Counseling Today, Member Insights

Breaking the silence

By Charmayne Adams, Jillian Blueford, Nancy Thacker, Kertesha B. Riley, Jennifer Hightower and Marlon Johnson October 3, 2019

Painting racial slurs in public spaces. Welcoming hate-affiliated groups. Defunding safe spaces on campus for minority groups. Hanging Confederate flags in campus organization housing. These are just some of the examples of acts of hate that have taken place on college campuses and, more specifically, that we witnessed taking place on our own college campus. Even though the authors of this piece are now at different institutions, at the time this article was written, we were all graduate students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

This past spring, hate struck our community once again. An image surfaced denoting racial intolerance and ignorance about the economic barriers that African American students face at predominantly white institutions. The text messages, phone calls, emails, and face-to-face conversations that followed the incident reminded us of a pain that is all too familiar — one that pulls us to try and take care of our community while simultaneously taking care of ourselves. Often, we take care of our community while neglecting to take care of ourselves. As professional counselors, we are able to conceptualize violence in a way that makes it feel less personal, but the constant reminder that this form of hate is personal makes it difficult to externalize.

This is not the first time that an act of hate motivated by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other minoritized identity has happened on a college campus — and it certainly will not be the last. There was something about this incident, however, that pushed us to ask a question: What is our role as professional counselors and counselor educators in helping to support growth, healing and reflexivity when our learning communities experience hate acts targeted at individuals who hold minoritized identities? 

Campus-based hate crimes

There are many reporting organizations for hate crimes in the United States, but three of the largest are the FBI, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The FBI reported 280 hate crimes on college campuses in 2017, which was 23 more than in 2016 and 86 more than in 2015. Of those hate crimes, roughly 83% occurred against multiracial victims, African Americans, or individuals who identified as Jewish. Those hate crimes happened on a total of 110 college campuses, of which 60 had a graduate-level counseling program. That means that more than half of the college campuses had counselors-in-training and counselor educators embedded in their communities at the time of the hate crime.

Colleges and universities are not required to report their hate crimes to the FBI, but under the Clery Act, they are required to report them to the Department of Education. In 2017, 6,339 institutions (with 11,210 campuses) reported 1,143 individual hate crimes to the Department of Education. The FBI, the Department of Education and the ADL have all indicated an increase in the number of campus hate crimes. In addition, the ADL found that instances of white supremacist propaganda on college campuses increased by 77% in the 2017-2018 academic year as compared with the prior year.

These trends signal a shift in campus climate and psychological well-being at collegiate institutions — a shift that calls on the ethics and skills of our counseling community. We believe it is important to look at the ACA Code of Ethics and other counseling competencies to better understand how to develop intentional awareness and action to address the hate being witnessed on college campuses.

Our ethical responsibility to act 

Professional counselors are trained to promote wellness while attending to the developmental needs of our clients. Additionally, our responsibility to advocate with and on behalf of clients is embedded in our ethics code. In addition, the ACA Advocacy Competencies state that advocating on behalf of clients becomes especially important when clients hold a minoritized identity or an intersection of minoritized identities.

It is our responsibility as professional counselors to view these acts of hate on college campuses as attacks on our clients, students, community members, colleagues and friends who hold minoritized identities. We are trained to use skills such as empathic and active listening, reflection, and minimal encouragers to hold space for individuals to explore their feelings, behaviors and cognitions. We possess skills such as conflict resolution and crisis intervention that are especially important when considering the nature of this topic and the need for individuals of all perspectives to be heard. What better way to engage those skills than by standing against hate and creating safe spaces for individuals affected by these horrendous acts. We believe that all counselors — faculty, students, community professionals — can and must act.

Faculty responsibilities

To effectively address the manifestation of and respond to instances of hate and discrimination in our campus communities, counseling faculty must be proactive and reactive. This includes engaging in personal reflexivity, modeling tough conversations with colleagues, and intentionally structuring learning activities to increase student personal reflection. 

  • Personal reflexivity: This is an active and consistent reflective process in which faculty examine their internalized beliefs, values and biases. This might involve reflecting on your own cultural identity and any bias you may hold toward a particular group, or recording your thoughts, feelings and behaviors to bring greater awareness of your own responses when an act of hate happens on campus.
  • Modeling: Counseling faculty can readily engage in open and sensitive dialogue with their colleagues. As faculty model cultural norms by engaging in reflexivity and debriefing with one another, students can follow suit. Faculty could also engage in community dialogue if there are events for faculty and staff to process acts of hate on campus.
  • Intentional pedagogy: Counseling faculty can also be proactive by incorporating inclusivity throughout the curriculum. This includes facilitating learning environments in which students confront their biases and respectfully hold space for discomfort, or creating learning opportunities around diverse ways of thinking and being.

