Living Community Psychology-Louis Brown

Photograph of Louis Brown

For this installment, we feature Louis Brown of El Paso, Texas. Louis’ original focus, starting in graduate school, was on mental health self-help consumer groups, but his eventual move to a heavily Latino population on the U.S.-Mexico border and to a school of public health, have led to a broadened perspective, to multiple health-related issues, combining applied research and practice, and with a primarily Latino population.

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.

Louis was raised in Silver Spring, MD, a close-in suburb of Washington, DC. His father was a PhD physicist for the Naval Surface Warfare Center, and his mother, who holds a master’s degree in regional and community planning, was an editor in the marketing field. His sister, four years older, obtained her MA degree in history and, after teaching high school history a few years, is raising her two children full time. His father died of complications in surgery a few years ago, but his mother, now retired, is an active volunteer in her Maryland community.

Louis was a solid high school student, enrolled in Advanced Placement courses and encouraged by his education-conscious family to go on to college. But his real passion in high school was always running; he competed in track and cross country, which taught him the value of persistence. He sought to attend a large, state university as an undergraduate; he chose the University of Michigan (UM) after visiting the campus and observing the many activities available in Ann Arbor. He originally declared a double major in psychology and computer science, his favorite courses in high school. He later dropped his computer science major because it did not mesh with his growing interest in social justice, which was spawned while studying John Rawls theory of justice. Dropping computer science as a major was secondarily prompted by the unappealing prospect of staring at a computer screen all day. “I wouldn’t have the same job satisfaction if I were cooped up behind a computer screen all day.” He switched to a single major in psychology.

Along the way, he developed another passion in life – still photography – which he pursued as Photo Editor on the staff of the Michigan Daily, UM’s prestigious, 128-year old student-run newspaper. He envisaged a photojournalism career and won two competitive summer internships at city newspapers. He was attracted by the prospect of publishing in-depth photojournalism stories, using several photos to accompany text about a topic of social concern. In this way, he would combine his photography passion with his newly-discovered interest in social justice. He admits to having been “a terrible writer” as an undergraduate so his story-telling contribution would be strictly photographic. Eventually, he faced the hard truth that there were few publication outlets (and thus, little space) for the kind of social justice story-telling that he wanted to create and, thus, limited opportunities for earning a living.

Having scratched off computer science and photojournalism as potential careers, he turned to psychology. Like so many undergraduates, his view of a psychology career was narrowly defined as clinical psychology. However, he was steered to community psychology (“a better fit for me”) through independent study with UM professor Lorraine Gutierrez and joined her work in Detroit with Latino youth. Among his contributions, he assisted an inner-city youth group in producing a student newspaper.

He applied to several Community Psychology graduate programs for 2001 entry but received many rejections (“a theme throughout my career.”) In retrospect, he attributes his rejections to a mediocre GPA score and an unusual set of interests that did not align with faculty interests. Nevertheless, he was fortuitously accepted at Wichita State University where he latched onto the Self-Help Network, which later became the Community Engagement Institute. While there, he worked almost exclusively with mental health consumer-run organizations for his four years of graduate school. His WSU mentor, Greg Meissen, provided funding for tuition and a small stipend throughout. “It was a great experience. Everyone was very supportive, and I had space there to pursue my interests,” he remembers. During graduate school, he won several awards, including best WSU doctoral student and best dissertation (an ethnographic study that employed his photographic skills). Louis was able to obtain his PhD in four years by remaining laser-focused on the topic of mental health self-help. Along the way, he moved from a treatment to a prevention orientation, but with social justice as the consistent theme.

A central criterion for choosing among career opportunities was the concept of academic freedom, in the sense of his wanting ample latitude to choose the work he wanted to pursue. Still young, however, he had to be practical and realistic, acknowledging that his choice of research topics would be dependent on his ability to obtain funding to support that work. Louis decided to begin his career on an academic track, reasoning that if he decided to make a mid-career switch, it would be easier to move from rather than to academia. He pursued academic jobs (without success) as well as the limited number of available post-docs. Narrowing his choice was his desire to return to the Washington, DC area to reconnect with family and friends. He was accepted for a post doc in prevention science at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, with supervisor Nicholas Ialongo, Ph.D. This turned out to be “a fantastic fit,” working in inner city Baltimore schools on a broad array of prevention-oriented issues, such as youth violence. Although his doctoral training had provided a solid research grounding, he admits that his rush through graduate school had not sufficiently prepared him to launch a career as an independent researcher. The postdoc gave him space to pursue social justice issues while strengthening his methodological, especially statistical, skills. His writing skills were honed through preparing a number of manuscripts that resulted in publication.

