Tag Archives: Social Justice

Social Justice

Embodying a critical counseling practice and radical wellness

By Javier F. Casado Pérez August 7, 2017

A supervisee committed to a multicultural counseling practice approached me feeling distressed and self-critical. In my capacity as a doctoral candidate in counselor education and supervision, I had worked with this supervisee for several months and had also worked with him the year prior. At this point, he expressed uncertainty about his most recent session, including a fear that he had pushed the client, a young black female, away.

In watching the recording of the session, I observed an authentic and rich conversation. The client expressed appreciation at having the opportunity to speak so freely about her experience as a black college student. I asked my supervisee what he thought he had done to distance the client. He responded, “Talked too much about race.”

Another counselor-in-training disclosed that a client had expressed a desire for a referral because of the counselor’s noticeable accent. The counselor, a brown Latina, was feeling distraught because this was not the first such incident she had experienced. I recommended that she read through the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC) and become familiar with the effects that privilege and microaggressions can have on counseling relationships. I also suggested that she broach a conversation with the client about the discrepancy between the client’s concern and the counselor’s apparent mastery of the English language. The counselor was reluctant, however, explaining, “I was told not to bring up the language issue unless the client brings it up first.”

A client, a middle-aged woman of color, shared her frustration and anger about previous counselors and her lack of confidence in the counseling process. According to her chart, she has issues managing her anger and has been diagnosed with an unspecified psychotic disorder. According to the client, her previous counselors and other service providers were faithless and always assumed she was angry. When I asked how her lack of success with previous counselors might be related to her devout religious beliefs and strong identity as a Latina, she responded, “I’ve thought about that a lot, but no one’s ever asked.”    

Broaching privilege in professional counseling

These illustrations are composites, each drawn from a multitude of individual stories that I have participated in or been consulted about. The MSJCC were discussed at different stages of the supervision or consultation in each of these situations. Each time, the counselor-in-training, supervisee or colleague identified the MSJCC as nonessential to their case.

As a queer, cisgender, brown Latino male and critical race feminist counselor, educator and supervisor, I have been involved in critical diversity and anti-oppression work for almost a decade. My undergraduate studies in Hawaii woke me up to Native rights, colonialism and sociopolitical activism, setting me on the path of sociocultural critique and advocacy. I advocated for minoritized clients and resisted colorblind human service practices throughout my graduate training and clinical experience. I have had the privilege of serving on diversity enhancement committees, facilitating anti-microaggressions workshops and participating in activism in the academic and community spheres. Throughout these experiences, my passion and radical love for the practice of professional counseling have only grown and strengthened. 

At the same time, I have been discouraged by continued encounters with narratives that minimize and decentralize the importance of critical multiculturalism and social justice activism in counseling. Narratives, for example, that cast the MSJCC as a supporting character and not in the leading role, holding firmly to exhausted and culturally clumsy theories of human functioning.

The MSJCC call for professional counselors to be ready, willing and able to challenge injustice and oppressive ideologies in the work that we do. The MSJCC framework compels counselors toward action, or an embodied competency that exists in the ways we move through our world and manifests through our behaviors both inside and outside the counseling room. In the Counseling Today article “Social justice counseling: ‘Fifth force’ in the field,” Manivong Ratts, Michael D’Andrea and Patricia Arredondo described the counselor committed to social justice as one who recognizes power, privilege and oppression and their detrimental effects on client mental health and well-being. For counselors, this recognition means taking risks, including choosing conversations that destabilize social injustices despite the potential for discomfort.

The choice not to discuss power, privilege and oppression is in itself a privileged one. Derald Wing Sue defines social privilege as the ability to freely and successfully avoid interactions with those social identities that differ from our own. For whites, this means avoiding people of color and being able to comfortably choose to interact almost exclusively with lighter shades of skin. For men, this means passively dismissing women while paying special attention to the contributions and authority of men.

But privilege expands far beyond this definition. Privilege is the ability to disregard or be apathetic toward not only social identities but also indigenous concerns, cultural differences and issues of inequality when they don’t affect us (at least on the surface). Counselors also carry social privilege and the ability to choose between perpetuating or uprooting oppressive ideologies.