Counseling faculty can lead the way in being active responders to instances of hate and discrimination on campus. A strong first step is to respond and denounce acts of hate in a timely manner through the release of a collective statement from program faculty. Additionally, faculty can offer support to students at individual and group levels, both within and outside of the classroom. This may include having discussions with students on ways to respond and advocate as a unit for the greater campus community. It is important to remember that any collaborative campus effort should include other departments (e.g., student life, campus counseling centers) and helping disciplines, especially when offering debriefing or processing sessions with students, staff and faculty across campus.

Counseling students’ responsibilities

Students in counseling programs hold a similar but unique vantage point — navigating dual roles as members of the student body and as emerging professionals in the field.

As doctoral students, we felt the tug to dive in and start facilitating the healing work for our campus before we had processed what the hate act meant to us. We realized early on, however, that the first step we needed to take was to assess how the event had impacted our thoughts, feelings and beliefs about ourselves and our peers. It is important to have these conversations — both ongoing and in moments of crisis — within the counseling program. However, another way that we gained support as we processed these incidents involved tapping into campus affinity groups outside of the counseling department.

We also understood that we couldn’t engage in advocacy in a healthy manner if we weren’t taking care of ourselves. It was important for us to stay physically and psychologically healthy by:

  • Seeking personal counseling
  • Maintaining a nutritious diet
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Taking breaks from social media

These and other tips from the Immigration, Critical Race, and Cultural Equity Lab, founded and co-directed by Nayeli Chávez-Dueñas and Hector Adames, helped us manage our own mental health as students while remaining engaged in both our program and greater campus community.

Ultimately, counseling students serve as a bridge to campus and can provide fresh insights into current cultural and societal dynamics. This means that we are equipped to both guide and participate in conversations around instances of hate on campus. At times, this charge may be as macro as serving on a university committee that focuses on bias on campus or as micro as sharing frustrations and concerns with classmates. The key is finding what works for you so that you can sustain your practice of advocacy while maintaining your academic progress.

Together, as faculty and students in counselor education programs, we can contribute to a shift in campus climate by advocating for inclusive dialogue and reflexivity among students, staff and faculty across the higher education community. This is a process that will be ongoing and adaptive as the campus community evolves. Remaining silent and absolving ourselves of responsibility runs counter to our professional value of advocacy.

Community professionals’ responsibilities

Although we have seen an uptick of hate crimes on college campuses, these events certainly are not limited to our academic communities. These crimes occur every day in our cities and towns and affect countless individuals, including students, family members, community leaders, business owners and first responders. Some of these incidents are quite public; others are less visible and demonstrative.

As professional counselors, we need to broaden our understanding of the emotional, mental and physical tolls that hate crimes have on others. Communities of individuals who have endured discrimination for decades carry deeply rooted pain and are distrustful of society, often believing that others cannot understand their experiences. Long term, our lack of connection to marginalized communities threatens to further separate individuals, creating an “us versus them” mentality. People no longer want to understand and walk in the shoes of others; people begin to retreat behind fear and ignorance. To combat this trend toward division and isolation, professional counselors can become a unique and supportive force to help individuals heal and learn.

For us to engage with marginalized communities that have been hurt by these hate crimes, we must first look inward and then move outside the walls of the counseling office. We have an ethical obligation to do no harm to our clients, but first we must recognize and identify our biases and assumptions and recognize that traditional counseling settings are often inaccessible to minoritized populations.

All human beings carry implicit biases that direct how they engage with others — and particularly with individuals of different cultural identities. Professional counselors are not exempt from this natural human tendency, but settling for this often automatic response will create barriers for those needing services. If we do not challenge our own misconceptions, we will struggle to build authentic relationships with our clients and lose the meaningful connection needed to make change.

After reflecting on the preconceived notions that we carry into the counseling relationship, we must humbly and intentionally seek to join with communities to offer services in spaces that minoritized populations utilize. These spaces could include religious organizations, schools, community gardens, recreation centers and community centers. Do not let the burden of seeking services rest on the shoulders of the wounded. Go out and offer your skill set with humility, patience and genuine compassion to the communities affected by these acts of hate.

After we have engaged in the hard work of self-reflection and moving outside of the traditional counseling office, then we are better equipped to support clients from marginalized communities and to begin understanding their experiences. Supporting clients means seeking to understand rather than respond. Even if we hold minoritized identities ourselves, we have to continually strive to see how our clients are experiencing acts of hate and not speak for them but rather alongside them.

By educating ourselves on events happening in our communities, states and nation, we can gain insight into what is happening in the world of our clients. Although it is painful to see the hate occurring all around, we owe it to ourselves and to our clients to be proactive about educating ourselves, learning both within and outside of the counseling session. It is important to remember that the burden of enlightening the majority should never rest on the shoulders of the wounded minority. We must take responsibility for our blind spots as professional counselors and actively seek information that will better prepare us to support clients who hold identities that have been subject to power, privilege and oppression.

