This installment features Kyrah K. Brown, an early career community psychologist who has always been an activist in her communities — a perfect fit for Community Psychology. Although she struggled at finding a position after earning her doctorate, she eventually landed a challenging and rewarding position in the nonprofit world. Her story is instructive for the many recent Ph.D.’s who are caught in the Catch 22 of applying for an entry level professional job but expected to already have considerable prior professional experience and accomplishments.
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 http://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/tcp-past-issues.
The name “Kyrah,” meaning “sweet” in Swahili, was found by her parents in a naming book; they added as her middle name – Kenyaa: the country of Kenya with an added “a.” Both her parents are educators in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her mother (Ruby) is a school teacher, and her father (Ron, who long worked with at-risk youth) now substitute teaches. However, his real claim to fame in Little Rock is that, for over 25 years, he has been a reggae music promoter and disk jockey, professionally known as Ras Levi. For example, he founded and has long run an annual One Love Bob Marley festival in the city.
Kyrah and her (younger) sister, Anikae, were raised in Little Rock’s small town environment where everyone knows everyone. Bisected by the Arkansas River, there is Little Rock (home of Central High School, famous from civil rights history) and North Little Rock. The Browns lived a short walk from North Little Rock High School. Both girls were good students and active in school clubs. Kyrah was in the school band and was also involved in student government. During high school, however, she began observing disparate injustices in the racially mixed but majority African-American school. For example, she noticed that entrance into the gifted and talented program favored White students, and counselors tended to steer African-American students to community college or to the military rather than to four year colleges, reflecting lower expectations for students of color. Also she became more sensitized to racial issues as she observed differential treatment of the races during and after Hurricane Katrina’s disruptions in the Gulf area of the southern U.S.
Kyrah was determined to attend an historically Black college out of state; her sister remained in Arkansas for college. Kyrah chose the all-female and highly regarded Spelman College in Atlanta. “This was a great decision. I attended college among women like me but also learned about the diversity of Black women across the Diaspora. In addition, many international students attended Spelman, so I joined an international sisterhood of Spelman women.” Spelman provides a safety net for its students while urging them to go out and change the world. She was very successful at Spelman, making Dean’s List and winning several awards for scholarship and civic engagement.
Having participated in high school debate competitions and loving courtroom dramas on TV, Kyrah originally wanted to be an attorney. However, a freshman college course redirected her to a Psychology major. “I just knew Psychology was for me because I was interested in people’s behavior.” (Interestingly, Anikae also majored in Psychology.) But it was not until her senior year, when she enrolled in a Morehouse College course taught by Dr. Sinead Younge, that she discovered Community Psychology. “The timing was perfect because I was just then applying for graduate school but until that time, my psychology interests were general. I just knew I did not want to be a therapist.” Her students accompanied Dr. Younge into the community to work with young men in Fulton County, GA, designing and evaluating interventions. “This was my ahha experience, just right for me,” Kyrah recalls.
Dr. Younge also encouraged students to join the Society for Community Research and Action which turned out to be a pivotal opportunity for Kyrah. After reviewing SCRA’s listserv and website, Kyrah decided to join the Community Psychology Practice Council (CPPC), starting with her participation on the Council’s monthly conference calls. Seeing that CPPC warmly welcomed student participation, she dove in by volunteering for tasks, not at all intimidated at collaborating with luminaries in the field despite being an undergraduate. “Spelman encourages its students to align themselves with a profession, as soon as they choose one.” She admits that she started out not knowing what she should be doing, but she just followed the lead of fellow CPPC volunteers, both senior members and graduate students. Among these leaders was Greg Meissen, a faculty member at Wichita State University in Kansas and co-founder of CPPC. “I had never set foot in Kansas before. But I learned that WSU strongly encouraged community activism, and I learned that Dr. Rhonda Lewis’ team worked on the kinds of development programs for youth of color that mirrored my experience with Dr. Younge.”
Although she applied to several doctoral programs, she chose WSU for the opportunity to work with Dr. Lewis but also because Dr. Lewis’ grants would cover a large portion of her graduate student expenses. At the time, her parents were “on the hook” as signees for her college loans so she did not want to incur more debt. (Toward the end of graduate school, she took out a new loan to pay off her college loans.)