After his postdoc job, he accepted a research associate position at the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University (PSU), working with community coalitions. “The ongoing work of my colleagues was of enough interest to me that I did not feel compelled, at the beginning, to develop my own projects.” After two years, however, he was warned that his soft funding might soon end, so he directed his energies to finding a more permanent, tenured research position elsewhere. When applying for his first postdoc job, he had cast a wide net, looking at both academic and applied jobs. For his post PSU job search, he targeted only tenure-track research positions but considered multiple disciplines, when at all relevant. Louis perused weekly job listings scrupulously but found few for Community Psychology. He reasoned that public health (along with social work) were the most amenable to his interests in preventive community intervention research. “I consider public health equivalent to the Community Psychology of medicine.” He found his interviewers in public health programs to be, “to varying degrees, aware of Community Psychology” and respecting its main publication, The American Journal of Community Psychology, in which he had already published.

Louis knew that his publication record would be appealing to the job market. “I had published steadily, in respected and diverse journals, with a number of first-authorships.” But of even greater utility in the job market was his having been awarded an NIH R03 grant ($74,000), which was aimed at preventing drug abuse among youth. “As soon as I got that grant, all of a sudden I got waaaay more interviews because my grant showed that I was a promising prospect for future funding.” Employers were seeking a good researcher, but especially one with high potential for bringing in external funds, to cover salaries plus indirect costs. “In most places,” he reckons, “an R01 grant would almost certainly guarantee obtaining tenure.”

His job search for a tenured academic position was a whirlwind, with four interviews conducted within a month. One advertisement was generic, recruiting for 10 positions across the six University of Texas School of Public Health campuses. His first offer was from the El Paso campus. Unwilling to take a risk, he quickly accepted that offer, before having heard from the others. He admits to having had to consult a map to locate El Paso (on the Rio Grande River’s border with Mexico) and was surprised at the city’s geographic isolation, hundreds of miles from the nearest cities. Nevertheless, El Paso is a mid-sized city (population approximately 700,000) that offers a rich (bi)cultural setting with a low cost of living. Contrary to current scare-mongering about the U.S./Mexico border, El Paso is consistently ranked at the top of the list of the safest cities in the U.S. “I never regretted my decision. I was happy with UTHealth’s offer and remain happy here.”

Yet again, upon arrival (2010), he found his community-based research interests were an excellent fit with the ongoing work in UTHealth’s Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, which has a strong applied orientation. The program’s focus on health disparities within an overwhelmingly Latino population offered a new and exciting challenge to Louis. He launched himself into the community by collaborating with colleagues who were already well-integrated in the community. A number of his longest-lasting activities developed from his earliest collaborations with his UTHealth colleague, Héctor Balcázar.

Louis’ social integration in the El Paso community included joining a running club where he met his now-wife, Perla Retana. A double BA graduate of UTEP, she is finishing her physician assistant degree in Phoenix, AZ. Although she was able to do clinical rotations in El Paso, about 60% of the time she has been located in Phoenix. The geographic separation between Louis and Perla has necessitated considerable travel by both of them, between the two cities. This was considerably complicated by the birth of their son, Mateo, now 5 years old, “an active and adorable guy.” Perla’s mother has been a great help in raising Mateo.

The addition of Mateo to the family led Louis to make an early request for a one-year extension (to the normal seven-year) “tenure clock.” He is submitting his material now, for an expected vote in January 2019. The reward system in his program prioritizes research productivity – especially in attracting grants. He has served as the principal investigator of 14 grants totaling almost $1.7 million and as co-investigator on grants amounting to over $15 million. He has reviewed for 20 different journals.

