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Addressing the Community Psychology Competency Dialectic through Participatory Pedagogy

Addressing the Community Psychology Competency Dialectic through Participatory Pedagogy by  Kelly Collins, Christopher Keys, Martina Mihelicova, Kris Ma, Nicole Colon Quintana, Jordan Reed, Madison Sunnquist, Carolyn Turek, Christopher Whipple

Author(s): Kelly Collins, Christopher Keys, Martina Mihelicova, Kris Ma, Nicole Colon Quintana, Jordan Reed, Madison Sunnquist, Carolyn Turek, Christopher Whipple


Ongoing discussions persist regarding the potential usefulness and/or harmfulness of a defined set of core competencies in the field of community psychology. The competency thesis is that identification of core competencies can help define the field and distinguish the capabilities of community psychologists (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). A set of competencies has implications for training and education, including clarity regarding what skills current and future students can expect to learn and what community psychologists may be expected to do. However, others have criticized the nature of standardized competencies. Presenting the antithesis to the competency thesis, Dzidic, Breen and Bishop (2013) question if compartmentalized competencies focus too much on static, individually oriented skills. They may distract from considerations of context, ethics and power within the dynamic ecologies of community psychology practice.

Community psychology education and training programs are challenged with exposing students to a variety of central competencies while preparing them to engage in value-based research and practice in context. This article focuses on three applications of participatory pedagogy within the classroom that sought to synthesize the dialectic between core competencies and values-based, dynamic community psychology practice. Instructional materials for all three sessions are appended both for readers’ perusal as examples and for possible future adaptation and use in other community psychology courses. Participatory pedagogical approaches seek to foster student engagement, reflection, and collaboration to promote critical thinking, knowledge application and problem solving. In so doing, participatory pedagogy can bridge the gap between competencies and context, and offer at least a partial synthesis for the competency dialectic in community psychology education and training.


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The Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) released the first public draft of Core Competencies for Community Psychology Practice in 2012 which identified 18 core competencies for the practice of community psychology (CP) (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). The identification of core competencies has helped define the field and describe the skills of trained community psychologists. The set of competencies stimulates dialogue regarding the roles and contributions of community psychologists, and provides a framework for informing fellow psychologists, colleagues from other disciplines, and potential employers about effective CP practice.

The set of competencies has important implications for CP training and education. Those interested in CP training can use the list to gain a clearer idea of what community practice involves, in turn promoting their ability to set developmental and career goals. The set of competencies can also be used to systematically review, tailor and enhance graduate education curricula and teaching strategies (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012; Hazel, 2007).

Notwithstanding the benefits of core competencies for community psychology practice, there remain a variety of challenges when it comes to teaching these skills, especially within a classroom setting. Some have expressed concern about the set, based on the inherent qualities of traditional competencies as relatively static and siloed individual abilities. For community psychologists, competencies that are decontextualized may create a disconnect between the idea of the competencies and the process of their ethical application in community-based practice (Dzidic, Breen, & Bishop, 2013). Of concern is the risk of educational programs teaching CP competencies as static, procedural goals that can be mastered quickly with limited reflection and attention to context and values. Therefore, in contrast, CP training and education programs that actively involve students in the development of competencies in use best prepare students for the complexities of dynamic practice in community settings.

While it is recommended that, at a minimum, students are exposed to each of the core competencies and taught relevant ethics and potential applications, Dalton and Wolfe (2012) acknowledge that it would not be likely for graduate programs to provide in-depth training, such as supervised practice in the form of fieldwork over time, for the entire set of competencies. Rather, the set is intended to outline what CP can look like, recognizing that CP practice is inherently situated within complex, ever changing ecological realities. Thus, CP education and training programs are challenged with exposing students to a variety of central competencies at a conceptual level, while also providing opportunities for students to use their developing competencies in dynamic contexts and to reflect critically on their use. Hazel (2007) explains the need to develop alternative teaching and learning strategies that provide an education that “focuses not just on content, but also on process, the process of practice as well as the process of learning” (p.85).

To help accomplish the substantive and process goals of CP training and education (Dzidic et al., 2013; Hazel, 2007), this article suggests the use of participatory pedagogy in CP classrooms. The authors begin with an overview of participatory pedagogy and discuss the potential value of this approach within CP training. We then provide three examples of applications of participatory pedagogy within the classroom that sought to constructively synthesize the dialectic between core competencies and values-based, dynamic community psychology practice.

