If you are reading this article, it is likely because you have a strong interest in counseling. We might even be able to go a step further in saying that you probably love counseling, right? As members of the Chi Sigma Iota (CSI) Counselor Community Engagement Committee, we agree — we love counseling. We also love using components of our professional skills to directly serve the community in ways that go beyond traditional counseling.
We invite you to take a moment to close your eyes and think back: What was it that influenced your choice to become a counseling professional? Was it your love and compassion for humanity? Was it due to a struggle experienced by someone you love or care about? Was it due to some great injustice that you couldn’t stand any longer? Or was it a talent with which you were born and were fortunate enough to harness through the progression of your life? If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, we are in a similar situation.
People who come to this field do so because they want to be that change they wish to see in the world. Counselors embody the foundational qualities of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard in their everyday lives. Counselors engage with the community in positive ways on a daily basis. Other times, counselors channel more intentional counseling skills in the community when they want to make a difference, and they are willing to make sacrifices if necessary. As individuals who have taken the initiative to earn professional degrees, it is apparent that we possess a desire to make the world a better place. Why else would we spend countless hours and make significant sacrifices to get into a better position to help others?
At its core, the role of a counselor is as a helper. That is, our mission is to create a better society, person by person, population by population. As professional counselors, we join with our clients in a relationship to support them toward their mental health and wellness goals.
Although we spend the majority of our working hours in session with clients, our professional identities transcend the professional setting. The way we show up in the community is a representation of the counseling profession. We can use our unique skills to support the community in ways that extend beyond the core role of counselor. These roles might include, but are not limited to, advocate, author, community member, educator, gatekeeper, philanthropist, public speaker, researcher and student. The opportunities we have to make the world a better place are seemingly limitless.
Those familiar with CSI may be aware of our mission “to promote scholarship, research, professionalism, leadership, advocacy and excellence in counseling, and to recognize high attainment in the pursuit of academic and clinical excellence in the profession of counseling” (csi-net.org).
To fulfill a portion of this mission, the CSI Counselor Community Engagement (CCE) Committee uses the “Ten Key Considerations for Chapter CCE” to intentionally “plan and implement activities that are collaborative, have measurable goals, advocate for a specific need, make a quantifiable difference in the community and are intentionally evaluated. Many CCE activities include elements of fundraising, professional development and/or advocacy; however, CCE incorporates a unique practical application component in collaboration with a community partner.”
As individuals who love professional counseling, we spend time showing the world how professional counselors make a positive difference in the professional and community settings.
Why is counselor community engagement important?
Sometimes it can be difficult to remain optimistic when we live in a world where tragedy occurs daily. With our eyes and ears open, we cannot hide from it. From one side of the world to the other, people are negatively affected by racial oppression, sexual inequality, homophobia, homicide, genocide, school shootings, suicide, war, civil unrest, political divide, poverty, homelessness, starvation, slavery, human trafficking, drug trafficking, natural disasters, human-caused disasters and personal relationship difficulties.
As we think back on our lives, each of us can recall situations in which we, or someone close to us, were personally affected by incidents that really struck a chord with us — incidents that seemed not right, unfair or downright horrific. But what can be done?
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
The decision to respond or not to respond is one that involves several considerations. After all, as counselors, we spend our working hours helping others, and we do need some time off from work. However, people often choose not to respond because they think they cannot possibly make a difference. “How can I, as one person, stop racial oppression?” Sometimes, the decision to not respond comes from a lack of resources. “I don’t have the time.” “I don’t have the money.” “I don’t have the education or skills.” Sometimes, we don’t respond because we worry what others will think of us. “If I speak out on behalf of the LGBTQ population, will other people think that I’m gay?” Other times, the decision is in line with the phenomenon of the bystander effect. “Other people are already there who will help.” Sometimes, it comes down to us not seeing something as being our personal responsibility or business. “Well, nothing bad is happening in my neighborhood, but if it did, I would certainly intervene then.” Although the reasons not to respond are many, a lack of response always leads to the same result: continued injustice.