As counselors, we are trained to be aware of the power and privilege inherent in our roles and our responsibility in advocating for cultural and social justice. In their groundbreaking piece for the Journal of Counseling & Development (JCD), “Broaching the Subjects of Race, Ethnicity and Culture During the Counseling Process,” Norma Day-Vines and colleagues called for us to broach difficult subjects and discuss the sociocultural underpinnings inherent in clients’ counseling concerns, even when doing so generates discomfort. On the other hand, nonintersectional and colorblind counseling — counseling that disregards the importance of social identities in a politicized, racialized and sexualized world in order to appear unbiased — function not only to avoid broaching but also to reproduce and reinforce inlaid ideologies and perceptions that have come to be known as implicit biases.

Through multicultural training, counselors may become aware of the privilege they carry. But as avid blogger and radical queer black feminist Mia McKenzie says, “It is not enough to acknowledge your privilege. Acknowledging it will never make it better, will never, ever change anything. At some point, you must act against it. This is that point.”

Decision-making in a critical counseling practice

In a time of great social unrest and political uncertainty, doing more than acknowledging privilege becomes essential. For counselors, our privileged position is revealed when we choose to disregard ideologies of oppression or domination that manifest within counseling spaces. Instead, we focus on individuals’ presenting problems — the areas of clinical concern that our clients disclose at the beginning of our work. The debate over a counselor’s responsibility to honor the presenting problem or address implicit issues of justice and equity is long-standing. The MSJCC make evident that the way forward is both/and, not either/or.

For example, my client presented with social anxiety and severe panic at the start of our work together. A brown South American woman with a distinct accent, she was also the sole woman of color in an otherwise all-white and predominantly male workplace. The question was, should I focus on her symptoms of social anxiety or her experience of being a racial, ethnic and gender minority? Could I do both?

In another memorable session, a client — a white North American cisgender man — exclaimed that most women and people of color were just too sensitive. He said that their complaints of mistreatment and discrimination were just subjective interpretations and not based in objective fact. I have heard this line many times in my life. I was not surprised, but it still made my blood boil.

As a queer counselor of color, I had a choice that I needed to make:

1) I could say nothing, maintaining mutual comfort by reflecting the client’s frustration and moving on (broach avoidance).

2) I could challenge only the obvious generalizations in this belief, perhaps asking how helpful this belief was in helping the client connect to others (colorblind counseling).

3) I could call into question the ideology of oppression (as critical pedagogue Paulo Freire termed it) couched in such a statement (i.e., the world is just and equal; women and people of color just cannot handle the real world). This choice would express not only the effects of the client’s statement on me but also challenge the oppression the client might enact on others by embodying this ideology.

Behind closed doors with only the MSJCC to hold me accountable, the choice was mine. All my own.

Herein lies the paradox. The most comfortable choice brings about the least therapeutic change and potentially the most social damage. The most uncomfortable choice carries as much risk as it does potential for therapeutic change, while possibly preventing the most social damage. This is one of the reasons that these are called difficult but crucial conversations.

I do not disclose how I chose to respond to these scenarios because it is not my goal to teach “do as I do.” My goal here is to point out the implicit contradictions in the three choices and the consequent effects of perpetuating social injustices in two of the three choices — regardless of intention.

Moving toward radical wellness

Multiculturalism is a deeply contested term. Nancy Fraser, critical theorist and feminist, points out that traditional multiculturalism has too often functioned to essentialize differences while failing to recognize the interplay between social politics and identity. This is to say that simply recognizing that differences exist between individuals or groups is not enough to make visible the structures that make those differences the basis for injustice and inequity.

Whereas traditional multiculturalism calls for us to be aware and appreciative of cultural differences, critical multiculturalism demands that we respond to issues of injustice and oppression that affect individuals on the basis of those differences. This reorientation ties together critical multiculturalism with social justice, producing a practice that affects the wide-reaching work that counselors perform.

In Towards Psychologies of Liberation, Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman point out that “critical consciousness involves decoding the social lies that naturalize the status quo, while searching for alternative interpretations of one’s situation.” As counselors, when we embody a critical practice through ways of being in our work, we are attentive to both dismantling dominant ideologies and providing a reinterpretation (or reframing) of social dynamics among the individual, their clinical concerns and the world around them.

Through these reinterpretations, we begin to model a radical wellness that is characterized by an emotional and mental health simultaneous to critical social consciousness. In the JCD article “The Wheel of Wellness Counseling for Wellness: A Holistic Model for Treatment Planning,” Jane E. Myers and colleagues defined wellness as “a way of life oriented toward optimal health and well-being in which body, mind and spirit are integrated by the individual to live more fully within the human and natural community.”

