Counseling Today, Features

Breaking barriers

By Jonathan Rollins June 30, 2022

Summer break is something of a foreign concept to Kimberly Frazier. Growing up in New Orleans, Frazier and her siblings spent a large portion of their “lazy” days of summer drilling with flashcards and doing workbook pages at the prompting of their mother, a teacher who spent 51 years in education before retiring. “She did that every year until we were old enough to work and then go to college,” Frazier says. 

As friends were counting down the days to the end of the school year and dreaming of the carefree weeks ahead, Frazier would exclaim, “I don’t know what you all are talking about with this summer vacation thing.”

Still, Frazier didn’t consider learning a labor. It was something she enjoyed engaging in — even in her supposed “free” time. “I was the child who was reading a hundred-plus books every summer to get the free pizza. I didn’t care about the pizza, but I loved the books,” she says. 

Given her passion for learning and the work ethic instilled in her by her parents, it’s not surprising that Frazier graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA), went straight into the master’s in community counseling program, also at XULA, and then was recruited to the University of New Orleans (UNO), where she earned her doctorate in counselor education in 2003. And then she finally took a long and well-deserved summer break to celebrate her accomplishments.

Just kidding. Frazier graduated from UNO’s doctoral program on a Saturday, drove to Indianapolis on a Sunday and started her first job as a postgraduate that Monday.

In the ensuing 19 years, Frazier has worked as an assistant professor at Clemson University, as a contributing faculty member at Northwestern University’s Family Institute, as a contributing faculty member at UNO and as an assistant professor at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. She moved back to New Orleans six years ago, where today she is an associate professor in the Department of Counseling at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center-New Orleans. She is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a family and divorce mediator.

Predictably, “relaxing” doesn’t top Frazier’s list of summer plans this year either. On July 1, she will begin her term as the 71st president of the American Counseling Association. As the sixth Black female president in the association’s history (and the first since one of Frazier’s mentors, Cirecie A. West-Olatunji, held the office in 2013-2014), Frazier plans to shine a spotlight on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. 

Her mother, Sheryl Frazier, was a special education teacher who worked with children who had severe delays. “She took me to work with her when I was little, so I had exposure to people with differences,” Frazier says. “I think that shaped me. Seeing how she worked with her students and taught them basic living skills, that left an impression on me.”

Another area of focus during Frazier’s presidency will be mentoring, in large part because of the central role it has played in her own counseling journey. Among other initiatives, she hopes to hold a mentoring summit in the coming year.

Given Frazier’s seemingly boundless energy and drive, a third focus of her presidency might surprise some people; she puts a premium on wellness and self-care and wants to encourage other counseling professionals to do the same.

Finding her path

Growing up, Frazier was particularly interested in science and was always putting stuff together because she wanted to know how things worked. Her mother routinely drafted her to assemble her brothers’ Christmas toys because she could get the toys in working order without relying on the instruction manuals.

Frazier had some thought of becoming a medical doctor, but a high school civics teacher told her that she should consider going into law. “I was always the one asking, ‘Why do we do it this way?’ I guess challenging the teachers all the time, challenging the thought,” Frazier says.

That mindset of questioning others to gain a clearer understanding of how things work — or how they might work better — remains a core component of Frazier’s makeup.

“Frankly … when Dr. Frazier was elected upon running for the office [of ACA president], I never felt better about ACA,” says Zarus E. P. Watson, associate professor and coordinator of counseling and counselor education graduate programs in the UNO Department of Educational Leadership, Counseling and Foundations. “Kim can be an element that some organizations, no matter how well meaning, might view as difficult since she can often challenge the status quo. Perhaps the ACA membership has decided, with the election of Dr. Frazier as an example, to step up its level of engagement and evolution. Our society community needs us. Perhaps now we can more effectively show all of them why.”

Taunya Marie Tinsley, one of Frazier’s closest friends in the profession, says Frazier uses her habit of questioning to help others, not to stroke her own ego. “She loves people. Will she challenge you in your thoughts and perspectives? Yes, but it’s only to make you better as a person and to benefit the clients we serve in our society,” says Tinsley, an LPC who chairs ACA’s Antiracism Commission and is the owner of Transitions Counseling Services LLC.