WSU graduate students (and fellow CPPC members) Sharon Hakim-Johnson and Ashlee Lien were her support network at first, helping her find housing and adjusting to school and the community. Nonetheless, she experienced culture shock since Wichita has a small (under 10%) African-American community, which was unlike her earlier experiences within majority African-American communities. On the other hand, Wichita was like Little Rock in that “everyone knew everyone, with only TWO degrees of separation.” The process of fitting in took a while, but was facilitated by Dr. Lewis introducing her all around the community.
Kyrah’s involvement with CPPC continued as a graduate student, as was encouraged by WSU’s faculty. (Since the founding of CPPC, WSU graduate students have been among its most devoted members, taking on work responsibilities and leadership.) Students participated by speaker phone in the monthly telephone calls as a group, typically in Greg’s office, with Greg providing ongoing orientation and commentary. “And Dr. Lewis openly encouraged, even incentivized, our participation in CPPC.” Also helpful was Dr. Lewis’ assistance in setting up a detailed individualized plan that would lead to Kyrah’s completion of her Ph.D. within 4 years. When she, influenced by the peers in her cohort, tried to convince Dr. Lewisthat she aimed for an academic career, Dr. Lewis was skeptical, saying knowingly to the born activist: “we’ll see.”
Wichita is a family-centered city. So, like most graduate students who are transplants to a new town, Kyrah’s social life in Wichita revolved around her classmates, staging potluck dinners, etc. However, she also socialized with the local African-American community, attending their dances, balls, NAACP events, etc. One outlet for her creativity and energy during her stay in Wichita was the Ubuntu Village School in Wichita, for which she served as teacher (“oloku” in Yoruba) and Program Evaluation Specialist. UVS’ team provides enriching, culturally appropriate education to families and students in kindergarten through eighth grade. She acquired a small grant from SCRA to evaluate a UVS program to empower African-American boys.
Kyrah has always had a special place in her heart for maternal and child health issues – in reaction to the stillborn death of her brother, Baby Isaac, who she says is “very much a part of our family.” Combining her interests in developmental issues, health and populations of color, Kyrah’s doctoral dissertation was a research study of African-American mothers who had experienced a fetal-infant death. On track to receive her Ph.D. in 4 years (mid 2014), Kyrah began planning for life after graduation, representing “a fork in the road” for her. Applying for a wide variety of post-PhD. jobs, “I developed scar tissue along the way.” (By this time, her preference was for a job as close to Dallas as possible, having had, since college, a long-distance romantic relationship with Carl McCullough, a Little Rock native who had relocated to Dallas.) After a number of interviews and formal presentations made, she began to notice that the jobs for which she had applied were being offered to in-house candidates or – the curse of early careers – employers wanted more years of experience and/or a successful record of acquiring grants.
Having run out of options, she created – with substantial help from WSU classmate J’Vonnah Merryman who simultaneously directed a program at the local public health department – a two-year postdoctoral program in Wichita. Two more years living apart from Carl. Her research mentor was a physician/department chair at the University of Kansas Medical School at Wichita. There, among other duties, Kyrah directed grant-funded projects focused on maternal and child health; taught a competency-based training program for the public health workforce; and provided agencywide consultation and capacity building to staff in research and evaluation.
After completing her postdoc training, she resumed her job search, this time widening her scope to anyplace in Texas, be it academia or practice. “I tried every possible approach.” To the rescue came SCRA and CPPC member Susan Wolfe of Dallas, who forwarded job announcements to Kyrah. Susan had recently left her private consulting practice for a fulltime position as Senior Consultant at CNM Connect, a nonprofit management firm that assists and educates communitybased nonprofit organizations, mostly in north Texas. Susan thought a position might soon open at CNM, so in June, 2016, Kyrah took the risky step of leaving Kansas for Texas, without any job offer in hand. Fortunately, but only after enduring three rigorous interviews, CNM offered Kyrah a position, entitled Outcomes, Evaluation and Technology Consultant. Whoosh!
Overall, in her position, Kyrah is responsible for increasing evaluation capacity among the company’s clients, primarily nonprofits, as well as assisting these clients in designing their studies, instruments, proposals, etc. and analyzing data. Part of her time is devoted to developing and facilitating seminars and workshops, either designed for a single client organization or for groups of clients.