I define radical wellness as a way of life that is oriented toward optimal collective health and well-being, which consequently feeds individual health and well-being. The individual integrates critical consciousness into the body, mind and spirit for the purpose of working against inequality and social injustice that is deeply rooted in societal communities. As counselors, we are uniquely positioned to embody and model this radical wellness by broaching conversations that illuminate the inextricable relationship between Watkins and Shulman’s “social lies,” societal problems and individual issues.

The MSJCC do not require that counselors be wholly comfortable in having these conversations but rather that they internalize the importance of taking the risk. Conversations about sociocultural and intersectional issues help to bridge the roles of counselor, advocate and activist. Creating an environment that helps clients trust us enough to express fear, share doubt, reveal uncertainty and risk exposing biases is critical to this endeavor.

Yes, these conversations can be hard, and they may fall short of their aim at times, but they are conversations that spark deeper individual and social change. When clients and counselors situate themselves as inextricably linked to the greater social fabric, they can experience their lives in shared space with those whom they may have previously judged as “other.”

 

 

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Javier F. Casado Pérez is an assistant professor of counselor education at Portland State University and a national certified counselor. He is seeking colleagues to form a group blog on subjects such as critical theories, multiculturalism and social justice in counseling practice and epistemologies. For more information, contact him at j.casadoperez@pdx.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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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.

Stepping across the poverty line

By Laurie Meyers May 26, 2016

According to a study by the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 46.7 million Americans living in poverty in 2014, or a poverty rate of 14.8 percent. The picture was even bleaker for many ethnic and racial minorities. The same study found that 26.2 percent of African Americans (10.8 million people) and 23.6 percent of Hispanic Americans (13.1 million people) lived in poverty. Children were also particularly vulnerable. The study reported that 21.1 percent of Americans under the age of 18 lived in poverty.

What qualifies as living in poverty? The answer is not simple. A number of factors are involved in calculating income, and the Census Bureau has created 48 possible poverty thresholds. Broadly, however, any single individual younger than 65 with an income of less than $12,316 or any single individual 65 or older with an income of less than $11,354 is considered to be living in Branding-Images_povertypoverty. The poverty threshold for two people under the age of 65 living together is $15,934, and the threshold for two people over the age of 65 living together is $14,326. For a family of three — one child and two adults — the threshold is $19,055. For a family of three with one adult and two children, the threshold is $18 higher at $19,073.

The thresholds are derived using the Orshansky Poverty Thresholds, a formula originally developed in the 1960s by Mollie Orshansky, an economist working for the Social Security Administration. The formula compares pretax cash income against a level set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963 in today’s prices (updated annually for inflation using the Consumer Price Index).

However, these numbers can’t truly capture the reality of daily life for those living under the strain of poverty, say counselors who regularly work with client populations that are economically disadvantaged. Imagine taking multiple buses and dedicating up to two hours of travel time to get someplace that someone who owns a car can reach in 20 minutes. Imagine having to choose between buying groceries or paying the electric bill. Imagine managing a chronic illness while living on the streets.

Counselors are trained in diversity and multiculturalism, but does this awareness of discrimination and alternative worldviews necessarily include those living poverty? Not often enough, asserts Pam Semmler, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and private practitioner in Denver. “I’ve been to a lot of diversity trainings, and none of them covered socioeconomic barriers,” she says.

The average counselor doesn’t have adequate training or even a good frame of reference when it comes to clients living in poverty, says Semmler, who spent more than nine years counseling clients at the Colorado AIDS Project. The project is part of the Colorado Health Network, a statewide organization that provides health services, case management, substance abuse counseling, housing assistance, transportation, nutrition services and financial assistance to people with HIV and those at risk. Semmler has also provided training to staff at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless on diversity issues specifically related to working with those in poverty.

Of course, people living in poverty are not one monolithic culture, Semmler stresses. However, they do share something deeply significant: a lack of money and limited access to the resources that money typically makes available.

“Poverty is actually a lack of multiple resources,” Semmler says. Financial resources are the most obvious, but those living in poverty also often lack health, housing, social, family, emotional and sometimes even spiritual resources, she continues.

To help clients living in poverty, counselors first need to understand the barriers that these individuals face in their everyday lives, say Semmler and other experts.

A different world

“We tend not to talk about a ‘culture of poverty’ as in years past,” says Louisa Foss-Kelly, a professor in the Counseling and School Psychology Department at Southern Connecticut State University whose research interests include counseling people who are economically disadvantaged. “However, people living in poverty often share perspectives and engage in similar survival-related activities. They do whatever it takes to meet their needs or those of the family’s.”

