7 Practice Competencies

Susan M. Wolfe

Chapter Seven Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Understand what Community Psychology practice competencies are
  • Find out why Community Psychology practice competencies are important
  • Learn how to develop your own Community Psychology competencies
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Every job requires a specific set of skills and knowledge, and is no different. In this chapter, you will find a set of knowledge and skills that a Community Psychology practitioner needs. It starts by describing what “practice competency” means and why it is important. After presenting a brief overview of where the competencies came from and the levels of competence, the chapter will provide information about what each competency means, case examples of the competencies being used, how someone can become competent, resources related to each competency, and some self-reflection and critical thinking questions.

Case Study 7.1
A Community Psychology Consultant and Her Competencies

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A Community Psychology consultant just received a contract to build collaboratives to promote well-being in five rural communities. In this role, she will provide guidance and technical assistance to help the coalitions recruit historically excluded community residents, conduct a needs assessment, and use the results to develop a plan for systems-level change. When she visits these communities, she discovers that some coalitions have formed without including the historically excluded residents; three of the counties have no idea where to begin, two counties have long histories of racism and segregation, and all the counties are resource-poor in terms of health, mental health, housing, employment, transportation, and many other basic needs. The Community Psychology consultant realizes that she is going to need all the knowledge and skills she developed throughout her training and employment experiences. As you read through this chapter, reflect upon each competency and think about how it could be applied for the Community Psychology consultant’s work with these collaboratives.

THE ROLE OF COMPETENCIES IN COMMUNITY PSYCHOLOGY

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You might be wondering, what does “practice competency” mean? The were developed to provide a common framework to describe the skills involved in Community Psychology practice (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). It means that someone who is a Community Psychology practitioner has mastered some or all these skills and knowledge to some extent. Community Psychology practice competency means that the community psychologist has mastered enough of the skills to implement their work in real life situations dealing with individuals and communities in need.

Why “practice competencies” and why is this important to the work that we do? When students are deciding on their careers and what to study in college or graduate school, they usually focus on the type of work they would like to do first. The next step is to find out what degree will give them the skills needed for the work they want to do. The Community Psychology practice competencies accurately reflect the set of skills students can obtain if they get a degree in this field. Another reason having a list of competencies is important is that graduates of Community Psychology programs can easily describe their skills to potential employers. Alternately, potential employers who have job openings that require these skills will know that they need to look for in someone who is trained in Community Psychology. A common vocabulary amongst practitioners, communities, and employers will help everyone to know what to expect when working with community psychologists (Neigher & Ratcliffe, 2010).

Where did these practice competencies come from? The competencies were created collaboratively by a task group made up of members of the Society for Community Research and Action’s (SCRA) Community Psychology Practice Council and Council of Education programs. They began the work in 2010 and after many iterations and reviews, the list of competencies was approved by the  Executive Committee in 2012.

What levels of competence are there? As with any field of study, an individual can develop any of the Community Psychology practice competencies to a different level of mastery. The first level is “” which means that they have learned about the competencies and how it can be applied in practice. At the next level, “,” the community psychologist has actually used the competencies in supervised practice, or practice on their own, to perform the tasks related to the competency. “” means the community psychologist has had several experiences with applying the competencies in work and developed a high level of skill.

To whom do these competencies apply? While many of these competencies apply to community psychologists all over the world, this particular set of competencies in their entirety apply primarily to community psychologists practicing in the US. Community psychologists in other countries sometimes need different skills in their work because of cultural, economic, legal, political, or other differences.

THE COMPETENCIES

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Foundational Principles

The foundational principles are the five competencies that all Community Psychology practitioners working in the US need, listed in Table 1 below. They represent knowledge, skills, and principles that help to guide practice work from a Community Psychology perspective, as well as the values and perspectives of Community Psychology and the competencies needed to apply the values in practice, as also indicated in the first chapter (Jason, Glantsman, O’Brien, & Ramian, 2019). These competencies are combined with the remaining more technical skills-based competencies to ensure they are exercised using a Community Psychology approach. Elias, Neigher, and Johnson-Hakim (2015) suggest that you think of them as “foreground” processes because Community Psychology practitioners need to pay constant attention to these principles and make sure that their actions align with them.

