You’re about to start a graduate counseling program. You’ve likely traveled to a new place, so you’re trying to adjust and find a new go-to burger joint. You have your priorities straight.
The last thing you want to do is research places to start volunteering. Besides, you’re already training for a career in which the focal point is helping people. Do you really need to go out of your way to do more? Sure, volunteering sounds good, and you would like to do it, but you’ve worked so hard to get here, and you don’t really have the drive to begin something that won’t further your career.
I have been there. You’re talking to a professional promise-maker here. I’ve organized groups to bring food and hygiene products to homeless individuals, but I’ve also made a thousand promises to myself or to other groups with good missions to volunteer, and when the time came, there was always a great excuse not to follow through. Maybe my cat was being extra cute, or my murder mystery suddenly took an interesting turn.
Whatever the excuse is, it seems important at the time. Besides, I tell myself, if I’m not there to help, someone else will take my place. And sometimes the amount of hurt in the world feels like too much for me to bear. And I wonder, even if I am there to help, will it really make any difference?
Fortunately, I attend a university that removes the hard part from the equation. At Adler University, volunteering in your first year is a mandatory part of every program. Students fill out a form about their experiences, strengths and interests. Then, in a process I have been promised is not random, they are assigned volunteer positions in underserved communities.
Some individuals are placed in nonprofit organizations they find interesting; others remain confused about their placement throughout the experience. I have watched one particular thing happen across the board, however. Those individuals who complete their volunteer hours with as little effort as possible don’t really gain much from the experience. On the other hand, those who complete their placements by really getting involved and being passionate about serving the underserved ultimately grow immensely.
This experience is so pedestrian that a saying developed around it: “You get out of it what you put into it.” However, clinicians, and especially those of us studying to become clinicians, may not understand how vital this volunteer experience is to our clinical practice. If we are to be guided by the ethical principle of beneficence, then we must do more than simply our jobs to help our communities and the individuals within them.
We must find ways to integrate our pledge to help the community into our everyday lives. Otherwise, we are following only the principle of nonmalfeasance. That is an essential principle, but simply doing no harm is not enough. Doing actual good reaches much further.
Yes, we are “doing good” when we are effective and ethical practitioners. But at the same time, we are simply doing our job well. To fulfill the principle of beneficence, we must go beyond the minimum of being effective clinicians and do good that effects change outside of our own personal spheres. Involving ourselves in our communities, in whatever way one chooses, will also benefit our practices immensely and allow us to be much more effective clinicians.
This, of course, requires a brief discussion on privilege. Luckily, the program at my university that organizes this volunteer placement to underserved populations also provides training sessions that help students understand the oppressive systems at work in the world, specifically inside the United States, and confront the privilege that we all possess.
This is incredibly helpful because acknowledging our own privilege is uncomfortable for many of us. All of us have faced struggles in one form or another throughout our lives. Some of us may not feel that we possess privilege in many respects. And this may be true, because privilege comes in multitudinous forms. But no matter the lack of Master Statuses we may possess, being able to afford (or even have the good standing to take out loans) to go to graduate school and become a counselor is a privilege in its own right.
Many people are afraid of acknowledging their privilege because they think that having privilege is a shameful thing. That’s a logical, although untrue, line of thought. There is often unnecessary guilt inherent in being born with privilege because we live in a world that works to keep the privileged on top while oppressing the underserved.
I am a Caucasian woman. So, even though I am a woman, I still carry the Master Status of “whiteness.” No matter what I’ve experienced or how difficult life may have been, I still carry that one Master Status. I can do my best to understand the experiences of other individuals and empathize with them. But there has to be a point at which each of us acknowledges that some individuals have had experiences we simply cannot understand.
This isn’t something to be ashamed of because no one can control the circumstances into which she or he was born. However, it is our responsibility to confront these circumstances and subsequent biases head-on if we are going to be socially conscious clinicians who are dedicated to following ethical principles. Furthermore, those of us with privilege have a responsibility to help those without privilege and without a voice.
I think the writer Toni Morrison expressed this sentiment particularly effectively: “I tell my students, when you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
Giving empathy another dimension
Acknowledging our privilege is important for many aspects of our work and a vital component of volunteerism. For starters, it helps us form empathy.