Then there are those who, for whatever reason, choose to respond. Whether personally affected, vicariously impacted or just wanting to do what is right for humankind, these individuals intervene to help in whatever way possible, regardless of how big or small. If you can find a small amount of energy to devote to something you view as important, you will make the world a better place.
As William Faulkner said, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world … would do this, it would change the earth.”
As professional counselors, it is our ethical duty and obligation to respond to the American Counseling Association’s call in the Advocacy Competencies (2003) in the areas of client/student empowerment, client/student advocacy, community collaboration, systems advocacy, public information and social/political advocacy.
Accordingly, it is the purpose of counselor community engagement to serve those populations that need our help, even if that help extends beyond the core role of professional counselors and into those additional roles as advocates, educators, fundraisers and public speakers. After all, we possess the transferable skills, resources and desire to help. So, we should do just that when we can.
How to engage
The question is where do we begin? We start with an idea. But what use is a great idea if it remains unpursued? The truth is that it is of no use. Sometimes, a fair idea with solid implementation is what can make all the difference in the world. The difference, then, is in the execution.
As David Bornstein explains in How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, “An idea is like a play. It needs a good producer and a good promoter even if it is a masterpiece. Otherwise the play may never open; or it may open but, for a lack of an audience, close after a week. Similarly, an idea will not move from the fringes to the mainstream simply because it is good; it must be skillfully marketed before it will actually shift people’s perceptions and behavior.”
After an idea is conceived, professional counselors should move on to complete a more intentional needs assessment surrounding the idea. As described on CSI-net.org, “Connecting with the community of interest, particularly leaders and stakeholders, necessitates a needs assessment both in formal (e.g., instruments, surveys, interviews) and informal methods. Once the needs are identified, [organizations] can begin creating an action plan to focus on steps to address each need specifically. Implementing the action plan provides direct service to the community. After the CCE activity is complete, [organizations] will benefit from an evaluation process. This evaluation connects with the community by taking their input through a variety of assessment tools (e.g., interviews, surveys) and identifies new needs to build upon for future endeavors.”
With this general progression of needs assessment, action plan, direct service, evaluation process and identification of new needs, CSI has devised a 10-step method to counselor community engagement that any organization can easily follow.
1) Working together: How can I or my organization work with others to promote meaningful counselor community engagement?
Counselors intentionally approach community engagement of all forms in the spirit of cooperation and service. Counselors assume a servant leadership role when out in the community and especially when engaging in a specific community engagement activity.
Working together is a crucial element of community engagement activities, and it is important to mention on its own as a foundational attitude for the other considerations. Cooperation and collaboration provide a foundation for conducting initial needs assessments and promoting change within communities. We can work with others by leading, partnering or joining. Simply by reaching out, we may receive the assistance we need to take what was once an idea and turn it into something successful.
2) Level of counselor community engagement outreach: At what level of outreach should I or my organization engage our community?
On the organizational level, it is quite natural to get stuck thinking on the microsystem level: “What can we do to help this organization?” With that logic, all thoughts and actions focus only on what the organization and its members can do within the organization to sustain it. However, by moving beyond the microsystem and working with and for others, much more work can be done than was ever thought possible. Levels of counselor community engagement outreach might include local programs, national outreach and international outreach.
Reaching out is much easier than one might think. A simple email or phone call or attendance at a meeting might create the spark for a meaningful networking opportunity. Even in terms of national and international outreach, opportunities are much less intimidating and more practical than they may at first seem. At these levels, emails and phone calls still work, but taking the time to attend a larger national or international conference allows for face-to-face, personal connection.
3) Issue areas: What community areas or issues should I or my organization focus on?
Every community is different. Each community is composed of varied demographics in varied locations with varied needs. The bottom line is that every community, regardless of how functional, has some type of need. To maximize the benefits that your organization can offer, it is important to first match your organization’s output to the needs of the community. Therefore, it is critical to begin with some type of needs assessment. This might include asking:
- What does our community need?