Teaching Core Competencies through Application of Participatory Pedagogy

Freire (1972) asserts that traditional pedagogy is founded on passive listening and storing deposits of knowledge that stifles students’ ability to critically think in a way that limits their opportunities to apply information to understand reality. Constraining critical thinking and application of knowledge impedes students’ ability to transform knowledge into creative solutions and actions. Research indicates traditional pedagogies produce lower rates of information retention, ability to apply knowledge to novel situations, critical thinking, and problem solving. When compared to increasingly popular participatory and collaborative classroom formats, traditional pedagogy also yields lower levels of motivation, attitude change and peer collaboration (Eagan, Stolzenberg, Lozano, Aragon, Suchard, & Hurtado, 2014; Fink, 2013; Johnson, Johnson, & Stanne, 2000)

In contrast to traditional approaches, participatory pedagogy redefines the student’s role from a passive listener and optional discussant to an active participant in the teaching and learning process. It encourages thinking deeply and critically, reflecting on and sharing experiences and prior knowledge, solving problems and actively applying new knowledge gained through course content (Auerbach, 1993; Faust & Paulson, 1998). Siemens (2008) describes participatory pedagogy as “one that does not fully define all curricular needs in advance of interacting with learners...multiple perspectives, opinions, and active creation on the part of learners all contribute to the final context of the learner experience” (“A pedagogy of participation,” para. 4). Participatory pedagogical approaches can provide a framework to help bridge the gap between the theoretical knowledge and static understanding of the competencies with the dynamic skills needed to practice CP competencies within active community settings. If the set of core competencies provides substance for CP courses (cf. the competency thesis above), the application of participatory pedagogy can provide dynamism and context to the learning material to address the concerns of stasis and decontextualization (cf. the antithesis above) suggested by Dzidic and colleagues (2013). The synthesis achieved through participatory pedagogy lends itself to the critical examination of social issues and CP theoretical foundations, and deep understanding of community psychology readings. This participatory synthesis also provides opportunities for collaborative learning with colleagues, problem solving related to community concerns, and reflection on the values and ethics of community-based work. 

This article discusses the application of participatory pedagogy within a graduate community psychology course. It explores three illustrative examples of student-designed sessions that promoted participatory, collaborative learning concerning competencies in community psychology. These examples are followed by a discussion of the benefits and challenges to teaching CP competencies using this pedagogical approach, and potential use of these activities in other undergraduate and graduate courses. Instructional materials for all three sessions are appended for readers’ information, adaptation and use in other courses.

Illustrative Examples of Participatory Pedagogy and CP Training: Our Community Psychology Course

The community psychology course discussed is a graduation requirement for community, clinical-child and clinical-community psychology doctoral students, and is optionally available to graduate students in various other graduate programs (e.g., education, counseling, general psychology) at DePaul University. The instructor (Chris Keys) and the students met in the classroom for one and a half hours twice weekly throughout the 10-week academic quarter. The purpose of the course was to introduce students to major theories, research studies, and interventions within the field of community psychology. The course syllabus explained that, core values in community psychology include “awareness of strengths, prevention of problems and promotion of health, empowerment of those who are oppressed, valuing of diversity and difference, appreciation of ecology, community ties and context, community participation in research, and the use of multiple levels of analysis to understand social issues.” 

From the first day, the instructor approached the seminar course as a collaboration between all students and himself. For example, he asked students for feedback on the syllabus content, encouraged students to suggest alternate reading assignments, and sought student recommendations for guest speakers whom they would like to have visit throughout the quarter. Students were encouraged to tailor writing assignments, discussions, and the large final project to their individual areas of interest (e.g., chronic illness, at-risk youth, violence against women) to maximize the application and relevance of learning material. 

The following three examples are of participatory student–generated sessions, in which student planning group members used course materials (viz., assigned readings) to promote learning of CP core competencies as both content and processes (cf. Auerbach, 1993). Generating, facilitating and participating in sessions provided students an opportunity for meaningful engagement to conceptually learn about CP competencies while also building the skills needed for practice (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012; Dzidic, Breen, & Bishop, 2013). It also gave them experience in empowerment as instructors for their session. While each of the three groups approached the sessions differently, there were common, active learning experiences present in all three sessions. In terms of preparation, three class sessions of reading and discussing a cluster of individual articles on focal topics preceded each of these three student-created and led participatory sessions.

