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Psychologists and community activists from across the world attended the Biennial Conference of the Society for Community Research and Action held in downtown Lowell. Photo by Tory Germann.
July 1, 2015

Psychologists build and support communities


  • Lowell
Conference draws more than 650 to UMass Lowell campus.

More than 650 community social psychologists recently converged in Lowell to celebrate the first 50 years of their discipline and plan for its future.

The graduate program in community social psychology hosted the 2015 Biennial Conference of the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA), attracting the conference’s largest group ever from across the U.S. as well as from Canada, Australia, Chile, Italy, England, Egypt and beyond. It was the first time the university hosted the conference. 

Assoc. Prof. Andrew Hostetler, who is also the co-director of the Center for Community Research and Engagement and was the conference planning committee chair, said the biennial was an opportunity to “document and honor” the field’s past achievements while considering “what community psychologists can and should be doing to help address current and future challenges.” Prof. Meg Bond served as program chair while Asst. Prof. Urmitapa Dutta, Asst. Prof. Christopher Allen and CCRE Co-Director Robin Toof were among the key organizers of the conference. 

The discipline – unofficially established 50 years ago — draws from psychology, sociology, political science, public health and other fields to take an interdisciplinary view of poverty, prejudice, abuse and other social issues. The field is distinguished by the active role its practitioners, many employed in human services, government or higher education, play in addressing those problems.

“Our university has a longstanding commitment to community engagement and to learning by doing, which makes our campus the perfect place [for the biennial],” said Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Luis Falcón.  

That emphasis on direct community engagement differentiates SCRA from other scholarly organizations, said Paul Marion, the university’s executive director of community relations and a graduate of the community social psychology master’s program.

“There is a strong emphasis on putting ideas into action, applying the theories, practicing what is preached right at the sidewalk level,” he said.
In sessions held at the Inn & Conference Center, Middlesex Community College and United Teen Equality Center, participants helped local community organizations with challenges at an open forum, heard from leaders of the student immigration rights movement and discussed how to engage the next generation of psychologists in community work. 

Assoc. Prof. Cinzia Albanesi, who traveled from the University of Bologna in Italy for the conference, enjoyed learning about different perspectives from her international peers. 

“Italy has been influenced by community social psychology from the United States and we read international literature,” Albanesi said. “So we all have a vision that some problems we are facing are global and lots can be done about them.”

Alumni Celebrate 35 Years
During the conference, the Psychology Department also hosted an alumni gathering to celebrate the community social psychology program’s 35th anniversary. More than 80 alumni from across the country attended.
Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education Charlotte Mandell, who began teaching psychology during the program’s earliest days, said the community served as a lab for students and faculty.  

“This revolutionary idea of community social psychology was an unfamiliar blend for those trained in traditional psychology,” she said. “We stayed at the cutting edge of the discipline -- and higher education-- through this interdisciplinary program focusing on applied research and experiential learning that served and supported locals.” 

 Doeun “Duey” Kol ’08, who worked as a ranger at the Lowell National Historical Park while a student and is now a management analyst for the National Park Service, attended the events to see her former classmates and professors.

“I had professors who didn’t just talk about our lessons, they were living examples of community social psychology theories and worked in the community,” said Kol. She noted that she routinely applies what she learned in the graduate program to her work with the National Park Service. “I have to understand the whole system and the dynamics of the smaller systems [parks and communities] working together, which my degree helps me do successfully.”