Education can lead to empathy and provide motivation to advocate and act. As professional counselors, we have certain privileges available to us, including access to administrators, law enforcement personnel, legislators and community leaders. We can also share our clients’ experiences with others. It is one thing to support our clients within the counseling session and another thing to recognize injustice and take action. Becoming involved with the community means:

  • Attending town hall meetings
  • Volunteering with community organizations
  • Writing letters to legislators
  • Voting
  • Holding office space for leaders to meet and have discussions
  • Not remaining behind the safety net of our counseling environment

We are advocates, and no act of advocacy is too small. What is small is expecting others to step in even though we possess the talents and resources to play a part in bringing about systemic change.

What we need from fellow counseling professionals

As individuals who hold minoritized identities, we need the support, action and advocacy of our community, faculty members and students. We do not have the privilege of feigning ignorance in the face of hate crimes, hate speech, discrimination or microaggressions because these actions are targeted at us. We must stay alert and assess each of these acts in an effort to ensure that we keep ourselves safe. We ask that you join our efforts to make our campuses and communities safer for individuals who hold minoritized identities.

The following is a list of action items that we see as important to combating these incidents and increasing a sense of safety for those with minoritized identities.

1) Examine your biases and prejudices. Our beliefs and values greatly influence our work with clients and students. As professional counselors and counselor educators, we are tasked with examining our biases and prejudices. Similarly, the ACA Code of Ethics requires that we attend to the welfare of students in our training programs, with a particular focus on the needs of students who hold minoritized identities. In examining our biases and prejudices, we communicate that we value our clients and students enough to do our own work, even when it is difficult.

2) Educate yourself. As we begin to uncover the biases and prejudices that we hold, it is our responsibility to seek education and accountability to further combat these harmful beliefs. Too often, the responsibility of educating and holding others accountable falls to minoritized students, further burdening them by making them speak for an entire group of people and tasking them with correcting long-held beliefs. While we (minoritized individuals) want to see this process take place, the responsibility should not fall solely to us. We need allies who are committed to staying educated and who resist shifting that heavy burden onto us, especially when our communities are hurting.

3) Be willing to make mistakes. We do not expect you to be perfect. In fact, we are still learning and growing ourselves and recognize that there will be times when mistakes are made. When those times happen, we ask that you remain open to hearing our perspective and choose to put down your defenses, seeing mistakes as opportunities to grow. Pause when you notice yourself becoming defensive or offering an explanation; simply stating that you are sorry is far more comforting to us than hearing any reason why the behavior was justifiable.

4) Seek to understand our experiences. It is inherent in the counseling profession to relentlessly seek to understand the experiences and perspectives of our clients while providing them empathy. Similarly, we can use these skills to better understand the experiences and perspectives of minoritized students. In doing so, we show these students that we are invested in them and that they matter. By providing this space, we allow students to process their experiences, and we learn more about what needs are not being met and how we can advocate with and for minoritized students.

5) Advocate. Advocacy is a core piece of our professional identity as counselors and counselor educations. Our advocacy efforts apply not only to our clients but also to students in counseling programs, and particularly to those who hold minoritized identities. We challenge you to advocate with us and for us when needed, recognizing that there are times when your position of power may allow you greater access and more authority. We need you to challenge your colleagues to join in this process as a way of uniting our profession to help support vulnerable populations. Please keep in mind that it is important to first understand the experiences and needs of those for whom you are advocating. Be sure to check in throughout the process. Without these check-ins, your advocacy efforts can feel disempowering to the population for which you are advocating.

Conclusion

This is a call to all counseling professionals working on and around college campuses: Be attentive, alert and active when incidents of hate occur. We are not only ethically mandated to step up, but we are well trained to do so. Our skills allow us to confront hate and discrimination with empathic communication and conviction for social justice. These unique qualities complement the needs of our campus communities in the aftermath of these acts of hate.

When we lean in together and speak with a unified voice for equity and justice, we embody our professional values of advocacy and holistic wellness. This is the time to act because our silence speaks volumes.

 

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Charmayne Adams is an assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling at the University of Nebraska at Omaha with research interests in crisis, trauma, and counselor education pedagogy. Contact her at charmayneadams@unomaha.edu.

Jillian Blueford is a clinical assistant professor for the school counseling program at the University of Denver.

Nancy Thacker is an assistant professor of counseling and counselor education at Auburn University.

Kertesha B. Riley is a third-year doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with research interests in graduate student mental health and STEM career development.

Jennifer Hightower is a second-year doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with research interests in suicidality and multicultural issues.

Marlon Johnson is an instructor at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, with research interests in diversity recruitment and issues of burnout and persistence for underrepresented counselor trainees.

 

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