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For example, in our case study, the Community Psychology practitioner will need to work with communities to develop their coalitions. There are many coalitions in place across most communities in the US, but when the Community Psychology practitioner works with the communities to develop their coalitions, they will be sure they include community members and develop structures that the historically excluded populations to lead the coalitions and determine the actions to be taken on their own behalf. This contrasts with coalitions that typically include professionals who make decisions and take action from outside the community.


Community Program Development and Management

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This set of two competencies include a large skill set whereby Community Psychology practitioners can partner with community stakeholders from start to finish to develop and implement programs in their communities to meet identified needs, to problems, and to promote health (See Table 2). The case study at the beginning of this chapter mentions that the communities are resource poor. If the collaborative decides they need to create after-school programs for youth, then the Community Psychology consultant may use the particular skills connected with community program development and management to help them with program design and implementation.

Community and Organizational Capacity-Building

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One hallmark of Community Psychology practice is that instead of going into communities and acting on their behalf, Community Psychology practitioners work to strengthen communities so they can act on their own behalf. This requires a strong, trusting relationship between the community psychologist and the various stakeholders, such as community partners, advocates, members of the target population, treatment providers, and governmental entities (Elias, Neigher, & Johnson-Hakim, 2015). If Community Psychology practitioners are successful in their work, communities they work in should eventually not need their help at all. The goal is to create change which is then adopted by the community and managed by the community members to the point where they sustain it over time. This is really important for working in disadvantaged communities that have been traditionally disempowered. By giving away our skills and knowledge, we empower them to make the changes their communities need and reduce their reliance on outside professionals. These four competencies are designed to help us do that (see Table 3). When the Community Psychology consultant in our first case study goes into the communities to work with them to build their collaboratives, she will not do any of the work for them. She will provide training and technical assistance to strengthen the skills and capacity of the community members to build and maintain their collaborative.

Community and Social Change

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Typically, when there is a problem in a community, we address it by creating another program to help solve some of the issues that have arisen. For example, in one community the response to childhood obesity was to teach children and parents how to improve their diet and exercise. Nobody would dispute that this is helpful information for all people to have. That said, what happens when parents want to fix healthy meals for their children, but they don’t have access to the food they need to make them? Or, what if they don’t have a car and there is no grocery store in their neighborhood? And what if a family can’t get out to walk or ride bicycles or get exercise of some kind because they live in a neighborhood where there are no sidewalks to walk on, or it isn’t safe because of high crime? Many of our social problems cannot be fixed by working to change people’s behavior, especially if they live or work in environments that won’t support their behavior changes. We need to have the skills to change systems, policies, and the environments in which people live. This set of five competencies provides Community Psychology practitioners with the skills to make these changes to create second-order change processes that focus on ways to rearrange current relationships, roles, and power dynamics within a setting (see Table 4). The goal is to establish a more just, inclusive, and health-promoting environment (Elias, Neigher, & Johnson-Hakim, 2015). The Community Psychology consultant in the Case Study 7.1 will need these skills to help the collaboratives build their own skills to change systems, and not just focus on creating programs.


 

