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Teamwork, Community, and the Release of Joel Guerrero

The psychology of effective political activism.

Joel Guerrero / Daily News (Public)
Source: Joel Guerrero / Daily News (Public)

I don’t care where you are on the political spectrum, I promise that you should be outraged by what happened to New Paltz resident Joel Guerrero in recent months. Mr. Guerrero, a construction worker in his 30s, immigrated to the USA legally from the Dominican Republic when he was seven years old. His family brought him and his siblings here to pursue the American dream. This may sound familiar to you, because most of us are descendants of people who came to this nation for the same exact reason at one point.

Joel is married to long-standing New Paltz resident Jessica Guerrero—and she is pregnant with their baby. So you can imagine how upset they were to find that, during a routine meeting with his immigration officer, Joel was brought into custody—a detention center in New Jersey—slated for deportation to a nation that he left when he was seven years old. The rationale? He had a misdemeanor marijuana charge that was dug up from when he was in his 20s. Think about that.

Community Psychology and Activism

As you can imagine, people in our tight-knit little upstate town were less than thrilled about this. So we did what humans have done for centuries—we organized. We planned. We worked as a community unit.

While there are many hallmarks of the human species, there is a great case to be made that we are, primarily, an ape that uses teamwork in an unprecedented manner (see Wilson, 2007; Bingham & Souza, 2009). Unlike any other form of Homo, Homo sapiens have a strong tendency to form groups that cut across kin lines. We form communities of all shapes and sizes—and a community is capable of doing what any individual could never dream of doing. Communities of people built the pyramids. Communities of people drafted the laws that set the stage for the United States. And communities of scientists put humans on the moon.

We live in interesting times. No matter what your political perspective, you certainly must be aware of the large-scale activism that is taking place all around the nation right now. As someone who loves the USA and who loves democracy, I am inspired each and every day by this fact.

Political activism, when done well, is really high-level applied community psychology.

Move Forward New York / Robert Gertler (with permission)
Source: Move Forward New York / Robert Gertler (with permission)

Move Forward New York and the Joel Guerrero Case

I am a founding member of the activist group Move Forward New York, designed to raise political awareness and, in our minds, to help us get this nation back on course. Jessica Guerrero is a member of Move Forward New York, so our members were interested in this case.

Using each and every facet of our first amendment rights, we organized around this case. We wrote letters to the editor. We made phone calls to our senators and congressional representatives at the state and federal levels. We posted information on the internet to raise awareness. We gave public presentations at political rallies. And our promise was that we would not rest until Joel came home.

What Activism Looks Like

This is what activism looks like. It is coordinated and focused. And in the confines of a democracy, it can be effective. When entire communities act—when entire communities speak—that is when government officials listen.

Joel Guerrero was released from prison this morning. Jessica has not yet had the baby. So the timing was not bad.

As a founding member of Move Forward New York and as a member of their broader community, I cannot overstate how thrilled I am to be writing this right now.

You Can Make a Difference

Human psychology is funny. We often feel like we can’t make a difference. We often feel like we have little control over outcomes and situations. I’m here to tell you today that, in fact, you can make a difference. If you are not happy with something happening at the level of local, state, or national politics, don’t ever think that you are helpless. The trick is to do what humans have done for thousands of generations. Form teams of individuals with shared goals—plan, organize, and take action.

Joel Guerrero is a free man. Today is a good day.