The sessions encouraged critical thinking, reflection, and collaboration and multi-way learning among students. Students engaged course content in a meaningful way that reinforced, challenged, and integrated their own prior knowledge, as well as that of their peers. Incorporating opportunities for students to engage with others as both learners and teachers allowed students to practice competencies related to forming and participating in groups that work together as equals, acknowledging that everyone has valuable expertise to contribute. The class pursued collective goals that neither individuals nor a single group could accomplish alone. These process skills prepare students to effectively practice competencies such as community inclusion, partnership, and collaboration, ethical reflective practices, and small and large group processes (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). At the same time the activities sought to foster other process-oriented skills as outlined by Dzidic and colleagues (2013) including an engagement in lifelong learning, humility, and fostering participatory approaches. Engagement in life-long learning promotes humility as learning in these sessions did not focus primarily on learning the definitions of experts, but privileged the ongoing development of one’s own imperfect ideas and process-based skills in ways that encourage growth over time (Dzidic et al., 2013).

In addition to these shared benefits, each session synthesized learning particular course content with activities that promoted process-oriented skills. These distinctive elements are highlighted below; for details on how each of these sessions was conducted, see Appendices A, B and C. These materials can act as examples to help students develop their own participatory sessions. In addition, they may highlight specific elements that are important to participatory learning, or may be more closely replicated as detailed in the appendices. Given the substantial benefits to students of conceptualizing, designing and conducting their own sessions, we recommend that option.

Example Session 1: Thinking Ecologically when Applying CP Concepts to Community Programs

Purpose and goals. The first session was relatively cognitive in emphasis. It addressed the competency category of foundational principles more heavily than other sessions, especially the ecological perspectives competency.  It aimed to develop students’ ability to apply ecological perspectives in complex community contexts and strengthen their theoretical understanding of CP concepts. This section of the course covered a wide range of diverse CP foundational concepts including: (1) feminist approaches, (2) critical community psychology, (3) physical environment within social ecology, (4) cultural competence, and (5) social support, social capital, and sense of community. Students were asked to collaboratively define these major CP concepts, and then explore applying each within the ecological context of a community-based intervention or prevention program. Students were encouraged to consider factors at multiple ecological levels, how they relate to the CP concepts listed above, and how they might impact the design and implementation of the program.

In addition to exposing the students more fully to the CP concepts listed, this session provided the opportunity for students to practice dynamic applications of the ecological perspective competency. The ecological perspective competency is defined by Dalton and Wolfe (2012) as the ability to, “articulate and apply multiple ecological perspectives and levels of analysis in community practice (p. 10).” The overall goals of the session were for students to be able to: (a) define major concepts in community psychology, (b) consider how the presence or absence of these concepts may impact program effectiveness based on factors at multiple ecological levels, and (c) think about how the incorporation of the concepts might be prioritized given the ecological context of the program. For more detailed information and instructions on Example Session 1, please see Appendix A.

Development and implementation. During session development, the facilitating group organized students into smaller groups based on research interests (e.g., at-risk youth, chronic health issues). Relevant samples of actual community-based programs were selected for each small group, such as the Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS), a program that “aims at addressing the impact of community and family violence on children through a trauma-informed, school-based prevention/intervention” (UCSF HEARTS Program, 2015). By exploring a sample program in their area of interest, students were better able to integrate their previous knowledge with the five CP concepts (i.e., feminist approaches, critical community psychology, physical environment within social ecology, cultural competence, and social support, social capital, and sense of community) being presented and then apply an ecological perspective. Student leaders used small and large group processes. The session began with the small groups co-constructing definitions of the five CP concepts. The small groups all came back together as a one large group and worked together to finalize definitions of each CP concept. This cognitive group activity provided the opportunity to conceptualize, to hear how others defined each concept and to practice collaborative decision making.

Each small group was provided information regarding their assigned sample program (e.g., HEARTS). In order to explore potential applications of CP concepts with consideration of context (Dzidic et al., 2013), students were asked to become familiar with the details of the program (e.g., population served, programmatic principles or theory, intervention goal or outcomes). Then they considered ecological factors at macro-, meso- and micro-levels impacting the program (e.g., geographic location, public policy, interactions with additional systems such as public schools). Within small groups, students were asked to collaborate to identify: (a) which of the five CP concepts were present and absent in their intervention, (b) which would be beneficial and feasible to incorporate based on the ecological factors influencing the program and why, and (c) how they could go about incorporating the concepts. During small group discussions, facilitators engaged with the groups to ensure that the activity’s purpose was understood and to answer any questions.

