Joel Federman, Transformative Social Change Specialization

Photograph of Joel Federman

Joel Federman

Psychology Faculty

Joel Federman was in the 2nd grade.He lived on the edge of the school playground, and his family was happy."I had a very caring family environment," he remembers."I felt very good and open and safe; my parents had good values, and lived up to them, which encouraged me to live up to them."

Then one day, he stepped out of the house and walked to the street corner, and wandered into the neighborhood playground.

"I saw kids in conflict, and bullying, and fighting over the swings and the teeter-totters," he remembers."And then I looked back at my house, my peaceful house, where we never had conflicts like that.As I looked back and forth – from the playground to my house, from my house to the playground – I thought, in a very simple, unformed, way 'if somehow the way of being we have at home could be brought to the playground, it would make such a big difference in the way people interact. These kids wouldn’t be fighting so much. I also realized that the same insight applied to the world as a whole.'"

"The word I was looking for to describe all of that," he says now, "was 'transformation.' I wanted to 'transform' the way of life on the playground, but I didn't have that in my vocabulary then. But the image, that moment, has stuck with me all my life."

Today, Joel studies transformative social change – in the classroom and in the world. Along the way, he has done related research and policy work in violence prevention, conflict resolution, and media violence. For several years, he was Co-Director of the Center for Communication and Social Policy at UC Santa Barbara.In that role he was also the project director of the National Television Violence Study, coordinating more than 200 researchers at four research universities to produce the most comprehensive study of television violence to date.

He also served as project director on a study of a middle school violence prevention curriculum developed by the National Middle School Association, Court TV, and Time Warner Cable:and he led numerous cross-cultural conflict resolution workshops, including a year-long Palestinian-Jewish dialogue at the University of Southern California.

More recently, Joel traveled to Egypt in August 2011, to study the evolving democracy movement there, interviewing political leaders, activists, and scholars.

But for all that, Joel says the most important part of social activism, what he tries to focus on in his work and his classes, is people’s way of thinking and looking at the world. "Policy change by itself is important," he says, "but truly transformative change involves a shift in how we understand ourselves and our relation to the world.The most important work that I can do is not just to help others see things in a new way, but to help empower them to develop their own worldviews and ideas for change."

Integral to such transformative changes in thinking, Joel states, is deep reflection on values, and that is one of the reasons that brought him to Saybrook."The Saybrook humanistic tradition encourages us to reflect on who we are, our values, and our ideals, and to let those inform our research and our social change work," he says." That opens up all sorts of possibilities not available at many other institutions."

As Director of the Transformative Social Change Specialization within the School of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Inquiry, Joel not only encourages his students to engage in their own personal growth and evolution, but helps to link their transformations to broader social system change, such as the growing global movements for peace, social justice, and democracy.

In this vein, he has organized in-person “Residential Conference” seminars on topics such as “The Politics, Economics, and Ecology of Food,” “New Communication Technologies and Social Change,” and “Transnational Citizen Activism,” each bringing Saybrook students and faculty together with other scholars, activists, and nongovernmental organization leaders.

“Across our curriculum,” he says, “we work to link our students with networks of leading scholars and activists, well beyond our own faculty, who are creating this kind of transformative social change. Our programs are deeply reflective, and they also engage our students directly with the urgent challenges and possibilities of our times.”