Viewing the landscape of today’s society, it is clear that multicultural and social justice issues have never been more visible. Although prejudice, racism and inequality have always plagued our nation, society is no longer keeping secret or turning its cheek to the omnipresent consequences of privilege and marginalization. Everyone is affected and everyone has a duty to respond, but nobody more so than those “working the fields.”
Gone are the days of counseling in a silo. Our clients live in the real world. And in the real world, our clients suffer privilege and marginalization. Counseling and counselors would be well-advised to prepare for the spectrum of cultural issues that we may encounter in session. In other words, we need to enhance our multicultural competence. Not only is it written into the ACA Code of Ethics, but it also just makes common sense. If we want to continue to work with, for and on behalf of our clients, we need to ebb and flow with the tide, and this is the tide.
If you are a counselor, you might think that you already possess a good deal of cultural competence, but let me unveil three common statements that can lead to a false sense of cultural competence.
1) “I took a class in my master’s program, and it covered a lot of material. I know the multicultural theories and models. I must be culturally competent.”
2) “I have three black friends, and my neighbor is from India. I know how to talk to people of color, and I know their cultural norms. I must be culturally competent.”
3) “I don’t stereotype. I don’t judge others. I must be culturally competent.”
I must confess that, as a white counselor, I’ve found those words bouncing around in my own head from time to time. I used them to strengthen my belief that I was a culturally competent counselor. That belief made me feel good about myself — even if it wasn’t true. Those statements assuaged the guilt I felt knowing that I actually wasn’t as competent as I should be. I used those statements as excuses to avoid growing and sharpening my counseling skills because it was an area that challenged me and even scared me a bit.
Admitting that those three statements, even if factual, did not make me a culturally competent counselor was scary. It meant admitting that I wasn’t as great as I thought I was and that I might not be serving my clients to the best of my abilities. It also meant that I had to do something about it. And change is scary.
But change can be motivating and liberating too. Becoming a better counselor is exciting. Learning new things is exciting. Instead of leaning away from multicultural counseling, I leaned in.
A plan of action
I’m currently a doctoral candidate at North Carolina State University, where I have the honor of being under the tutelage of some of the foremost experts in the field. My adviser, Sylvia Nassar, was one of the co-authors of the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC), which were endorsed by the American Counseling Association and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development in 2015 and released in 2016. She put together a task force of students to continue work on dissemination of the MSJCC. The door opened, and I walked through. I made it my mission to become an expert in multicultural counseling, starting with the MSJCC. Yes, me, the white girl.
As a member of the task force, I facilitated and co-facilitated presentations on the MSJCC at local, state and regional conferences following a variety of formats (e.g., roundtable discussion, PechaKucha presentation, information session and workshop). What became clear to me was that attendees were thirsty to take what they were given and implement it into practice. But something was missing.
As great as our presentations might have been at providing information and inspiring motivation, they lacked a practical approach to next steps. Attendees left excited and motivated. However, without an action plan, excitement and motivation eventually dissipate. With that in mind, I created an eight-step process to implementing the MSJCC.
The eight steps are a basic foundation for enhancing multicultural competence. Implementing them requires understanding of the model and its specific parts. The steps reference sections of the model and particular competencies that are prescribed within. All this to say, the steps are meant to be used after training on multicultural counseling, and the MSJCC model in particular, has been completed. A link to the MSJCC can be found here.
The model is composed of 117 specific competencies that serve as markers of cultural competence. The counseling competencies are embedded in four distinct domains: counselor self-awareness, client worldview, counseling relationship, and counseling and advocacy interventions. The last domain, counseling and advocacy interventions, is composed of six layers and aligns with Urie Bronfenbrenner’s theory of socioecological layers. Those layers are intrapersonal, interpersonal, community, institutional, public policy and global.
The suggested steps were created to be used when considering multicultural enhancement in terms of the socioecological layers. It is in these layers where the action component of the MSJCC is more heavily emphasized. And that is the goal of the steps — to promote action.
I believe the eight steps below provide a starting point for becoming more culturally competent. Use of this eight-step process will result in a singular action. Thus, it serves to make the abstract concrete and to propel movement. Although it is only a starting point, every great ending has to start somewhere.
Steps for implementing social justice and advocacy interventions
Step One: Identify the need(s) of your client or population.
Step Two: Decide in which layer(s) your client’s or population’s needs are represented (e.g., a client seeking assistance for solving communicating issues with a co-worker has needs in the interpersonal layer).
Step Three: Review the interventions from the appropriate layer in the model and ask yourself the following questions:
- In what ways are my client’s or population’s needs being (or not being) met?
- Which interventions in this layer relate to my client’s or population’s current problem areas?
- How am I doing as a counselor with each intervention?
Step Four: Communicate your thoughts with others (co-workers, supervisors, collateral sources and, most importantly, your client). Gain insight and perspective from their understanding of the nature, intensity, diagnosis and prognosis of the problem.
Step Five: Decide where effort devoted to a specific intervention will adequately address the need(s) identified in Step One.
Step Six: Develop a strategy for implementing the intervention. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Who takes ownership of the intervention?
- What is my role in this intervention?
- Who else is involved in this intervention?
- Who or where do I need to elicit assistance from?
- What are the potential outcomes (pros/cons) of implementing this intervention?
- What will I need to do to prepare for the outcome of implementing this intervention?
- What is the timeline for implementing this strategy?
Step Seven: Evaluate the outcome.
- Did you achieve what you hoped you would?
- Talk with your client(s). What is his or her perspective in terms of advocacy and social justice?
- If you have a formal multicultural counseling assessment or questionnaire, employ that before and after implementation.
Step Eight: Make adjustments where necessary or create a “maintenance plan” for this intervention. Ask the following questions:
- How will I ensure that this competency remains as is?
- How often will I go back and evaluate the state of this intervention?
Applying a practical approach to enhance multicultural competence reaps benefits for all counselors, regardless of current expertise in the area. This eight-step approach can be helpful for newer counselors who struggle with identifying first steps. It can also be helpful for seasoned clinicians who have a strong foundational skillset but are not familiar with the particular nuances provided by the MSJCC.
Initially, employing these steps will require caution, intentionality and pragmatism. However, as with learning any new counseling skill, frequent and successful use will shape the counselor’s confidence and ease of application. As use of the steps increase, the need to refer to them will decrease, ability will be attained and multicultural competence will be elevated.
Jonnie Seay Lane is a licensed substance abuse counselor and licensed professional counselor. She works as the qualified professional substance abuse liaison to the Wake County Department of Social Services in Raleigh, North Carolina. Currently, she is pursuing her doctoral degree at North Carolina State University, where she is studying multicultural counseling competence in her dissertation research. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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