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Global partnerships: Challenges and insights

A psychologist’s involvement in international multi-sectoral practice and contributions to infusing the international perspective in graduate student training through work on a social justice project.

By Arpana G. Inman, PhD
Having been educated in two different countries and gaining a PhD in counseling psychology has attuned me to the need for cultural and social justice competencies in my work. As I have engaged in research examining identity at both personal (racial/ethnic/gender) and professional (supervision/training) levels, it has become clear that taking an eco-systemic framework that considers connections between systems is central to understanding the complexity of experiences. Moreover, developing and implementing a cultural and context-specific project requires an approach that considers the values, beliefs and norms as well as the sociopolitical legacies that influence people’s experiences. This has become even more evident as I have pursued research in international communities. Although my experience as an international student and immigrant to the U.S. has equipped me with some skills in negotiating cultural and national boundaries, conducting research globally has been an educational experience that has garnered some important insights. I share these in the context of my work with the Center for Women's Studies and Intervention, an NGO in Nigeria.

In 2004, Lehigh University became the sixth university in the world to gain official recognition as a non-governmental organization (NGO) by the United Nations Department of Public Information (U.N. DPI). The NGO status allows Lehigh to foster a unique experiential and educational link from the classroom to the United Nations’ headquarters and beyond. Each year more than 1,000 Lehigh faculty, staff and students engage in more than 40 U.N. related trips, briefings, meetings and lectures. In 2006, Lehigh created the world’s first U.N. NGO Youth Representative Program. Since that time, this model has been adopted by the U.N.’s Department of Public Information and now students near and far serve as the voice of NGOs at the U.N. From providing a voice for Nigerian women, to striving for peace between Israel and Palestine, Lehigh graduate and undergraduate student representatives passionately share the vision of the United Nations’ non-governmental organizations and work with them to generate positive change on a multitude of levels. The program provides a select group of Lehigh students with the opportunity to serve as “youth representatives” for geographically disparate NGOs. Without the student representatives, these NGOs would not be able to maintain such a high-level of visibility at United Nations' headquarters. The students regularly attend U.N. workshops, briefings, conferences and sessions relevant to their NGO’s cause. A report is then generated for the NGO with summaries, critical details or U.N. action. As an additional benefit, students render these services at no financial cost to the NGO represented.

The Center for Women's Studies and Intervention (CWSI) and Lehigh University established a partnership in 2009. In 2011, CWSI was interested in seeking assistance with representation at the U.N. and with research being conducted at their center. The CWSI’s mission is to bring a voice to the women and girls they serve by upholding their dignity through advocacy and empowerment. At that time, I was teaching a course for first year doctoral students and believed that this would be a great opportunity for the program and the students. Although we had one primary representative, the entire group of first year doctoral students visited the U.N. to represent CWSI. My primary role with CWSI has been to evaluate research protocols and provide guidance in data analysis, writing and presenting the findings of three studies that addressed controversial traditional cultural practices: (1) families selling their born/unborn daughters to older men when in debt; (2) widowhood practices and (3) female genital mutilation. These studies have focused on increasing visibility of social justice issues related to women’s experiences in Nigeria. This afforded a great opportunity for the students to learn about the country’s issues, represent the organization at the U.N. and learn about the U.N.’s activities, while also giving CWSI a voice at the International Conference in Psychology (ICP) hosted in South Africa in 2012.

In working with CWSI, one of the major challenges has been fallout from the political strife within Nigeria. Despite numerous attempts, power cuts and other access issues have created challenges in staying connected with and collaborating on the needed work in this community. Such distancing can cut off access to resources from outside the country but even more, these challenges prevent the world from knowing about the significant human rights issues prevalent in countries such as Nigeria.

Engaging in research is a social justice endeavor. It not only gives a voice to the communities being researched but also highlights significant issues and needs that are marginalized. The ability to engage in such community based research certainly requires strong partnerships. However, conducting research globally needs a renegotiation of skills and knowledge that is sensitive to historical-political contexts.

Front row:(left to right) Ge Song, Stephanie Codos, Beata Lazaro; Back row:(left to right) Arpana Inman, Cirleen DeBlaere, Asmita Pendse, Shannon Patterson, Linh Luu, Anne Calinger.

Front row:(left to right) Ge Song, Stephanie Codos, Beata Lazaro; Back row:(left to right) Arpana Inman, Cirleen DeBlaere, Asmita Pendse, Shannon Patterson, Linh Luu, Anne Calinger.

About the Author

Arpana Inman is a professor and chair of the Department of Education and Human Services at Lehigh University. Her interests are in counseling psychology, multicultural issues and competence.