The class session concluded with a large group discussion of each small group’s experiences during which facilitators asked broad questions that created a space for reflection. Sample questions included, “After thinking about applying these concepts to actual interventions, do you think differently about these concepts? If so, how?” “What thoughts did you have about intervening at different ecological levels of the project?” This large group reflection was an opportunity for students to expand their understanding of how the various concepts could be utilized in diverse, multi-level ecologies. Group members openly reviewed their collaboration process and rationales, including ethics involved in deciding how to prioritize application of concepts given the dynamic, multi-level context of the community programs.

Outcomes and reflections. While working to deepen their understanding of diverse CP concepts, students found the session activities exposed them to thinking ecologically. They gained introductory experience with the foundational competence of articulating and applying an ecological systems perspective to a community-based program. Participants mentioned that collaboratively describing and defining the concepts at the beginning of the session helped them feel more comfortable and prepared to discuss application to interventions. Additionally, working together in both small and large groups helped diversify the activities and made it easier for each person to have a chance to share their ideas. It promoted a process competence—employing group-based skills such as articulating a point of view and building consensus (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). Session facilitators also engaged in learning by listening to conversations, answering questions, and asking questions to encourage further critical thinking. By reflecting on the multiple contextual factors at macro-, meso- and micro-levels that created barriers or facilitators to incorporating the CP concepts, students learned that there was no one-size-fits-all formula for application. The session leaders encouraged critical self-reflection of values and assumptions to prepare students to think about and apply context dependent CP concepts in diverse ecologies.

Example Session 2: Simulating the Start of Community Program Development

Purpose and goals. This next participatory session focused more on process issues. In particular, the emphasis was on the second major competency category, community program development and management. The centerpiece of this session simulated the initial planning stages of an intervention, in which students took on roles as various stakeholders. See Appendix B for more details on how to conduct this session. After two weeks of reading and discussion on prevention, promotion, and empowerment, students used this role-playing activity to integrate these principles in a real-time scenario situated within a community context. The session also helped to develop skills needed for the initial stages of program development, implementation and management within a collaborative group setting. As defined by Dalton and Wolfe (2012), this competence includes the ability to, “partner with community stakeholders to plan, develop, implement and sustain programs in community settings” (p. 11).

This experiential activity aimed to highlight: (a) processes and skills related to assessing “community issues, needs, strength and resources” (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012, p.11), (b) collaboration-related challenges in designing an intervention with diverse stakeholders, and (c) practical issues in identifying and acting in accord with community psychology values and ethics in developing and implementing interventions.

Development and implementation. The student developers of this group activity were inspired by a class reading, Ready, willing, and able: Developing a support system to promote implementation of school-based prevention programs (Flashpohler, Meehan, Maras, & Keller, 2012). This article described a process to determine school readiness for the implementation of new programs or initiatives. Brainstorming sessions by the planning group resulted in the decision to facilitate a dynamic practice scenario in which class members were assigned roles as community psychologists, school administrators, teachers, or parents.

Class members were divided into three groups: community psychologists, a cross section of individuals from a well-resourced school, and a cross section from an under-resourced school. Each class participant was given confidential information on his or her specific role that included a title (e.g. school principal, teacher, research assistant, etc.), background history, and motivations related to the intervention. To mimic the realistic challenges and advantages of collaborating with groups of diverse stakeholders, the scenario incorporated power dynamics and varying perspectives. Additionally, each school team was given information on their strengths, weaknesses, and resources. After each class member read these documents, the facilitators informed the class that the schools had each applied to work with the group of community psychologists to implement a school-derived intervention. Unfortunately, the community psychologists could only work with one school.

Next, the community psychologist group interviewed teams from both schools to get acquainted with each school’s stakeholders and assess each community’s needs and readiness for the intervention. Subsequently, the team of community psychologists selected a school with which to work. The selected school and the community psychologists then collaborated to develop an intervention and create a plan to implement it. The other school that was not selected was instructed to do the same solo, i.e., without the assistance of the community psychologists.

Each of the groups, the school solo group and the school with community psychologists group, presented their final intervention to all. Then the facilitators asked probing questions to encourage participants to reflect on their roles and personal reactions at various stages throughout the scenario. Participants discussed challenges and solutions when collaborating with diverse groups of community partners and the importance of including these diverse perspectives. They also explored the ethical complexities of assessing community needs and readiness, and whether they incorporated aspects of prevention and/or promotion in their interventions. The team of community psychologists was asked if and how they empowered the school team, and the non-selected school was asked to reflect on how their non-selection empowered and/or disempowered them. If these concepts of empowerment and/or prevention were not applied, class members were asked to reflect upon the challenges they faced in incorporating them.