Case Study 7.2
The Community Driven Development of The Gateway 

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There is much one can do with Community Psychology practice competencies focusing on community and social change, even outside the field itself. Debi Starnes has served in elected positions in the local government of Atlanta, Georgia and has also held key policy advisory roles over the course of her career (Scott & Wolfe, 2015). Dually trained in both clinical psychology and community/organizing psychology, Debi was actively involved in various leadership roles in her community. She understood the importance of being an active member of her community regardless of her education. In fact, she said, “I didn’t get elected because I was a community psychologist, but being a community psychologist helped enormously in my perspective and how I approached different issues and tasks,” when serving as an elected official. During her 11-year career as a city council member, Debi was able to develop a Homeless Action Group, which brought together a wide variety of community members and groups to talk about and address issues facing people experiencing homelessness. Debi used her skills and was able to practice community and organizational capacity-building while enacting community and social change in a different role than a practitioner. Due to her efforts, the city developed The Gateway, a central intake and assessment facility that provided vital housing and services for people experiencing homelessness. This successful program required collaboration between city officials, business leaders, treatment providers, law enforcement, and community members. Debi was able to use her training and expertise, as well as her dedication to community service, to bring these groups together and enact social change. Find out more about The Gateway program.

Community Research

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These last two competencies allow Community Psychology practitioners to learn about the communities they work with, and to determine whether what they have done has made a difference. Unlike more traditional research, community psychologists do research and evaluate programs with community members rather than on or about them. They use their scientific set of skills to collect and analyze data to help communities answer their questions, evaluate what they are doing, and use research to plan, learn, and make decisions. The community consultant will need research and evaluation skills to help communities to conduct needs assessments and gather data to use for planning and to evaluate the outcomes of their initiatives.

There are so many advantages when community psychologists collaborate with community members and organizations. These types of collaborations can provide mutual benefits to the investigators as well as the community members, and help get the word out regarding new innovative ways of delivering services. The following Case Study 7.3 provides some glimpses of interactions that occurred during a 25-year collaborative relationship between a DePaul University group and the Oxford House recovery organization. By having members of the recovery community guide the types of questions that were asked, the research helped capture more crucial aspects of the changes that were occurring among residents.

Case Study 7.3
Community Partners Identifying Areas for Research

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During one of the annual Oxford House conventions, an individual living in one of these homes approached Leonard Jason, one of the DePaul University investigators and suggested that measures of tolerance be included in this collaborative research. He explained that prior to living in an Oxford House, he had been very prejudiced against people who were different from him, such as people who were HIV positive. But while in Oxford House, he met a woman who was HIV positive; she was now his girlfriend. He wanted to point out that, for him, living in Oxford House went beyond staying clean and sober—it made him a more accepting and generous person. That participatory input led to a series of mixed methods investigations, which allowed both the community members and university researchers to better understand the rich experiences and outcomes of residents living in these recovery houses. For example, in one randomized study, with individuals being assigned to an Oxford House or usual aftercare condition, over time, those assigned to the Oxford House condition demonstrated significantly greater values of tolerance than usual aftercare participants. These changes occurred due to living in a recovery setting where members could share time with one another, exchange life stories, discuss their prior drug use, talk about personal and group goals, enjoying eating and attending 12-step meetings, and participating in a variety of non-substance use social outings. With this type of involvement, it is likely that a sense of cohesion developed which led to increases in tolerance (Olson, & Jason, 2015).

This type of collaborative research led to the non-profit being endorsed by the federal government as the current “gold standard” for residential aftercare. Receiving this recognition from the federal government helped this community organization expand to now serving over 20,000 individuals in recovery.

An important element of community research and action in practice is the dissemination of successful interventions that have benefited communities (Scott, & Wolfe, 2015). Dissemination is a strategic, systematic sharing of information about an intervention or research to individuals and groups who can use this information to help the people they work with. The goals are to influence policy and change community psychologists’ methods in an area of practice so it is of greater benefit to the populations they are working with. An even more concentrated form of dissemination is , or “the use of strategies to adopt and integrate evidence-based health interventions and change practice patterns in specific settings” (Chamber, 2009; as cited in Scott, & Wolfe, 2015). A focus on implementation leads to innovative interventions that are more effective for the groups they are meant to help. This allows the practice to advance as a whole and creates an open dialogue among practitioners to collaborate on solutions and share their work.

