An activist is a person who campaigns and takes action for social change. Counselors are often activists for their clients and for their profession by nature of being in a helping field.
The issue of self-care looms for both counselor practitioners and counselor educators as we face difficult client issues, large caseloads and demanding work environments. The need for self-care only intensifies when societal issues grow more divisive and combative, as we have experienced over the past year or more. Contentious social movements and issues such as #BlackLivesMatter and immigration can have an impact on the climate of care we provide as counselors for our clients and for the communities in which we live.
A tale of two doctoral students
Being a doctoral counseling student is stressful. Being a doctoral counseling student whose research is directly affected by the social movements and climate of the nation is even more stressful.
When I (Shekila Melchior) chose my dissertation topic, “The Social Justice Identity Development of School Counselors Who Advocate for Undocumented Students,” in spring 2016, I had no idea what lay ahead. At the time of my data collection, a heated and divisive presidential election was unfolding in which the issue of undocumented immigration had turned into a political platform. The United States was inundated with xenophobic remarks, anti-immigrant rhetoric and the proposition of erecting physical structures to prevent individuals from entering the country.
On Election Day, concern turned to fear for many people who were confronted with the harsh reality of an unstable future — namely, that their ability to continue residing in the United States was in peril. After the election of President Donald Trump, I questioned whether anyone would participate in my research interviews regarding undocumented students. The climate in our country had changed, but my timeline for defending my research had not.
As an advocate, I was flooded with messages about protest marches and prompting me to write to Congress and participate in meetings to educate others. As a friend, I listened to the concerns of those closest to me who were fearful of deportation and of the possible termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, implemented by the Obama administration to provide temporary protections to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. As a researcher, I encountered participants who were concerned for their students and eager for their voices — and the voices of their students — to be heard.
When I (Dannette Gomez Beane) chose my dissertation topic, “Virginia Counselors’ Engagement With Social Issues Advocacy for Black/African American Clients/Students” in spring 2017, I never could have predicted what would occur that fall. During the time that I was engaged in my data collection, the white supremacist rallies that ended in violence and death in Charlottesville, Virginia, transpired. The topic of race relations was suddenly on everyone’s mind, but especially mine as my dissertation clock ticked.
I had difficulty telling people about my research. People didn’t understand why we were always talking about race. People found it even more bizarre that, as a Latina, I had chosen a topic that concerned African Americans. My reasons for picking the topic had everything to do with the revolving door of students in my office who could not attend class, turn in assignments or even talk to their friends because they felt so debilitated from what was going on around them. I just kept thinking, “What can I do to help? What are counselors in my state doing to help these students?”
Responses and critical incidents
We (Shekila and Dannette) processed our own personal reactions to these events. The issues that arose during the writing of our dissertations served as motivation to complete our research. Although both of us feared the worst, we hoped for the best as our research progressed. Our fear was that what was occurring nationally and regionally would silence the participation of counselors, causing them to retreat to neutrality out of a concern of responding in a socially undesirable way. Our hope was that counselors would rise to the occasion and speak on behalf of those marginalized populations that needed advocacy. Ultimately, both of us were successful in our data collection, and the respondents to our studies commented with expressions of concern for themselves and their clients/students.
One counselor who responded to Dannette’s study said, “I work in a rural county in the South and have about 20 percent of my population that is African American. I also work in a system very close to Charlottesville. We always have race issues.”
A participant in Shekila’s study shared the frustrations of their students. The participant recalled a time when one of their students wore a T-shirt that said “Relax Trump, I’m Legal.” Another participant who was a DACA recipient was concerned that he might no longer be able to work with his students if DACA were repealed.
The “critical incident” experienced by the advocate begins a process of cognitive dissonance, a “waking up.” According to Leon Festinger’s theory, when individuals experience cognitive dissonance, it changes the core of what they believe, leading them to wrestle with new information in light of things they have previously understood (for more, see Paul C. Gorski’s article “Cognitive dissonance as a strategy in social justice training” in the Fall 2009 issue of Multicultural Education). Thus, advocates begin to recognize the shift within themselves as it relates to a social issue.
Encountering an undocumented student as a high school counselor served as my (Shekila’s) critical incident. In that moment, I felt helpless and uninformed, but through that critical incident, I began my research, which later propelled me to a place of advocacy.
One of my research participants made a statement about how activist counselors develop: “I think that over time, because of my being sensitive to some of their [undocumented students’] struggles and just seeing the human side to their stories … there’s stuff that you don’t learn being in the counseling program. It’s like baptism by fire with that. It’s not something that I can teach. You can’t teach people to be empathetic like that. You can certainly tell them this is how you go about it, but you either have that or you don’t have that. You may be able to awaken something in someone with it, but if it’s not there, it’s not there.”
Dannette’s research is informed by racial identity development theory, with “encounter” being a stage in which a person is faced with the realization that race matters. Counselors who experience these “critical” or “encounter” moments are undeterred from participating with and advocating for others. On the other hand, counselors who have not experienced such a profound incident may not be as moved to engage in social issues advocacy.
