The Community Consulting Group, New York City - CCGNY

Community Action and Community
Psychology En/In Chile

Mark B. Borg, Jr. PhD

Borg, Jr., M. B. (2002). Community Psychology and Community
Action En/In Chile. The Community Psychologist, 35 (1): 32-35.

I RECENTLY ATTENDED AND PRESENTED a paper at the 28th Inter-American Congress of Psychology in Santiago, Chile (July 27 – August 3, 2001). The overriding theme of the conference was "Toward a Psychology for Human Well-Being." The conference celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Inter-American Congress of Psychology and held, as its general focus, a need for psychologists in the Americas to shift our focus from pathology and deficit to a perspective that is more oriented toward human potential and well-being.

This report details certain aspects of my experience of the conference, South American community psychology, and on some of my passing sociological observations of community life in Chile. The audience and other panelists' reactions to my paper were telling in this regard. My paper was titled, "Conflicto y Resolucion en Psicologia Communitario" (Conflict and Resolution in Community Psychology). I primarily focused on active intervention approaches to community psychology, empowerment, and primary prevention. I presented detailed descriptions of a number of community revitalization projects that I have been involved in. My main point was how active community interventions, in contrast to purely empirical or assessment-oriented approaches, can address the real and problematic circumstances of communities characterized by acute and/or chronic trauma (Borg, Garrod, & Dalla, 2001). I focused on how an active empowerment intervention can assist community members in formulating collaborative solutions to self-defined problems in living (Rappaport, 1986; Zimmerman, 2000). The ways that such problems may become highlighted and malleable in the context of a community crisis were also explored. Details of a model for community revitalization and the potential means of tapping into the synergistic potential (Katz, 1984) inherent in a specific community's, often unrecognized, resources (i.e., service agencies, resident advisory councils, etc.) was elaborated.

Three main points were addressed in discussing a model of community action. These points were developed through the explication of a number of community revitalization projects that have been applied to acute and chronic crisis in a number of intervention settings (e.g., post-riot South Central Los Angeles, the current tertiary educational system in South Africa, and the transitional living situation of a number of New York City residents deemed "Homeless/ Mentally Ill"). The three points were:

  1. Point of Impact  The point of impact is the intersection between a current traumatic event and the historically experienced and shared pain/more chronic pain in the community. It is the emotional epicenter of chronic and traumatic pain in a community that can be unlocked through a current acute crisis/trauma (e.g., the riots in South Central Los Angeles, a natural disaster, political violence).
  2. Community Experience  Individuals generally experience trauma in relative isolation with a general lack of understanding as to its long-term impact (Herman, 1997). Through the point of impact, trauma in a community, experienced at the group level, can be shaped and shared through common language. This common language can serve to link the individual experiences of community members to relational and historical bonds that may not be recognizable in the context of a community that has, perhaps necessarily, detached itself from the chronic and everyday experience of trauma (e.g., oppression, poverty, and disenfranchisement).
  3. Community Character  Like an individual, community members (especially in the context of chronic trauma) can develop characteristic ways of interacting with each other that manifest in rules, regulations, sanctions, and taboos that work to maintain security and decrease awareness of overwhelming levels of anxiety within a community (Borg, Garrod & Dalla, in press).

I have gone into some detail regarding the content of my presentation with the aim of describing how the participants in the discussion received these ideas, most poignantly the idea of an active and participatory community intervention. I presented my paper in a forum with four other community psychologists working in South America: two women from Brazil, a woman from Chile, and a man from Argentina. I was the only English-speaking presenter and provided a summary of my paper in Spanish for the other presenters and the attendees. I spoke in English to an audience of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking people who had apparently interested, though quizzical, looks on their faces. My face, most likely, looked similar during the other presentations, as I am not fluent in Spanish or Portuguese.

The other presentations focused on empirical research and highly academic presentations of work in South American community psychology. The studies focused on the outcome measures and assessment techniques utilized to obtain an epidemiological understanding of what are and where are the problems and/or crises in specific geographical areas in various South American regions. As I attended other community psychology presentations, I observed that this was the general approach presented within the overall context of the conference.