Outcomes and reflections. Overall, this activity was well-received by class members and led to rich discussion about the nuances of collaborating with community stakeholders to assess community needs and resources and plan, develop, and implement a community-based program. The role-playing allowed the students to consider multiple worldviews and experience the complex nature of starting community program development. The session encouraged students to examine how empowerment and prevention may be used in schools to help students achieve goals. At the same time, students considered the complexity of addressing ethics in this dynamic community context; specifically, students reflected on complicated ethical decisions in choosing which school to work with. They considered a variety of factors such as available resources, and how, if it all, the community psychologists could also empower the unselected school. This process fostered understanding of some of the contextual facilitators and barriers associated with community participation and intervention development.

Additionally, because empowerment and prevention were not explicitly discussed when the scenarios were initially presented, students could reflect upon how an intervention development process could unintentionally fail to incorporate these values. Thus, the activity underscored the need for purposeful group planning in order to successfully incorporate the concepts learned in the classroom when working in the community.

Example Session 3: Using a Diversity Game to Experience Systemic Inequity and Build Sociocultural and Cross-Cultural Competence

Purpose and goals. The previous two sessions focused on learning concepts and applying theories in dynamic community contexts. The first more cognitive session emphasized the readings and thinking about their use ecologically. The second more process-oriented session emphasized development of a community prevention program in a school, using the readings as a resource. Building on these successful experiences, the third session took learning to another level – an experiential simulation of systemic inequality.  Modeled from the television game show Jeopardy, a diversity game tested students’ knowledge of course content within a simulated systemic dynamic of privilege and oppression. The ultimate goal was to build students’ sociocultural and cross-cultural competence by grounding their understanding in the experience of inequity in the diversity game followed by reflection on the presence and impact of the structural power imbalances in the game. These power differences exemplified the need for community inclusion and partnership and bottom-up approaches in CP.

Specifically, the session sought to develop students’ ability to “analyze social inequality and power imbalances,” and to articulate “how the dynamics of culture, privilege and power influence interactions within the community context in which one is working, including one’s own interactions.” (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012; p. 10). Instead of presenting students with paradigms of diversity, this participatory approach allowed students to experience diversity, oppression and privilege in their own ways. Then they generated a wide variety of ideas on the topic that guided the discussion in a beneficial path for their learning. The same perspective speaks to the value of community psychologists encouraging indigenous interventions. Participating community members drive these interventions rather than having others impose novel, extra-community interventions that may challenge the community’s culture (Kelly, 1988).

Development and implementation. The facilitation group was comprised of four students from various ethnic and academic backgrounds (Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, United States and Mexico; clinical psychology program, community psychology program, and counseling program). The purpose was to question the dominant narratives in society about diversity and identify other neglected worldviews (Dzidic et al., 2013). As members of minority race and ethnicity groups, student planners’ own experiences spoke to how society promotes the value of diversity yet avoids the inconvenient truth of the systemic inequality and stereotypes faced by oppressed populations.

Inspired by Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise on race and discrimination (Byrnes & Kiger, 1992), we invited our class to play a Jeopardy-like game with assigned roles associated with unearned privileges or disadvantages assigned at random for each student. To simulate power imbalances and systemic oppression in this activity, we assigned disadvantages (e.g. language restrictions, disability) and unearned privileges (e.g. Earn twice as many points as others) to each student. We also prepared candies as resources that were unevenly distributed through an unfair reward system. The instructions of the game were also carefully designed to represent a dysfunctional system characterized by power imbalances, inequities, and a lack of opportunities for collaboration.

When the game began, each class member was given a card and instructed to silently read their role description. See Appendix C for details on playing the diversity game including suggested role characteristics. The class was briefed on the instructions of the diversity game. Parallel to Jeopardy, the class could choose questions from one of the four categories; the diversity game categories were: 1) Advocacy, 2) Acculturation, 3) Oppression and 4) Multicultural Competence. These topics had been considered in the readings during the previous two weeks of our class.  Each category was comprised of ten questions, ranging from 100 points (the easiest question) to 1000 points (the hardest question).

