When you drive through a black neighborhood, what do you see? I ask this question because as community psychologists actively engaged in cross-cultural competency practices, we should be aware that what shows on the surface of community interactions might not give us the whole picture.
If we run through our minds what our first gut reaction is when we encounter, or expect to encounter a black community, some vivid images and ideas come to mind. I live in the Chicago area, and here, the first thing that comes to mind is black-on-black violence. No doubt about it. It’s what we see virtually each day on the news, hear on the radio, recount among friends, worry about, cry about, and shout out loud about. It’s hard not to think about it. And for community psychologists, the task is doubly hard. If we don’t rise above the noisy chatter that is gun violence and police brutality, then how can we possibly tune into the signals of community resiliency? Without that effort, we cannot tap into the sense of community that does lie beyond the surface. Beyond the boarded up buildings, iron cages on storefronts, and bullet proof glass in service windows, there is something there. That something is what drives our work and our purpose. I say that one place we should consider looking more than than we do currently is where mutual aid and mutual assistance still exists.
It is here where we will find the type of mothering activism in black communities that is part of the continuity of culture, resistance, resilience, and protective factors that have helped black folk weather many storms over hundreds of years. There, where we see those exchanges among families. Sometimes, the exchange is for “other mothers” to care for a child in the neighborhood, or organize resources for families that are struggling, whether headed by a single mother or not. It’s where we see sorority sisters, Eastern Stars, women’s auxiliary committees raising awareness, money, in-kind donations for folks in need. It’s where the “big mamas” of the neighborhood watch all of the movements in the community and can tell anyone about events of that day. It’s where we find women who connect other women in the neighborhood to share knowledge of programs and services they might know about. It’s the place where there are no picket signs, no raised fists, no loud voices in protest. It’s the place where black mothers work to find ways to keep kids engaged in community, rather than find new places of belonging that can lead to gun violence in the future.
Black mothers know communities – their rhythm, their flow, their tensions, their light spaces and dark spaces. They know them well. They see their communities through their own eyes, the eyes of their children, lovers, mothers, grandmothers, child care providers, local hustlers, school teachers and administrators. They can be great allies and collaborators to community psychologists. They are often the brokers to the mutual aid/mutual help activity that goes on in a community. The mutual aid/mutual help tradition in the black community, I argue is intricately tied to black mother activism. Black mothers have traditionally pursued community uplift as a central tenet to their work. The women’s social clubs that were re-established in cities where blacks migrated during the 1910s and 1920s is a prime example. They organized fundraisers to launch institution building projects in response to lack of access to white establishments and community resources, such as hospitals, settlement houses, and schools. These institutions buffered the oppression that the next wave of black migrants from the south faced during the 1940s. Black mother activists have used mutual aid and mutual help strategies to buffer the effects of white supremacy. This legacy is discussed in The Helping Tradition in the Black Family and Community (Martin & Martin, 1985). They make a strong case for the helping tradition, tracing its African roots to its American present, but warn that the institution might be lost altogether due to the growing instability of the black extended family. Their book outlines how the helping tradition has evolved from its origins in the extended black family to its institutionalization within the black community.
This is an important observation for community psychologists to understand and incorporate into cross-cultural competency and practice. By understanding that black folk, and more specifically, black women, have worked to establish institutions that carry on the work of the helping tradition, means that there is potential capacity, will, and activism for communities to support themselves. The values of citizen participation and citizen power are important to keep in mind. Black women activists can and should be engaged as collaborators and not merely as informants, consumers of non-profit resources, and perceived as lacking agency. These institutions have existed and are under construction today. But they are also under constant threat.
As community psychologists, when we travel to a black community, what do we see? The role of professionals within black communities can be balanced with the assets already present within communities. How do we know where to look for and find them? How are we being trained and prepared to become true participant conceptualizers within communities that represent different cultures and resources that are different from our own personal experiences? Remaining self-critical and self-reflective can help to steer us into the direction we are seeking. Our willingness to go beyond the surface might tell us a different story altogether from what we see at first glance. Our search for what truly holds communities together begins with putting aside our own biases, tuning out the noise that fills our hearts with doubt, our minds with fear, and clouds our judgement from body counts, news outlets that only track the number of shootings and murders taking place in cities, like it’s some kind of sick competition. Who wins tracking those numbers? Certainly not community psychologists.
So, what will you do the next time you begin working with the black community to ensure that you are working without biases that can undermine your ability to get to know the community you want to work with?