CNM thoughtfully eased her into the new job, starting her off with a small client load of just two (low maintenance) clients. Over the ensuing months, more clients were added. Fortunately, CNM consultants are not responsible for generating new business. Instead, another staff member is charged with marketing the company’s services. Although the topical areas covered by her clients are broad – broader than her earlier concentration on maternal and child health – she likes the intensity of the job, finds the nature of the work is the same and occasionally gets to work on MCH issues — “enough to satisfy me.”
Although Kyrah feels her prior training substantially equipped her for this job, there were a few gaps in her training that she has had to self-learn. For one, she is learning SAS (e.g., SAS Office Analytics and SAS Visual Analytics), a skill she had not acquired in her graduating training. She also has had to get used to tracking her hours, in real time. “Although I am on salary and had prior experience in developing research budgets, I’m expected to calculate the number of hours I devote to each client and project. That is, I have to continually quantify my time and my value, something new to me.” She tailored an Excel spread sheet for this purpose and disciplines herself to keep track of her time in the moment, rather than trying to remember how her time had been used a week after the fact.
Tracking and valuing her time is one example of the difference from an academic job. Another is having to make a compelling case for participating in outside professional activities (such as conferences, committee work, etc.) during work time. “I have to ask permission to accept a professional invitation, not only explaining the time this would require but also having to make the case as to how the activity would benefit my employer, that is, what amount of business will be generated for the employer. Academics have the luxury of considering how the activity will benefit their own professional development, with less concern for the benefits accruing to the university.”
Kyrah lives in Grand Prairie, TX, a 25-minute commute to either of two CNM offices. She estimates that her field work consumes half her time, primarily consulting with clients. She participates in teaching CNM’s 6-week Outcomes-Based Program Evaluation Certificate Program and in an intensive Outcomes-Based Evaluation Institute, as well as providing followup coaching. She also conducts “interest meetings” with prospective clients. Back at her Ft. Worth office, she identifies or develops evaluation tools and measures, analyzes data and prepares reports, working closely with CNM’s data specialist on her clients’ behalf.
Susan Wolfe is highly complimentary of Kyrah’s contributions, saying “We at CNM feel lucky to have found Kyrah. Not only because her training and experience have prepared her so well for CNM’s work content but also because her work ethic and collaborative nature fit into our organizational culture very well. And we get a lot of positive feedback about her from our clients.”
Kyrah is attempting to curb her workaholic tendencies after hours, trying to do a better job of separating work from home. “Carl plays a big role in this effort. After a few hours of working without any interference from him, he’ll suggest that I ‘find a stopping point’ or ‘begin to wrap up.’ He provides me discipline; otherwise, if left on my own, I could easily work through the night.”
Kyrah does not lack for nonwork interests to pursue, mainly in the arts. She played clarinet and saxophone in high school and college, including for Morehouse College’s House of Funk Marching band. She also has written poetry since she was a young girl. She was editor in chief of Spelman’s oldest literary journal and also was in a slam poetry group that performed around Atlanta, geared to addressing social inequities through music and spoken word. In Wichita, she often taught poetry and music to her Ubuntu Village School students. In her spare time, she writes and reads her poetry at local open mics and occasionally teaches poetry to K-8th graders.
One outside activity she intends to pursue with Carl is travel. In addition to being a music producer and videographer, Carl works in customer service for an airline. This entitles him (and a companion, aka Kyrah) to take advantage of deeply discounted air travel. Jointly learning languages via Duolingo, a free online program, they recently practiced their rudimentary Spanish on a brief trip to Panama. Beginning to learn Swahili, their future travel plans could take them farther afield, to Africa.
Kyrah recently completed her two-year term as co-chair of CPPC in which, among other improvements, she worked with the leadership team to enrich the welcoming and orientation of new entrants to the field. “I have appreciated the relationships I made within SCRA. As I advance professionally, I also am interested in becoming involved in other organizations, such as the American Evaluation Association which directly align with my work and practice.” For now, she is reading AEA’s blogs and participating in their webinars. “I am thinking seriously about how to best invest my time and get the best returns for professional membership.”
Article by Gloria Levin