July 16, 2010
I’m beginning to write a chapter on the state of Critical Psychology for a Chinese journal and I’ve spent a few hours flipping through writings, both mine and colleagues of mine. It’s part of how I create an environment for having a new thought, for allowing others (including myself!) inspire me. One of the things I re-read was a piece I wrote in 2005 for a book of narratives by psychologists about their life and work. (There’s some interesting lives in the volume, so you might want to check it out: Yancy, G. and Hadley, S. (Eds.), (2005) Narrative identities: Psychologists engaged in self-construction. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.) One part of the essay did spark an idea for something I want to address in the new article I’m writing. I want to explore the distinction between Critical Psychology as an academic subject and critical psychology as a daily practice anyone can engage in. Over the last decade, from what I see and experience, the distinction is blurring some, and that’s a good thing. Here’s the excerpt. (If you want to read the entire essay, it’s called Performing a Life (Story).
“Hi, my name is Lois Holzman. I teach psychology. I’m out here today because I think it’s so important to support young people doing something positive for their communities. That’s what the All Stars Talent Show Network, a city wide anti-violence program, is. I’m talking to people like you and asking you to support the young people of the All Stars by giving a dollar or 5 dollars or 25 dollars.”
This was the “R and D” for what became known in the activist community of which my work is a part as “the street performance.” Like all the programs my colleagues and I created, the All Stars Talent Show Network was built by volunteers like me reaching out to ordinary people—for financial support, for participants, for audiences, for fellow builders. For years we had gone door to door in city apartment houses and suburban homes. Now the idea was to talk a little bit to a lot of people. We created a 45 second “rap” that could stop and engage passersby on NYC’s busy street corners. Five or six of us set up a literature table as home base, fanned out a bit into the crowd, made eye contact with someone and delivered our personal versions of the rap. Those who were interested we would speak with in more depth at another time. (We invited people to give us their names and phone numbers so we could call them back, give them an update and ask them to contribute more. Many, many did.)
Of all the research I’ve done, this is the project I’m most proud of. Today the All Stars not only continues to reach tens of thousands of New York City kids, but through its expansion to cities up and down the east and west coasts, thousands more are participating. My involvement with this extraordinary youth development/supplemental education project is many-faceted (some of them more psychological in the traditional sense), but to have contributed in this way is very special to me.
How was it that I and artists, actors, social workers, teachers, doctors and secretaries could do this? We could and did by performing as other than who we were. We created the “stage” upon which we could perform bold and friendly and outgoing and proud of what we were doing, rather than behaving shy and intimidated and embarrassed. And in doing so, we became bold and friendly and outgoing and proud.
This kind of grassroots fundraising is essential if you’ve decided to be independent from government, university and corporate funding (as all the projects I’m involved in are). But it’s more than just a way to raise money. It’s community organizing. It’s relationship building. It’s giving people the opportunity to do something small. It’s allowing them to be touched and to be giving, if they choose. It’s finding out what people think. It’s discovering that they care. For about twenty years I regularly talked in this way to people on the street and at their doors, as a community organizer who happens to be a psychologist. It’s an antidote to cynicism.