President’s Column:
Getting to Know the Elephant

Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash

By Carol Pilgrim

An ancient Indian parable tells of a group of blind men encountering an elephant for the first time. To better understand this new animal, each man examines the beast tactually and then reports his findings to the others. The elephant is characterized variously as a thick snake, a leaf, a pillar, a wall, a rope, and a spear, depending on the speaker’s point of contact with the animal.

In some versions of the story, the men, each convinced of his own truth, begin to argue and to doubt the integrity of the others, even coming to blows. By emphasizing the limitations of any single perspective, and the necessity of multiple vantage points for a more complete understanding, the parable provides an effective metaphor for many human endeavors, including, in the present case, ABAI.

Let’s consider our elephant. Having returned to the ABAI Council after a number of years away, I admit to being awed, again, by the enormity of what one organization manages to make happen. Indeed, it is revealing to reflect on the whole of our enterprise, instead of responding on the basis of a particular individual experience, as we all have a wont to do. I’ll take this opportunity then to follow from our parable by briefly outlining the assorted pieces that comprise and define ABAI.

Many of us interact with ABAI most directly through the annual convention in May. In truth, the convention approaches pachyderm status in its own right. Even with a second consecutive virtual meeting, the 2021 convention offered more than 1,200 individual presentations, 397 research posters, and 58 workshops in 15 program areas to over 3,000 attendees, with more than 16,000 CE credits produced so far. Thanks to the outstanding efforts of the Program Board Coordinator, Program Committee Chair, and 30 Area Coordinators—and the heroic planning, training, and technical support provided by 19 ABAI staff—the 2021 convention was a tremendous success, with 91% of survey respondents rating the overall convention as “very good” or “excellent.”

But don’t forget that the annual convention is but one of multiple events arranged by ABAI each year. Since May 2020, online offerings also included the Culturo-Behavior Science for a Better World Conference (October 2020) and the 15th Annual Autism Conference (February 2021). Planning is already well underway for in-person events in 2022: the 16th Annual Autism Conference (March 5–7; Seattle, WA), the 48th Annual Convention (May 28–30; Boston, MA), and the 11th International Conference in Dublin, Ireland (Sept. 1–3). Each of these exciting events will provide another feel of the elephant.

Further touches of ABAI take place via our publications, which reach an increasing number of readers every year. In addition to this member publication, ABAI now is the proud home to a new book series, and six—count ‘em six—behavior-analytic journals: Perspectives on Behavior Science (editor: Chris Newland), The Psychological Record (editor: Mitch Fryling), The Analysis of Verbal Behavior (editor: Tiffany Kodak), Behavior Analysis in Practice (editor: Stephanie Peterson), Behavior and Social Issues (editor: Traci Cihon), and Education and Treatment of Children (editor: Claire St. Peter). Collectively, these journals account for 19 issues per year, thanks to the hard work of our six editors, 26 associate editors, and a grand total of 224 Editorial Board members.

Of course, education in behavior analysis is the focus of other critical points of contact with ABAI for students, instructors, and program administrators alike. The ABAI Accreditation Board oversees rigorous standards and processes for on-site visits and materials review of training programs at three levels. Currently, nine universities can boast of offering an ABAI-accredited behavior analysis program at the Doctoral level, 23 at the Master’s level, and two at the Bachelor’s level. As of May 2021, this distinction carries even greater weight given the confirmation of official recognition by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, a national coordinating body that provides quality assurance for groups that accredit institutions and programs. Considerable thanks are due to Mike Perone and the Accreditation Board for skillfully negotiating this involved approval process, the outcome of which is a landmark that benefits all of ABAI.

In addition to program accreditation, ABAI provides an independent mechanism for verifying coursework requirements, content hours, and faculty standards in two education categories. With oversight by ABAI’s Verified Course Sequence (VCS) Board, this process currently supports 548 approved BACB VCSs in 41 different countries, and an additional 7 VCSs from three different countries in the recently established Culturo-Behavior Science program.

A related initiative will begin soon for verifying international training programs that fall outside of BACB locales, where the development of appropriate standards for coursework represents another major collaborative effort on the part of ABAI and its international members. Special kudos go to Peter Killeen, Jenna Mrljak, and the International Task Force on Education for their unfailing direction in this initiative. Task Force members are Smita Awasthi (India), Michael Dorsey (VCS Board Coordinator), Ilana Gerschlowitz (South Africa), Agustín Daniel Gómez (Mexico), Martha Hübner (Brazil), Wilson López (Colombia), Maria Malott (ABAI), Kanako Otsui (Japan), Mike Perone (Accreditation Board Coordinator), Ingunn Sandaker (Norway), Fabio Tosolin (Italy), and Gladys Williams (Spain). To parallel the coursework standards, a separate Experiential Learning Committee—spearheaded by Michael Dorsey, Maria Malott, and Katie Mahaffy—was assembled to identify standards of practice for training programs. The coursework and experiential learning standards are now integrated in the ABAI tiered model for education, soon to be released to the membership for commentary.

