Feature

At an APA State Leadership Conference (SLC) in the late 1990s, University of Virginia clinical psychologist Peter Sheras, PhD, chatted with attendee Dan Abrahamson, PhD, at the back of a meeting room filled with nearly 400 state, provincial and territorial psychological association (SPTA) representatives. Both were struck by one thing: All but a handful of the attendees were white.

"I looked out at the people in the room who were representing psychology and said to Dan, ‘You know, this is not a very diverse group, and that's not OK,'" recalls Sheras, who at the time was chair of APA's Committee of State Leaders.

Many other APA leaders were having this same conversation, and had been for some time. By 2000, those discussions led to the APA Committee of State Leaders Diversity Initiative, to develop diversity within state-level governance by supporting the attendance of ethnic-minority members of SPTAs at the SLC, says Abrahamson, now assistant executive director for state advocacy in APA's Practice Organization. The effort is funded by APA's Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice and the Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs.

"The thought was that if we could find a way to promote and encourage ethnic-minority psychologists [to come to SLC and see advocacy in a new light], they might go back to their state associations and get more involved," Abrahamson says.

That has paid off, says Susan Lazaroff, APA's director of state advocacy. The program has now funded more than 200 "diversity delegates" at SLC, about 30 percent of whom have moved into elected leadership positions within their state association or APA divisions, boards and committees. Seventeen delegates have become president or president-elect of their SPTAs.

"That has been a very tangible outcome of the diversity initiative," Abrahamson says.

Another indicator of the program's success has been the number of SPTAs that now fund their own diversity delegates, he adds. APA typically funds approximately 15 diversity delegates each year, and state associations now fund another 10 to 12 delegates.

"This number has sustained itself over the years, even though many SPTAs are struggling financially," Abrahamson says.

Continued need for training

The program's success has also led to an expansion of the events that diversity delegates participate in during each year's SLC. In 2009, the Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs and APA's Div. 31 (State, Provincial and Territorial Psychological Association Affairs), under the leadership of then-President Jennifer Kelly, PhD, developed the Diversity Leadership Development Workshop, a daylong training forum offered every other year the day before the SLC begins.

Several minority leaders in the field come to the workshop to teach leadership skills, such as confidence building and public speaking, and to mentor participants, says Kelly, a clinical psychologist and member of APA's Board of Directors.

"There are so many issues facing our society that psychology can have an impact on, and we need leaders to make this change," says Kelly. "One of my goals is for all the SPTAs to have an ethnic-minority president, and the diversity initiative is grooming leaders to do just that."

An eye toward the future

As more minority psychologists become governance leaders, Sheras says he's looking forward to seeing the "natural expansion" of multiculturalism throughout the field to reflect more of what America truly looks like.

"The diversity initiative helps to strengthen our perspective and our ability to provide services to folks," he says.

The participation of more minorities in governance has also shed light on parts of the field that may still be lagging in addressing diversity, such as undergraduate, graduate and continuing-education curricula developed with diversity training in mind, says Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, executive director for professional practice at APA and the APA Practice Organization.

"As a psychologist who spent all of my professional clinical career in Mississippi — a state with a large minority population and with very few psychologists of color — I am acutely aware of the need to not only have a pipeline to graduate school for psychologists of color, but also of the need to provide opportunities for professional growth and leadership once graduate school is completed and careers started," Nordal says. "The diversity initiative is truly helping to further develop these outstanding psychologists, many of whom have earned their way to the highest level of state association leadership and into APA governance."

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.