When it finally came time to determine what route she would take in college, Frazier decided to study psychology, but she didn’t like the emphasis on diagnosing as part of the clinical psychology piece because “everyone doesn’t have a diagnosis. … I decided, ‘There must be something else out there.’ That’s what really got me into counseling,” she says.

Frazier continued her education at XULA, pursuing her master’s in community counseling. While there, she was actively involved in a research center collaboration between XULA and UNO that centered on trauma work with children 5 and younger. West-Olatunji headed the XULA section of the center, and Watson headed the UNO section.

Frazier assumed that after graduating with her master’s, she would work toward licensure, hang up her shingle and start a private practice. But that’s when fate — and mentoring — intervened.

West-Olatunji regularly attended and participated in professional conferences. “Being her graduate assistant and graduate research assistant, every conference she went to, I was there too,” Frazier recalls. “I was introduced to all these icons and reading their work.” Not long before Frazier graduated with her master’s, she accompanied West-Olatunji to a conference of the Association of Black Psychologists, where she met Asa Hilliard, a scholar and psychologist renowned for his work on African culture. “To me,” Frazier says, “this was like the equivalent of meeting the president of the United States.”

Hilliard asked Frazier what she was thinking of doing after graduating with her master’s and then offered a little advice. “I think you should get your doctorate,” Frazier remembers Hilliard telling her. “We need more Black people in the field.” 

Hilliard challenged her to come back the next day and tell him if she could think of one good reason not to follow that path.

“The next day he found me, and he goes, ‘So Kimberly, what did you come up with?’” Frazier recalls.

Her response: “I guess I’m going to get my Ph.D.”

Soon thereafter, Frazier started looking for doctoral programs and was considering the University of Nebraska, which would have meant leaving her family and home city of New Orleans behind for the first time. But her work with the XULA/UNO research collaborative had caught Watson’s eye. 

“Her ability to link community need issues within a research paradigm impressed me,” remembers Watson, an LPC and national certified counselor. “I was so impressed that I persuaded the UNO provost at the time [Louis Paradise] to find scholarship money to enable her to continue her doctoral studies with us rather than heading off to the Midwest. … I’ve always looked back on that being one of my better student-centered decisions.”

Mentorship, friendship and a counseling ‘home’

Frazier praises Watson for the valuable mentorship he provided, including helping her navigate microaggressions in the higher education landscape and preparing her for some of the challenges she would face based on her intersectionalities, both in higher education and, later, in counseling leadership. 

She notes that almost everywhere she has taught, she has been “one of one or one of two” women or women of color on faculty. “It’s very hard to be in an environment where it’s [bias/discrimination] coming at you from all directions — students, faculty, administration,” Frazier says.

She acknowledges that the emotional and psychological load has been heavy at times, especially when feeling like she was “always being the one breaking the barrier in some way.” Frazier says her mother has even cautioned her, “You don’t always have to be the first.” 

But her mother also planted other seeds that continue to guide Frazier and drive her forward. “I’m always questioning why things are the way they are and asking myself, ‘What can I do to make it better? What can I do to change it in some way?’” she says. “And always just showing up. My mom taught me that. If nothing else, just show up. I always want to show up for my students and others.” 

“I want to be one of those people who dismantles that for other students,” Frazier continues. “If my speaking up, if my experience opens the door for someone else to have an easier experience, then I’m OK with that.”

Frazier understands the importance of having trailblazers in the counseling profession to look to for inspiration and encouragement. When she was in school at XULA, Frazier read about Thelma Daley, who was the first Black president of ACA (1975-1976) and also served in the top leadership position at several other organizations. Frazier remembers Daley’s track record sparking a thought in her head: “This is possible; you could do this.”

While going through her doctoral program, Frazier began interacting with another ACA past president, Beverly O’Bryant (1993-1994), whose experiences she could relate to as a Black woman. That relationship helped solidify for Frazier that there was a path forward for her in counselor educator and counseling leadership. “She [O’Bryant] was so authentic in being herself and let me know that I could be myself,” Frazier says. “She gave me confirmation: Just be who you are.”

