Columbia University emeritus psychology professor Harold Cook, PhD, is living out a childhood dream. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York, he would take class field trips to the United Nations.
"I was really impressed with all those buildings," he says. "I didn't know much about the U.N., but I knew that it was a big place where important things happen."
Now, as one of APA's U.N. representatives, Cook works to spread the word to U.N. diplomats, staff and others about the contributions that psychology can make to many of the international humanitarian issues that the United Nations addresses.
APA is one of more than 3,000 U.N.-affiliated nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work in committees to advise the U.N. on issues ranging from aging to the environment to children's rights. APA's representatives lead some of these committees.
Cook, for example, is a co-chair of the Committee on the Family and is on the Executive Committee of the Committee on Mental Health. Fordham University psychologist Harold Takooshian, PhD, is vice-chair of the Human Settlements Committee. Corann Okorodudu, PhD, a psychologist at Rowan University in New Jersey, co-chairs the Committee on Children's Rights. And former APA President Florence Denmark, PhD, who is also APA's main U.N. representative, chairs the Committee on Aging. APA's newest representative is Hofstra University professor Deanna Chitayat, PhD, who began her five-year term this year. She served on the committee that organized a multiday conference for NGOs held just before the Fall U.N. Summit. Finally, University of Chicago psychologist Neal Rubin, PhD, serves as APA's associate representative for special projects. One representative spot is now open, and will be filled later this year.
All of the representatives are volunteers, and all put in long hours-meeting monthly with the various committees and with each other.
"Their goal is to get the U.N. to include behavioral science and psychology's perspective in its programs and initiatives," says Merry Bullock, PhD, senior director of APA's Office of International Affairs, "and they've been really successful."
Psychologists speak out
Most recently, APA's representatives attended the 58th annual U.N. NGO conference, Sept. 7-9, which focused on eight Millenium Development Goals. These eight goals, which all 191 U.N. member nations have pledged to meet by 2015, include such objectives as eradicating extreme hunger and poverty, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
More than 2,600 NGO delegates-as well as some U.N. staff and diplomatic representatives-attended workshops and talks at the two-day meeting.
This year Takooshian, a social psychologist, spoke at a workshop on improving living conditions in urban areas. He discussed the psychological effects of urbanization.
"We still don't know the full psychological effects of urbanization on the individual, even though the world population has quadrupled since 1905," he says. In all, APA co-sponsored five of the 30 noontime workshops at the conference-on topics including families and education, children as victims and perpetrators of violence, peace building, collective security and progress in housing.
Spreading the message
APA's representatives have been bringing word about psychology to the United Nations since APA was accredited as an NGO in 2000. But psychology has been present there for much longer, through representation from APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues), which has been separately accredited for more than 20 years.
"There is beginning to be a critical mass of psychologists and psychology at the U.N.," says Bullock. "This can't help but have a big impact on the ways the U.N. frames its activities."
That growth was evident this year at a pre-conference meeting on Sept. 6 for psychologists interested in international work. The meeting, co-sponsored by APA, grew out of a more informal gathering of psychologists at the 2004 NGO conference. Then, some of the more than 60 psychologists who represent psychological associations affiliated with the United Nations-including the International Council of Psychologists, the International Association of Applied Psychology and the Association for Women in Psychology-and other organizations met to coordinate their behavioral science advocacy efforts.
They decided at that gathering to host a more formal meeting in 2005 that would also welcome psychologists interested in international work who are not official U.N. delegates. The meeting, held at Fordham University, attracted 105 psychologists and students from the New York City area. Participants discussed such issues as publishing international work, student involvement in international and U.N. work, and how behavioral scientists can communicate more effectively with decision-makers.
"We wanted to open things up to other people who are interested in these issues," says Takooshian, who co-chaired the meeting with Anie Kalayjian, EdD.
One of the goals of APA's Office of International Affairs, says Bullock, is to get more APA members involved in U.N. activities. Another goal is to help all of the psychologists at the U.N.-from APA and other organizations-coordinate their activities.
"The many psychologists at the U.N. are really just beginning to discuss how to leverage each others' expertise to make a coordinated effort," she says. "APA has a tremendous opportunity to participate in the United Nations' large initiatives-like the 2005 Year of the Family-and to get involved, to find common priorities and perhaps develop complementary programs and events."
She also says that she'd like to explore bringing psychology to U.N. diplomats: "Right now the NGO community mostly talks to others in the NGO community and to U.N. staff," she says. "We'd like to present briefings for diplomats just like we present briefings to Congress."
Finally, she says, she hopes to let more people know about APA's work at the United Nations. To that end, the international office has set up an Informational Web site.