As one of Dannette’s study respondents shared, “During an incident that occurred last year at my school when a black/African American student was suspended, I was told by my admin to stay out of it. I felt strongly that the way it was handled was discrimination, and [I] was very disturbed. I was able to discuss the incident with the parent in private and give [her] tools to help advocate for her son. She was also upset because of the way it was managed. I was not able to get into it too deeply with the parent because I felt my job was in jeopardy. However, I was able to encourage her to take it further and add insight into the best way to do so.”
The adversity we face in our work, school and personal lives for participating in social issues advocacy is heightened when incidents occur that feed the political divisiveness. The emotional toil that advocating takes on the activist counselor can be daunting. The work is ever-changing and never-ending. The activist counselor strives to always be informed and to inform others. The greater the degree of political divisiveness, the more strain it can take on the activist counselor. Compassion fatigue can set in, which brings us to self-care.
Avoid, engage, deflect
How can we seek and find comfort, understanding and care when we make our living and have developed our identities as activist counselors? Speaking as the authors of this article, we rely on peer support, faculty advisers, family members, friends and faith communities. At times, however, these normal sources of support and encouragement do not align with the activist mentality; in fact, they sometimes choose to remain neutral or even work against the advocacy. In such cases, activist counselors are left to do one of the following: avoid, engage or deflect.
Note: We (the authors) avoid going to social media for support because we find that causes another layer of stress that will not be addressed in this article.
Our identity as activist counselors is hard to shut off. Some would argue that it never shuts off. Avoiding times when our “buttons are pushed” is a skill that takes practice. The benefit to avoiding adversarial opinions is that of self-preservation. We sometimes “pick our battles” when engaging in dialogue and try to focus on the outcome of peace if avoidance is the best decision. The risk is that we miss a teachable moment or fail to use our place of privilege to educate others.
As activist counselors, we are good at compartmentalizing our needs and views for the well-being of others, but when it comes to standing up for what we believe in outside of the therapeutic relationship, we typically take the opportunity to engage.
We often encourage our clients to engage with conflict because it is a practice that almost always results in growth and stretching. Engaging with conflict is natural for counselors who help others to face their fears, practice change and reframe ideologies. The benefit of engaging with adversarial views is that dialogue can emerge, allowing opportunities to increase understanding of and empathy for the other’s view. The risk of this engagement is that the dialogue might turn into an argument, with one-sided views and the shutting down of a topic or, worse, a relationship. As counselors, we are trained to de-escalate these types of heated situations, finding ways to redirect or, in some instances, deflect.
Here it comes. You have no time to avoid or engage. A person in your life just dropped a statement that goes against your activist counselor mindset and identity. You know what this sounds like. It is a statement such as “I don’t see _____. All people are the same in my eyes” or “Those people need to ______.” You are left to react without warning.
One approach, especially when caught off guard, is to deflect. The risk in deflecting is that we may seem like we are not paying attention to what the person is saying because we choose to change the topic. This could cause suspicion or hurt if the person is hoping for our engagement in this topic. The benefit is that we do not engage in what could be a relationship-ending conversation depending on the situation.
Recharging the activist self
Avoidance, engagement and deflection are just three examples of ways to approach our daily walk as activist counselors. Counselors regularly encounter situations that must be navigated carefully, and there is no judgment in using any of these three approaches.
As activist counselors, we are hard-wired to serve. But we cannot continue to serve well unless we are diligent in practicing self-care. In this context, self-care does not mean going to the local spa (although we all need that kind of treatment every once in a while). Self-care means filling our cups back up when we are feeling low. Here are some strategies that we have found helpful in recharging our activist selves.
1) Reflect often: We must ask ourselves, why do we do what we do? Reflection is a key component to self-actualization and bringing meaning to our work. Through reflection, we can be in a constant state of improvement. We become more aware, become more open-minded, more readily recognize our own biases and work toward personal growth and change. Reflection enables counselors to grow in both empathy and connection to others.
2) Remain informed: Activist counselors must stay informed of real stories and real facts so they can remain rooted in the truths of people’s experiences rather than getting caught up in the media spin. Counselors must also stay up-to-date with evolving issues as they become more complex. It is imperative for counselors to see events from all angles and to seek out the voices that have been silenced.
3) Give voice to the voiceless: That brings us to using our power for good. As counselors, we hold a position of authority with the clients and students we serve. In addition, our education provides us with privilege that can be used to give voice to those who have been silenced, including individuals who are struggling to enjoy basic freedoms in this country. Our voices are needed. Our voices should be heard.
As counselors, we are always to remember beneficence — to do good and to promote the well-being of others. This is our strength in the counseling relationship. As activist counselors, we must also recognize when rest is needed and when we need to ask for help. Remember that we advocate together to eradicate the systemic oppression that impacts our clients and our students — and even us — every day.
Together, we are change agents. The foundation of what we do and why we do it can be summed up in a quote from Mohandas Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Shekila Melchior is an assistant professor and program coordinator of school counseling at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Contact her at email@example.com.
Dannette Gomez Beane is the director of recruitment and operations of undergraduate admissions at Virginia Tech. She adjunct teaches for the counselor education programs at Virginia Tech and Buena Vista University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
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