During the game, multiple forces were in play to simulate the dynamic context of systemic inequality. First, students might employ strategies to circumvent their own or a classmate’s disadvantage in order to answer questions. For example, one student was assigned to a disadvantaged role of not pronouncing any words with a letter “c”. She chose to write the answer on a piece of paper in order to avoid saying the word “advocacy”. Second, group leaders who facilitated the game had the highest authority, and they could change their power influences from time to time to illustrate the dynamics of shifting power. In the above example, group leaders might or might not accept the student’s workaround answer such as one written on a piece of paper.  Third, aspects of the unfair scoring and rewarding systems were sometimes made explicit to enlarge the inequality effect. For example, everyone could see that the person who answered the question correctly received candy and that one privileged student received candy after any question was answered correctly or incorrectly by anyone. Others did not receive any candy. Fourth, barriers to understanding and communicating among group members were deliberate. For example, one disadvantaged member had to turn his back to all other players and the diversity game board. Class members played the game for about 35 minutes until they were clearly expressing some frustration about the inequities.

A 35-minute discussion was held after the game ended. Group leaders debriefed about the design of the simulation activity and each class member revealed their role descriptions. All shared observations and reflections about their experiences. Potential parallels between game processes and CP practice were discussed. These included reflecting upon their worldviews and assumptions, considering the intersections of culture and systematic inequality, and implications of understanding cross cultural competence as a value that requires reflexivity (Dzidic et al., 2013). For instance, how was participants’ experience similar to or different from the reality in which people of diverse backgrounds were living? How did multiple worldviews, cultures and social identities play a role in class members’ interpreting of their experience? The class further discussed diversity at two levels: diversity at the individual level – how their own unique role descriptions affected the way they participated in the game; and diversity at the contextual level – how the structure and norms of the game affected the way they participated. These discussions helped students think about and experience diversity, and relatedly inequity, as rooted in both individual and context.

Outcomes and reflection. This activity turned out to be a remarkable learning experience for both the planning team and participants. Participants rapidly developed strong feelings towards their roles and the differential treatment they received during the game. For those who had unearned privileges, they were either answering the questions comfortably or not doing anything (e.g., There was one participant whose unearned privilege was earning extra points for any correct answer question he gave. He thought this unfair and therefore answered very few questions). For those who were assigned disadvantages, frustration was clearly seen on their faces when they knew the answer to questions but could not answer. They also shared their surprisingly intense experience of “learned helplessness” in face of their limitations in game participation. The frustration was an important take-away message about how difficult it may be for people who have knowledge that may be of value to a community, but lack a platform to have their voice heard and share their knowledge with others. On the other side, group leaders learned that their leadership was powerful enough to change the power dynamics – either perpetuating the oppression or redefining the status quo – to determine the outcomes for each participant. By simply making instructions that privileged some students while oppressing others, and implementing game instructions and rules inconsistently, the facilitating group created unfair dynamics that clearly worked in favor of the privileged.  Overall, the simulation of systemic inequality inspired each one of us to think how diversity and power are intertwined with our lives and allowed us to discuss these issues from various perspectives.                  


The set of core competencies for community psychology practice help to define and move the field forward, and serve as a useful guide for training and educational programs (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). The question remains, however, of how to “walk the talk”; that is, how CP training and education programs can effectively combine core theoretical knowledge with skills training needed in the dynamic context-dependent practice of community psychology (cf. Hazel, 2007)?  When teaching community psychology in a classroom setting, participatory pedagogy provides a tool for bridging the disconnect between competencies and applied practice, the static and the dynamic. 

In this article, we have outlined three examples of participatory student-generated sessions that incorporated CP core competencies as both content and processes (cf. Auerbach, 1993). In all sessions, the student planning group members created, planned and implemented an intervention activity and facilitated group interaction. Class members took part in the activities providing valuable contributions as participating members and facilitating leaders. Everyone involved reflected on their experiences as part of each session and its meanings for the planners and participants.

The first relatively cognitive session worked to strengthen students’ ecological thinking and sought to enhance their knowledge of multiple CP theories (viz., feminist approaches, critical community psychology, physical environment within social ecology, cultural competence, social support, social capital, and sense of community). At the same time students were exposed to and experienced the process of articulating and applying ecological systems perspectives within specific community settings (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012).They considered how multilevel ecological factors in real examples of community-based programs would impact their desire and ability to incorporate these CP theories, and reflected on the complex process of context-dependent application.

