Feature

What enabled Martin Luther King Jr., PhD, to lead one of the most significant civil rights movements in the history of the world?

According to Cary Cherniss, PhD, president of Div. 27 (Society for Community Research and Action), Dr. King's outstanding ability to effect social change had much to do with the fact that he displayed qualities of emotional intelligence--traits that community psychologists need to foster among community activists and leaders to help bring about social change and develop healthier communities.

"If we identified the most effective community activists," said Cherniss, in his Div. 27 presidential address at APA's 2001 Annual Convention, "we would find that they, too, have many of the qualities associated with emotional intelligence"--which he defined as the ability to perceive, express and manage one's own emotions and those of others.

A look at school reforms shows how emotional intelligence can be used in community psychology. As one example, the failure or success of a school intervention "depends on the emotional and social competencies of the administrators and teachers who implement it," said Cherniss.

"To what extent are they able to infect others with their enthusiasm for the program? To what extent are they able to manage their own emotional reaction to the inevitable frustration and setbacks that occur? I think these questions point to the importance of emotional intelligence in any change effort."

What's more, weaving emotional intelligence into school-based prevention programs can enable those programs to do more for children than prevent harmful behavior and emotional outcomes, said Cherniss.

"Teaching emotional intelligence can help children find occupations that are most suited to their interest and abilities, have satisfying relationships with others and become active and productive members of their communities," he said. "Emotional intelligence provides a way for us to move beyond prevention to wellness."

Cherniss encouraged the community psychology field to not only use and learn from the research and theory on emotional intelligence, but to make its own key contributions to the literature.

"The conceptual and methodological tools of community psychology can help us better understand how to create more emotionally intelligent settings," he said. "I believe that is the greatest challenge facing not only our field, but our society today."