Reflections on being a public interest psychologist: Dr. Allen M. Omoto

Dr. Omoto's commitment to social justice and inclusion has driven his work connecting psychological science and social policies

Dr. Allen M. OmotoDr. Allen M. Omoto, chair of APA’s Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest, has long served APA and organized psychology. Among his numerous roles and involvements are serving on the APA Council of Representatives, Committee on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Concerns (now CLGBTC), the Training Committee of Division 8, and the Executive Committees of Divisions 9 and 44. He is the current president of Division 9, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues. We invited Dr. Omoto to reflect on what drew him to public interest psychology. 

The roots of my public interest commitment likely lie in the fact that I grew up as a bit of an outsider. I was the only Japanese-American kid in my class, and I also grappled with same-sex attractions, eventually identifying as a gay man. My father’s family was interned during World War II; their “crime” was being of Japanese descent and living in the western U.S. My father talked about these experiences, and through his framing of them, I developed a practical and symbolic understanding of justice and an appreciation for how easily it can be lost or abridged. 

Like many people, I gravitated toward psychology because I wanted to make a difference. In college, I worked with individuals with mental illnesses, people with disabilities, and children. I very much wanted to help, but I also was fascinated by scientific methodology and the rigorous and creative study of human behavior. Ultimately, I opted to pursue graduate study in social psychology, and my scientific training serves as an important guide for my public interest work. 

In my first academic position, I involved myself in many activities that were questionable from an academic career standpoint, but that fulfilled me personally and heightened my public interest commitment. I worked with community members in conducting a needs analysis and in founding and administering an AIDS service organization. This frontline experience with community organizing and delivering support and educational services, especially for vulnerable and stigmatized populations, led me to pursue policy experience at a broader level. Specifically, I spent a year working as a legislative aide in the U.S. House of Representatives as APA’s inaugural William A. Bailey AIDS Policy Congressional Fellow. This experience widened my perspective on the roles of psychology in public life and also pushed my research and training interests further toward social issues and direct and practical concerns.  

My involvement in APA governance is a natural extension of these experiences. I am committed to principles of social justice and inclusion, but especially to more strongly connecting psychological science and social policies. In my view, psychological knowledge and perspectives need to be more fully utilized in policy formulation and evaluation. As BAPPI chair, I look forward to working with APA staff and members to explore and better exploit opportunities for psychologists to make a difference.