There was a woman in the audience whom I recognized from other panels and presentations that I had attended. She had a very strong reaction to my presentation. During the discussion portion of the panel, she began an emotional dialogue with the panel coordinator, Dr. Beatriz Viscarra Iarranaga, a professor at the University of Temuco in Chile. Their conversation moved at a pace and intensity that, in my already relatively sparse understanding of her Spanish, I could not, at least content-wise, make out.

Dr. Iarranaga translated this Chilean woman's reaction and discussion for me. The woman was describing what Martin-Baro (1990) referred to as "psycho-social trauma," which is wide-scale trauma experienced at a societal level that threatens the social contracts generally maintained between people in a given culture. Martin-Baro was a Central American community psychologist who was murdered specifically related to his work in the community that was considered "subversive" by members of a revolutionary force, who were utilizing the same tactics of the totalitarian regime that they were opposing. The woman discussed emphatically that Chile's history of such (psycho-social) trauma was infrequently addressed in terms of its impact on still oppressed and disenfranchised communities in the country, as well as in other Latin American countries.

The atrocities experienced in Chile under the Pinochet regime required the promotion of a countrywide repression, where political views that ran counter to the regime's were not tolerated. This resulted in the use of the terrorist technique of disappearance (e.g., the 'desparecidos' — the missing) of those whose views were considered to be threatening to the regime. There are not yet reliable figures on the number of lives lost through the tactic of disappearance in Latin American countries (Spooner, 1999). Thus we begin to make sense of the depth of the "silencing," even among psychologists, that the Chilean practitioner was referring to. Pinochet's regime reigned in Chile from 1973 through 1990, and neither Pinochet, nor members of his regime have yet been held accountable for the atrocities committed "against humanity" in any meaningful way (Spooner, 1999). In the discussion that continued after the presentation, community psychology in South America was critiqued for its passivity (silence and inaction) in response to the "politics of disappearance" (Virilio & Lotringer, 1997, p. 89).

Relevant to community psychology and the political history of Chile is the concept of colonization. Cultural theorists utilize the concept of colonization to describe the processes wherein one culture imposes its values and assumptions on another (Fuery & Mansfield, 2000). This process results in the perpetuation of self-hatred, feelings of inferiority (in contrast to the "dominant" culture), and severely entrenched ambivalence about the resources, value of personal potentials, and opportunities available in the environment. In the totalitarian regime enforced by Pinochet and the Chilean military, it was the culture of the military, rather than an imperializing and hostile foreign force that colonized Chilean citizens. This form of colonization, wherein one group colonizes another group within the same country is called "endocolonization" (Virilio & Lotringer, 1997, p. 95). Endocolonization is ultimately perpetuated when one identifies with the oppressive force and, in turn, continues to oppress others in one's own population (or culture, or family). Colonization becomes internalized and perpetuates itself within a culture, resulting in a state of enforced invisibility (Moses, 1995).

Endocolonization can result in a widespread sense of uncanny confusion that can lead to vast areas of unacknowledged experience in individuals (Bromberg, 1998; Sullivan, 1953) and within the character structure of the community (Borg et al., 2001). This process relates to the condition wherein the very sources of security and protection are simultaneously the sources of oppression and terror. In the intervention conducted in South Central Los Angeles and New York City, there was not an expressed or overt sense of being traumatized by a totalitarian and omnipresent government regime. Yet, community residents consistently expressed a sense of underlying anxiety related to the overwhelming and all-encompassing experience of not knowing who the "enemy" was or where the "danger" was coming from. In this sense, the more chronic aspects of trauma among the South Central LA and New York communities are not so dissimilar from the expressed and reported experiences in South Africa (Merideth, 1999; Welsh, 1999) and Chile (Spooner, 1999; Verdugo, 1990).

As it was translated to me, the woman's question was, "When will community psychology in Chile address the ways that our own history of trauma has been silenced and how this silence still manifests itself in the 'missing' people who exist on the periphery of our society? When will we find a way to see the people who have been silenced and sanctioned off into invisibility by our inability or unwillingness to become actively involved in addressing the manifestations of wide-scale silencing of problems such as the poverty, hopelessness, and despair that still exists here?" I cannot say that this woman verbalized a general sentiment of South American, or even Chilean, community psychologists. She attended many of the presentations that I attended and it was only in the panel that I have been discussing that she shared these sentiments. However, the participants in the discussion certainly seemed to empathize with this woman's sense of frustration and indignation about her concerns for the community.

