Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Psychology Joseph Trimble retired in June after 41 years on campus at Western. A national leader in the field of cross-cultural psychology, Trimble's work over the course of his career on better understanding the psychological needs of ethnic minorities in general and North America's Indigenous peoples in particular has garnered awards not only from Western but from his peers nationally and internationally.
As he enjoys the first days of his well-earned retirement, Western Today chatted with Trimble about his more than four decades of service to the campus and its students, how he views the impact he has had on his field, and how the social unrest around racial injustice as he ends his career mirrors in many ways what was occurring nationally when it started.
Western Today: You have been at Western for more than 40 years. Given your expertise as a founding member of your field and the awards and accolades you received, what made you decide to stay in Bellingham when other opportunities undoubtedly presented themselves?
JT: While I have had some tempting opportunities to move on to other academic appointments, my wife Molly and I decided to stay in Bellingham because it was home for us and our children. And I didn’t want to be in another institution that didn’t place as great an emphasis on cultural diversity at the curriculum and administrative levels as existed here at Western. I also had nurtured close Native friendships with tribal members from local reservation communities that meant a great deal to me.
Western Today: Besides just growing in size, how has Western changed, at its core, from when you started here?
JT: From my perspective, Western’s core mission has essentially remained unchanged from its fervent commitment to cultural diversity and academic excellence and innovation across the curriculum. I have always been impressed with the high quality of the faculty across our disciplines, departments, and programs and the high retention rate of our faculty; I believe that over the years some 95% of our faculty choose to stay here. Western’s emphasis on student retention and growing the graduation rates is also impressive. I especially welcome the recent push by Western’s administration to increase the enrollment and retention of students of color.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Western placed a good deal of support and emphasis on cultural and ethnic diversity. The Center for Cross-Cultural Research, a first of its kind in the world, was established and housed in the psychology department, where it remains today. Also, Western established the College of Ethic Studies and in so doing attracted ethnic scholars from many disciplines to join the college. Unfortunately it was disbanded in the late 1970s due to budget concerns; however, the commitment to cultural and ethnic diversity remained as did many of the faculty hired to be a part of the college’s mission.
Western Today: Your list of lifetime awards includes both major faculty teaching awards at Western, the Excellence in Teaching Award and the Paul J. Olscamp Research Award, as well as many others. In 2017, you were awarded the Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in Psychology in the Public Interest from the American Psychological Foundation. How did it feel to be recognized by such a group, and how did it make you reflect on your career in academia?
JT: Each award I received was totally unexpected. In addition to receiving the Olscamp award and the excellence in teaching award here at WWU, I was deeply touched to receive the Diversity Achievement Award in 2016. That award stands out particularly because Trula Nicholas was a co-recipient of the award. She was one of my first graduate students in psychology at WWU and is now a member of the faculty in the Woodring College of Education.
I have been honored and emotionally moved to receive these awards that came to me through recommendations by students, graduates, faculty colleagues, and staff. Also three of the distinguished national awards I received during my career at Western were named in honor of accomplished and respected African American psychologists and a psychiatrist. I was overwhelmed to be selected by these ethnic-specific committees as it said to me that they valued my contributions to cultural diversity and social justice.
Receiving the American Psychological Foundation’s gold medal further validated my contributions to social justice and racial inequities. Many who had helped and supported me through my career were in the audience when I received that award, and I had the wonderful opportunity to thank and acknowledge them publicly for their support.
Western Today: The field you have dedicated your professional career to—understanding how multicultural and Indigenous populations have different psychological needs in terms of treatment than that of more mainstream populations based on wholly different social norms and socioeconomic conditions, among other factors—has placed you often at the forefront of discussions on equity and social justice issues that take you far from the bounds of Psychology. Did you envision this sort of "issue ownership" when you first began work in the field as a graduate student in New England and Oklahoma?
JT: Not fully at first, but my graduate school educational experiences laid the foundation for me to search out others who shared my convictions about civil rights and social justice. Long ago when I was in graduate school in New England, I vividly recall attending an intense civil rights demonstration in the South Boston area. I committed my career then and there to the goals and mission of the movement as I understood them. In the process I joined other demonstrations and sought advice and direction from many colleagues and friends in the emerging field of racial and ethnic equity.
In the late 1960s, there was little or no information about ethnic and cultural groups in the psychological literature--almost none concerning American Indians. I was puzzled why anthropologists representing the culture devoted considerable attention to psychological constructs, yet psychologists almost completely ignored cultural and ethnic influences on behavior and experiences.
Psychology's myopic view of cultural influences fueled my curiosity and interest. My weekend excursions to the communities and homes of my American Indian friends in Oklahoma also spurred my interest along, more so because I was awakened to and reminded of the extreme prejudice, economic disparity, and alcoholism that surrounded life in these Indian communities. The visits also reminded me that I should not become too absorbed in social psychological abstractions. I began to question the application of social psychological knowledge to solving fundamental social problems. However, I realized then—and still do—that I must strive to achieve a balance between theory and real-life problems. Sometimes that is difficult, as I tend to get totally absorbed in working on the problems and forget the value of research. A pinch or two from my friends and colleagues often helps nudge me back into balance.
Some 50 or so years ago my Grandfather Sage provided me with advice I find truer every day: “Never forget where you came from and the lessons you learned in your childhood; you now have a responsibility to pass along your knowledge, experiences, and skills. Always remember that no one has ever accomplished anything of value by themselves.”
Additionally, I received advice — and permission — from a southern Arapaho elder from western Oklahoma who gently reminded me that the American Indian is a frozen image in the minds of many. He said, “You can draw attention to the way we live and the many things that affect our lives, particularly the bad ones.”
I made a commitment to both elders that I would honor their advice and wishes. Despite many criticisms, frustrations, and self-doubt, I have remembered their words and worked to honor their faith in me. Although I am now retired from Western I will actively continue to advance the causes of cultural diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice, themes that have been the mainstay of my personal and professional career for 60 years. As I continue to advance the causes that matter greatly to me, I am mindful that we are all connected. I am constantly reminded that I am not alone; someone or some idea has influenced my thinking and actions and led me over and over again to a higher level of commitment in my work and life. I am keenly aware that the wisdom of others influences each of us in countless ways. We really do depend on one another first, last, and always.
Western Today: The framework you have established between psychology and cultural plurality seem even more topical in these times of social unrest and racial injustice. Does it seem that way to you?
JT: Yes, it does. Cultural diversity, social injustices, and civil rights were the main themes of the unrest and nationwide protests in the late 1960s and early1970s. Many of us committed to social change believed our efforts would bring civil and racial equities. Positive and constructive sociocultural change did occur at many levels, but it wasn’t enough. I welcome the call that is happening now for sociocultural change. I hope the mass protests and the memory of the events that triggered them remain.
Western Today: As you leave campus after more than 40 years here, how would you like to be remembered?
JT: I would like to be remembered for being respectful, dependable, thoughtful, committed, hardworking, and trustworthy ... as a person who had good friends and a lovely, fine family ... as one who confronted social injustices and sought proactive ways to overcome them ... as a person who was conscientious and open to correction and always ready and eager to learn.
I also hope others remember me as someone who thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed his many years at WWU.