The need for counselors to acknowledge and combine multiculturalism with social justice “cannot be overstated,” according to counselor educators and authors Manivong Ratts and Paul Pedersen.
The two perspectives go hand-in-hand; counselors who don’t fully understand both can unintentionally harm their clients, Ratts and Pedersen write in the new edition of their book, Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice.
“Counselors can choose either to ignore the influence of culture and oppression or to address it head on,” write Ratts and Pedersen in the book’s introduction. “Multiculturalism and social justice are too often classified as secondary or tertiary prevention approaches. It is something that counselors do if they have time for it, or it is something that is superficially added to an already established theory or practice. This attitude and antiquated way of thinking does nothing but hinder the profession and our clients. Some counselors will become so frustrated by their inability to connect with individuals from oppressed groups that they will blame their lack of multicultural and social justice competence on the clients themselves.”
Incorporating multicultural and social justice practices requires a change in perspective and may take counselors outside of their comfort zones. For instance, in some cases, Ratts says counselors can better serve their clients – and understand their cultural context – by getting out of the office and straying from traditional one-on-one interventions.
The American Counseling Association released Ratts and Pedersen’s book, the fourth edition of a title previously known as A Handbook for Developing Multicultural Awareness, in 2014. The revised, updated edition includes chapters on counseling multiracial, LGBTQ, transgender, low-income and minority clients, as well as those with differing spiritual perspectives.
Q+A: Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice
Responses by co-author Manivong Ratts
In the book’s introduction, you make the statement “multiculturalism and social justice go hand in hand.” How so — can you elaborate?
There is a symbiotic relationship that exists between multiculturalism and social justice in that each perspective influences the other. Multiculturalism allows counselors to see issues of oppression, and social justice allows counselors to address issues of oppression impacting clients. I also believe that multiculturalism leads to social justice. Multiculturalism brings attention to the need for counselors to see clients in context of their culture and environment. When this occurs counselors are able to see firsthand how issues of equity contribute to psychological stress. This insight leads counselors to realize the importance of social justice advocacy in addressing the social, political and economic conditions that influence client development.
Social justice advocacy is also enhanced when counselors possess multicultural competence. Multiculturalism allows counselors to tailor social advocacy interventions to align with clients’ cultural background and worldviews. When counselors are able to use multiculturally relevant interventions in their social justice work it leads to ethical and culturally relevant interventions that align with clients’ cultural background.
This book accentuates the very best from the multicultural counseling and social justice counseling perspectives. Identifying the strengths from the multicultural and social justice paradigms increases the potential impact counselors can have on individuals and society.
Why do you feel this is important for counselors to focus on?
It is critical that all counselors ground their practice in multiculturalism and social justice. The myriad of problems clients present today requires that counselors be multiculturally and social justice competent. Both clients and counselors bring to the therapeutic relationship their own cultural values, beliefs and biases. It is important to be attentive to this in order to provide culturally congruent counseling. Further complicating matters is that clients also bring to counseling issues that can either be biologically, psychologically and/or sociologically based. To this end, counselors need to focus on whether it is in a client’s best interest to provide office-based work or out-of-office based work. Using individual counseling to resolve systemic based issues will go only so far. For this reason, counselors need to expand their idea of what is possible by also incorporating social justice advocacy into their work with clients. By social justice advocacy I’m not referring to calling agencies from the comfort of one’s office setting on a client’s behalf. While this is important it doesn’t always get at the root of a client’s problem. Sometimes counselors need to step out of the comfort of one’s office setting and intervene at the community level to alter environmental barriers that are an impediment to client progress. This type of approach means that one week a counselor could be working with a client providing traditional counseling and the next week be working in the community with a client to resolve an systemic issue that is causing the client psychological stress.
Counselors who operate absent of multicultural and social justice risk harming clients and practicing in an unethical manner. For instance, counselors who do not consider issues of multiculturalism with their clients may perceive cultural attitudes and behaviors to stress as deviations instead of a variation of society. In turn, this may lead to misdiagnosing what is cultural as a mental disorder. Similarly, counselors who fail to incorporate social justice in their work will find that what they are able to do is limited. For example, they will find that helping clients gain insight will only go so far in that it doesn’t change the systemic barriers that contribute to client problems. As a result, clients may become frustrated with the counseling they are receiving. This frustration may lead clients to appear unmotivated or to jump from one counselor to the next in search of a counselor who will attend to the root of their problems. When this occurs counselors may perceive this as the client being resistant to change. In other words, blame is placed on the client instead of on the counselor.
