by Kyle Hucke and Leonard A. Jason, DePaul University and reprinted from The Community Psychologist
During this pandemic almost everyone is asking what can I do? The pain and challenge we face is a dizzying mix of the intensely personal and the dauntingly abstract and societal. The carnage and fear are evident in the prejudice that has been unleashed as when we see a person of Asian descent be accused of causing the epidemic at a supermarket. Then we return to our homes and read the headlines. Thousands have died. Millions have lost their jobs. The fragile safety net for so many has been shredded. For many our sense of community has been shattered when we walk on streets with face masks and people avoid us as if we had the plague, and worse, we do not know if we have been infected because of a lack of testing. Here is a challenge for us all including mental health professionals. Certainly, we can extend services to those in need via telemedicine, but the field of Community Psychology suggests alternative ways of helping. The field was founded on the principles of prevention and social justice. As we all feel the pain of having failed to adequately prevent the harm of the current crisis, we must prepare to seek structural changes that better prepare our society for the next challenge. Changes that ensure a more just society and ameliorate the suffering of millions every day.
Rampant economic and racial inequalities have once again caused disproportionate suffering and death for African Americans and Latinx Americans. Once the virus spreads to low income rural Whites, their death rates will be far higher than their wealthier counterparts in the suburbs and the cities due to similar structural inequalities that leave rural hospital and other infrastructure woefully under-resourced. It does not matter if it is a natural disaster like a hurricane, a pandemic, or a fully man- made financial crisis as in ’08, our society is structured such that during disasters those of low Socio Economic Status (SES) die or suffer severe economic hardship while those at the top profit, and, within SES, communities of color are further devastated by racism. However, while disasters put these disparities on full dramatic display it is the quiet and relentless poisoning effects of poverty, fear of poverty, and racism that cause significant suffering in the USA. We must address the structural shortcomings of our society that the pandemic has once again laid bare.
As a field Community Psychology has identified how structural inequities and lack of resources yield systemic wellbeing disparities (Jason et al., 2019). Our colleagues in other areas of Psychology as well as the fields of Public Health, Sociology, Criminology, Medicine, and Social Work have all reached similar conclusions. We have spent decades creating and evaluating many very well thought out and well- managed programs that have failed to overcome these large structural flaws. For instance, the Gates Foundation spent a great deal of time and money looking for a way to improve student academic outcomes by focusing on teachers, but the results were negative because they did not address the root cause of the students’ challenges: poverty.
We, as a society, have spent decades trying to think our way out of facing a simple truth that many of our social problems are directly caused by or greatly exasperated by lack of money, food, healthcare, and shelter. More than that we are trying to avoid the simple solution; give people these basic needs. Opposition to this idea is many things; political, philosophical, or, at times, driven by fear and hate. It is not scientific, and, despite very clever rhetoric, it is not moral. It is not even fiscally sound as preventative medicine is less expensive than treatment, addiction treatment is less expensive than incarceration, and providing housing for the homeless is less expensive than treating their emergency health needs. It is also not due to scarcity. There are more empty housing units than homeless. Today we have food rotting in the fields or being deliberately destroyed because the pandemic has caused demand to crash, but this practice happens every year to a lesser extent. All while children go hungry. Why? Because of the failings of our economic system that places profit motive over humanitarianism. Farmers destroy crops not because they want to, but because it makes good economic sense. The pandemic just makes that more widespread than ever. Our healthcare system was as unprepared as our business sector to deal with the pandemic because it is part of the business sector and places profit under the guise of “efficiency” over adequate preparedness. It also makes the whole system fragile. We should no longer accept the instability and suffering that the relentless drive for cost cutting and profit maximization has wrought.
The work of second order change is long and multifaceted requiring a combination of efforts in research, advocacy, and direct action. The former Mayor of Chicago, Rham Emmanuel famously said “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Community Psychologists and researchers from related fields have developed a great many ideas that have had scientific, moral, and, in many cases, even fiscal validity. For instance, Oxford House is a self-help housing program that has demonstrated great success in helping people overcome substance abuse through affordable housing and social support (Jason & Ferrari, 2010). Over 20,000 people today live in these democratic houses across the nation, and each is self-supporting and run without any help from professionals. Placing people in a safe community settings that foster the development of social networks of friends and associates who work and are abstinent is of great value for their specific substance use needs, and many of the practices developed by Oxford House to foster a health environment could benefit those who might be most vulnerable to the corona virus.
