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Center for Human Rights and International Justice

Community Psychology Program in El Quiché, Guatemala

An interview with Center Assoc. Director Brinton Lykes

Participants in the community psychology program
Participants in the community psychology program


In June 2013, Center Associate Director M. Brinton Lykes and Megan Thomas, a project consultant, developed and facilitated a diploma program in community psychology and participatory action research in El Quiché, Guatemala. The program, one contribution to the ongoing transnational collaborations sponsored by the Center, was designed in conjunction with faculty and staff affiliated with the Vice-Rectory for Research and Outreach[1] at the Jesuit University Rafael Landívar (URL) in Guatemala City.  Thirty-three participants completed the two-week program, including four BC students (three undergraduates and a doctoral student), and six students and faculty from the URL’s Quiché campus. The other participants were Mayan youth and adults from the Quiché and surrounding regions, identified by colleagues of the Center as active community members with potential to enhance their leadership capacities through this program.  The formal education of the participants ranged from several who had completed elementary school through others with Master’s degrees. The pedagogy of the workshop was participatory, complemented by topical lectures on violence, migration and power.  Dr. Lykes sat down to answer a few questions about the program. 


What is community psychology?

Part of a larger reform movement in the early 1960s, some psychologists questioned if institutional mental health services might not be better directed at the individual in his or her family and the family in its community, rather than exclusively at the level of the individual. This idea ultimately led to the creation of a sub-discipline called community psychology.  Although limited in practice in the US, community social psychology has taken hold in the global South, particularly in contexts where people see themselves first and foremost as members of social groups and define their individuality through relationships. Thus, community psychology is preventive rather than curative, seeking to focus on resilience and resistance and intervening at the group level and in local communities in contrast to a primary focus on individual pathology.  It is sensitive to cultural diversities while also focusing on structural oppressions, recognizing gender, homophobia, income inequality and racism as underlying causes of many problems facing local communities. A focus on the strengths each group brings to the table and an ecological approach support the recognition that we are all part of a natural and human ecology – ideas that also resonate with many Mayan beliefs.


With the wide range of formal education the participants had—how did you design a curriculum that is both challenging and accessible all?

I definitely had some deep concern about this issue prior to the workshop – and the local project team in Zacualpa and I discussed this concern with our URL collaborators. Our goal was to develop a process that would be very participatory, in which facilitators, resource people and participants would have an opportunity to teach and learn together. In workshops such as this one, I strive to facilitate small group interactions that are both intellectually challenging and experientially based. Exercises are designed so that those with more formal education have an opportunity to engage with community members with deep local experiences who may have less formal education. Community participants, many of whom are farmers with little formal education, seemed not in the least bit intimidated about participating actively in all aspects of the program. One parish leader in particular from Santa María, clearly someone of great ability, was deeply interested in all that was being shared and also deftly able to apply what he was learning to his lived experiences. He listened deeply to others many years his junior as they brought academic learning into the mix – and then extended their insights with his own. It is truly wonderful to have someone like that in a workshop.


What were some themes that emerged in the workshop?

Luis Mario Martínez and Aldo Magoga, researchers from INTRAPAZ, began their presentation by asking participants some questions about their experiences of violence, about things they feared in their daily lives.  What came back from the participants were higher reported experiences with violence in the Quiché than the researchers’ data suggested. Additionally, there was consensus in the group that most people are afraid to go to Guatemala City – a site of much reported violence in the research presented.


When we focused on migration, each regional sub-group was asked to discuss and present the history of migration to and from the department from which they came. The diversity and range of intergenerational stories recounted was impressive. Two young women from the Ixil area talked about three generations of migration out of the area, including migration to the US. Although the latter is more recent than is that from other regions of the Guatemalan countryside, migration to the Southern Coast to work on plantations was depicted as important within and across all three generations they described. After each region had presented, Ruth Piedrasanta, an INGEP researcher, situated themes of current migration presented by participants within a national panorama, followed by a discussion about migration to the United States and multiple issues, including detention and deportation policies and practices, affecting families in both countries.


How do you think the BC students benefitted from the program?

I would definitely not want to speak for them but I think it was an opportunity for them to learn more about Guatemala and about life among some rural and small town Maya. Moreover they learned about participatory and action research.  All of them are interested in research and all had been involved in community research to some degree but only the PhD student had skills in working with participatory action research. Thus this was an opportunity for the others to acquire new resources for future community research endeavors. They were challenged to explore how to go about developing and designing research that is initiated by the community rather than the university-based researcher in isolation. When we returned to Zacualpa each of the students had an opportunity to apply some of what they had learned—albeit in a very limited way—with the staff of our Migration and Human Rights Project (MHRP) there.


What were some of the outcomes that emerged from the program?

I think the program was considered to be a big success locally by the regional URL campus in Santa Cruz del Quiché, by those in the capital who collaborated in the process, and by those of us affiliated with our Center. It strengthened leadership of the local project staff of our MHRP in Zacualpa. They were able to initiate contact with people in other communities from whom they learned and could better value their own work. Megan Thomas has facilitated a follow up workshop in Zacualpa with participants from Zacualpa and Santa María Chiquimula, the parish in which Ricardo Falla, Guatemalan anthropologist and Jesuit priest who helped initiate this work, now lives. Part of our idea was to reinforce the new skills that had been learned in the workshop, knowing that people need to practice them when they are initially learned, use them in context, and then be able to reflect upon what they have done to more fully incorporate the strategies into their work. They also need to get feedback about these processes, and encouragement to adapt the resources to their local realities. Thus this follow up workshop was important to the overall program.

It is not clear where the initiative will lead in long run—there is plenty of interest in continuing but it’s challenging to coordinate and to finance. I teach a short course on community psychology in another university in Guatemala that is offered every other summer. My goal in both of these contexts is to contribute, however modestly, to building local capacity in Central America, and, more particularly, in Guatemala. Through exchanges such as the diploma program, we were able to collaborate in strengthening local resources while also giving BC students the opportunity to learn alongside local Maya.




[1] The Vicerrectoría de Investigación y Proyección [Vice-Rectory for Research and Outreach] – VRIP – was created by the University Rafael Landívar in August, 2009. It is charged with developing and monitoring the strategies and principles that contribute to research and its applications.  The main objective of VRIP is to develop cutting edge knowledge to further the development of a more inclusive Guatemala and Central America. INTRPAZ & INGEP are research institutes affiliated with the Vice-Rectory for Research and Outreach. See for more information