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Powell Spreads CHDS Message

Greg Kyle/WSCC

If there were a homeland security photo dictionary that included the term "practitioner-scholar," it may well have a picture of Eric Powell.

The firefighter, paramedic, deputy sheriff and college professor was just weeks into his studies at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) when he discovered concepts pertinent to his teaching duties in Morristown, Tenn.

Powell serves as the fire science and paramedic program director for the East Tennessee Public Safety Center at Walters State Community College, which is proving fertile ground for sharing homeland security concepts emanating from CHDS. Powell has taken concepts regarding social identity theory (SIT) and incorporated them into his teaching.

"The immersion has brought forth things to take back to the state of Tennessee and I am very thankful for that," Powell said during a recent break between classes at the CHDS campus. "I think the mission here for the homeland security practitioner would be analyze, evaluate and create. That’s what I am taking away. This place absolutely gives you the tools to do that."

His CHDS studies have been complemented by course work at New Mexico Tech, where he attended classes on terrorist bombings as part of a first-responders regimen sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security at that school. Powell was able to synthesize topics learned at the Center and New Mexico Tech into his teaching.

Lori Campbell, vice president of academic affairs at Walters State, said Powell's background provides the college with unique expertise on a multi-disciplinary approach to training first responders.

"Walters State Community College holds the distinction with the Tennessee Board of Regents as a Center of Emphasis for Public Safety," Campbell said. "As such, we hold in high esteem the knowledge that Dr. Powell will bring back to the college after successfully completing this master’s program. Dr. Powell's strength lies in his multidisciplinary backgrounds. This college plans to use the knowledge that Dr. Powell brings back to infuse our curriculum across the fields of public safety - police, fire, and EMS - with a curriculum centered on Homeland Security."

And that is part of the CHDS mission: Students leave the Center and take the concepts with them to spread to their peers.

"An important part of the CHDS educational mission is to give students analytical tools and frameworks capable of addressing real world homeland security problems, and I am very pleased that Eric has found a use for SIT in his duties," said Anders Strindberg of the CHDS faculty. "SIT is a nuanced and flexible, but at the same time academically rigorous, framework for understanding relationships within and between groups, with great potential for application throughout the homeland security disciplines."

In teaching about prevention and response to terrorist bombings, Powell integrated social identity theory as well as a version of CHDS’ Dystopia that was tailored for an East Tennessee locale. Developed at CHDS, it is cyberspace environment in which students are able, via computer, to apply and test the theories they learn in class.

Developed in 1979, social identity theory poses that individuals develop a sense of self by categorizing groups and identifying with a group in which they most see themselves as belonging.

"It allowed me to better understand the variables involved in how people become radicalized and enter into violent extremism," Powell said. "Mostly, it allowed me to break existing stereotypes of violent extremists. One of the first things we learned is that our adversary is a very rational actor."

As an instructor, Powell used social identity theory as part of a reverse role-playing exercise in which the students acted as immigrants facing typical barriers newcomers encounter to a new country.

"I told them you have to understand these things if you want to understand the adversary," he said. "These are the things that were taught to us using social identity theory. Now I have 48 young officers that understand that. Essentially, that experiment was fruitful and very well-received by the cadets."

Beginning in December 2011, Powell will add a form of Dystopia to the courses. Tennessee’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission has certified the course that will incorporate that computer model.

"The cool thing is I am able to bring things from CHDS and show them to my colleagues and give them the same ownership I have with it. They are as big of proponents of CHDS as I am."