Yet, the simple and powerful effect of having the basic need of housing cannot be overstated. We do not lack the ability to expand programs like this and many others, just the political will. Here are some of the ways we can help create that political will. First, through our partnerships we have access to a sprawling network of organizations that work directly with the communities most affected by the pandemic. What we can provide is coordination between these networks to craft a common message for letter writing campaigns and, later, collective demonstrations. We can also take on the work of researching the legal and logistical responsibilities to hold demonstrations when the time comes. And when it does our partners will be ready to mobilize. We should join these networks to larger organizing networks already engaged in this process. For instance, The Rising Majority is a diverse coalition of organizations that is continuing to coalesce and build a cohesive movement through shared information, tools, and strategies for fighting for social justice. Likewise, the Poor People’s Campaign had already been planning a significant rally for June of 2020 in Washington D.C. which is now digital due to the pandemic. Both organizations have a commitment to grassroots actions as well as coalition building, and we should embrace both strategies.
In addition, this is an opportunity to identify new potential grassroots leaders. Research by Campbell (1997) suggests that grassroots leaders are driven by passion for justice in their community. The present situation has highlighted many systemic injustices that may have previously been perceived by some soon- to- be grassroots leaders as personal challenges or traumas. For others, this may have been the turning point contemplation to action. The communication networks described above could also reinforce these feeling of collective experience stemming from systemic issues and the sense that the time to act is now. We should be prepared to listen to such leaders when they express their desire for change and action, and we should be prepared to help them find ways to translate that desire into direct action as well as take their advice on what actions will work in their communities.
We have opportunities to speak as experts to present the science in an unbiased fashion with proper scientific caution. As speculative cures and promising results from vaccine tests are presented, we must maintain rigorous discipline to demand adequate evidence before using words like “miracle”. However, it may be time to set clear distinctions between settled science and continued inquiry. It is settled that a comprehensive public health strategy must involve identifying the infected through widespread testing, tracing those who test positive, temporary quarantining of those who test positive. Which test is ideal is not yet clear, nor is how to best implement some of these strategies or how to promote them to the public. Here is where continued study is appropriate. In contrast, the negative effects of poverty and racism on almost every outcome we can measure that matters is settled science. That the contribution of systemic forces and outweighs individual choices and behaviors is settled science. High economic inequality is bad for both individual and social health and that is settled science. Now we must demand the changes that the science justifies.
One final important lesson from the past few weeks that Community Psychologists and activists should take to heart is that the objection “how do we pay for it” is a diversionary tactic. We have never lacked money only the political will to do it. Now is the time to marshal that will. Now we must prepare to bring our networks together as never before and demand an economy that serves the people not the other way around. We must build a society where we value the lives of people we do not know and trust that they will do the same. Universal Basic Income (UBI) has been championed by Martin Luther King Jr. and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang among others and the time to push for it and other changes has come.
Change is occurring, a month ago, we noticed few grocery store employees and customers in Chicago wore masks, but three weeks ago that began to change with about 30% wearing them, and two weeks ago that increase to about 60% and today, it is rare to see anyone without a mask. What a public health victory has been achieved in such a short period of time. At its core this is recognition of our interconnectedness. Our health care heroes are being publicly applauded and praised by homebound citizens appreciative of their efforts. This is or society coming together to recognize that we depend on others and that they deserve our thanks. One neighbor walking outside with a good 6 feet of social distance gives a nod that says, “you might not know me, but I live directly behind you and we are in this together.” Yes, a sense of community can be enriched in even these difficult times. It is important to continue to extend that consciousness to include all members of our community, make the sentiment of connectedness permanent, and have public policy that reflects that sentiment.
Leonard A. Jason is a Community Psychologist and Director of the Center for Community Research at DePaul University. He has spent most of his career working with not-for-profit and community based organizations that focus on substance use and chronic illnesses.
Kyle Hucke is a Developmental Psychologist, former project director at the Center for Community Research at DePaul University, and worked in Louisiana doing community interventions and public health prior to moving to Chicago. His interest is in reducing health and economic inequities and promoting positive youth development
Campbell, D. (1997). Community-controlled economic development as a strategic vision for the sustainable agriculture movement. American journal of alternative agriculture, 12(1), 37-44.
Jason, L. A., & Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Oxford house recovery homes: Characteristics and effectiveness. Psychological services, 7(2), 92.
Jason, L. A., Glantsman, O., O’Brien, J. F., & Ramian, K. N. (2019). Introduction to the field of Community Psychology. Introduction to Community Psychology.