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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 52   Number 1 Winter 2019

The Community Practitioner

Edited by Nicole Freund, Wichita State University Community Engagement Institute Center for Applied Research and Evaluation

Community Psychology in the Cloud: How One CP Practitioner Uses the Practice Competencies to Work in Everyone’s Community

Written by Nicole Freund, Wichita State University with Jessica Drum, Facebook

Dr. Jessica Drum took what might be considered by some as a non-traditional road when she graduated from Wichita State University’s Community Psychology Doctoral Program in 2016, but it has been an extraordinary opportunity to use community psychology practice and principles on a stage that can hardly get any larger: Facebook. Facebook is simultaneously no one’s community and everyone’s community, and that platform has given Dr. Drum a unique opening to empower its users and bring otherwise unheard voices to the eyes and ears of decision-makers.

“My favorite part of my work is knowing that every study I do will impact people. [. . .] More than two billion people use Facebook and it plays such a huge role in people's lives and in so many different ways. My role as a researcher is to bring their voices to the table so that we ensure we are meeting their needs and addressing their concerns, so we can build a better platform.”

The following interview allows Dr. Drum to tell readers in her own words the role community psychology plays in her practice work as she strives to make this virtual “every community” the best it can be for its users.

 

Jessica_Drum.jpgNicole Freund (NF): How would you describe your work at FB?

Jessica Drum (JD): I work as a lead user experience researcher at Facebook. I work on the Product Foundation Team within the Facebook App organization. My job is to understand the holistic app experience. So, while many teams focus in on the use of a specific feature within Facebook, such as Groups, Stories, Events, etc., we know that people don't think of Facebook in these isolated ways; therefore, it’s important to understand how the experience looks and feels holistically. Much of my focus has been on how we organize the hierarchy of the app to ensure people can navigate to the things that are most important to them. I recently wrote an article on the Facebook Research medium blog about many of the methods I used to understand this. (To read Dr. Drum’s blog, visit: https://medium.com/facebook-research/research-finds-a-way-a97120f40ff1).

NF: FB is the largest virtual community in the world. How does CP inform your work similarly to and how differently from the way it might inform work in more local non-virtual communities?

JD: Community Psychology is so engrained into the way that I think that I would say it informs everything I do. One major way is how I must approach my research from an ecological perspective and consider the many diverse backgrounds that are a part of our community. People from all different walks of life, during all different stages of their lives use Facebook; and they use Facebook under many different conditions, on many different types of devices, for many different use cases, with variable access to data or wireless internet access. With that being said, how does one create a solution for a community while taking into consideration all of these different variables? It's important when tackling a problem to understand which of those variables are most important for consideration and why. I think considering the various levels of experiences and situations has always been part of what community psychologists do, including within local non-virtual communities, but the scale in which I must think about these things is much broader at Facebook.

NF: What CP Practice Competencies do you use most and how?

JD: I already mentioned ecological perspectives is a big one, but program evaluation is another huge part of what I do. Every week, I'm having conversations about how we can measure the impact of something we build. Imagine, we've built a new feature in Facebook that we think people will find valuable. Historically in tech, we might say: “Okay let's look at the data of what percent of people click on this thing.” But, Facebook’s thinking on this has evolved. Clicking on something doesn't necessarily mean that a person finds value in it. Maybe a person accidentally clicked on it because it’s in the middle of the screen where they typically rest their thumb. Maybe they clicked on it because it had a red badge on it, and they just wanted to get rid of it. In addition, not clicking on something doesn't mean a person doesn't find it valuable. Maybe nobody is clicking it, but people feel safer on Facebook knowing that they have the ability to click on the feature if and when they want to. These things we don't know by just looking at click through rates. This is where research and program evaluation come in. What is the specific value that the feature we are building is supposed to provide to our community, and how do we measure that it’s actually doing this?

NF: What's the biggest surprise/challenge you've encountered practicing CP in a non-academic setting?

