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Creating Agents of Social Change

A new master’s program at the School of Education prepares students for leadership roles in the not-for-profit sector with an emphasis on strategies that help communities solve and prevent problems by concentrating on their strengths, not their weaknesses.

Graduate students in the School of Education’s Community and Social Change Program met with staff at the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter last January, brainstorming solutions to the organization’s challenges.

They were supposed to help change things, improve conditions for the less fortunate. But some of the nonprofit organizations where Casta Guillaume worked  had little impact on solving the problems that fray the fabric of neglected communities. That harsh reality  frustrated the 24-year-old Guillaume, a Haitian-American with a deep social conscience.

So she decided to do something about it, enrolling in a new University of Miami graduate program that would teach her how to help communities cure their ills by focusing on their strengths, not their weaknesses.

Guillaume is one of the 13 students who compose the first cohort of the UM School of Education’s new Community and Social Change Program, a 30-credit master’s-level degree track designed to prepare a new generation of leaders for the third sector: the not-for-profit world.

“We’re trying to become a center of excellence in integrating physical, psychological, and educational well-being in multicultural communities, so we needed a program that bridges the gaps among all of the fields of well-being and communities,” says School of Education Dean Isaac Prilleltensky. “This program is not just about the process of improving well-being. It’s one thing to know what mental health is; it’s another thing to work with communities and organizations to develop a process that leads to good outcomes. These students are becoming experts in what it takes to achieve healthy outcomes.”

As part of the program, classroom courses on subjects such as community organizations and social and behavioral sciences are combined with field assignments at one or more locally based nonprofit partners, where students must complete 100 hours of service, helping those organizations carry out policies of preventing and empowering community members to find solutions to their problems.

Community and Social Change students Amy Rubinson, left, and Veronica Alvarez jot down some of their ideas while on a field trip at the Florida Keys Children's Shelter.

Guillaume, who earned her bachelor’s degree in education from UM, is doing her field work at the Women’s Fund, assessing the agency’s fundraising needs and helping it to craft a strategic plan in line with its mission of improving the lives of women and girls. She also works at the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, helping that agency develop a leadership summer camp called Metrotown, which will teach youngsters about the richness of ethnically and racially diverse communities.


“It’s been a cool experience,” Guillaume says of being enrolled in the Community and Social Change Program. “It’s satisfying to learn skills that will serve me in the future.”

While some of the students are completing their community-service projects at existing nonprofits, others have started their own initiatives, working with marginalized communities to prevent drug addiction, poor nutrition habits among children, and other problems.

Lauren Book, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and an outspoken proponent for tougher sex-offender laws, is using her work in the nonprofit she started, Lauren’s Kids, to fulfill the field-experience requirement of the program.

Last March she began a 39-day, 1,000-mile march across Florida to raise awareness about sexual abuse, stopping at sexual abuse treatment centers in several cities along the way. Her “Walk in My Shoes” trek, which made a stop on the UM campus on March 24, ended on the steps of the State Capitol in Tallahassee in late April. Collaborating with a child psychologist, Book has also developed a curriculum that teaches elementary school-aged children skills that could prevent sexual and physical abuse.

UM graduate student Lauren Book, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who completed a 1,000-mile walk across Florida to raise awareness about the problem, is using her work in the nonprofit she started to fulfill the service-learning component of the Community and Social Change Program. She spoke to students at the UM Bookstore last March during the Coral Gables stop of her “Walk in My Shoes” tour, which ended in Tallahassee in April.

Meanwhile, Virginia Emmons, who directed famine relief and educational efforts in West Africa for three and a half years while working for the Peace Corps, has started Educate Tomorrow, which matches children who are aging out of the foster care system with mentors who help them the young adults enroll in college and training programs, find housing and jobs, and apply for educational and social assistance.

Field trips to agencies that provide social services are also a part of the Community and Social Change Program. Last January students in faculty member Scotney Evans’s Organizational Development and Change: Theory and Practice course visited the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter in Tavernier, working with the organization’s staff on solutions to some of the challenges they face. “It was a great learning experience for the students,” said Evans, who coordinates the Peace Corps master’s component of the program. “The trip also established a new partnership between our program and the shelter.”

Dean Prilleltensky, a recent recipient of the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Contributions to Theory and Research in Community Psychology, says the program blends well with the school’s SPEC (Strength-Based Orientation, Prevention, Empowerment and Community Change) philosophy of preventing problems instead of merely reacting to them. “We’re not just training teachers and helpers, but agents of change,” he said.

The program, says Laura Kohn-Wood, associate professor and director, is based on community psychology, an academic discipline born at the 1965 Swampscott Conference in Massachusetts, where several psychologists convened and generated a report calling for community psychologists to be agents of social change.

“We hadn’t really seen any decrease in human suffering or distress. Things were getting worse,” Kohn-Wood explains. “So the idea was to change the way we were doing things in psychology and focus less on the individual and more on larger units.”

She says the program has taken the strategy of using a broad approach to community problem-solving and applied it to nonprofit work. “We’re at this point in history now where you could argue that we have a few decades of an explosion in nonprofits and NGOs and people going into lines of work where they’re delivering human services,” Kohn-Wood says. “But you look around and you don’t see that much change. I think what’s unique about this program is it takes those same principles of community psychology and applies them to nonprofit work. If we keep doing business the way we’ve been, we’re not going to create large-scale change.”


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