“For example,” she continues, “a client may sell belongings on the street to make some quick cash, barter services with neighbors and find other creative ways to pay bills that might not be understood by people in the middle or upper class.”

Because counselors often come from middle-class backgrounds, the practice of counseling often reflects those experiences and values, but practitioners should take care not to judge clients through this lens, says Foss-Kelly, an American Counseling Association member and LPC who has worked in community counseling settings with clients living in poverty.

“Unfortunately, many counselors have never been challenged to explore their own biases about poverty,” she says. “They may not understand the impact of their own socioeconomic history on the process of counseling.”

Counselors simply aren’t trained in the realities of living in poverty as part of their counseling education, says Victoria Kress, an ACA member and past president of the Ohio Counseling Association whose research interests include working with client populations that are economically disadvantaged. “For example, I was trained as a counselor in the early 1990s, and my training was based on middle-class values and assumptions,” she says. “It was assumed that my future clients would come in for counseling of their own volition; they would have food in their bellies; they’d be safe; they’d be verbal and forthcoming; they’d have transportation; they’d be invested in growing and living up to their optimal potential. As I began to see clients, it became increasingly clear that none of these assumptions was accurate.”

“People living in poverty engage in a constant financial battle,” Foss-Kelly adds. “They may have to work two or three jobs, find food banks and navigate the maze of social services organizations. They may struggle with children in emotional distress because of frequent moves or other family disruptions. These clients may arrive to counseling tired, hungry or late. A judgmental counselor might say that [these clients aren’t] serious about changing or that they’re too disorganized or lazy to take care of themselves.”

Chelsey Zoldan, an LPC, currently works as a counselor at the Medication Assisted Treatment Department at Meridian HealthCare in Youngstown, Ohio. But she has also counseled those in the rural Appalachian section of the state and says that time issues — mainly clients not having enough of it and being late to appointments — were among the most common obstacles.

Many clients living in poverty have unreliable transportation or no transportation at all, Zoldan points out. In some states, public agencies may provide transportation to community clinics and other services for those living at or below the poverty line, but there is no guarantee that transportation will be timely, she continues. Some clients rely on rides from friends and family, but the person doing the driving sets the schedule, which may not fit with the client’s needs. In other instances, friends and family members may not be reliable when it comes to promises to drive or offer other assistance, she says. Public transportation may not be readily available or may require multiple transfers on a sporadic schedule.

Zoldan, an ACA member, points out that it may take clients relying on area bus service two hours to get somewhere that it would take her 20 minutes to drive to in her car. She adds that the bus schedule is inscrutable to her and her colleagues, but that clients who are struggling to get by financially routinely navigate the inconsistent routes and take multiple buses to get where they need to go. Unfortunately, as a result, they are often late or even miss appointments altogether. “Some counselors might interpret this as meaning that they [the clients] don’t care or aren’t committed to the process,” Zoldan says, acknowledging that she had to shift her own perspective regarding timeliness when she first started working with clients who were economically disadvantaged.

Some health care and other service providers may not be willing to accommodate these scheduling challenges, and that is a problem, Zoldan says, because these clients still need to be seen. And if a provider turns them away after they are late in arriving, they may not come back at all, she points out.

Clients who are economically disadvantaged may also have limited work flexibility or lack child care, adds Kress, who is the community counseling clinic director, clinical mental health counseling program coordinator and addiction counseling program coordinator at Youngstown State University in Ohio. Counselors need to be sensitive to the logistical problems that these clients face, she says.

When possible, Kress says, practitioners should consider providing in-home counseling and flexible or drop-in scheduling. In addition, clinics or practices that have the resources might consider offering day care and transportation assistance, which could involve providing the actual transportation or giving out public transportation vouchers, Kress says.

Meeting basic needs

As Kress began her counseling career, she realized that many of her clients living near the poverty line were struggling simply to survive. This reality often required her to be more “active” in these clients’ lives than her training had prepared her for.

“One of my first clients — a teenage mother — came [to counseling] in crisis because her electricity had been turned off,” Kress remembers. “In that situation, what she needed from me was to help her figure out how to get it turned back on. Having never had my electricity turned off, I had no idea where to begin. And my counseling textbooks didn’t talk about how to get one’s electricity turned back on. I had to put aside my expectations, be flexible and roll with helping her problem-solve her electricity situation.”