In the second process-oriented session, the focus was on the dynamic environment of the simulated community setting. In it, students applied the community psychology principles of prevention, health promotion, and empowerment in a role-play concerning the initial stages of community program development. They practiced the nuanced processes of meeting with community stakeholders to assess community needs and resources and to start planning a community-based program. The session showed how the ethical application of CP principles and theories may be neither readily predictable and nor clearly right and wrong, given the multitude of dynamic factors in a given community setting (Dzidzic et al., 2013).

The third experiential session on diversity created a simulation of systemic inequality to build students’ experience of and their ability to analyze injustice (Byrnes & Kiger, 1992). Students reflected on how their privilege and oppression influence their attitudes and interactions in the diversity game context of the structural power imbalances. Ultimately, they identified the need for community inclusion and partnership and bottom-up approaches to “value… and bridge multiple world views, cultures and identities” (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012, p. 10)

We offer these three sessions as examples of teaching that move away from both the traditional pedagogy that Freire (1972) critiques and the static view of competencies that Dzidzic et al. (2013) deplore. However, we value identifying the talents of community psychologists even as we strongly appreciate the dynamism of the field and the evolving nature of its practice and contextualism. By themselves these kinds of active sessions may provide part of a valuable beginning to community psychology graduate education and training (cf. Faust & Paulson, 1998). We believe these sessions are likely to be successful learning opportunities when students develop and lead class activities as well as participate in them. However, even when successful, such sessions only expose students to community psychology competencies and offer a modest amount of experience enacting them. Thus, they introduce the competencies but are insufficient in and of themselves for providing adequate experience and developing meaningful expertise. Other innovative approaches to classroom learning and beyond are needed to develop competencies (Fink, 2013; Hazel, 2008; Johnson, Johnson & Stanne, 2000; Siemens, 2008). High quality fieldwork, practice and research experiences with excellent mentoring in community settings over significant periods of time are also essential (Serrano-García, Pérez-Jiménez, & Rodríguez-Medina, 2017; Dalton & Wolfe, 2012).

Implications for Community Psychology Training and Future Research

The establishment of a well-defined set of CP competencies for practice enables CP students to set developmental skill and career goals. The set provides a framework for educators and encourages ongoing discussion of how these skills can best be taught within CP educational and training programs (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012). The application of participatory pedagogy in CP classrooms promotes the aforementioned benefits while honoring the qualities of process- oriented virtue competencies outlined by Dzidic and colleagues (2013), such as reflexivity and humility. Moreover, the dynamics of participatory pedagogy encourage the students to understand the flexible nature of competencies as ever evolving (viz., living, changing and acquired throughout the entire course of one’s career). Such dynamic, reflective practices also situate future community psychologists to identify important emergent competencies in the field; that is, competencies not yet articulated by Dalton and Wolfe (2012) that in time become increasingly recognized and important. Having an open-system view of competencies will help community psychologists keep abreast of new developments and update the list of competencies to be current and relevant for different people and contexts (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012).

While a great amount of work has been done to develop a useful set of competencies (Dalton & Wolfe, 2012), there is still more work to do including: 1) define community psychology practice both across and within graduate programs without restrictive standardization or accreditation, 2) identify and communicate pedagogical approaches for effectively incorporating core competencies within training and educational programs, and 3) evaluate graduate programs’ ability to successfully prepare students for community psychology practice. Serrano-García, Pérez-Jiménez, & Rodríguez-Medina’s (2017) thoughtful overview of educational methods, programs and curricula in community psychology offers a valuable point of departure.

Future research may explore benefits and limitations of participatory pedagogy compared and contrasted with traditional pedagogical approaches, such as lecture-based learning, within CP classrooms. It would be beneficial to determine empirically if and how participatory pedagogy is an effective approach for increased understanding and application of core competencies as emergent, contextual, and value-based. Moreover, is it differentially effective for different sets of competencies (e.g., those addressed in research and evaluation courses versus group process and fieldwork courses)? Finally, through follow-up with previous CP graduate students, it would be beneficial to explore how types of learning in graduate education have impacted community psychology practice.

