Many factors made the January National Multicultural Summit a significant event, including its proximity to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the inauguration of America's first African-American president. In addition, the summit was celebrating its 10-year anniversary and was held in New Orleans, where recovery efforts continue from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the subsequent flooding and failed response.
"We meet in a city that reminds us of the injustices that still remain in our country—and of the resilience that sustains us," Tania Israel, PhD, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the 2009 summit's lead coordinator, told the 600 who attended the summit's opening session.
The two-day event, co-hosted by APA divisions 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology), 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women), 44 (Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Issues), and 45 (Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues) focused on the role of social justice in multicultural psychology. Through keynote speakers, posters, small group discussion on sensitive issues called difficult dialogues and workshops, the summit offered a platform for new research on the impact of discrimination and difference. It was also a place where the importance of learning, listening, sharing and self-awareness was nurtured.
In reflecting on the 10-year anniversary of the summit, Lisa Porché-Burke, PhD, president and CEO of the Phillips Graduate Institute, reminded attendees that the organizers of the first summit (Porché-Burke was one of the four planners of the inaugural summit) wanted to challenge people and "create an environment that would allow us to have the difficult dialogues and the deeper discussions."
While Porché-Burke acknowledged that those who care about a more inclusive world have much progress to celebrate, she reminded her audience that much more work needs to be done.
"If we want to have something that we have never had before—a world in which diversity is seen as a strength not as an impediment—we must be willing to do something that we have never done before," Porché-Burke said.
"We have to engage the notions of power, privilege and oppression in order to create equality," said the Rev. Jamie Washington, PhD, another of the summit's five keynote speakers.
Washington, an ordained minister and the founder of a multicultural organizational development firm in Baltimore, told his rapt audience that the "cycles of oppression" are created and sustained by missing information, biased history, stereotypes and myths—taught by family, role models, institutions and culture.
While people prefer to operate in "single places," having a single identity, such as a black man or a Hispanic woman, Washington submits, we all need to deal with the "intersections of our identities."
"To be a real advocate for social justice, you have to do your internal work—deal with the issues of your multiple identities and how they impact who you are and your interactions with others," he said. "Change will only come from new learning—unlearning misinformation."
While Washington spoke about an inward-looking-out perspective, Gargi Roysircar, PhD, professor at Antioch University–New England, gave a separate keynote address on the need for psychologists to look at the "big picture" of systemic inequities and community dynamics in order to understand clients' needs. Roysircar, a disaster response specialist, believes psychologists are skilled interpersonally, but need more skills in dealing with the forces that undermine social justice.
"A patient's challenges aren't just about symptoms or family environment," Roysircar said. "You also have to look at the organization of power and the conduct of public business, and neglect of government."
Roysircar has studied the effects of Katrina on communities in Louisiana and Mississippi six, 12 and 36 months after the storm. Her findings have led her to conclude without reservation that any professional working in disaster response must not only be culturally competent but must also take into account the community's history, tradition, values, language, and local coping and healing styles.
According to Roysircar, Katrina's effects were particularly severe because the communities hit were already at social and economic disadvantage. A lack of access to protective factors, breach of trust, and systematic neglect served to deplete the fortitude and resilience of many Katrina victims and therefore made the storm's effects that much larger.
At the close of the two-day conference, many psychologists put the summit's activist message into immediate practice by participating in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service program in the New Orleans area. More than 50 volunteers joined with others in 28 volunteer projects throughout the city, including neighborhood needs assessments, coastal restoration, tutoring and school and neighborhood revitalization.