JD: Teaching people who come from very different backgrounds (i.e design, engineering, etc.) about research theories is actually really, really hard. When you're in academia everyone thinks about theory. Especially in an applied community psychology program, the links between theory and program development are quite easy to understand. This is not the case in a non-academic setting and it's super important to be able to summarize and translate theory in a way that makes sense to people who don't come from that background. I can recall when I first came to Facebook presenting on a really complicated public health theory to my new team. The feedback I got afterwards was: “I think I understand what this means, but the links of what we should do about this are not super clear. Can you 'Facebook-ify' this a bit?” I took a step back, simplified the theory, rebranded it with terms that people at the company were more familiar with (i.e Facebook-ified it) and my colleagues understood it much more easily. Making research theory digestible for a non-academic audience is much more challenging than I had expected.

NF: What advice do you have for CP students about pursuing CP practice work (especially those who may not pursue a PhD)?

JD: For all practice research that you design, consider these three questions:

  • What is the research question?
  • Why is it important to answer?
  • What will happen when you get the answer?

If you don't feel confident in your answers to those three questions, the study you're thinking about may not be the right one to pursue. You may be either asking the wrong research question or be designing the study in a way that won't lead to actual impact.

 

There is a lot in Dr. Drum’s reactions to these questions that will likely resonate with many community psychology practitioners: translating theories to parties unfamiliar with their application, contextualizing the reasons for investigating an outcome, working through multiple levels of ecological context to reveal problems and solutions. The work that Dr. Drum does for participants in this virtual community is really just a technical deviation from more localized community work; the process is similar in many respects. Given the power of Facebook in the lives of so many people, ensuring everyone has equal ability to use it for their needs is an enormous and evolving endeavor that should be informed by as many community psychologists as possible. It is certainly a path to practicing community psychology that perhaps many students would not automatically think to work towards, but as the US and other places around the world become more dependent on technology, it is a path where practicing CP is increasingly important. “I think all community psychologists are idealistic,” said Drum. “We all do what we do because we want to be able to empower people, help people, and positively impact the world. I just can't think of a better place to work where I get the opportunity to do this.”

 

NOTE: Since this interview, Dr. Drum was promoted to a managerial role and now leads a team of researchers doing work similar to that described here.

Practicing Hope and Healing

Edited by Nicole Freund, Wichita State University and Katie Ramian, DePaul University

Written by Olya Glantsman, DePaul University

On September 20th, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the US island of Puerto Rico. Watching the compounding difficulties over the course of that fall, a team of Andrews University students and staff decided they would spend their 11-day spring break in Puerto Rico, trying to help communities recover. This particular group knew their professor and colleague, Dr. Melissa Ponce-Rodas, has family on the island and it motivated a desire to make a difference in a substantial way. The form this motivation took was to develop an intervention and plan a mission trip, aiming to promote empowerment, hope, and healing across a community traumatized by natural disaster.

The goals of a mission trip are always ones that include collaboration and assistance to those in need. By their nature, mission trips are community interventions that utilize community psychology practice competencies to encourage lasting change despite limited exposure to intervention. The group led by Dr. Ponce-Rodas was also relying on the perspective, knowledge, and accumulated expertise of several different academic disciplines. The 20-member group consisted of four faculty members, one alumna, 13 students, and two other staff members from Andrews with backgrounds in undergraduate and graduate psychology, community and international development, and social work. This diversity of perspectives and approaches to helping people created a collaborative and talented dynamic that the team hoped would be effective in empowering those they sought to help. The ultimate goal of the mission was to “Accept, Talk, Heal,” providing mental health trainings in churches and communities to give those affected by the disaster the tools they needed to help them through the trauma of the aftereffect of the hurricane and to help them recover beyond the physical reconstruction of their community. This intervention was about more than cleaning up debris or restoring a school. It was about empowering a community to overcome trauma.

As in any Community Psychology (CP) intervention, an essential component to community action is getting to know the communities with whom the team would be working and understanding what is important to them. To do this, the Andrews team contacted local church agencies and simply asked about their experiences and what was truly needed. This process of inquiry resulted in another group of people with expertise in the community to be invited into the collaborative process. The local collaborators included social workers, police officers, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), staff from the four schools, church groups, and others, people who were directly affected by the natural disaster. Once they began the intervention, the Andrews team was quickly accepted and trusted by the community. Dr. Ponce-Rodas believes one contributor to this is her Puerto Rican heritage that helped bridge the intervention team to the community and facilitate connections between community members and those from the mainland.