Frazier found further confirmation and mentoring through her involvement in the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD), a division of ACA. Frazier says AMCD served as her “oasis” as a young professional when she was trying to make sense of the relative lack of diversity in ACA and the counseling profession. “In AMCD, we were caring about the same issues, speaking the same language,” she says.

Beyond that, Frazier says, she felt nurtured in AMCD. The leaders and fellow members checked in on her. And she felt safe approaching many of them and saying, “This is not working. What should I do differently?”

“Soaking up their knowledge was just amazing to do,” she says, “and they were all very open. If you had that desire [to get involved], they put you in the right place. … It really is a testimony not only to mentorship but [also] to seeing yourself reflected back in so many ways. The path can be so different for everyone, but you can get there. That’s what AMCD did for me.”

Tinsley and Frazier met at an AMCD event being held at the ACA Conference and quickly developed what Tinsley calls a “natural friendship” that includes supporting each other professionally. The connection is born out of their “mutual passion for helping people, making a difference in students’ lives and infusing a multicultural perspective,” says Tinsley, who will serve as parliamentarian during Frazier’s ACA presidency.

Tinsley refers to Frazier as “big little sis,” and Frazier calls Tinsley “little big sis” because, as Tinsley explains, “she’s my big sister at AMCD, but she’s my little sister in age.” 

“We kind of grew up in counseling together, especially in AMCD,” Frazier says. “We just really clung to each other. It’s been a friendship of close to 20 years.”

In many ways, Tinsley notes, their experiences at AMCD were parallel, with Frazier eventually serving as AMCD president in 2016-2017 and Tinsley taking the lead as association president in 2019-2020.

“One of my favorite Scriptures is ‘Iron sharpens iron; so do two people sharpen each other’ [Proverbs 27:17]. That’s what mentoring is,” Tinsley says, “but it also describes my relationship with Kim.”

With Frazier now taking the reins as ACA president, Tinsley believes it will serve to inspire a new generation of counselors who have felt underrepresented in the profession. “The message it represents is that ‘I can also get involved in my professional organizations and make a difference. I can be seen and be heard,’” Tinsley says.

“She will be giving a diverse group of people a seat at the table,” Tinsley continues, “adding chairs to the table and giving people opportunities. … I think she brings Black Girl Magic to the organization and the profession.”

“What legacy do I want?” Frazier asks. “I want to be remembered for paying homage to the ancestors and paying it forward.”

Lessons in self-care

Today, Frazier describes herself as “fanatical” about pursuing work-life balance and prioritizing wellness and self-care. But that wasn’t always the case, especially as she was starting out in the profession.

As Watson recalls, “Even external to the [XULA/UNO] collaborative, Kimberly set herself apart from a talented doctoral cohort group by being able to maintain a research-centered focus without sacrificing her passion for the practice of counseling. There was rarely a class taken that did not result in her developing several items to pursue, either as a presentation or publication. I admit that I became spoiled during Kimberly’s time within the program because I rarely had to think up my own research topics since we were interested in similar phenomena, yet Kim often had different ways of looking at them. … The main thing I had to do in working with Kim was getting her to pace herself for fear of her becoming burned out.”

A disaster famously and tragically associated with Frazier’s home city ultimately pushed her to reassess how she was approaching her career and overall wellness. When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Frazier was trying to settle in at her new job in South Carolina. In the aftermath of the hurricane, she didn’t know where her father, Zirece Frazier, or grandmother were for two weeks or what had happened to them. Although they were eventually found safe, Frazier says the family “ended up losing my grandmother from the stress of it all.”

Frazier recalls the first time she drove home to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and witnessing the devastation from Mississippi onward. “I was coming back in the city [roughly four months after the hurricane] and not really knowing what I was coming back to,” she says.

Upon seeing her mother, Frazier exclaimed, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Her mother replied, “I didn’t know how.”

“People who are not from here can’t understand the trauma involved,” Frazier says today, her voice still breaking with emotion. Frazier says she knows that she was experiencing secondary trauma at the time, but she tried to cope by throwing herself back into her new job. “That was so very hard to not necessarily have the support in place,” she says. “I produced, produced, produced, but I didn’t process.”

Over time, however, the experience became a “catalyst for me to do more things and see family and not just be focused on my career all the time.”

