I recently had the distinct pleasure of attending the centennial conference of the National Career Development Association, held, quite appropriately, in Boston. I have long asserted that the core value of social justice in counseling is an intrinsic part of our identity, as it has been since Frank Parsons’ early outreach efforts to vulnerable youth in the early part of the 20th century. However, it was inspiring to see an ACA division — our first division — proudly wave the social justice banner at its conference.
Make no mistake. NCDA is not the only ACA division that views social justice as a salient aspect of counselor identity. This ideal is a mainstay within Counselors for Social Justice, the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, and the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, to name a few. While other mental health organizations are currently attempting to infuse social justice into their professional identity, the counseling profession was conceived with social justice roots. As such, we were born to be different and, on occasion, even radical because we are taught to consider the environment in which clients’ symptomology is present as well as the intrapsychic influences. Thus, when our clients are struggling to self-actualize within dysfunctional environments, we are moved to take social action that often occurs outside of the therapy room. For some of us, this seems like a “no-brainer.” For others, this may sound like heresy. Hence, we have active and lively discussions surrounding this topic. Allow me to weigh in.
There are several compelling reasons for embracing the idea of infusing social action into our counseling skill set. First, scholars have shown that social action enhances clinical efficacy when it involves contact with clients within their own environments. Also, social action has been proved to facilitate increased contact between faculty and students, as well as more meaningful contact between students. Finally, taking social action helps to link course content to clinical applications.
Interacting with clients on their own terms can be a powerful experience in which counselors’ preconceived notions about their clients are challenged by striking realities. Counselors can acquire a complex understanding of the issues that clients face and become aware of clients’ coping strategies and historical resilience patterns. Typically, counselors’ own lived experiences loom so large within the therapeutic relationship that it is frequently difficult for them to accurately conceptualize clients’ issues. Having extended direct contact with clients within their own environments provides the necessary prolonged engagement that can begin to erode the socialized biases that we far too often bring into our clinical work with clients — particularly those who are different from ourselves. By reducing our biases, we are able to more effectively assess and intervene.
Creating time outside of formal instruction can create stronger bonds between fellow students and between students and faculty. Research has shown that involvement in social action can strengthen the mentoring relationship between counselor educators and counselor trainees. When students experience their faculty outside of the classroom, they are able to create a more complex, multidimensional conceptualization of their instructors, thus making them more approachable. This enhanced relationship can lead to a more fulfilling experience for both students and faculty, leading to increased satisfaction with the academic experience. Even more exciting is the notion that involvement in social action increases the quality of relationships between students.
Another reason to infuse social action into our work as supervisors and educators is that it affords us the opportunity to have teachable moments with our clinical teams. Whether our teams consist of students or practitioners, engagement in social action enables us to have extended time with our clinical team members, wherein we can provide live supervision, process and debriefing, and extemporaneous training sessions. As we are all aware, formal professional development workshops and classroom instruction require additional exposure within the real world. Social action can enhance content delivery to allow students and clinicians to explore, practice and evaluate their ability to advocate on behalf of their clients under the supervision of a trained social justice-oriented clinical supervisor.
I often respond to students’ questions about why we should incorporate social justice and advocacy into counseling with the following scenario:
Imagine walking down a road and encountering a client lying on the ground trapped under a large branch. Which choice would you be more inclined to make?
a) Ask the client how she or he feels about being trapped under the branch
b) Attempt to remove the branch from the client’s body
Whatever the students’ responses, this scenario allows them to enter into the conversation and think critically about social justice, advocacy and taking social action.