerational studies and interventions. She has collected extensive evidence, across cultures in the Global South, that expanding the lens to include the additional generation fosters recognition of elders’ naturally occurring contribution. Elders constitute an abundant resource that can be marshalled to strengthen communities’ social infrastructure and social cohesion.

However, Judi has found insufficient appreciation by scholars and international development workers for grandmothers’ natural and multi-faceted role, most particularly in the area of maternal and child health. “Most tend to view grandmothers, when they are even considered, as constraints to social change. We have found the opposite.” In this regard, she notes the potentially significant role of grandmothers in promoting the abandonment of female genital mutilation (FGM), a tradition still practiced in 28 countries. “Even my Senegalese colleagues and I were surprised at the determination and effort of the grandmothers to promote community-wide change on this issue.” Far from being a hindrance, she says that it is the grandmothers who are catalyzing the process of abandonment of FGM in their communities. She said, “the grandmothers continue to amaze us by their wisdom and openness to new ideas.”

Her effort to spread the “Change through Culture” approach is slowly having an impact, with a few programs “bubbling up” that explicitly target grandmothers as agents of social change. In addition to work on overturning long-standing practices of FGM, other areas that are particularly ripe for change (and are incorporated within the project’s interventions) are maternal and child health and nutrition; reproductive health; early childhood development; adolescents’ health; child marriage; and teen pregnancy.

From her home base in Rome, she focuses on proposal writing, communicating with other partner organizations and providing support to the GMP team in Senegal. The daily management of the Senegalese operation is largely left to the organization’s very dedicated and qualified staff of 8 persons (administrative, financial and program). She is in contact almost daily via Skype with the Senegalese team but also spends about 4 months a year working directly with her team in Senegal. In Rome, she is assisted by a small, part-time staff who work on communications, donor relations, grant submissions and liaison with the American-based Board of Directors. Despite all her travel, Judi is committed to Rome as her home base. “I have not lived in the U.S. since 1988. I prefer the European pace and lifestyle. I find it unnerving dining in American restaurants where tables are expected to turn over quickly. In Rome, we can occupy a table as long as we want.”

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Judi acknowledges that the evaluation of the Grandmother Project to date has not been as rigorous as she would like, so GMP is interested in expanding its collaboration with university programs. They are open to collaboration with graduate students whose backgrounds are relevant to GMP’s program and who are looking for a viable research field site. A prerequisite for potential collaborators for research projects is that they must have good proficiency in French and also some prior experience and knowledge of the African context. She is hopeful that just such a collaboration can be found within SCRA.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about the Grandmother Project, go to or email Judi Aubel at

Written by Gloria Levin. Edited by Scot Evans

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