Social justice activism a key component of work

By Catherine Robertson Souter
March 1st, 2012

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

When Susan E. Hawes, Ph.D., started a yearly trip to the impoverished South African community of Soweto, it was not to change the world. Rather, it was an opportunity to give back in a way that was meaningful to her. For the past three years, she has brought a group of four students to the town to work with HIV positive children and the agency that serves them, providing screening to help assess their educational and therapeutic needs and to provide staff training, research and program development in impoverished Johannesburg townships.

Hawes, a professor in the department of clinical psychology at Antioch University New England and director of assessment training at the Psychological Services Center, spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about her program and the importance of social justice activism within professional practices.

Q: What do you as an American psychologist have to offer that they do not have there? Do they not have these kinds of assessment programs or just not enough?

A: They don’t have enough.

The first year I went was in 2007 and we did regular volunteering, whatever they wanted us to do – mostly at the orphanage – and the next year I went back to see what kind of professional services, if any, I could offer and that I could include students on.

That’s when they told me that assessments would be helpful. So the identification of need came from them.

There has been a tremendous brain drain in South Africa since democracy in 1994. Initially, it was white people leaving since affirmative action programs were put into place and they were afraid there was no future for their children. But blacks and Indians have also been leaving the country to get a better education.

Q: What is your time like when you are there?

A: The home based care program works with trained but non-professional care workers who visit the homes. They come up with a list of kids they would like to have assessed, usually because they are not doing well in school. We have two teams of assessors, two of our students and one home-based care worker who help with any translating needs that we may have in administering the tests.

One of the students will do interviewing with the primary care giver of the child – that could be his mother, or grandmother, great aunt, sometimes cousin. There are usually a few more grannies than mothers.

The interviewer also looks at the house, the environment and other qualities as well as a brief checklist for the possibility of depression in the primary care giver.

So far 95 percent have been depressed.

They have so many things working against them. If it’s the grannies, they may have lost their own child to the illness so they are dealing with that grief and in their retirement years looking after young children, which is difficult. Just about every family we have worked with has been very poor with a very limited income. The households will often have a number of people squished into a small space. If they are lucky, they have one person earning an income or it could just be granny’s pension and the childcare grant from the state.

Q: What are you using to do the assessments?

A: I use a battery developed for testing minorities in our country. It is a good measure but not adapted to South Africa. It has a lot of cultural and linguistic factors imbedded in the design. For instance, a kid has to identify a fire hydrant and they don’t have those.

Also, these children are educated in their native, indigenous languages so that basically rules out our being able to do any test of verbal abilities or achievement tests created in English.

This past year, I developed an alternative measure of achievement that I am going to try to develop using the basic guidelines in South Africa on education levels. I took end-of-year outcomes and I have been asking teachers to identify the level of competency a child has in those abilities.

Q: What draws you to this type of work?

A: The experience is transformative for our students. We get more out of it than anyone. It puts everything into perspective. It is very humbling.

This is not going to change the world politically and I know a lot of critical psychologists who would think I am selling out but it is inevitable that, in order for South Africa to be in a globalized world and their economy is directed towards that, they will be competing against people who are raised with our Western systems and ideas. I see myself as trying to help support them without labeling but in a manner that is consistent with our ideas.

Q: Why would they accuse you of selling out?

A: The critical psychologists, of whom I am one, tend to look with suspicion at the way in which psychology has been exercised as a form of domination and control. During apartheid, psychologists were probably the worst collaborators with the system. The person responsible for the idea of apartheid was the chair of the department of psychology at Stellenbosch University and psychologist practitioners were complicit in a lot of the apartheid actions and laws.

Psychologists have had a lot of making up to do there and they are invested in that. South African psychologists are a lot more politically aware than we are. That’s what first got me to keep coming. I went to two conferences in 2005 and I came away thinking this is a great place for us to learn how to integrate more political thinking into our work.

Q: Is there more interest in social justice activism now?

A: I think that generally all the training programs in clinical psychology nationally are doing a pretty good job of addressing issues of multicultural diversity. Social justice is usually incorporated into that in a benign way but there are programs that require students to have community involvement that have a service learning requirement and other things. So I think it is growing.

We have to ask the questions: “How can one integrate social justice practices into one’s professional work as a psychologist? What would that look like?”

I think it would end up being mostly in areas of pro bono and volunteer work. Our students take on quite a big loan when they are done here so it is not realistic to dedicate themselves to social justice activism. They can’t afford to.

I’m 60 and getting to a point where if I am healthy and retire I could do more of that in my later years than I could earlier.

Q: What else would you offer them?

A: I would like to develop more training support for care workers who are being asked to do more professional things like early childhood development stimulation. And now they are going to be asked to pay attention to psycho social issues of the children but the training that they get is not much and they don’t get a lot of support.

Training is one way to offer things they can’t get otherwise.

I have not wanted to do counseling because I think it’s not fair. We are not there long enough. So what can we do in a short time?

It would be great to do collaborative kinds of trainings, working with them from the ground up rather than coming in and imposing your own ideas. That’s the question, how not to come in and just pretend your knowledge and authority extend to their lives – it is hard but it is vital. 

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