Community-Centered Leadership: A Q&A with Dr. Kwesi Brookins

March 25, 2024 - Shelly DeJong

A headshot of Dr. Kwesi BrookinsMeet Dr. Kwesi Brookins, Vice Provost for University Outreach and Engagement and professor in the Ecological-Community Psychology program. Dr. Brookins will be delivering the keynote at the Joseph L. White lecture series on April 5th at 1:30PM. He recently shared about how his ecological-community psychology training has affected every aspect of his career, why he’s particularly honored to be a part of this lecture series, and why he thinks psychology can be instrumental in the future of higher education.  


How did you first get interested in community psychology? 

As an undergraduate at a predominately white, small liberal arts university in Illinois, I was a psychology major. I had two internship experiences, one with a mental health halfway house and the other with a transition house for people with substance abuse issues coming out of prison, that helped me know that I wasn’t interested in individual-focused psychology. I was looking for something different. I wanted to understand the community-related circumstances that influence people’s health, well-being, and quality of life. There were very few programs around that did that, but a professor of mine brought me a brochure for Michigan State University’s Ecological-Community Psychology program. I knew immediately that this was the direction I wanted to go in. I think it was extremely fortunate that those experiences sent me off on the path of community psychology because it has affected my entire career. 

From day one in the program, I was encouraged to build relationships with people in communities. I was taught that to do this well, being part of the community you are working with was crucial. Additionally, impactful and sustainable community research must be grounded in good science. It's the best of all worlds of academia, from the intellectual to the method to the reciprocal engagement. 


As the Vice Provost in the University Outreach and Engagement office, how do you carry on community psychology values?  

An opportunity for an executive-level position leading an office like University Outreach and Engagement is one of the few administration positions that I would ever consider. I see my job as the institutional representation of community psychology. Internal to the university, we help train faculty, staff, and students on how to do that work well, respectfully, and authentically. On the other hand, all our UOE units work with external communities to connect them with the intellectual and human resources of the university. Although I would have never imagined it as a graduate student, it is a logical connection between my journey through community psychology and the work I do now. 


Do you think community psychology training lends itself well to leadership positions like your own? 

My entire career journey has been trained from an ecological-community psychology perspective which means that I think about the community, the relationship I have with the community, and what the community needs first. As I moved through several leadership roles, I had approached each as a community psychologist. I strive to engage and build relationships with communities across campus and off campus to look at what the issues and challenges are and then I put in place the leadership to do that. And that means listening, being attuned to what those needs are, and bringing people along. It also means paying attention to the fact that all of us have lives and that quality of life is vital. I think leaders who can pay attention to all of that are the ones who are going to be most effective. 


In April, you’ll be speaking at the MSU Department of Psychology’s Joseph L. White lecture. Dr. White advocated for inclusivity in psychology. What does it mean to you to be a part of this lecture in his namesake?  

I'm very excited that my talk is a part of the Joseph L. White lecture series. When I was an undergraduate looking at psychology, there were very few people, particularly African Americans, who I could look to as examples of folks that I could emulate or seek mentorship from. While I never had a chance to get that from Dr. White, I was very aware of him and how he fit within psychology, particularly within Black psychology. There was a legacy there and I was very committed to attaching myself to that. A lot of the work that I've done has been related to Black psychology, African American psychology, as well as African psychology. To be able to speak to that legacy within the context of all I do and what I have done is an honor. 


The title of your talk is “Engaged Scholarship: Psychology’s Blueprint for Higher Education.”  Could you talk a bit about that?  

To adapt Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, the arc of the faculty career is bent toward engagement and community. Regardless of what we do as scholars, even if it becomes very insular, we're creating knowledge that's going to be useful to communities. What I have found is the more you do this work, no matter what kind of psychology you do or what kind of scientist you are, over time you realize that what you do has implications for communities. I’ll talk about what this means for our scholarship, higher education, and particularly for land grant universities.  

The university's role is to prepare citizens for positive, active engagement with their communities. What sense does it make for a university to exist and not see that as one of its core missions? For example, because people’s developmental paths, interest, and even the availability of particular jobs and careers change throughout one's lifetime, Michigan State has been thinking about lifelong education fits within its mission. What we prioritize and how we engage is going to flex. How we educate people with that understanding is very much a part of what we need to think and talk about.  


What is it like coming back in a leadership position to the school where you learned the skills that affected your career so much?  

It's been a blessing. There have been a lot of full circles happening for me these days. For instance, I'm coming in at a time when my mentor and advisor, Bill Davidson, stepped away. It's been a few years now, but his legacy has been tremendous to the eco-community psychology community. I was trained under him and now I've come back to help continue that legacy. This is good stuff. Being positioned where I am, we have an opportunity to advance the eco-community idea in an institutional way as well as continuing to build the program itself as a place to go if you want to do that type of work. That for me is exciting.