Do you feel some counselors have misconceptions about the connection between multiculturalism and social justice, or don’t see a connection at all?
Multiculturalism is about social justice. The work of multicultural counselors and psychologists was really about addressing issues of fairness and equity. However, I don’t think people really separated these two constructs until Counselors for Social Justice (CSJ) was formed as a division of the American Counseling Association (ACA). Many within the multicultural counseling movement believed, and rightfully so, that they were already doing social justice work. So, there were initial questions [about] why an organization such as CSJ was needed. The inception of CSJ has prompted counseling professionals to explore the connections between multiculturalism and social justice in counseling. We see this today in the counseling literature as well as in clinical practice.
Today, I think there is a better understanding of what multiculturalism and social justice entails. However, I’m not sure many really understand what the similarities and distinctions are between these two perspectives in counseling. Being able to understand the overlap and distinctions between multiculturalism and social justice is important in order to further the counseling profession. There is a need to better understand the harmonizing nature between multiculturalism and social justice if we are to address the issues clients bring to counseling. To this end, I believe the next phase in counseling is to connect the multicultural and social justice counseling perspectives into one unifying force. Drawing the very best from the multicultural and social justice perspectives in counseling can empower counselors to be better clinicians for clients and communities. This book attempts to connect multiculturalism and social justice in this way.
From your perspective, what are some ways counselors can incorporate social justice and multiculturalism in their day-to-day work?
In terms of multiculturalism, counselors need to first explore their own cultural values, beliefs and biases. This is a lifelong process that requires self-reflection and carving out time in one’s busy schedule to learn about one’s roots.
Counselors can then explore client’s worldviews and cultural background. This can help counselors to tailor interventions to align with the cultural background and identity of clients. This may require that counselors do things that they are not accustomed to doing and that perhaps their training programs did not adequately prepare for them to do. For example, possessing cross-cultural communication skills can go a long way in developing a strong working alliance with clients. Such skills can help counselors determine how spatial distance, notion of time and eye contact are valued by clients.
With respect to social justice, counselors would do well by assessing whether client problems require individual counseling or advocacy in the community. They can apply social justice into their work with clients by taking the time to explore whether client problems are biologically, psychologically or sociologically based. This approach can help determine whether to intervene on an individual level or to seek changes on a system wide scale. For instance, if clients present with problems that are biologically rooted it can lead to collaboration with medical professionals. If problems are determined to be psychologically based individual counseling may be the best mode of operation. However, if client problems are sociologically based it would mean that services should be focused on altering systemic barriers. This means “counseling sessions” would take place outside the office setting. For instance, a situation could warrant that counselors take a transgender-identified client to the local DMV to explore how to change her gender marker from male to female on her driver’s license. Such advocacy work could strengthen the professional bond between client and counselor. The following week both client and counselor could explore together this experience using individual counseling.
I’m cognizant that it will be difficult to operate from a social justice framework. This approach to counseling is a significant shift in many organizations in which counseling services are primarily office-based. To ask counselors to determine along with clients whether to provide individual counseling or to work in the community setting can cause disruption in organizations that are built around a model where counselors are expected to adhere to traditional counseling practices where clients come to counselors. For some reason this model isn’t seen as controversial in the social work profession. Social workers have embraced community-based work and clinical work. They don’t question whether clinical work should be a part of social work because they realize that working with clients on a clinical level strengthens the work they do on a systems level. Unfortunately, this same belief hasn’t permeated the counseling profession. For example, many counseling professionals still consider advocacy and community-based work to be duties that should be relegated to either social workers or bachelor’s level helping professionals.
Thus, the challenge for today’s helping professional is being able to balance individual counseling with community level advocacy work. Convincing administrators and healthcare organizations that such an approach is in a client’s best interest will be the challenge for many counselors. Most institutions utilize a model where counseling is practiced from an office setting. Unfortunately, this set up does not support counselors who seek to do social justice advocacy work. What this means is that counselors would need to advocate for why social justice advocacy is necessary with peers and administrators.
