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Community Psychology PhD Chronicles, Pt. 2

The Learning Pathway

by Cari Patterson

I’ve just officially completed the first year of my PhD program (time flies!) and I’m poised to begin my dissertation research, so I thought it was time for an update. First I’ll talk a little bit about what community psychology is (great question from my cousin Dawn). And before that, I’ll say that the summer has been short on leisure, with less paddleboarding than I would have liked, no fresh berries in the freezer, fewer naps in the hammock than I was craving, and I’m not getting very far with the growing stack of novels on my bedside table (though I have managed a few). 

I said before that working full-time and being a full-time student is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been thinking about the stories of achievement and performance that we often hear about. In my experience, the stories tend to emphasize and romanticize the human spirit aspect – and I’m realizing that achieving big goals really comes down to grit and grind and sacrifice every day. So to everyone whose emails I haven’t responded to, and to everyone I am overdue calling or visiting, and to people I’ve said I’d like to go for a walk with and haven’t, and to my friends organizing the fundraising bike ride that I said I would go on but can’t, and to my partner who really is cooking supper every night, please know I want to do these things, and I really do care about you – it’s just that every day is jam-packed with school and work and the thrill of learning. 


One of my big learnings is that I have been practising Community Psychology my whole career. The Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA, Community Psychology’s professional association) has a pretty good short video that explains what Community Psychology is. To me, it essentially means working for bigger picture change in the world, and doing that in a number of different ways: working with community groups for social change, addressing inequity, advocating for policy and legislative change, community-based research, evaluation, and contributing what I can to support community groups claiming their power and using it for social justice. For me, it all boils down to trying to change the environment around us to better support people – instead of trying to get individuals to change to suit the environment around us. I was in a Zoom meeting recently where people were talking about how their schooling did not prepare them for the work they are actually doing in the world. I realized in that moment that my education and background prepared me completely for what I’m doing the world – Community Psychology all the way!

In my last post, I said that my research is about exploring the role of western evaluators in decolonizing evaluation, and exploring how evaluation capacity building processes with Black and Indigenous communities can help do this. As I listen and read and think more about this, and as I learn more about decolonizing my own thinking, I would describe it differently now. Thanks to many conversations with respected evaluators and community leaders over the past few months, I would now say that my research is about trying to improve the ecosystem in which we do evaluation to better serve Black and Indigenous communities.

I’m very interested in the idea of emergence. It’s the notion that by bringing together individuals and groups who are bright sparks of light, we are building networks that are greater than the sum of their parts and have greater capacity for change as they come together. By following this approach we are making way for what is possible, maybe more than we ever could have imagined. In this sense you can’t possibly know what the journey will look like ahead of time; It becomes clearer as it unfolds. That has certainly been true for my research process. And I want to reflect a little on all the pieces that are making emergence possible in my research, which for now I am calling the Learning Pathway.

Going back to the beginning of the idea back last spring with the antiracism uprisings and my organization’s wish to contribute to the greater good somehow, I’m seeing that there had to be a spark or a will for change. There had to be commitment from leadership to embark on an authentic journey, and space for discussions about what that might look like. There also had to be resources – time, mental and emotional energy, and money to support education and learning. The foundation had already been laid at Inspiring Communities so this was easy to support.

“…by bringing together individuals and groups who are bright sparks of light, we are building networks that are greater than the sum of their parts and have greater capacity for change…”

I think for me ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ was – had to be scoped somehow to be doable, something that I could reasonably influence within my own sphere. So as I started to consciously bring a genuine anti-racist lens to the evaluation work at Inspiring Communities, I also needed support from leadership to do that. Our Executive Director at the time (Annika Voltan) values learning tremendously, and we had worked together to create a strong learning culture in our organization. When I was accepted into the PhD program, she was behind me 100%, and immediately saw opportunities to connect my work efforts with my academic efforts. She knew that both would benefit.

I have the benefit of tremendous thought partnership and support from my faculty advisors and professors in the PhD program. The critical questions and also the assignments for each course have pushed my thinking and have helped me evolve my idea with time. Reading the academic literature – and taking a course where other artifacts are valued as ways of knowing – obviously has contributed to my thinking as well.