Before counselors can begin to effectively address traditional counseling concerns, they must make sure that their clients’ basic survival needs — including food, shelter and clothing — are being met, say the professionals interviewed for this article.

In doing so, counselors working with clients in poverty may find themselves playing many different roles, says Zoldan, who is also a doctoral student in the counseling program at the University of Akron. “You might have to be care coordinator, do case management, perform vocational counseling,” she says. “You might also … help with county health funds, student loans, transportation.” Counselors might also serve as de facto mental health educators for their clients, their clients’ families and even the community at large, particularly in rural settings, Zoldan adds.

Some might think that many of these services are the purview of social workers, not counselors. But Kress has a message for those who protest this expanded vision of meeting the needs of clients.

“I’d say this: How can a person work on higher order counseling goals if they are worried about where their next meal is coming from or how they will get their electricity turned back on?” Kress says. “Effective counselors are flexible and meet their clients where they are at.”

Foss-Kelly agrees. “Counselors treat the whole person in context,” she emphasizes. “So we have to acknowledge and respond to the crises our clients face when they leave the counseling room, even if those crises are financial in nature. Counselors are well-trained to provide referrals and work alongside social workers. In addition, we have to integrate the client’s basic needs into case conceptualization, treatment and treatment planning.”

Kress adds that she believes it is “old-school thinking” to state that counselors shouldn’t also help clients with their basic needs. In fact, she says, in the area of community mental health, the days of clients being assigned to a case manager who was a social worker and then to a separate counselor are long gone. “Now what we see is clients being assigned one mental health professional who provides counseling and case management. The system has had to adapt to the needs of consumers.”

Although counselors in community clinics or facilities affiliated with local social services might more commonly work with individuals living in poverty, Kress and others interviewed for this article say that most practitioners will encounter clients who are economically disadvantaged at some point.

Zoldan urges counselors to be deliberate about ensuring that these clients feel empowered in their own treatment. Taking an authoritative approach as the counselor and neglecting or diminishing the client’s input is potentially detrimental, she points out. The counselor might very well be unaware of the individual’s basic needs that are going unmet, she says, and the client may not trust the practitioner at first because he or she is viewed as an outsider. “The goal is to collaborate with your client on everything,” Zoldan says. “People in poverty are used to feeling oppressed in different ways.”

“Many people who live in poverty perceive that existing institutions do not serve their interests and needs, and counselors need to recognize that they are part of the system, whether they like it or not,” Kress adds. “Counselors must be flexible and sensitive to clients’ needs.”

Because counselors are part of the system, they should work it to their clients’ advantage, say Zoldan and Kress. It can be important for counselors to align with agencies, clinics or charities that offer assistance with food, housing, health care and other needs, Zoldan points out. She urges counselors to build relationships with these organizations and to also make contacts with officials in local service agencies such as job and family services so that clients’ needs can be better met.

Seeking solutions

In addition to the challenges related to basic survival, those living in poverty face many other barriers, Kress says. Common issues among this population include substance abuse, chronic mental or physical illnesses, teenage pregnancy and unsafe living environments that might involve intimate partner violence, she explains.

“In my experience, clients need to have counselors acknowledge and validate their experiences,” she says. “Many times, clients may not even connect the dots that these experiences are having a significant impact on their lives. In many ways, these experiences have been such a part of the landscape of their lives that they don’t recognize the impacts they have on them.”

Semmler agrees, saying that many of her clients have never had anyone explain to them how poverty has affected the entire trajectory of their lives.

Those in poverty are often blamed for their circumstances and stereotyped as lazy or incapable of saving money, Zoldan says. The reality is that many of these individuals are working two or even three jobs just to scrape by and aren’t saving money because they don’t have any to spare, she says.

“Each day may start with managing different crises — trying to find food or a place to sleep or meeting other basic needs of the family,” Foss-Kelly observes. “This survival focus inevitably impacts both the content and process of any counseling session. A person-centered approach is a critical foundation for counseling, but it may move at a pace that’s too slow for addressing crises of survival.”

Adds Kress, “When working with these populations, counselors need to be active, involved and focused on concrete and present solutions.”

Several of the counselors we spoke to emphasized the need to help these clients recognize and build on the strengths they have already developed to survive under the strain of poverty. As with any client, counselors should take into account the worldview and individual context of a person living in poverty, says Zoldan, who likes to use strength-based counseling, particularly for those coming from generations of poverty.