Further pieces of our organizational whole are evidenced by our membership, which is robust in number and vigorous in action despite two years of virtual existence. At present, there are 1,559 Full, 1,512 Student, 109 Student Transition, 230 First Time, 1,708 Affiliate, 415 Chapter Adjunct, and 1703 Associate Chapter members. Members interact with ABAI through its eight Boards (88 members), four standing committees (26 individuals), 39 Special Interest Groups, 97 affiliated chapters (52 U.S. and 45 international), its Fellows program (123 individuals so recognized), and through the work of liaisons to each of eight external organizations with aligned interests. Notably, the vast bulk of the work described here is accomplished on a purely volunteer and non-compensated basis (only the journal editors and continuing associate editors receive a small stipend), making success all the more impressive.

Other critical contributors to the feel of ABAI are the 18 talented and dedicated staff who, under the masterful leadership of our CEO, Maria Malott, manage to support with skill and good humor all of the functions outlined above and more (e.g., continuing education, the ABAI bookstore, the Career Center and job placement listings), even while meeting the 2,080 deadlines set for their collective work across the course of the year.

The final part of this anatomy review is the ABAI Council, the nine-member decision-making body elected to provide guidance and direction across the organization’s endeavors. It is the responsibility of the ABAI Council to avoid the plight of the blind men. The Council composition reflects a breadth of experience by design, with applied, at-large, experimental, international, and student representatives. Further, required reading prior to each of the biannual Council meetings includes hundreds of pages of documents and data relevant to each of the many pieces of ABAI, in order to inform the issues under consideration as fully as possible. The pace of this deliberative process can be frustrating at times, but it is essential to provide appropriate context and opportunity to design steps most likely to be meaningful, sustainable, and of benefit to the entirety of the organization.

One important case in point, which itself emphasizes the power and necessity of multiple perspectives, involves foundational steps taken over the past year for progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Collaborative work between the DEI Board, the ABAI Council, and ABAI members produced results in a number of formative directions (please see the DEI webpage for further detail). Three different award categories were created and funded to encourage, recognize, and support exemplary efforts in DEI. Inaugural winners of the SABA Innovative Student Research Grant and the ABAI Scholarly Contributions to DEI paper competition were recognized at the May convention. The grant program proved so successful that SABA allocated additional funding going forward for up to four research grants of up to $5,000 each. Nominations are currently being solicited for the third award category—the Award for Distinguished Contributions to DEI—to recognize documented achievements as models of, and inspiration for, effective DEI approaches. The first awardee will be honored at a dedicated event at the annual convention in Boston next year. Another advance for DEI this year was the creation of the SABA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fund, which was created to allow for member contributions specifically in support of DEI work, including ongoing support for the Innovative Student Research Grant.

As a next milestone, the Council approved at its May meeting a position statement that makes explicit ABAI’s opposition to conversion therapy and practices, as well as our acknowledgement of having played a role in such practices. The statement was crafted by an all-star Task Force of members appointed by the ABAI Council (Sarah Campau, Shawn Capell, Daniel Conine, Kent Johnson, Fernanda Oda, and one additional member who prefers to remain anonymous), then reviewed and approved unanimously by the DEI Board and the ABAI Council. It now appears as a Council statement on the ABAI “Policies and Positions” webpage. A period for member comments will be announced this summer, to be followed by a vote of the membership for possible endorsement as an organization-level policy.

Important building blocks put in place this year also include posting preliminary data on diversity in ABAI membership and convention registrants. These postings will be expanded in the fall to include multiple measures from ABAI’s strategic plan, which features DEI goals throughout.

Several approaches to creating a more welcoming and inclusive environment have been initiated. As one key example, and with an eye toward informing subsequent proposals for action, the Education Committee of the DEI Board has initiated a series of participatory small-group sessions to explore challenges, root causes, and possible solutions with individuals who have been traditionally underrepresented and marginalized within our field. In another important case, Landria Seals Green and Vanessa Bethea-Miller of the ABA Task Force contributed a rubric that served as a basis for the ABAI Program Board’s review of convention submissions with respect to inclusivity and cultural humility.

Additional decisions from the May Council meeting include waiving convention registration for all 50-minute invited convention presentations beginning in 2022, and scheduling a special Council meeting later this summer to focus exclusively on planning for more direct support of our BIPOC members and others from marginalized communities.

To echo our opening parable, the critical necessity of involving and learning from all perspectives has never been clearer, for our field or for our society. ABAI is committed to the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the groundwork described here represents early, but important, steps toward advancing those goals.

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