What do you hope counselors take away from the book?
My hope is that counselors will have a better understanding of the harmonizing nature between multiculturalism and social justice. I also hope that readers will be able take the practical strategies discussed in this book and use them in their work whether they are working in schools, agencies, hospitals or private practice. In addition, we hope that readers will become more multiculturally and social justice competent helping professionals. Developing competence in both areas is critical in order to address the multicultural and equity issues that are often present in counseling.
Do you feel this area is something the field of counseling is improving/making strides in, or is there danger of stagnancy?
I think we have made great strides in the area of multiculturalism and social justice. Yet, there is still much work that needs to be done in this area of counseling. We see the influence of multiculturalism in the new (2014) ACA Code of Ethics. We also see multiculturalism integrated into counseling theories and research practices. These developments have helped to provide counseling professionals with ways to better respond to the cultural needs of clients. The onset of social justice has also sparked the conversation of ways counseling professionals can better respond to systemic barriers impacting client development. These developments are promising and a step in the right direction.
However, the counseling profession continues to be steeped in Eurocentric approaches and counseling services continue to be predominantly office-based. For instance, predominant counseling theories that are intrapsychic-based, such as the psychoanalytic, cognitive-behavioral and existential-humanistic approaches continue to dominate counseling practice. While there have been attempts to integrate multiculturalism into these theories, the primary foundation of these theories continue to reflect Eurocentric beliefs of individualism. For true multiculturalism to take place in counseling, new theories and practices need to take shape that reflects the worldviews and cultural background of the diverse clients we now serve. For instance, every culture uses different healing practices that need to be incorporated into how we serve clients.
Similarly, social justice advocacy continues to be peripheral in the counseling profession. There is pushback from many within the counseling profession who question the relevancy of social justice advocacy in counseling. Part of this stems from the belief that counseling is an office-based profession. This belief leads to a model where clients are expected to come to counselors as opposed to counselors going to where clients reside. Others argue that social justice advocacy is too political. The belief is that counseling is an apolitical process. Therefore, counselors need to be value-neutral in their work with clients. We see this in how counselors continue to be trained in their courses. Unless this changes multiculturalism and social justice will continue to be secondary in the field.
What prompted you to create a fourth edition of this book? What updates or changes will readers see in the new edition?
Unlike most new editions this book was completely re-vamped with a new title. I would say about 80 percent of the book is new content, new chapters and all of the chapters have new titles. This led us to re-title the book from the Handbook of Multicultural Competence to Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice. Given these significant changes I would say this is more so a first edition rather than a fourth edition. However, when we realized this it was too late to change this to make it a new first edition since we were too far into the process. These changes are atypical as most new editions tend to be focused on updated scholarly sources and incorporating new content.
That being said, I was asked by Dr. (Paul) Pedersen to help update his book. It was an honor for me to be asked by Dr. Pedersen given the impact he has, and continues to have, on my professional development. In our initial discussion we discussed the need to update the book to be more in line with the multicultural challenges faced by clients today. As we began to revise the book I felt that there needed to be a more balanced focus on social justice as well. This lead to a re-conceptualization of the book from one that focused solely on developing multicultural competence to one that examines how to integrate multiculturalism and social justice into counseling practice to better serve clients. We felt it was necessary to connect the multicultural and social justice perspectives to provide counselors with knowledge and skills to better address the issues clients experience.
What originally inspired you (and co-author Paul Pedersen) to write this book?
Many people may not realize this when reading the book, but Dr. Pedersen was the person that coined multiculturalism as a fourth force in counseling and psychology. I coined social justice as a fifth force. Having the opportunity to combine these two forces into one complementary approach was something that excited us and what makes this book unique from all other books on multicultural counseling. We believe that combining both perspectives is an area that the field needs to consider because the potential impact that we can have on counselors is promising.
About the authors
Manivong Ratts is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at Seattle University and is past president of Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA.
Paul Pedersen is professor emeritus in the Department of Counseling and Human Services in the School of Education at Syracuse University.
Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice is available from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222.
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org