Reflections on being a public interest psychologist: Dr. Karen Fraser Wyche

Dr. Karen F. Wyche, Chair of APA’s Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest, reflects on what drew her in to public interest psychology

Dr. Karen F. Wyche, Chair of APA’s Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest, has long served APA and organized psychology, with APA’s Council of Representatives; the Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology; Committee on Women in Psychology; Committee on International Relations in Psychology; Task Force on Socioeconomic Status; Divisions 9, 12, and 35; and as Non-Governmental Representative to the United Nations; among numerous other roles. We invited Dr. Wyche to reflect on what drew her in to public interest psychology.

Issues of social justice and public interest were ingrained in the fabric of my early childhood experiences and continue today.   As a child growing up in New York City in the area of Central Harlem, I lived in a racially homogeneous African American community.  At that time the community ranged from families and individuals living in poverty to those who were upper class professionals, and from the church going faithful to the junkies on the corner.

To outsiders, the single dimension of race defined the community’s identity, rather than what it was -- a rich mosaic of interacting characteristics. When we rode the bus to go downtown below 96th Street (Harlem is uptown Manhattan), the racial and social class dynamics changed.  I didn’t feel underprivileged. I knew my four generational family, living under the same roof, was loving and nurturing. But, as one of the few African American scholarship students in a private elementary school, I was told I was underprivileged because I lived in Harlem and not in the high-rise doorman-guarded buildings along Central Park West or the Upper East Side.

These early experiences shaped my professional life to engage in the fight against discrimination and stigma and to advocate for human rights.  My beliefs that community service could be a way to bring about a better life for people led me to my first career in social work.  However, I kept seeing clients struggle with the same structural issues, restrictive social policies, and discriminatory practices that kept people in their place and devalued them as individuals.  I was drawn to psychology because I realized that I needed more training.  I wanted to understand how research could be used to help people and to change social policy.  It is not surprising that within APA I am drawn to the issues that define the Public Interest Directorate.  Becoming the Chair of the Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest (BAPPI) offers the opportunity to work with colleagues to forge ahead and to tackle the social issues that define areas of public interest psychology.  In today’s political climate the challenges are many for public interest psychology to make a difference in people’s lives.  I look forward to working with BAPPI, the Public Interest committees, and the greater APA community in meeting these challenges.