Louis has a strong record in awards, especially within SCRA. He won SCRA’s 2008 Cowen award for his doctoral dissertation; the 2012 Early Career award; third prize in the 2003 video competition; and, in 2018, was elected a Fellow by SCRA. In addition, he has been awarded for “making the difference” by the Border Public Health Interest Group and for excellence in public health by UT’s Health School for integrating research and practice. Also of interest to the tenure committee is teaching. “Our program takes teaching seriously, including student evaluations.” Although he did not teach his first year at UTHealth, he now teaches an MPH core course in health promotion and a “Community Psychology-like” course in community health promotion. He incorporates into both a broad range of content including behavioral change theory, social networks, health disparities, policy change, etc. – all topics he would be teaching if he were community psychology faculty. Almost 70% of the students he mentors are Latino or African American.

Louis has been a member of SCRA since early in graduate school (2002) and considers it his primary professional organization. The first SCRA conference he attended was the 2003 biennial held in New Mexico, where he participated in a symposium panel and presented two posters. His primary affiliation within SCRA is with the self-help and mutual support interest group which he chaired, 2008-2013. He has been a member of several other academic societies for short time periods, but the one with which he has stuck (since 2006) and been active is the Society for Prevention Research (SPR). He recently attended the annual conference of and joined the American Public Health Association. “APHA is a natural fit with Community Psychology, with its applied and population-level foci.” Whereas SCRA holds a biennial conference, SPR and APHA conferences are held annually.

Because of his prodigious curiosity, Louis often finds himself pulled in many different directions, fielding multiple enticing opportunities. He assuages himself by reasoning that, with each new issue he works on, he is addressing different audiences while remaining focused on social justice. Among his primary research foci are: community coalitions and partnerships; self-help and mutual support; parenting; mental health; and Hispanic health.

In emphasizing preventive community interventions, a broad area, Louis sometimes struggles to balance opportunities with the need to remain focused. “Some opportunities fall into my lap and funding is hard to come by, but I try not to spread myself too thin.” He differentiates two main streams of work he conducts as “Whereas my work with community coalitions focuses on community change, my work with self-help support groups is focused on personal change. However, both are types of empowering volunteer-driven small group collaborations.”

Louis is increasingly pulled to advocating for policy change and community organization and aims to gain more skills in those areas. He is involved, as a citizen volunteer, in several El Paso community coalitions. In particular, he actively advocated for the successful passage of legislation by the City and the County of El Paso that would regulate e-cigarettes like other tobacco products and make parks smoke-free.

And living close to the US/Mexico border, he has a close-up view of the impact of the current effort to demonize immigration. El Paso has a long history of acceptance for both documented and undocumented immigrants. The city’s ties to Mexico are strong; the old timers miss the days when crossing was easier and rates of violence across the border in Ciudad Juárez were low. Juárez has a population of 1.5 million, and the sister cities constitute the second largest binational municipality on the U.S.’ southern border (second only to San Diego/Tijuana).

The children of El Paso immigrants often move on to larger cities in the region, while the older generations remain in El Paso. However, El Paso is characterized by especially strong connectedness within the large networks of extended families – a natural laboratory for health-focused preventive interventions. In addition, Louis is currently testing a technical assistance model, called the Coalition Check-Up, with 20 substance use prevention coalitions in Mexico.

When asked what his main contribution to community psychology is likely to be, Louis offered the hope that he will have substantially impacted our knowledge about the nature of community-based, health-related, preventive interventions. In so doing, he hopes to foster and highlight the ability of diverse community groups to work together effectively.

Louis reflected on his life, both personal and professional, acknowledging: “My path may seem linear, mainly because that is how my brain works. However, this should not be mistaken as meaning that my life has been easy or without ups and downs. Because I have had my share of disappointments – rejections related to training, jobs, grants and publications. Persistence in the face of rejection is really important to succeed in our field. However, overall, it’s been a great ride to date.”

Louis D. Brown, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)
School of Public Health in El Paso
Louis.D.Brown@uth.tmc.edu

Written by Gloria Levin. For questions or comments on this column, you can contact Gloria Levin at glorialevin@verizon.net.

Re-printed from The Community Psychologist Vol 54 (4) Fall 2018

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