Practice Profile

For Tom Wolff, PhD, it all started at a community hearing in Northampton, Mass.

It was the early 1980s, and both a state hospital and the local VA hospital were being deinstitutionalized, turning patients out into the small town of 25,000. “It was overwhelming the community,” Wolff says. When the hearing devolved into a “name-calling brawl,” he says, he stepped in to use his psychology training to help restore calm. The mayor was impressed. He formed a deinstitutionalization task force, and appointed Wolff to lead it.

“People began to listen and understand how to work together better, and I began to understand how to make those environments work,” he says.

For three decades, Wolff has built coalitions and worked to solve problems big and small. He’s collaborated on issues as varied as violence prevention, rural transportation, substance abuse and oral health. Most of his projects have at least one thing in common, however: multiple players with individual agendas who don’t always see eye to eye — and that’s where Wolff comes in.

“A lot of people will come to the table,” he says, “if you create a table.”

Wolff is an APA fellow and recipient of its 1985 award for Distinguished Contributions to Practice in Community Psychology and its 1993 Henry V. McNeil Award for Innovation in Community Mental Health. He grew up in Queens, N.Y., the son of Jewish immigrants who fled to the United States in 1938. Whether it was his family’s Holocaust history or the liberal activist community he grew up in that led him to issues of social justice, he’s not quite sure. “I think it’s just in my blood,” he says.

After receiving his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Rochester, Wolff began working in the field of college mental health, doing a combination of therapy and community work. From his early training in Rochester, he says, it had been impressed upon him that prevention was a critical piece of the mental health puzzle. So he jumped at the chance to run the education and prevention unit at a community mental health center in Northampton, Mass.

In 1981, he was tapped to lead the deinstitutionalization task force there. “In the beginning they were just name calling and kicking each other under the table,” Wolff recalls. But with deinstitutionalization a legal mandate, community members had little choice but to figure out how to deal with the situation. With Wolff’s guidance, they began working together to help the former patients integrate into the community. “Eventually we had the police and the emergency service director talking on a weekly basis, case by case,” he says.

“What happened in Northampton was very successful because it wasn’t just looking at deinstitutionalization as a clinical issue,” he adds. The effort there also included funding for community-based programs, which he believes made the difference. “That community piece of deinstitutionalization was missed in almost all communities,” he says.

Wolff spun that experience into Community Partners, a nonprofit technical assistance and training program affiliated with the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This grew into Healthy Communities Massachusetts, a statewide network of neighborhood coalitions. The coalitions work locally to identify core issues, develop community solutions, and find funding to put those solutions into practice. Across the state, the coalitions have created child-care centers and playgrounds and spearheaded the construction of low-income dental centers and affordable housing developments. Two of those first coalitions that Wolff helped found are now in their 24th and 26th years, he says, and they continue to thrive.

Meanwhile, Wolff has expanded his services beyond state borders. Since 2002 he has acted as an independent consultant, assisting various groups across the country. He works with grassroots organizations, mental health centers, nonprofits, businesses and governments at the local, state and federal level. Through it all, he’s developed a process to turn feuding factions into cooperating coalitions.

Champion for the disempowered

Whether he’s helping hospitals improve asthma outcomes or working with anti-violence groups to lower a city’s homicide rate, Wolff’s approach is largely the same. “It’s almost content-irrelevant,” he says. “It’s really ... about the power of collaborative solutions.”

It’s a phrase he’s fond of. “The Power of Collaborative Solutions: Six Principles and Effective Tools for Building Healthy Communities” (Jossey-Bass, 2010) is the title of Wolff’s latest book. In it, he details the principles he’s come to see as essential to building collaborations and meeting goals: including the people most affected by a problem; fostering true collaboration that goes beyond simply sharing information; focusing on a community’s assets, not its deficits; creating a democratic process in which everyone has a say; taking action that involves social change; and engaging people at a spiritual level.

Wolff follows his own advice, says Linda Bowen, executive director of the Institute for Community Peace. While working with the ICP on a violence prevention program in Santa Barbara, Calif., Wolff insisted that young people and Latino community members be involved the discussion. He relied on ex-gang members to recruit the kids from the streets. Once they were there, Wolff insisted they had a voice at the table. That was key, Bowen says, since those youth were the very people who were involved in gang activity, or had lost loved ones to gang violence. “Tom does not shy away from conflict,” she says. “He’s a strong champion for people who have been disempowered.”

Lately, most of Wolff’s attention has been focused on health disparities, a problem he’s tackling with the Boston Public Health Commission. As part of that effort, he worked with teenagers in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood to identify health inequities that affect African-American and Caribbean-Latino youth.

The group voted to focus on youth employment, and successfully lobbied to restore state and city funding to support after-school and summer jobs. “It was a huge win for the young people,” says Abigail Ortiz, of the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center. “[Tom] really understands how to move people from A to B and then circle back and check in on accountability. He’s a doer.”

The group continues to focus on youth employment as a public health and racial justice issue, she says. “I’m excited by that because those most affected are driving and delivering the whole process, and addressing the important issues in their community,” Wolff adds.

Breaking down silos

As his career has evolved, Wolff says he’s noticed certain systemic problems that arise again and again. Turf wars are typical. Too often, institutions and organizations focus on remediation rather than prevention. And those most affected are often left out of the discussion altogether. “There are a lot of ways in which our helping system is pretty dysfunctional,” he says.

Another problem, he notes, is that our world is set up in “silos.” He describes a hypothetical family in which the department of social services has been told the mother hits her kids, youth services handles the teenage son in a gang, and the women’s shelter is aware that the mother is a victim of domestic violence. Everyone in town knows it’s a violent family, Wolff says. But those three departments don’t talk to one another, and no one steps in to help the whole family.

To solve these problems, he says, psychologists need to think beyond helping individuals. “We have to stop pouring all our efforts into bandaging up the wounded and really look at systems change,” he says. “That’s really the field of community psychology.”

Kirsten Weir is a writer in Saco, Maine.