AUC Hosts First Community Psychology Conference in Middle East, North Africa

AUC hosted the first community psychology conference in the MENA region
AUC hosted the first community psychology conference in the MENA region

The first graduate degree of its kind in the region, AUC’s community psychology program began in 2011 with six students. Today, it has 21 students enrolled, making it one of the fastest growing graduate programs at AUC. Its graduates have gone on to pursue PhDs in prestigious universities abroad, and some are working in local and international NGOs, as well as in consultation.

Building on the program’s strengths, AUC recently hosted the first community psychology conference in the Middle East and North Africa under the theme, Collaboration for Community Change: Insight, Innovation and Impact.  

“Community psychology as a field is new in the world, and especially in this region,” said Mona Amer, associate professor of psychology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology and co-chair of the conference. “At this conference, we wanted to work on developing the field and establishing a blueprint for how we can move the discipline further in this part of the world, taking into account the cultural and contextual issues.”

Collaboration for Community Change

The conference included nearly 80 presenters and chairs in a span of three days, attending from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey and Yemen, as well as the United States and United Kingdom. The conference’s keynote speaker was Tony Naidoo from Stellenbosch University in South Africa, whose talk focused on “Building a Collaborative Community in Changing Times."

In addition to academics from all over the world, the conference included community practitioners who work in NGOs and organizations like Healthy Egyptians, UNICEF, Save the Children, Nazra for Feminist Studies and Mentor Arabia.” You can learn and network with people from different academic backgrounds,” said Amer. “We want to hear the voices of people who are working on the ground.”

Amer also emphasized the interdisciplinary aspect of the conference, since it is a defining feature of the discipline itself. “Community psychology is so welcoming to people of different backgrounds,” she said. “Everyone has equal opportunity to have a say.”

Carie Forden, professor of psychology, graduate program director and co-chair of the conference, also emphasize the conference’s multidisciplinary nature. “The conference was important because it brought together a diverse group of scholars and practitioners and gave them the opportunity to learn from each other, to network and to collaborate,” she said. “I suspect that there are some relationships that began there that are going to have a profound positive impact on this region in the years to come.”

Breaking the Stigma

Conferences like this are particularly important in the region, considering the stigma against mental health issues in Egypt and a general lack of awareness about what psychology means and how community psychology fits in.

“Psychology carries a lot of negative connotations and is seen as a low-status field in Egypt,” noted Amer. “There is a lack of understanding in Egyptian culture of what psychology is. People assume it is only counseling people with mental problems, but psychology is a multifaceted discipline with many distinct subfields.”

Even on the AUC campus, many people don’t understand how community psychology is different from counseling an individual who is suffering from depression or a couple struggling with their marriage, noted Amer. “Community psychology doesn’t focus on the individual; it focuses on the community or groups of people and the factors that connect them together,” she explained. “By understanding how communities work, community practitioners are better positioned to address social issues and find ways to eliminate the root causes. So whether you are talking about children living in the streets, rates of hepatitis, mental health stigma or gender discrimination, there needs to be a more systematic and ecological understanding of the issues and methods for trying to address that.”

The field also uses a ground-up approach, enabling and empowering people who live in the community. “Many community-based efforts are top-down where you have an expert who is encouraging, and in some cases imposing, methods of change that often perpetuate the same cycles of oppression,” said Amer. “Whereas community psychology really enhances the participation, empowerment and capacity building of people so they can make change themselves in a way that’s sustainable.”

A New Approach

Amer pointed out that students trained in community psychology are best equipped to address Egypt’s most pressing issues. “A lot of the challenges faced by people in Egyptian society are systemic, and there are many contextual issues that affect these problems that need to be taken into consideration when trying to alleviate them,” explained Amer.

While there are four graduate programs at AUC that focus on community change, community psychology is the only one that includes a psychological component to understand human and social behavior, bringing with it unique strategies to tackle social issues. “Our community psychology program is the first in the MENA region to offer culturally sensitive interventions to communities that are dealing with mental health issues,” said Hani Henry, associate professor of psychology and chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology. “We are proud of what our graduates have done to improve the quality of lives of individuals and communities in the region.”

Amer also emphasized that a lot of current community work is based on observation, passion or trial-and-error. “The program at AUC focuses on how to develop effective prevention and intervention programs in the community using empowerment-oriented, participatory and evidence-based approaches,” she said. “Aside from the way we approach issues, the program is also unique because it is so experiential and hands-on; almost every course at the graduate level incorporates community-based learning.” 

In addition to basic courses, every student completes a 20-hour internship per week for two semesters, and master’s theses have to be applied. “Besides theoretical concepts, students also gain skills in needs and resource assessment, program development, program evaluation and consultation,” said Amer.

“One of our mottos for the program,” affirmed Forden, “is ‘It's not what you do; it's how you do it,’ and that's because what is unique about community psychology is the approach: the ability to understand human problems in light of the larger social context, to work in a collaborative way, to approach people from a strength-based perspective, to focus on prevention rather than treatment and to rely on scientific evidence in creating interventions.”