Living Community Psychology – Craig Kwesi Brookins


Gloria Levin

For this installment, we introduce a community psychologist whose academic career has shifted among psychology and Black and African studies, but always incorporates the values and basic principles of community psychology.

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

Craig was raised in a predominantly African American, middle to working class community in Chicago. His family had migrated to Chicago from Mississippi in the post-World War II migration of Blacks to northern urban centers. Family members had talked some about discrimination they had suffered; but only later did he learn of the most severe examples of racial victimization they had endured or witnessed. For example, before she passed, his mother, one of nine children, wrote an autobiography in which she related how her grandfather (a minister who had often spoken out about racial justice) had been killed by a White racist because he refused to sell land he owned. “She said that everyone knew who did it, but nothing was done.” In the north, they still found discrimination and segregation, but “it just was not that every-day, in your face type,” says Craig.

Craig attended an all-male Catholic high school in a low income neighborhood in Chicago, adjacent to Hyde Park, founded by Franciscan Brothers to educate African American boys. The faculty was mostly White—both the Franciscan Brothers and lay teachers—and were dedicated to teaching Black history and instilling a pride in Black identity.

On his way to the bus stop to get to school each day, he would walk past a bookstore, in whose windows he spotted intriguing books on the Black experience. He began buying books from the store and discovered he had an affinity for psychology—why people think and behave as they do. At Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, he majored in psychology and, in his junior year, he was a caretaker at a mental health halfway house with severely mentally ill persons who were transitioning to the community after institutionalization. In his senior year of college, he worked in a halfway house for hard core substance abusers who were transitioning from prison to the community. He recalls: “My caseload included people at least twice my age, and I was fascinated when they recounted their life experiences in our counseling sessions.”

However, he was less interested in individual treatment approaches and more in system-wide community-based models. One of his college professors, spotting his attraction to preventive, systemic approaches, gave him a brochure for Michigan State University’s graduate program in ecological-community psychology. “Upon reading the brochure, I immediately knew that was what I was looking for.” Accepted to MSU’s program, he spent the next nine years as a graduate student (1981-1990). During that time, however, he worked ¾ time as assistant director of Michigan’s Children’s Trust Fund, supervising a team of students and staff who were monitoring and evaluating child abuse and neglect programs across the state. One notable friendship formed in graduate school was with Carolyn, then a secretary in MSU’s Psychology department (later in the Geography department). They married and had two children while he was in graduate school. The Brookins’ household now includes Nailah, age 29 and working toward a certificate in child care, and her two children (ages 3 and 7). Gideon, age 27, has a master’s degree in professional writing and works for Oracle in North Carolina.

Most of his graduate field work was in Detroit. His master’s thesis was a descriptive analysis of ten independent schools for African Americans. His dissertation was guided by the Fairweather model—an experimental evaluation of a parent aide program in Detroit conducted over a period of three years—which included a commitment to dissemination of research results.

In preparing to enter the job market, he had no particular interest in an academic job, not having conceived of that as a natural role for African Americans because he had not seen many African Americans in academic roles. However, by then married and with two children, his main goal was to support his family financially, so he cast a broad net for his first professional job, post Ph.D. “I realized that my training should include preparation for an academic job, thereby qualifying myself for a broader range of job options.” Having taught Black psychology at MSU, he applied for positions in both African American studies and in psychology departments. However, he learned that Black Studies are more oriented to the humanities than to the social sciences; furthermore, they do not tend to involve community-based interventions.

Determined to take advantage of all possible networking opportunities, he attended professional conferences. At SCRA’s first biennial conference, held in Columbia, SC, he met Jean Ann Linney. In a “soft recruitment,” she encouraged him to apply for a position at the University of South Carolina. “I knew that universities were looking to hire Black folk then.” However, Craig was leery of living in the South, remembering his family’s tales of Southern segregation and terror. Carolyn’s family was originally from central Arkansas, with its own stories of the Black experience in the Deep South.

Craig received six or seven interviews for academic jobs—divided between Black Studies and Psychology—from which he received two offers. An earlier MSU graduate, Dennis Grey, had encouraged Craig to join him at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Notwithstanding Craig’s resistance to living in the South, he was impressed by the warm reception he received during his NCSU interviews. In addition, he was heartened by the enlightened culture found in the Research Triangle area, encompassing a concentration of universities in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—home to NCSU, Duke, and UNC, respectively. “The Triangle was a cocoon. There were no Confederate flags hanging, for example.” The clincher was that, at the time of the interview, the early spring weather was beautiful, everything in bloom—a sharp contrast to cold winters in Michigan. Overcoming his qualms about the South, he accepted NCSU’s assistant professor offer, which included directing the undergraduate, field-based program in human resource development.

Craig notes two disadvantages from his choice: First, that his family would be far from the comfort of their extended families in Chicago and Michigan, and second, that, “for every ten miles one traverses outside the Triangle, you are stepping back one decade in time.”

As soon as he arrived in Raleigh, he reached out to the community to create his own connections, especially in the areas of African American youth, schools, and communities. He initiated 10-week rites of passage programs for African American youth. His initial linkages were with the local Health Department and a few schools, who allowed him to bring in his undergraduate and some graduate students. He recognizes that this would not have been possible without his prior training at MSU, where he was thrown into the community on Day 1 of graduate school—having to form relationships and “figure it out” on one’s own. In particular, his eventual success was dependent on the skills of diplomacy he had acquired during graduate school. He also had earlier learned that community-engaged work requires a team approach. “I learned early on that working independently was neither effective nor personally satisfying for me.”

