Building Community Among SPSP’s Black Membership

Image of BlaSPR group photo from SPSP2018, including Ivy Onyeador and Evelyn Carter

By Joe Traglia

While most folks were busy catching flights home after the annual SPSP convention in Atlanta, friends and colleagues Ivy Onyeador and Evelyn Carter were busy working out the final details of their own event - a retreat to help foster community among Black social and personality psychologists.

Dubbed BlaSPR - the Black Social and Personality Psychologists Retreat was a day and a half gathering in Atlanta of Black junior scholars coming together to support one another in their professional development.

Given the significant underrepresentation of Black social and personality psychologists within SPSP, and the fact that they are often one of a very few, if any, Black members in their respective departments, it can be especially difficult for members to find one another and forge those essential and valuable connections that can help open doors in the future.

BlaSPR grew out of Ivy, Evelyn and a small group of members finding each other through SPSP. “As far back as grad school, we had been discussing the need for this type of recognizable space within SPSP,” says Evelyn.  Throughout their years of grad school, PhDs, postdocs and first jobs, they had each made valuable connections while gathering a wealth of information in the process. “Having done the hard work, we wanted to be able to share those experiences and resources with the younger generation coming up behind us,” adds Ivy.

At the 2017 convention in San Antonio, Ivy raised the idea of an event like BlaSPR when she participated in a panel discussion on increasing diversity and inclusiveness within SPSP membership. Sapna Cheryan, the then chair of SPSP’s Diversity & Climate Committee, proposed the development of a new grant program to SPSP’s board of directors—a program that could specifically assist underrepresented groups within SPSP in their efforts to build community. The result of these efforts—the Community Catalyst Grant Program—was launched last year. Ivy and Evelyn quickly submitted their application and proposal for the BlaSPR retreat when the new program was announced, and were fortunate enough to be the grant’s first recipients.

The response from membership when BlaSPR was announced surprised them both. Based on the selection criteria (essentially graduate and early career members who self-identify as Black or African American), 68 registered convention attendees were eligible to apply. Almost half of those applied and, in the end, 21 were asked to participate.

The format for the retreat was kept intentionally informal. A group brunch on Sunday afternoon kicked things off, followed by a getting-to-know-you session where folks swapped elevator pitches about themselves and their research. A convention debrief and an overview of the ways members can get involved with SPSP’s diversity initiatives followed. Postdocs and tenure-track professors from research and teaching focused institutions (including several from R1 universities) also shared information and resources with the group.

Through it all, the intention was to foster a communal, conversational experience that was not performative, but instead promoted the sharing of information and advice.

A highlight of the retreat for Ivy and Evelyn and several of the attendees (surveys were completed after the event) was a one-on-one dinner and discussion with Dr. Phia Salter, who recently received tenure at Texas A&M University. “Hearing first hand from a more senior and highly respected member and mentor about their career trajectory provided an important role model intervention,” says Ivy. “It was important to have someone in front of us who had made it through the process, but is still really invested in mentoring the community.”

“The hope is that seeing other people who reflect your experience, and seeing people ahead of you who have finished their PhD or received tenure will hopefully improve the completion and retention rate of this crop of scholars,” adds Evelyn.

So what’s next for the group? “We would love to do it again,” says Evelyn. “This was a great opportunity to see what we could do with the Community Catalyst Grant and we have talked about ways to extend this into subsequent years. Our attendees felt strongly that this needs to be a thing that keeps momentum. We could see it becoming an important part of the Black SPSP experience.”

If a second retreat does happen, they would like to add more time for attendees to engage with each other's research and more time for working on collaborations. “Another day to really work together on symposia or review papers or collaborative projects would be ideal,” says Ivy.

“We’d also like for them to walk away with concrete accountability groups,” adds Evelyn, “people that you can check in with regularly to talk about your collective goals and the work you want to accomplish.”

And they would both like to expand the retreat so that more people can participate.

“It was nice because it was small and intimate and not overwhelming,” says Evelyn, “but the need is broader than just the 20 people who attended. It’s about balancing accessibility with the goal of increasing community so that everyone is getting to participate.”

Feedback from BlaSPR:

“This retreat enriched me in so many ways - from a personal level, where I felt that my experiences are not exclusive to me alone, and on a professional level, where I got to learn first-hand how others have navigated their post-PhD career progression.”

“Having a chance to interact with a community of graduate students, post-grads, and early career professors who shared similar and diverse experiences really made me feel that there was a home for my shared and individual interests, research passions, and general self in social psychology.”

“I had never been in a room with so many Black scholars where our focus was betterment and exchange of information. I imagine that this is what academia was originally designed to foster.”

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