Although most (hopefully all) clinicians and clinicians-in-training possess some amount of empathy, acknowledging privilege gives our empathy another dimension. For instance, when working with homeless individuals as a teenager, I clearly had empathy for the population. Especially during the Great Recession, I understood that circumstances beyond these individuals’ control had led them to this place of desperation.
But this empathy needs to be multidimensional. Acknowledging one’s own privilege, and therefore the societal systems of oppression at play, allows one’s empathy to extend not only to the individual directly before you, but also to a whole group of individuals who have been affected by these systems. Now instead of feeling empathy only because of a particular individual’s immediate circumstances, I’m able to understand that clients’ lives have often been controlled by societal systems that existed long before these people came to be. These systems were created to oppress classes of individuals, leaving upward mobility out of the question for many and, too often, making simple survival an enormous feat.
In addition to growing our empathy, acknowledging our privilege is an essential part of understanding our own communities. Because we all experience privilege, we simply remain unaware of certain parts of our communities. These sections of our communities don’t concern us, so we often don’t bother to get involved in them.
This isn’t a lack of empathy. Rather, it is simply a lack of knowledge. Acknowledging our privilege means opening ourselves up to learning about the underserved of our communities and the problems that plague those with less privilege than us. Because we are clinicians, learning often sparks passion in us, and when we become passionate about changing an issue and providing voice to the voiceless, we can be unstoppable.
This deeper understanding of my community took place for me at my volunteer site, where I took notes at a monthly meeting for the Harm Reduction Coalition, which aims to provide prophylactic availability in prisons to stop HIV transmissions both inside and outside of prison. By being in a meeting of this kind, I ended up learning far more about the correctional system than prophylactic availability. Simply by being involved, I was able to meet so many individuals whose lives had been touched by the general lack of health care within prisons. In the process, I was forced to let go of my preconceptions.
I logically had assumed that when individuals in prison became sick, they were provided with the health care to which they have a right. That is until I met a woman whose husband had been diagnosed with cancer in prison but was refused knowledge of his diagnosis and treatment. His family only learned that he had cancer when he died behind bars in the arms of his friends and an autopsy revealed the truth. I met another man who had been so deprived of sensory stimulation that he had to relearn how to talk, read, write and interact with individuals upon being released from prison. I heard horror stories of treatment being denied again and again and again so that the cost wouldn’t cut into the profits of privatized correctional health care corporations. When you are in prison, you are still supposed to have certain rights. But when those rights are violated, you are voiceless and powerless.
When I started volunteering, I thought I understood the population I was working with and the system by which they are controlled. But when you have the privilege to not automatically be aware of these systems, you find that they are far more intricate than you ever could have imagined. Often, simply learning about the populations who live within these systems and cannot escape makes it impossible to not want to be involved.
As clinicians, we need to understand that we have preconceived beliefs that are inaccurate about many parts of our society. And the reality is, we are going to have clients who are part of these populations or have been touched by these systems. To be truly responsible clinicians, we need to confront these preconceptions head-on by involving ourselves with populations with which we would not generally come into contact.
I still struggle with the idea that what I do doesn’t really make a difference — that the oppressive systems at work are so big and so concrete that anything I do can only make a dent. That’s true in a way. After all, I’m only one person. There’s only so much I can do. But I can help educate others so that they too can begin to make chinks in the armor around this system. And they can educate the people around them about the reality of the world in which we live. At the end of the day, no matter how small the things I’ve accomplished are, they’re still there. And they still make a difference.
Don’t be afraid to admit that your preconceptions are wrong. Instead be afraid of keeping those preconceptions rather than confronting them. Identify an area of society that sparks your interest and passion, and find ways to get involved. Only through accepting your privilege and confronting your biases and beliefs can you deepen your understanding of society and strengthen your abilities as a clinician.
So force yourself to get off the couch. Find a nonprofit that works in an area that interests you. Schedule a time to volunteer, and then follow through. You won’t regret it.
Eleanor Rector is a second year master’s counseling student specializing in forensic psychology at Adler University in Chicago. Originally from South Florida, she studied poetry and psychology at the University of Miami. She hopes to continue her education by pursuing a Ph.D. in applied neuropsychology. Contact her at email@example.com.
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