Beyond Individualistic Approach

Helping people deal with and overcome trauma often includes individual psychotherapy, and that professional assistance to those who need it is essential. However, the large-scale nature of natural disasters impedes an individual approach to healing. Each and every person on the island was impacted in one way or another. It was for this reason, Dr. Ponce-Rodas drew on her Community Psychology training to ensure the mission trip had a larger than individualistic approach and focus. One of the many reasons the team chose to partner with existing agencies on the island was so there would be more structural awareness, in addition to target multiple ecological systems. According to Dr. Ponce-Rodas, from a Community Psychology standpoint, one needs the ecology driving it and to have a beyond individual perspective, because there is no other way you can get 20 people, most of them students, to reach over a thousand people in 10 days.

Working with pre-existing groups, the team sought to break the stigma associated with mental health for the local community. Many of the community members had experienced, and continue to experience, symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder. One way the intervention worked was by normalizing the emotional reactions affected individuals were experiencing: (1) this is what everyone goes through and (2) even those who, themselves, are involved in helping others may need help. It is a normal reaction when faced with adversity to seek help from others. One interesting insight the team found was that it was easier to break the stigma of seeking help when approached in a larger group. Dr. Ponce-Rodas adamantly reminded the community members participating in the intervention that the whole community was going through this and no one should feel isolated in their experience. The Andrews team emphasized this with the “Healing is a Process slogan, capturing the dynamic and public nature of this concept. The message behind the slogan was that while the healing process is variable among individuals and takes time, the process is one that happens with others and sometimes requires the help of professionals.

The Andrews team prioritized realistic and truthful assessments of what the community could expect. They reiterated that people, as well as the community, would not get back exactly what was lost during the hurricane. To combat the loss and progress toward normalizing the emotions associated with that loss, the team urged community participants to turn to the strengths the community still has. One very common action throughout this community, in part due to the collectivistic nature of Puerto Rican culture, is a habit of regularly walking over to one’s neighbor to socially engage. This action specifically was used as an asset in moving the community toward normalizing emotional states. Rather than simply asking a neighbor “How are you doing?” the team recommended going further and including questions like: “Emotionally, how have you been feeling since the hurricane?”

Resilience

A strength-based approach fit this intervention well. The many stories of resilience in the wake of such massive destruction highlighted the power and strength in not only the community the Andrews team visited, but also across Puerto Rico. The message across the island was Puerto Rico Se Levanta (Puerto Rico Will Rise). This was evidenced in many ways, whether it was using the last drop of gas to help remove a tree from the road or working 12 to 18-hour shifts rescuing others across the island. During the trip, the team encountered many stories of faith. The team purposefully used biblical stories about Noah’s flood and about characters who were depressed to help those with a faith background to identify with the characters. Those who had a faith background were encouraged to use it and help others. The team firmly believed that the best way the community could get help was by helping themselves, so each session/meeting ended with the words: “Take care of yourself, take care of each other, take care of your family, take care of your community.” Another example of resilience was when the team spent a day at one of the schools located in Vieques, an island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico: the teachers were powering the copy machine using a car battery to make handouts for the students. This disaster brought people together in a literal sense (since many lost housing they were living together) and figuratively, making them creative in how they were rebuilding and solving everyday needs.

Lessons Learned

By the end of this mission trip, over one-thousand individuals were directly reached. Thousands of others were indirectly reached through word of mouth, as well as through the group’s participation in live community events and radio shows. The only way this trip came together was through collaboration and networking. Without these competencies, it would not have been as far-reaching. The impact goes beyond those reached in Puerto Rico. Many students on the team stated that this first-hand experience changed their career plans, or how they see themselves working with people in the future. In Dr. Ponce-Rodas’s words: “There is no better classroom than real life.” The practice of community psychology changes lives. Throughout the trip, the group kept hearing the same question from the community members: "When are you coming back?" Excitingly, the team is already planning a return trip.  

The driving force behind the trip was Dr. Melissa Ponce-Rodas. Dr. Ponce-Rodas is a native of Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from Yale University, in 2001, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and in 2006 with a master's degree in Psychology from The University of Illinois at Chicago. Melissa earned her PhD in Psychology in 2015 from the University of Illinois at Chicago, focusing on the ways in which religion and spirituality impact people’s beliefs and behaviors.