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Counselor discovers that enhanced worldview can help clients at home

Heather Rudow October 24, 2011

Angela Coker has always believed that a more in-depth cultural understanding of the world leads to well-rounded counselors and, thus, a positive counseling experience for clients of all demographic backgrounds. After a life-changing experience in which she conducted research and explored the cities of Brazil through the Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad Program in July, her resolve to champion this belief among her fellow counselors is even stronger.

Coker, a licensed professional counselor and associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was selected as one of 15 scholars for the program out of nearly 400 applicants from across the United States. The purpose of the program, which is funded by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, is to promote and enhance cultural understanding between U.S. scholars and scholars from other countries. The scholars who participated focused on a wide variety of academic disciplines, Coker said, including music, history, anthropology, religious studies and education. As a counselor educator, Coker’s main priorities were increasing her international understanding of multiculturalism, while also expanding her knowledge of Brazil’s history and culture.

“My research has always [centered on] underserved populations, specifically African Americans and how research can serve them,” Coker says. She explains that many minorities are distrustful of participating in research studies because of events that have taken place during the course of U.S. history. In particular, she cites the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a controversial clinical study in Alabama that inflicted hundreds of impoverished African American sharecroppers with the infection without their knowledge. Throughout the 40-year span of the research, the men were never given any treatment for syphilis, even after penicillin was validated as an effective cure in the 1940s.

“A lot of African Americans look very circumspect at research,” Coker says. “They look at it through a negative cultural lens.”

Given Coker’s research interests, she knew that Brazil would be the perfect country for her to visit as part of her Fulbright-Hays grant. Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and during that time, Coker says, Africans were shipped in to provide the base for economic development. What most people don’t realize, Coker says, is that during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, more Africans were sent to Brazil than to any other country in the world. Approximately 40 percent of all enslaved Africans were taken to Brazil, 40 percent to the Caribbean and 8 percent to the United States, Coker said.

“[The Fulbright-Hays Program] gave me a global perspective and exposure to the vast history of Brazil … and you’ve got three times the amount of Blacks in Brazil than in the United States,” Coker says. “What a wonderful place to study.”

She and the other scholars visited eight different cities over the course of four weeks: Salvador, Recife, Brasília, Belo Horizonte, Ouro Preto, Mariana, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Even as she took in the modern culture of Brazil, Coker was also able to experience the country’s history, focusing particularly on its African population. She toured what was once a gold mine where enslaved Africans worked, as well as Pelourinho in Salvador de Bahia, a place where slaves were publically auctioned into slavery.

Brazil finally abolished slavery in 1888, making it one of the last countries to do so. Because of that, Coker says, multiculturalism within Brazil is still lagging.

“They haven’t had a civil rights movement yet,” she says. “They haven’t had a Martin Luther King Jr. or a Malcolm X yet. They’re just now learning to teach Black culture in schools.”

An ongoing sense of racism is also evident, Coker says. “The stigma is a serious problem. The lighter your skin is, the higher your acceptance and beauty and safety [in society].”

This also translates into economic issues for Africans living in Brazil, according to Coker. “Brazil is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, but they also have a lot of poverty,” she says. “It’s interesting to see the people of Rio living side by side with different socioeconomic statuses.”

And as Coker discovered, centuries of second-class citizenship combined with low socioeconomic status (and high unemployment) have led to an unfortunate dearth of counseling opportunities for the country’s African citizens. “Counseling is inherently biased in that it has an economic barrier,” Coker says, “and these people can’t afford it.”

It is also difficult for Africans in Brazil to become counselors as a profession, Coker says. She recalls going through a phonebook during a day trip and looking up the names of counselors in an attempt to count the total number and possibly get an idea of the demographic breakdown.

“I suspect very strongly that there were very few counselors of color,” she says, “because higher education for Blacks [in Brazil] is difficult.”

Upon returning home, rather than seeing all the differences between the United States and Brazil, Coker was struck by some of the similarities. “Poverty has the same look all over the world,” she says. During her travels in Brazil, Coker noted that families expressed a desire for their children to have better things than they had had growing up. The same is typically true in the United States, Coker says.

With her Fulbright-Hays experience behind her, Coker is dedicated to emphasizing the importance of global education for counselors. As North Americans, she says, counselors can begin to embody a certain ethnocentrism that saturates their work. The experience has challenged Coker to strip that away and understand Brazil’s complex social problems within their cultural context.

“We can learn things from others,” Coker says. “Our model needs to be formed by interacting with others I think, because it takes that missing cultural component to be well-rounded.”

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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