- Is there a certain social injustice I have noticed?
- What issues are a concern to our community and larger world?
- How do we benefit the most people?
Considerations such as these are important for beginning any type of effort. As we look around us — watching the news on TV, reading updates online, listening to the radio — we will see more and more need for our assistance.
4) Populations served: With whom should I or my organization engage?
This question varies significantly from one organization to the next. Those you engage will depend on the need you are attempting to fulfill, the population you intend to serve and the resources you have available, among other factors.
Within our communities are numerous individuals and groups we wish to serve through a variety of activities. These individuals and groups may include:
- After-school programs
- Boys & Girls Clubs
- Foster children and agencies
- Individuals who are homeless
- Homeless shelters
- Nonprofit agencies
- Individuals who are oppressed
- Populations experiencing poverty
- Populations who have experienced a natural disaster
- Sober homes/halfway houses
- Vocational programs for youth and adults
Many people could benefit from the caring efforts of a citizen who also happens to be a professional counselor. Think outside the box and remember that every individual experiences his or her own unique struggles. Anyone who is open to help might benefit from counselor community engagement.
5) Community partners: Who else might be an important partner in my or my organization’s counselor community engagement efforts?
A partner may be defined as “a person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others.” A partnership can be something that is either temporary or long term. Collaborating with various organizations can maximize the effectiveness of counselor community engagement efforts. Those of you who attended the American Counseling Association Conference & Expo in Montréal in 2016 witnessed a partnership between ACA and the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. Through this partnership, the two associations were able to merge the talents of counselors from multiple countries to further strengthen the diversity and quality of presentations, networking opportunities and other efforts.
Within our communities are numerous individuals and groups with which we might work to promote meaningful counselor community engagement. These individuals and groups may include:
- Businesses (local and national)
- Community boards
- Elected officials
- Government officials
- Media outlets (traditional and online)
- Mental health professionals
- Organization members
- Organization leaders
- Other helping professionals
- Primary and secondary schools
- Professional associations
- Registered charities
- Religious organizations
- Universities and colleges
Each of these entities alone or in combination may provide the necessary resources to assist in your counselor community engagement endeavor or
may significantly benefit from that endeavor themselves.
Forming partnerships is much simpler than you might think, but it always requires the first action step of reaching out. At this point, readers have likely noticed a similar theme among several of the key considerations for counselor community engagement: working with others to foster positive community change. Many individuals wish to make the world a better place. So, take a step back, think about the bigger picture, and connect with people who might wish to promote a similar mission.
6) Activities: What kinds of activities could I or my organization take part in to engage our community?
To this point, we have discussed the importance of needs assessments and collaborating with others. Depending on what is needed and who and what we have to work with, there are any number of activities in which we may engage. The main activity categories include:
- Charitable donations and fundraising
- Counseling and related services
- Other volunteer activities
These activities may include providing or organizing presentations, workshops, keynotes, continuing education, exam preparation, donations, fundraisers, sporting events, benefits, food drives, blood drives, scholarships, awareness events, conferences, free or low-cost counseling, group counseling, psychoeducational groups, awareness presentations, advocacy events, grant writing, tutoring or mentorship. Other engagement activities could involve planting trees, picking up waste, making meals, working at a food bank and so on.
Counselor community engagement activities come in all sizes and shapes. The benefits of producing one giant event will not necessarily outweigh the benefits of holding multiple smaller events throughout the year. It is important to consider the weight that “meaning” carries with every event in which your organization engages. Meaning will differ from one organization to the next. Whereas one organization might find raising $500 a relatively modest accomplishment, it could hold significant meaning for another organization. For example, it might represent the first major fundraiser the organization has ever undertaken and successfully accomplished. Or perhaps meaning is not based on the amount of money raised at all but rather on the purpose for which it was raised. In this respect, meaning might be tied strongly to a sense of accomplishment, advocacy, an increase of awareness, the building of morale, the strengthening of membership or some other factor.