My typical practice is to reach out to others for conversation and ideas as I’m embarking on an initiative or process. This aligns with Margaret Wheatley’s thoughts about emergence. She would focus on connecting networks of similarly minded people; I’m starting with people within networks. In order to reach out to these people, you have to know who they are, and you have to have sufficient credibility, respect, and/or trust with them so they will be willing to talk with you. That credibility and trust may come through your organization, through work that you have been involved in, and also from your personal reputation.

I’m realizing that this doesn’t necessarily all happen in a systematic way. I’ve had many informal and impromptu conversations with people who care about what I’m trying to do with my evaluation work. Some of these conversations may be with friends, some with coworkers, and some with colleagues. We may be talking about evaluation capacity building among new evaluators from Black and Indigenous communities, we may be talking about antiracism work, or we may be talking about something completely different. I think the point is that I have a lot of opportunity to learn from other’s perspectives if I can listen to hear, and if I am open to integrating new thoughts into my vision. I can’t overstate the value of having thought partners in my academic faculty advisors who support my evolving research idea.

There have been many teachers along the way already, whose lessons will inform the Learning Pathway. In the last year, I have hired new evaluators to work with our team, including a Mi’kmaw woman, an African Nova Scotian woman, and an Iraqi-Canadian woman. My interactions with them and their willingness to help me see things in another way have brought to light some of my embedded colonial thinking, and I am learning new ways to approach the ongoing work. For example, one of the communities we work in conducted a survey; we hired 27 Research Assistants from the community to conduct the survey with people they know as a method of engaging at least a proportionate sample of the different population groups in the area. We had a tremendous (unheard of in fact) response to the survey. When we completed the analysis, we brought a large and diverse group of community members together to make sense of the main themes that emerged. People could choose the issues they wanted to discuss in small groups, and we made sure there was a diversity of perspectives represented in each group. Only recently in a reflection exercise focused on inclusion efforts, one of these new evaluators helped me realize that we could have approached the sensemaking in a different way. We could have asked people from the different communities to identify their particular lived experience of the issue, then we could have woven together the various views. Instead, we had more of a melting pot approach by combining the different views into one synthesized perspective. One of the themes surfacing from my experience so far is how to pay attention and recognize my own coloniality, and to be open to doing things differently

It is quite incredible to be able to access some of the leading thinkers working on decolonizing evaluation. They are sharing their experiences, their wisdom, and offering suggestions about artifacts and articles that may help me in my thinking. I feel the Learning Pathway evolving as I talk with them, particularly in light of looking at evaluation as part of a whole system that needs to change. Amanuel Melles said ‘you can’t capacity-build your way out of a systemic problem’ and Kate McKegg talked about needing to create an evaluative culture within the system evaluation is part of. It was in a much earlier conversation with Brad Olson (one of my faculty advisors) that I realized that government (and those who require/receive evaluation reports) need to be invited into this process; they are part of the ecosystem we are trying to change, where we want to do evaluation differently. Drawing on the ideas and experiences of these leaders is a critical component of how this process is emerging.

Also critical is the knowledge and buy-in of leaders in Black and Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia. They know what will serve their communities, and they can open doors to further conversations about engaging in the Learning Pathway. They are also identifying potential participants from their communities and providing guidance about how to best engage their communities. 

Our new Executive Director at Inspiring Communities (Louise Adongo) is very supportive of evaluation. I have the space in my work to prototype various components of the Learning Pathway with my team: a Learning Circle for new evaluators, a Developmental Evaluation course for new evaluators, a coaching model. Louise is well connected to African Nova Scotian and Black communities, and is willing to draw on her connections to support the Learning Pathway (e.g., partnering on funding proposals with organizations representing Black communities and building in funds and time for hiring and supporting new evaluators). She is able to see the big picture and help weave the evaluation work into our systems change efforts

So this s not ‘my’ research. I am one part of an interconnected system whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Next time I’d like to tell you about the Learning Pathway itself, and explore how we might tell the story of the Learning Pathway as it unfolds. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, experiences, and comments!

Oh, and you know what they say about eating an elephant? Well, we got the last piece of our winter wood stacked this morning. Perhaps a dip into Gail Bowen’s new book this afternoon …

Community Psychology PhD Chronicles Part 1

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