As I traveled to Chillan, which is a city that is about 480 kilometers South of Santiago, I thought about this woman's questions and her sense of urgency regarding active, participatory intervention in the disenfranchised communities throughout Chile and other Latin American countries. Along the roadside, especially at the peripheries of major cities such as Santiago, there are numerous shantytowns constructed of plywood, cardboard, and other seemingly disposable materials that one might find among the refuse of a metropolitan city. There is, in general, no running water and no electricity in these communities. The "social events" travel brochure for the conference, while detailing the archeological wonders of Easter Island, the ominous and enchanting Atacama Desert, and the wonderful beach resorts along the coast in Vina del Mar, made no reference to these places as places of potential interest to psychologists. One of the travel brochures suggested that tourists "zoom en/in on Chile" (Panisello, 2001, p. 54), though I feel fairly certain that this kind of an exploration is not what the author had in mind.

In touring these makeshift roadside communities, I observed that innumerable families cram themselves into whatever space they can scrape together. According to the post-panel discussion, in such places, people live their lives in a kind of silenced anonymity. Perhaps in these places people are safe from emotional investments in the hope for a future in the aftermath of an essentially genocidal political regime wherein no one knew exactly who or where the danger was coming from. There are reports of neighbors turning each other in and family members reporting "communist" activities of other family members (Spooner, 1999). Perhaps in these communities the trauma of living in years of terror has become part of the general architecture that separates these people from a hostile and apathetic world. In such places, dreams for the future and trust in the social and political environment can be well hidden. Perhaps they are hidden, at least in part, from the community members themselves. Thus, the "politics of disappearance" remain enshrined in the character of these disenfranchised and (almost) unseen communities.

In her argument, the Chilean community psychologist insinuated that a longstanding, leftover, and implicit resistance continued to be held by South American psychologists, hindering their intervention in the community. This resistance, she stated, manifests in wide-scale and perpetual "silence" and "perpetual inaction." If this is true, it may be imperative to address the point that practitioners in health-related fields operate within the social, economic, and political systems wherein they work (Arendt, 1958; Foucault, 1978). Being a mental health practitioner in no way implies being sheltered from systems of oppression. In fact, in most totalitarian regimes being a psychologist, community, clinical, or other, represents a subversive act (Martin-Baro, 1990; Montgomery, 1995). Therefore, addressing such a possible resistance for community practitioners may necessitate the difficult process of working through and coming to terms with one's own history of victimization. Perhaps in this context silence represents a kind of action potential that is shared by practitioners and members of the communities they serve.

What might one observe if one tapped into that action potential? There are numerous oasis-like service centers between Santiago and Chillan along the main highway. These are gas-station/food-market/restaurant/bathroom (often with showers)/social-gathering places. These multi-purpose centers are clean, modern, and infinitely welcoming. Nice attendants take your 150 Pesos (roughly equivalent of about a quarter) as you enter, stating "buenos dias," "tardes," or "noches" according to the time of day or night that you might arrive at the open-all-night/open-all-week/open-all-year service center. Behind many of these centers, serving as counter-point to the general ambiance of prosperity, exists the make-shift communities that I referred to. A psychodynamic question might be: do these brilliant, though forlorn way stations, in some way, represent the glimmering, dissociated, and projected hope inherent, but unreachable, or at least unsustainable, within these communities?

At one such service station just outside Chillan, there exists a massive community made up of plywood and cardboard. The woman who took my 150 Pesos at the service station said that she lived there. As I looked at her community I stopped and stood between the multi-station and the complex makeshift city that, from the highway, was not quite hidden. I looked back toward the road and saw the familiar sign that many of these service stations utilize as an advertising slogan, a silly cartoon Popsicle character stating through a gleeful smile, "Pronto!" From where I stood, it seemed as if that sign symbolized the answer to the questions posed by the woman at my panel. Essentially, her question to the community was: when might we come together to break the imposed silences that still exist? "Pronto!" The sign stood out as a silent though urgent response that, in my imagination, was coming straight from the community existing behind the shimmering icon of modern society stating (in translation): "Right Away!"


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