7) Advocacy: What might it mean for me or my organization to advocate?
Counselors might wish to promote the welfare of an individual or group by explaining to others why the issue is important and how others can help. Counselors advocate for themselves, for the profession and for others. Advocacy can be performed at three levels:
- Client- or population-specific advocacy
- General community advocacy
- Professional advocacy
Advocacy can be used to promote observable change, and it might be used to raise awareness that systematically influences decisions and circumstances across time. It is important to ask the questions, “What might it mean for my organization to advocate? How can we use our power as counselors and our privilege as citizens to speak up for what is right?”
8) Frequency: How often should I or my organization take part in counselor community engagement activities?
Although the knee-jerk response is to say the more, the merrier, it is important to consider what is practical. As we all know, an activity that is well thought out is much more productive and meaningful than something that is put together haphazardly. Determining how often you or your organization take part in community engagement should depend on
- Needs of the community or organization
- Availability of time
- Availability of personnel
- Availability of location (e.g., brick-and-mortar, online)
- Motivation of stakeholders
As with any other key consideration, it is important to be strategic when planning the frequency of counselor community engagement activities. For example, an organization might consider hosting a one-time service event to raise money for families affected by the tragedy of a school shooting. Another organization might consider organizing ongoing counselor community engagement events to educate the public on topics such as bullying, gun laws, screening and peaceful intervention. In either case, the effort expended would be significant, so organizations are encouraged to take strategic action toward engagement activities that they believe will be most purposeful.
9) Action planning/program development: How might I or my organization plan and develop counselor community engagement activities?
Adequate planning and preparation will include meeting with stakeholders and setting goals with measurable objectives. For instance, multiple hurricanes tend to impact various regions of the United States each year. Action planning entails first reaching out to impacted areas and seeing how we may assist. Once needs are assessed, we can then meet with those stakeholders to develop an action plan around the goals we hope to accomplish. These goals might include performing community outreach, donating time, fundraising and so on.
10) Evaluation: How did the counselor community engagement activity impact the community and those who engaged in the project?
To answer this question, some type of evaluation must be conducted. This may be done using a simple survey, soliciting feedback, asking questions or via other means. What are the benefits of a comprehensive evaluation? According to Kieron Kirkland, former development research manager at Nominet Trust, which is a grant maker in the field of socially motivated technology, performing an evaluation helps organizations to:
- Know whether an activity or project is working
- Know how things are working
- Understand why things are working
- Be more adaptable
- Be aware of unintended outcomes
- Better communicate the value of their work
- Focus their work
- Help look after the people with whom they are working
- Build organizational resilience
Many factors contribute to the success or failure of a counselor community engagement activity. Without investigating the various components of the activity, it is difficult to gauge whether it is worth conducting again or whether improvements are needed. To increase efficacy, there needs to be some indication of what works. Otherwise, organizations may continue spending resources on something that is fruitless or even harmful. Therefore, it is essential to always conduct some type of evaluation after each counselor community engagement activity.
It is our hope that you have found this article helpful for planning, implementing, maintaining and evaluating your counselor community engagement activities. With a bit of effort and intention, we can achieve much more together, thus fulfilling the mission of ACA, CSI and the counseling profession as a whole. Now it is time for you to help change the world.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Matt Glowiak is core clinical faculty at Southern New Hampshire University as well as co-clinical director and co-founder of counseling speaks in Chicago, Park Ridge and Lake Forest, Illinois. He currently chairs the Chi Sigma Iota (CSI) International Counselor Community Engagement Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicole A. Stargell is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, where she serves as the clinical mental health counseling field placement coordinator and the counseling programs testing coordinator. She is also the chapter faculty adviser of the Phi Sigma Chapter of CSI. Contact her at email@example.com.
Devon E. Romero is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
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.