by Karleena Corey
The spring and summer of my junior year of college I participated in a community art mural project. The project was organized by my Community Psychology professor, whom I had taken the course with. The community we were painting the mural with, however, was not the university’s, but the local state hospital’s. This local state hospital at the time, (policy has since changed), was a mental health institution for inmates, inmates awaiting evaluation, or patients who committed crimes but were not found guilty due to mental health reasons.
The goal of our project was to facilitate a feeling of belonging and unity in the state hospital community. Community psychologists are concerned with creating opportunities where community-level changes can happen, instead of individual changes, which is a large portion of mental health patients receive (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010). We did this by creating an open discussion to the patients and inmates, and listening to what they wanted to see created onto the mural. Listening to what they wanted was important, because they have a better knowledge of what their community looks like. Community psychologists want participants in their projects or interventions to know that they are the ones who are the experts of their circumstances, not the psychologists (Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2010). This also gave them the opportunity to have control over an outcome, and be more collaborative with one another.
As a student we usually learn that you can study a subject, and in the end we have a lot of knowledge that we can use to practice in our field. Learning about Community Psychology has taught me that that is not always the best practice. As outsiders we could have imagined what it felt like to be incarcerated, and what type of mural could have alleviated those feelings, but the importance of the project was for the patients and inmates to create their own vision of community. For example, the wall chosen to have the mural painted on was in the last room the patients and inmates were in before they went into their court hearings, so they wanted the mural to bring peace and serenity to them when they looked at it. We as the outsiders would have never known that if we had never inquired what they wanted, and/or needed. They decided we would paint a scene of a beach paradise at sunset. They even found a way to represent themselves into the mural by painting flamingos on the beach, because a flock of flamingos is called a “community.” The paradise theme was also representative of their goals, which was to be able to relax and be at peace.
Unfortunately, there was no evaluation in place to prove whether or not our project was truly successful. I could personally see a transformation in the way the inmates and patients communicated with each other and their staff as the project went on, but I do not know if those were long-lasting effects. I was also able to see a change within myself, and how I examine and recognize where knowledge derives from.
Karleena Corey is a graduate student in the Community Social Psychology department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell
Nelson, G., & Prilleltensky, I. (2010). Community psychology: In pursuit of liberation and well-being (2nd ed.) New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Titlow, B. (2014). A flock of Greater flamingos feeds on wild shrimp in an estuary in South America [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://blogs.tallahassee.com/community/2014/09/21/greater-flamingos-just-lawn-ornaments-in-the-us/