Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 2000 Volume XXII Number 3

“Our world today is smaller, period,” says Dé Bryant, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Social Action Project at Indiana University South Bend. “One of the most important things we can do is teach people to think in global terms.”

Local Healers

by Nick Riddle

D é Bryant has been teaching people to think globally—and a good deal more—by helping send students to another continent. The Social Action Project (SOCACT) creates service-learning projects for students majoring in psychology or a related field. The program addresses the needs of several communities on two continents and combines research with a constant testing of the findings. The field of “social action” aims to take psychology out of the classroom and into the real world. SOCACT is service learning at its most hands-on, a total-immersion course in the reality of modern social change. Both a research body and an active presence in the community, the project aims to apply its findings to the daily lives of residents. Students who undertake the demanding work of SOCACT gain something that theories—for example, family dysfunction—can never give them: direct experience of the ways in which a community can solve its own problems.

Two principal urban communities serve as the focus of SOCACT’s fieldwork: Benton Harbor, Michigan (where Bryant established the project in 1985), and Durban, South Africa. It also sponsors additional activities in South Bend and in Aba, Nigeria. Teams consisting of students, community residents, and professionals from relevant disciplines conduct the work. Through discussions with people in the communities, the teams reach an understanding of the problems and work with residents to choose courses of action. One instance of this is the creation of the Youth Community Theater, through collaboration with youths and parents in the community who expressed a strong desire to be heard and to have a forum for self-expression. There are now Youth Community Theater groups in both the United States and South Africa. Other projects involve work with addiction treatment centers, an open-mike poetry platform, and an art education program to help young South Africans rediscover themselves after years of resistance fighting.

The children from the Youth Community Theater wrote a play about race relations entitled "How the Birds Got Their Colors." In the story the audience learned that each color bird had a special role to play in making the forest a safe place. The children performed the play at Indiana University South Bend, in churches, and at school assemblies.

The teams are not always welcomed with open arms on their arrival. “I can always predict that the first thing they say after, ‘Who are you people?’ will be, ‘So you wanna use us as lab rats?’” Bryant says. “And that’s a natural reaction. Psychology has had a history of using people as objects, as part of a vain attempt to create a physical science.” She trains her teams to exercise sensitivity and to find answers within the community rather than impose them from outside.

SOCACT is the result of Bryant’s own dissatisfaction with her original training as a clinical psychologist. “It just didn’t make sense in the world that I and my clients lived in,” she remembers. She sought an alternative approach and found it in the new field of community psychology. “You look at the person and the larger environment, and you ask how those things are causing problems,” she explains. This hands-on approach is a big plus for students: “Rather than study theory for three years and then go out and try to make it all fit, one day they’re in the classroom and the next week they’re out in the field, and they can see right away what I meant when I said that it’s more complicated than the theory says. If you’ve learned all kinds of arguments about the causes and treatments of drug addiction, those won’t help you much if your client can’t ever make the appointments.”

Funding for SOCACT comes from many places. “I try not to have a large single source,” says Bryant, “that can compromise our research. It’s kind of a web, which allows us to be more responsive to things.” Besides funding from IU, religious bodies, civic associations, and non-governmental organizations provide support. The project’s work also attracts private donors, and team members themselves have often contributed money and resources—a reflection of the level of involvement many of them feel.

Signing up for SOCACT is not an easy option. Students must make an eighteen-month commitment, and it does not always guarantee the breaks and vacations of normal university life. The trips are six weeks long and are taken between the last week in June to the first week in August. SOCACT covers cost of transportation, lodging, and expenses related to the community intervention. Students cover cost of food, pocket money, and incidentals. Each team member has the opportunity to travel, though no team member travels twice until everyone who wants to go has done so. Signing up doesn’t necessarily mean a student will go. The International Team is selected based on available funding and on the person’s performance on the SOCACT team. This includes submission of the research data, progress in their community intervention, and attendance at team meetings or other learning opportunities.

Attitude is everything: “They need to be able to handle ambiguity,” Bryant says. “Ours is not a project with neat little boxes to slot people into. There’s a theoretical framework, but to put it into practice you need creativity, initiative, flexibility. You have to think on your feet."

This close, in-depth involvement with the real lives of residents gives students a firsthand view of the ways communities face problems on an everyday basis, without the help of government or business. Most notable, and perhaps surprising, is that groups and organizations are not as important as powerful individuals, “powerful in the social sense,” Bryant explains. “It happens with kids as much as with adults. They’re often low-profile people, or people on the fringe—women and children, for example—but they turn out to be key members of the community.” This has proved to be the case on both continents—an encouraging sign for Bryant’s mission to encourage global thinking. Such insights are invaluable to students of service learning. Many of Bryant’s team members go on to work for civic or nonprofit organizations.

SOCACT is flourishing, but Bryant emphasizes that the work is always ongoing, and nothing is ever conclusive. “There isn’t an answer here,” she says. “There are answers, with different levels, and they’re always provisional.”