Cheryl Grills isn't one to pass hours within the ivory towers of academe. She's a professor who puts her boots on the ground at the front lines of social movements everywhere from South Central Los Angeles to the troubled streets of Ferguson, Mo.
Grills is a professor of psychology at Loyola Marymount University's Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts and founder of LMU's Psychology Applied Research Center. Through PARC, Grills and her student volunteers work toward concrete change in communities affected by issues of race, culture and social class.
"I wanted to see my work have a direct connection to real issues in real time," Grills said. "And I wanted students to see that their learning can impact critical issues in the broader society."
To accomplish this, PARC teams with nonprofit groups and institutions to document and analyze the community problems they're trying to solve. Then, armed with rigorously compiled data and Grills' experience — she's also an L.A. County commissioner and immediate past president of the Assn. of Black Psychologists — PARC reaches out to governments, community-based organizations, corporations and others that have the power to effect significant change.
The hospitalized homeless
In one recent project, PARC helped the L.A.-based grassroots community organizing agency United Coalition East Prevention Project and the L.A. County/USC Medical Center tackle a major strain on the emergency room: overuse by the area's homeless residents. Take note of that phrase, "homeless residents." For Grills, it's a way to frame them as part of the community, not as the "other."
PARC's student volunteers helped design a study before going out into the field to conduct it. They interviewed the homeless in the emergency room and surveyed the neighborhood for other factors contributing to the problem.
Their findings revealed that homeless residents wound up in the ER for a few primary reasons. Many had no access to other healthcare, such as routine checkups or doctor visits. Others had been injured in assaults in isolated areas such as the railroad yard. A great number just needed a safe haven and some caring human contact.
The data was presented a few months ago at a meeting with representatives from the L.A. County government, the Board of Supervisors, corporations, community organizations and other groups. The result was a pledge by many of those organizations to take concrete action in the near future.
Some community groups have committed to help L.A. County's homeless access primary healthcare services and benefits like Medi-Cal. Union Pacific Railroad will provide a 24/7 emergency hotline to help prevent crime at the railroad yard. The Guadalupe Homeless Project will launch a new women's shelter to provide longer-term housing than is currently available. And government institutions like the public health department are creating programs to help the area's homeless.
Two new PARC projects are in the works. One will research the educational needs of women inmates at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood — needs that LMU faculty will then determine how to help fulfill. The other project will address access to healthcare and safe recreational space in the violence-plagued South L.A. neighborhoods of King Estates and Westmont.
PARC not only impacts communities — it can be a life-changing experience for student volunteers as well. As Grills put it, "It made their majors come alive. They felt like what they were doing mattered and could make a difference in people's lives."
Making a difference is Grills' top concern. She has recently returned from Ferguson, where she provided psychological triage for community members after the grand jury decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. There, Grills conducted Emotional Emancipation Circles, experiential self-help groups that deal with what she believes is at the core of many social justice questions: the emotionally stressful reality of being black in America.
"Part of the challenge is understanding the tremendous amount of racial stress and racial trauma that people are under in this country," she said. "The anger about Ferguson is just the surface. Below the anger is pain and hurt that cuts across multiple generations."
Grills said she works to conquer racial problems that persist despite a long and ongoing struggle. "If I get discouraged, then my children will have to face what I face, what my mother and grandmother faced," she said.
Her passion is contagious. It's no wonder students often knock on Grills' door, poke their heads in and ask, "Got any projects I can work on?"
In fact, if you spend a few minutes talking with her, you just might find yourself asking, "Where do I sign up?"