His path as a tenure-seeking assistant professor was relatively smooth. His department was collegial, characterized by a “live and let live” tone. In addition, he was supported by a network of mentors from within and without his department. NCSU professors negotiate a statement of mutual expectations with their employer. “I pursued my community-based interests and just hoped that would be appreciated and valued by my colleagues in the end.” Upon receiving tenure (1997) and based on relationships he had developed in Africa, he was asked to direct NCSU’s Africana Studies program, a position he held until 2009, while continuing on the Psychology faculty.

Craig’s notion of “community” has always been broader than the proximate Raleigh community, extending to the African diaspora and to Africa itself. He was first awakened to African studies (especially political and economic) through his high school reading but also had been inspired by Patrick Bellegarde Smith, under whom he studied at Bradley, now professor emeritus of Africology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Dr. Smith studied African culture in Haiti and in other islands of the Carribbean—and is a voodoo high priest.

As a college graduation gift to himself, Craig travelled to Cuba to observe Afro-Cuban culture. He pursued this interest as a graduate student, through MSU’s Africa study abroad program in Kenya, when he studied Swahili. His first visit to Africa was a powerful experience, one that Craig wanted to repeat often. “(Africa) felt like home,” he remembers. “Unlike in America, I did not feel like an outsider, marginalized.” In particular, he appreciated Africans’ valuing of relationships. “When I’m away from Africa, I miss it.” He was determined to continue his involvement in Africa, by marrying it to his community psychology scholarship. This was enabled when, about four years after joining NCSU, he was asked by NCSU’s Associate Vice Provost to participate in the university’s development of a linkage to Ghana, reigniting his interest in Africa. (During this period, his focus shifted away from community psychology some.) His subsequent work in Africa involved developing psycho-educational interventions and consciousness raising. His family accompanied him on trips to Africa, Carolyn on three or four occasions and his children participated as teenagers in student travel programs with which he was associated. Although his primary association is with Ghana, he also has worked in east Africa, especially Tanzania.

From now on, the subject of this profile will be called by his second given name—Kwesi (pronounced KWAY-C), a West African name which means born on Sunday. “The belief is that the Creator brought us into the world on a particular day for a particular purpose.” He adopted the name after being embraced by the Ghanaian people several years ago. “I go by both names although I have not yet officially added it to my birth name.” He accepts that Africans consider him an outsider. “This requires a healthy dose of humility, especially since I mostly work with educated Africans. However, there is no pretension. Sincerity and reciprocity are paramount.”

He takes great pride in having introduced many students to Africa. “Even for students with no special interest in Africa, it proved to be a powerful cultural experience.” Some of the students returned to Africa on internships. Also some Africans, primarily Ghanaians, came to NCSU to study. However, the work in Africa tended to be more solo than he preferred, and over time, the resources available to pursue opportunities were insufficient. Consequently, Kwesi stepped down from directing the Africana Studies program and again shifted his focus back to psychology and accordingly, to the local community. “I felt like I was starting all over again.” Kwesi is now director of Interdisciplinary Degree Programs in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, with concurrent appointments in Applied Social and Community Psychology and Africana Studies.

As Kwesi shifted his focus from Psychology to Black Studies and back to Psychology, his professional affiliations have ebbed and flowed. SCRA is now again his primary affiliation, with Black Studies and Black Psychology associations (the latter being more clinically oriented) now taking a secondary role. (“I was never trained in Black Studies so had to learn it on my own.”) He is also involved in the Engaged Scholarship Consortium, a higher education association promoting “strong university-community partnerships anchored in the rigor of scholarship and designed to help build community capacity.” With regard to SCRA, he is heartened by the current large number of ethnic minority students and early career graduates, having been one of only a handful of Blacks, especially males, attending SCRA conferences for many years. “SCRA is making tremendous movement toward diversity, due to major recruitment efforts by the larger training program.”

Calling his students his greatest joy, Kwesi’s fundamental approach to teaching and mentoring is his respect for students. “My mentoring model is to find out where a student wants to go and then provide the resources to get there.” He introduces the basic concepts and values of community psychology into all his classes, including those not explicitly in the field. His sincere commitment to mentoring was acknowledged by SCRA in 2007 with the Ethnic Minority Mentor Award as well as outreach and engagement awards from NCSU. Considering his former students to be colleagues and friends, he commits to stay involved with them after they graduate. As an example, in 2011 he co-founded with a former student (and includes other former students as staff) Triangle Research Associates to assist communities (local, national, and international) in reaching their goals.

Now 25 years into his career, he is re-examining his options for the future, “I am aware that my work is often on the margins, both in Psychology and Black Studies. I am constantly fighting to justify by work, which gets tiring.” His most recent research, a 3-year interdisciplinary community engagement program, is coming to an end. The data from this project points to considerable opportunities for the university to further institutionalize its local engagement efforts. Nevertheless, he feels his skills and energy can still be applied to positive ends, in particular, his evolving interest in urban economic development. To that end, he is working to stimulate greater partnering between NCSU and the local community.

“I am an egghead by nature. I love to learn new things. And I see myself as a boundary spanner, a broker between groups.” He is especially intrigued by interdisciplinary work, noting the diversity of definitions across disciplines. For example, a landscape architect is more likely to define the phrase “community-based participation” as an opportunity for community input rather than in psychosocial terms as community decision making. “To work together, collaborators must be clear on the different meanings and perspectives they hold, such as social justice.” Kwesi foresees that he will be narrowing his intellectual path in the future to the general area of engaged scholarship. We’ll watch for his progress along this new path.

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