Limitations and Strengths

Notwithstanding the value of the approach illustrated in this article, our examples of participatory pedagogy in a community psychology course are not without limitation. Firstly, these three sessions were limited primarily to the context of one classroom, teacher, and set of students. We also successfully shared the diversity game in a participatory session at the 2015 Midwest Eco-Community Psychology Conference. Based on these experiences we have seen how participatory pedagogy in the classroom can mirror the dynamism of community psychology practice in local organizations and communities. Thereby the quicksilver of community competencies in use becomes evident and the complexity of their use more obvious. At this point, participatory pedagogy needs to be implemented and studied more broadly in diverse settings, such as larger undergraduate courses, to yield a better understanding of its potential usefulness and challenges. It is important to synthesize the dialectic and thereby bridge the gap between content and process, static and dynamic, and competence and context in all areas of community psychology training and education, including both the classroom and the community (e.g., fieldwork, service based learning). We hope our positive experiences will encourage others to use and study the impact of participatory pedagogy to bring these competencies to life within community psychology learning environments.


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Kelly Collins, Christopher Keys, Martina Mihelicova, Kris Ma, Nicole Colon Quintana, Jordan Reed, Madison Sunnquist, Carolyn Turek, Christopher Whipple Kelly Collins, Christopher Keys, Martina Mihelicova, Kris Ma, Nicole Colon Quintana, Jordan Reed, Madison Sunnquist, Carolyn Turek, Christopher Whipple

Kelly Collins is a graduate student in the Community Psychology program at DePaul University. She received her B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies from Michigan State University. Her research focuses on violence against women and homelessness. She is interested in community engagement and improving systems and policy through multidisciplinary collaboration.

Chris Keys has been teaching community psychology to graduates and undergraduates for over four decades. He has used participatory teaching methods in community, clinical, social and organizational psychology courses and as a finalist for a university-wide teaching award for one of his participatory courses. He helped develop and directed community-organizational, community-clinical and free-standing community psychology doctoral programs at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). He also helped develop an undergraduate major in applied psychology which included a gateway course in community psychology. He helped found an undergraduate concentration in community psychology and contributes to doctoral programs in clinical-community and freestanding community psychology at DePaul University. He has served as treasurer and chair of the Council of Community Psychology Program Directors, forerunner of the SCRA Council of Educational Programs, and as chair of the Council of Training Councils.

Martina Mihelicova is a graduate student in the Clinical-Community Psychology PhD program at DePaul University. Martina is involved in conducting qualitative research with various communities, including people experiencing homelessness, homeless service providers, and rape crisis workers. Through community-based research, Martina works with and learns from people experiencing trauma and barriers to recovery, including stigma, lack of services, poverty, and staff turnover. She is also committed to supporting direct service providers in light of the impact of trauma exposure on well-being.

Kris (Pui Kwan) Ma is a third-year doctoral student in the Clinical-Community Psychology program at DePaul University. She received her Bachelor of Social Science’s degree in Psychology in 2013 from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her current research centers on addressing health and mental health disparities in underserved communities. She aims to design culturally responsive behavioral health interventions for racially and ethnically diverse communities. She is also keen on developing evidence-based public health interventions to reduce physical comorbidities among individuals with mental illness. Kris recently worked with a community mental health clinic to examine the effectiveness of the wellness intervention in a primary care-behavioral health integrated care setting for Asian Americans with mental illness.

Nicole Colón-Quintana is a graduate student in the clinical psychology PhD program at DePaul University. Currently, her research centers on understanding the relationship between language fluency and depression in low income, bilingual minority youth. In her community, Nicole serves as a youth mentor and family counselor for Spanish-speaking families. She also works as a group therapist in Chicago public schools, teaching coping skills to middle school students who experience depression. Nicole is interested in advancing evidence-based treatments for youth and families from different socioeconomic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds.

Jordan Reed is a 3rd year doctoral student in the Community Psychology program at DePaul University. His current research interests relate to the experience of first-generation college students, and increasing empathy for persons experiencing mental health issues through the use of computer simulations.

Madison Sunnquist is a doctoral student in DePaul University’s Clinical-Community Psychology program. Her research interests relate to stigma reduction and access to quality health care for individuals with invisible chronic illnesses. She hopes to utilize participatory research to inform policy decisions that would provide more support and resources to individuals with these illnesses.

Carolyn Turek is a graduate student in the Clinical Psychology PhD program at DePaul University. Her research interests include family management of chronic childhood illnesses, family health behaviors, and the role of stress in chronic illness management.

Christopher Whipple is a graduate student in the Community Psychology doctoral program at DePaul University. His research interests include community and school-based prevention programs for adolescents, specifically prevention programs aimed at violence and substance use, and novel recovery programs for individuals with substance use disorders.

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Keywords: Community Psychology Practice Competencies, Pedagogy, Dialectic, Training