Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Powerful conversations, with a side of laughs

By Bethany Bray January 23, 2017

Consider yourself warned: The keynote address on Saturday, March 18 at the American Counseling Association 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco will cover some uncomfortable topics.

The speaker, Jessica Pettitt, has a gift for diving into things that are tough to talk about. At the same time, she brings a warmth and humor to the conversation. Pettitt is a stand-up comic in addition to her work as a professional speaker, trainer and author.

Jessica Pettitt

“Jessica Pettitt — educator, student affairs professional, comedian and talented storyteller, will be with us in San Francisco, helping us spread the joy and discover the humor within the crucial sociopolitical scene right now in our world,” says Catherine B. Roland, ACA president and chair of the counseling program at the Washington, D.C., campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “We will go on a journey of politics, theory, advocacy, current events and narrative. And, we will laugh!”

Pettitt specializes in conversations about diversity, LGBTQ issues and other topics. According to her website, her talks “weave together politics, theory, current events and storytelling with large doses of humor reminiscent of Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Wanda Sykes and Paula Poundstone.”

ACA’s 2017 conference will run March 16 – 19 at the Moscone West Convention Center
in San Francisco. Dr. Irvin Yalom will provide the opening keynote on Friday, March 17.

Pettit lives in Eureka, California, with Loren, a philosophy professor, and their two dogs. They will be making a family trip to San Francisco in March to attend ACA’s conference and the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.

CT Online sent Pettitt some questions to learn more about her work and her thoughts on speaking at the upcoming ACA Conference.


You specialize in speaking about diversity. How did you get into this area? How does it fit your personality and your passion?

I have always been that voice in the room. In sixth grade, my first research paper was on the hypocrisy of sodomy laws. I grew up in Texas, and that [research paper] was more controversial than most might expect. I also competed in our state speech tournament on eugenics, electroshock therapies and mandated birth control [coverage] for low-income women.

I have always needed to give voice to the injustices around me. I stumbled into this being a career as I worked in higher education for the past 15 years, both on campuses and now as a professional speaker and trainer. My personality isn’t just rooting for the underdog, but using my privileges, earned and accidental, to right hypocrisy. I think my own work in a counselor’s office has helped me come to peace with my Jedi skill of finding patterns and naming the missteps in a way that allows everyone to feel welcome to the conversation. A good dose of humor doesn’t hurt either.


What do you want professional counselors to know or keep in mind about this topic — especially when so many issues regarding diversity have made headlines over the past year?

It’s hard. It’s been hard. It will be hard. That is why you are often underpaid and overworked. It is important to remember that even though we all (including me) have job security, we must work toward our unemployment. The day no one needs our services means we have healed the planet. Until then, we have to remember to pack our lunch and get to work. This has been the same no matter who is president, whether or not we are at war and no matter our age or generation. Same work. Same tools. This matters.


Your bio mentions that an understanding of yourself and others as “differently right” is important in advocacy. Can you elaborate on that?

The concept of “differently right” is the backbone of being good enough now. When striving for perfection and excellence, we tend to get frustrated with and by others. Moreover, we frustrate others. To be good enough, right now, to keep trying to try, we have to take responsibility for how we show up, consciously and unconsciously, and hold a space for whatever is frustrating to be powerful in a way that we aren’t. I am not going down a moral relativism route here – holding a space for someone else to be powerful or “differently right” for 30 seconds allows your space to listen and hear the other person. Once we can more genuinely connect with someone else, we can often uncover patterns of what is missing in ourselves and collaborate together better. And, yes – you, and others, can be wrong.


From your perspective, how does your focus dovetail with mental health and counseling?

What doesn’t? Communication, diversity, business, innovation, creativity — I can keep going but these elements are [all] connected to human interaction, on or off the couch. Mental health providers are three-dimensional community members who need to be cared for too as much as their patients when they are at work. We must work to bridge the “on the clock” and “off the clock” realities together for no other reason than keeping them apart hasn’t really been successful.


What made you accept this speaking engagement to address thousands of professional counselors?

Continuing education credits. Just kidding! My job is to host powerful conversations that allow folks to heal and continue their good work. Doing this allows me to continue my good work. This is why I speak anywhere I can, as often as I can.

I really only have two skills: 1) giving voice to things that are really hard to talk about and 2) folding fitted sheets.

Oddly, it is number two that gets folks immediately excited. If you want a copy of my folding fitted sheets video, drop me an email at and I will send it along. Your shelves will thank you and then we can get back to the topic at hand.

Honestly, with all that is going on in the world right now, I am honored to be of service as your closing keynote speaker.


What can attendees of the American Counseling Association Conference expect from your keynote? What might you talk about?

I don’t want to ruin the surprise, plus anticipation is a good thing, so I will say this: You [will] need a piece of paper and a pen. You will also need to prepare ahead by bringing a full and complicated life history with you to the keynote.

Those of you who think you are boring, that is complicated enough, so just show up. We will map out together how to deal with the most frustrating people, topics and situations, and ACA members will develop a plan right there on one sheet of paper how to keep trying to try. If it goes as planned, you will laugh as much as you learn.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

People feel very vulnerable right now, and some of those people are counselors and mental health workers. Together our work matters, and you are really on the front lines. Thank you for your time, energy and commitment to conversations that matter.






Jessica Pettitt

Jessica Pettitt will speak Saturday, March 18, at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Her address will also be live-streamed online. Find out more at


Find out more about Pettitt and her work at











Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at


Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at






Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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