But why should community psychologists in practice share what they find with each other? Well, this is because practitioners have to keep sustainability in mind as they are developing and implementing programs. This is especially true if a program is a success because the goal is to change best practices and policies so that the methods can be used to help more people and be spread to other locations. Focusing on sustainability can ensure that an effective program, intervention, or research finding is preserved and continues to affect practice and public policy, even after the practitioner has started working on something else. If a practitioner does not account for sustainability, it can lead to the old adage of “history repeating itself,” as their intervention and findings are ignored and lost over time.

The case study below will highlight the importance of sharing the methodology with peers in the field with a focus on dissemination and sustainability.

Case Study 7.4
The Fairweather Lodge and a Successful Dissemination

An instructive example showcasing dissemination and sustainability is the work of Bill Fairweather and his colleagues. Fairweather’s seminal work was a 25-year examination and experimentation of group problem solving with people with mental disorders living in inpatient hospital facilities (Scott & Wolfe, 2015). Fairweather wanted to understand, through experimentation, how to give people in these institutional settings some semblance of freedom in the real world. Fairweather and his colleagues understood the importance of empowerment and community integration, and recognized that this vulnerable, institutionalized group could benefit greatly from community-based living. His team spent an additional 10 years implementing a community living setting for these patients, with both work and social opportunities, called the Community Lodge. The lodge was very successful in giving patients economic, social, and interpersonal opportunities and vastly improved their quality of life. Their findings were successfully disseminated to other practitioners focusing on people with mental illness, and this led to many other works involving the importance of community living in improving people’s lives.

Take a moment to think about how long it took to create this successful program for people with mental illness in hospital settings: it took 35 years total to fully understand the problem, evaluate solutions, and implement it successfully through intervention. That is quite an investment on the part of Fairweather and his colleagues, and yet they knew the importance of creating an intervention grounded in an empirical understanding of the issue and potential solutions. They wanted to make sure that their program would be effective, and they took the time to learn as much as they could before trying their lodge idea out. And they made sure to study the most effective dissemination methods to make sure their results were spread and reached a wide audience.

LEARNING AND STRENGTHENING COMPETENCIES

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The first way to learn the competencies discussed is to study Community Psychology, especially at the graduate level. As an undergraduate, there is a good chance that you have never heard of Community Psychology, as Bauer, Glantsman, Hochberg, Turner, and Jason (2017) found that most introductory psychology textbooks contain no reference to this field (but there are now ongoing efforts to change this). Many universities offer Master’s level programs that train students in these competencies, or you can pursue a Ph.D. for more in-depth education. Not all Community Psychology graduate programs teach all of the competencies, so someone considering graduate education in Community Psychology should first decide what kind of work they are interested in doing, and then find a graduate program that focuses on the competencies they will need. All Community Psychology graduate programs focus on the foundational principles, but for other competencies, a prospective community psychologist should explore programs. For example, some graduate programs focus more on community research competencies, and others on community and organizational capacity-building.

However, there are some universities that offer an undergraduate psychology degree with an emphasis on Community Psychology. These undergraduate programs are an excellent means of learning more about the field and getting the relevant experiences for graduate school or work post-graduate work. You can find a list of undergraduate Community Psychology programs here.

Sometimes you can also find these competencies taught in other academic departments. For example, Social Work programs might offer program development, implementation, and management, and public health schools offer public policy analysis, development, and . You might take organizational psychology classes to learn more about organizational development. You could even explore anthropology departments for more training in qualitative methods, business schools to learn more about managing people and programs, or political science to learn more about policy and government.

Once you have had exposure to the competencies, if you want to use them you will need to acquire experience. Internships and volunteer work offer opportunities to work with more experienced professionals under supervision as you gain experience. Just be really clear when you sign up that you are interested in learning more about the competency and want to get experience, so you can make sure the opportunity will support your need. Many entry-level jobs will also provide you with access to experienced individuals and opportunities to participate in supporting activities that use these competencies.

You can also look for additional outside training to further develop them. Many professional associations have professional conferences, and some of them even include pre-conference workshops and training opportunities. For example, workshops are often offered before the beginning of conferences sponsored by such organizations as SCRA, the American Psychological Association, and the American Evaluation Association. Then you can attend the actual conferences and hear presentations that describe the results of the application of these competencies.