Today, Frazier says she has an “inner circle” that recognizes when she might be fading and holds her accountable to practice good self-care. That inner circle includes Tinsley and Michele Kerulis, an associate professor with the Family Institute at Northwestern University and chair of the ACA Midwest Region. 

Frazier met Kerulis, who will serve as her treasurer, at the ACA Institute for Leadership Training (ILT) in Washington, D.C., a little over a decade ago. “Kimberly knew I was new to ILT and introduced herself to me and showed me the ropes,” recounts Kerulis, a licensed clinical professional counselor and a mental performance consultant certified by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “She was very welcoming, and after a few conversations, we both knew we would become very good friends. We had so much in common, especially our commitment to counselor self-care. We continued to stay connected after that first ILT and got to know each other professionally and personally. One of the strongest parts of our friendship is supporting each other professionally and encouraging each other’s personal goals, including our fitness goals.” 

Through the years, Frazier, Kerulis and Tinsley typically made a point of getting together at the ILT, the ACA Conference and the AMCD Conference. But with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, they started connecting more frequently via Zoom, phone and text. They also regularly participate together in remote Peloton workouts.

“It’s just a wonderful friendship and, really, a sisterhood with both of them,” Frazier says. “They’re equally passionate about the profession, and with them, the façade is off. It’s really genuine with them.”

In addition to working out, Frazier enjoys crafting. “That gives me some solace and helps me even myself out,” she says. She also labels herself a diehard New Orleans Saints fan, an all-around fan of college basketball, a lover of music and a Star Wars fanatic. She has been learning American Sign Language during the pandemic and wants to begin learning a third language soon.

“I do a lot of self-care in terms of not answering emails after a certain time, turning stuff off. I try to schedule myself and not bring work home. I see my mom often, spend time with my brothers and look at what’s important to me, [asking myself] how am I living that quality of life?” she says. “And I give my mentees the message that work-life balance is a real thing.”

She says that encouraging ACA members to participate in a wellness and self-care routine with her throughout the year will be an important part of her presidency. “We cannot pour from an empty cup as counselors,” she notes. “We can’t keep doing the social justice work and multicultural work without prioritizing wellness and self-care.”

“Kimberly’s ACA presidency,” Kerulis adds, “will inspire counselors to remember to focus on their well-being as they focus on the well-being of others.”

Kimberly Frazier hanging out with her brother Marc and nephew Zach during the ACA 2022 Conference & Expo in Atlanta.

inspirational leadership

Kerulis knew soon after meeting Frazier at the ILT that she would grow into a visionary leader for the counseling profession. “Kimberly has countless honorable traits that stand out to me,” Kerulis says, “and I can identify her kindness, integrity and intelligence as the top three traits that continue to be at the core of her presence. [Her] kindness is clear in the way she interacts with different types of people. She is respectful in situations where others are not kind, and she uses her mental health knowledge to share kindness with those who need it the most, even in situations where I believe others would not be as graceful. … [Her] intelligence shines brightly as she navigates situations in ways that help individuals and groups manage concerns, issues and goals in ways that are creative and effective.”

“The traits I found in Kim will also stand well for all of us as she goes into the ACA presidency,” Watson adds. “Her ability to adapt to an ever-changing landscape that is mental health as a whole in the U.S. will greatly assist counseling as we continue to fight to find our place within the mental health community. Kim also has a never-give-up mentality and dogged determination for what she believes in, especially as it relates to counseling and the field’s relationship to people of color and other marginalized groups in America. Though fairly quick to act on measures, Kim’s quickness does not sacrifice a thoughtfulness protocol to ensure that all of her decisions will be truly measured and not reactionary.”  

“Find your niche and your doors will open. I think that’s how Kimberly is,” Tinsley says. “She’s a team player, but she’s going to take a different perspective and a different path than others might have done. She’s visualizing, ‘How can we make this work for the future?’”

Tinsley describes Frazier as being “her true, genuine, authentic self. … I think we have a phenomenal madam president with Kimberly Frazier, and I’m excited to see all of the things that she’ll do this year.”

 

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Read Kimberly Frazier’s first column as ACA president in Counseling Today‘s July magazine.

 

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Jonathan Rollins is the former editor-in-chief of Counseling Today. 

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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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