As a teenager in Gulfport, Miss., in the early 1970s, Jennifer F. Kelly wasn't just practicing the typical rites of adolescence. At her parents' insistence, she was also working the polls, making sure voters stood in the right lines and met the voting requirements.
Her parents had their reasons for getting her involved: As community activists, Corine Kelly, a hairdresser who had been raised as a sharecropper, and Richard Kelly, a courier at Phillips Milk of Magnesia, understood that African Americans needed to exercise the vote if they were to achieve equality.
"I saw how much the African American voters believed in the role of the political process in impacting a change in society," Kelly says. "I couldn't wait to come of voting age so I could vote."
Kelly's parents also impressed on her the need to further her education and work for her community. Over the years, those values produced results. Kelly earned her PhD in 1987 from Florida State University. After working at a community mental health center treating underserved clients with a range of health problems and at a pain-management facility at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, she launched a successful clinical health psychology practice, the Atlanta Center for Behavioral Medicine. There, she uses empirically based interventions including cognitive behavioral therapy to help people with obesity, chronic pain, fibromyalgia and other health issues set and meet goals to improve their health and well-being.
"It's all about helping people find a true quality of life and a healthy lifestyle," she says.
She also picked up on her parents' grassroots political involvement. That led to a range of leadership positions, including president of the Georgia Psychological Association (GPA) and of APA's Div. 31 (State, Provincial and Territorial Psychological Association Affairs); a trainer for Leadership Atlanta, the country's oldest community leadership program; recording secretary of APA's Board of Directors; and a consultant to the YMCA's national African American and Hispanic/Latino Health and Well-Being Collaborative, designed to address specific health issues facing African American and Latino communities, to name a few.
In all of these roles, her advocacy skills—which she often applies to helping underserved clients gain better access to care—have been key to her success. She's so adept at it, in fact, that when she finished her term as GPA president in 2000, association leaders asked her to stay on as its grassroots and federal advocacy coordinator, and she's remained in the federal aspect of that role ever since.
"If I can get policymakers to listen to and understand my points, then perhaps they'll take action in areas that will truly make a difference in people's lives," says Kelly, who has spoken with legislators about mental health parity, eliminating health-care disparities and ensuring psychologists are appropriately compensated by Medicare.
Soon after becoming GPA president, she was nominated for Leadership Atlanta. Each year, the group selects 75 community leaders from diverse disciplines and political bents to explore key issues in the Atlanta community and examine what it means to be a leader. They also connect with Georgia legislators, which has given Kelly the opportunity to spread the word about psychology, sometimes in informal, collegial settings. Last year, two state legislators called her unexpectedly to have dinner so they could chat about topics of importance to psychologists, and she has a strong working relationship with the office of U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), for example.
"Advocacy is about building relationships with people you know can make a difference," says Kelly, who chaired Leadership Atlanta's Health Program Day for three years. That takes time and getting beyond the superficial, she says. "My feeling is, ‘I want to sit down and get to know you because I want to talk about what's happening in our community, in our country, in the world.' Then I want to break it down to what it is that I am trying to do, which is to make sure that people who need mental health services have access to good care."
Kelly succeeds with legislators not only because she spends time with them, but also because of her warm, funny, down-to-earth personality, colleagues say. Georgia state Rep. Pat Gardner, who was executive director of GPA when Kelly first joined the organization as a member, says it didn't take much effort to see that Kelly was a natural leader. "I'd introduce her to people and her energy and enthusiasm were infectious," she says.
Her motives are altruistic and people sense that, adds University of Georgia professor Linda Campbell, PhD, who was president of GPA when Kelly was secretary. "Jennifer consistently contributes to and cares about things that are above and beyond her own self-interest," Campbell says.
She is also famously tenacious about her agenda. "It's said that when Jennifer is transporting a legislator to an event, she locks the doors of her car, drives fast and makes them say they'll back our legislation before she lets them out," laughs Campbell.
Among the many topics Kelly has championed, probably the greatest success has been the passage of the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act in 2008, which closes several loopholes in 1996 parity legislation and requires insurance companies to cover mental health services at the same level as medical services. "It means that more people who need care will be able to get it," says Kelly, adding that she and hundreds of GPA colleagues spent countless hours responding to action alerts from the APA Practice Organization, meeting with legislators and calling legislative staff to help make it happen.
But as a good advocate, she knows her work isn't over yet. "Now, the task is to make sure it is successfully implemented," she says.
Spreading the wealth
These days, Kelly's many talents are coming together in a project close to her heart, the Diversity Leadership Development Workshop. She launched the event in 2009 when she kept noticing that ethnic-minority psychologists attending APA's State Leadership Conference weren't becoming involved as leaders in their state, provincial and territorial associations.
Held every two years, the program provides full stipends for ethnic-minority psychologists to attend a daylong workshop where they learn from experts about leadership skills, styles and development. "These are colleagues who are highly accomplished in their own careers, but becoming leaders in their associations was intimidating to them," she says. Many also said they didn't get enough support from their association leaders to try for these positions, she adds.
Kelly deliberately chose the APA board room as the setting: It is lined with portraits of past APA presidents, including several women, three ethnic-minority men and immediate Past-president Melba J.T. Vasquez, PhD, who is Latina. "It sends the message, ‘You can be a part of this,'" Kelly says.
So far, the program has graduated 16 participants, and the next round, to take place in 2013, will probably take 12 participants (details will appear on relevant APA listservs).
It's telling that her leadership skills—the very skills the workshop aims to instill—were what helped her lobby successfully for funding, she says.
"I want other ethnic-minority psychologists, and for that matter, any psychologists who might be afraid to pursue leadership roles, to develop those same skills, " she says. "The more effective leaders we have, the more we can move the psychology agenda forward, whether in our states, APA or the world. Ultimately, that will benefit our profession and the people who need our services."
Tori DeAngelis a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.