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Attending professional conferences is also a good way to learn more about competencies and network with individuals who are using the competencies. There are large, national conferences such as the SCRA’s Biennial Conferences that are held every other year. There are also regional conferences that are smaller and provide better opportunities to meet community psychologists and learn more about their work and how they apply the competencies.

Finally, look for online training opportunities as well. There are free online courses offered through Coursera; online training through professional associations; and opportunities through private organizations, such as The Evaluator’s Institute. There are often online certifications available through various universities. For example, Michigan State University offers an online Program Evaluation Certification. The Community Tool Box, which was developed by a group of community psychologists, offers a large amount of information and resources to develop the Community Psychology practice competencies.

You can also read The Community Psychologist to learn about recent research, practice, and programs developed by community psychologists. There are specific issues of The Community Psychologist that deal with competencies in the Spring and Fall 2010 issues of the Community Psychologist (The Joint Council of Education and Community Practitioner) that are about building competency for collaboration with citizens and communities and group processes. Also, the Spring 2011 column is about building and  competence and the Spring 2013 column is about policy analysis, development, and advocacy. There is also The Community Psychology website, where you can learn much more about the field.

SUMMING UP

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Developing expertise in any of the Community Psychology practice competencies requires a combination of education, extra training and skill building, mentorship, and experience. Keep in mind that no matter how much anyone learns and develops expertise for any one of the competencies, there is always more to learn. It is an ongoing process that unfolds throughout a Community Psychology practitioner’s career.

Critical Thought Questions

  1. Which competencies do you think would be most important to you if you were a Community Psychology practitioner?
  2. When you think about programs and change initiatives that have been done in your own community, how does the Community Psychology practice approach, guided by the foundational principles, differ from the approach that was taken where you live?
  3. How are these competencies the same, and how are they different from competencies required in other fields of study, such as Social Work, Public Health, and evaluation?

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REFERENCES

Bauer, H. M., Glantsman, O., Hochberg, L., Turner, C., & Jason, L. A. (2017). Community psychology coverage in introduction to psychology textbooks. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 8(3), 1-11. Retrieved from https://www.gjcpp.org/en/article.php?issue=27&article=172

Chambers, D. A. (2009). Dissemination and implementation research in health: An Overview of PARs 06-520, 06-521, 07-086. Paper presented at the 2nd Annual NIH Conference on the Science of Dissemination and Implementation: Building Research Capacity to Bridge the Gap from Science to Service. Bethesda, MD.

Dalton, J., & Wolfe, S. M. (2012). Joint Column. Education connection and the community practitioner: Competencies for community psychology practice. The Community Psychologist, 45(4), 7-14.

Elias, M. J., Neigher, W. D., & Johnson-Hakim, S. (2015). Guiding principles and competencies for community psychology practice. In V. C. Scott & S. M. Wolfe (Eds.), Community Psychology: Foundations for practice. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Jason, L. A., Glantsman, O., O’Brien, J. F., & Ramian, K. N. (2019). Introduction to the field of Community Psychology. In L. A. Jason, O. Glantsman, J. F. O’Brien, & K. N. Ramian (Eds.), Introduction to Community Psychology: Becoming an agent of change. Retrieved from https://press.rebus.community/introductiontocommunitypsychology/chapter/intro-to-community-psychology/

Neigher, W., & Ratcliffe, A. (2010). What is a community psychologist? Why should I hire one? The Community Psychologist, 43(2), 5.

Olson, B. D., & Jason, L. A. (2015). Participatory mixed methods research. In S. N. Hesse-Biber & R. B. Johnson (Eds.), Oxford handbook of mixed and multimethod research. (pp. 393-405). New York: Oxford University Press.

Scott, V. C., & Wolfe, S. M. (Eds.). (2015). Community Psychology: Foundations for practice. SAGE Publications.

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Introduction to Community Psychology by Susan M. Wolfe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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