Contrary to the stereotype of lazy people just looking for a handout, living in poverty actually requires a significant amount of self-sufficiency, Zoldan points out. These clients typically must navigate public transportation and assistance systems and may juggle multiple jobs with child care and other family responsibilities, all of which requires a great deal of planning, she notes. Zoldan recalls a former client who had a backup plan for any major eventuality, including what to do if she couldn’t pay her rent, couldn’t afford food, lost her primary means of transportation and so on.

Kress notes that those affected by poverty may also acquire skills and strengths — including the ability to accept and handle difficult situations and live in the moment as needed — that aren’t readily apparent to most casual observers. “Identification and expansion of client and client-system strengths help to provide hope and support clients’ well-being,” she says.

In general, people who live in poverty also strongly value relationships, Zoldan says. This can oftentimes be very positive. For example, friends and family members can provide the person both emotional and practical support in the form of child care, meal sharing, housing and so on.

However, in some cases, it can also erect another barrier, Zoldan says. “Relationships are valued above all else,” she observes, meaning that counselors need to be aware that getting these clients to set boundaries or remove themselves from unhealthy living situations can be a complicated proposition.

Simply telling a client to cut off a relationship is not culturally appropriate, Zoldan says, so counselors may need to encourage other alternatives. For instance, if a client is struggling with substance abuse and her mother and sister are still using in their homes, a counselor might suggest that, rather than cutting off all contact, the client and her relatives talk only by phone or meet in public instead of in the relatives’ homes.

Ending or limiting these relationships with family and friends represents a significant loss of connection for clients. So Zoldan and her colleagues encourage these clients to get involved in 12-step programs in which they can get support and build a family of sorts within the recovery group. Zoldan’s agency also encourages group therapy, which can offer another source of connection and support for clients living in poverty.

Semmler is an attachment-focused therapist, so she always circles back to relationships. “When people attach in order to survive, the relationships are not always the most healthy,” she observes. Becoming psychologically healthy may require clients to break some of those ties, so Semmler, during her time with the AIDS project, would encourage clients to make healthy attachments to service providers and other participants in the program.

Helping the youngest living in poverty

Children living in poverty face many challenges that make it difficult for them to get an education, says Christi Jones, an ACA member who is an elementary school counselor in rural Alabama. The board of education for her school district is trying to remove one significant barrier by matching students who are in need of psychological assistance with mental health counselors. Part of Jones’ job is to help facilitate this process.

“At my school, mental health services are provided one day a week,” Jones says. “As a school counselor with approximately 600 students, collaboration with our local mental health agency assists in meeting student needs. At the beginning of each school year, I introduce the mental health counselor to teachers and staff members and assist in developing a schedule. When coming from the outside to work in a school, it is essential to have an understanding of the school culture.”

“I work with the mental health counselor to build relationships with key staff members who can assist in success in the school setting,” she continues. “The mental health counselor in turn ensures I understand what is required for students to qualify to receive services in the school setting. I can then share information about the program with both teachers and parents.”

Jones explains that students in the rural area where she works often need help beyond what she can give them as a school counselor. Transportation is an issue for many of the children’s families, so having an in-house mental health counselor at the school eliminates that barrier and also provides a source of long-term support for children and their families.

Jones sometimes continues to collaborate with the mental health counselor to address a student’s difficulties. In addition, because the mental health counselor is at the school only one day per week, Jones sometimes sees students who need additional support.

Another equally important part of her role as a school counselor is to advocate for students’ overall well-being, which sometimes means helping to meet basic needs such as food and clothing, Jones asserts. “My mentor counselor told me during my first year as a school counselor that basic needs must be met before you can work on issues,” she says. “I provide counseling to my students, but I also believe that social justice is an important part of my role as a school counselor. I work to connect my students and their families to resources.”

It is hard for children to focus on learning if they are hungry or worried about where the next meal is coming from, Jones says, so she worked with church and community leaders to create a weekend backpack program. “Local churches come each Friday and provide backpacks of food from our local food bank for students to take home,” she explains. During the winter and spring school breaks, families are also given enough food to last until school starts again.

Jones also maintains a clothing closet stocked with various seasonal clothes for students in need. She doesn’t wait for these students to approach her before offering assistance.

“If you take the time to get to know your students, it is not hard to find out who is in need,” Jones says. “If they see you on a regular basis and you talk to them, they will share their struggles and successes with you. Also, I see things just by observing students in the halls or in their classrooms. Students will sometimes come to school in flip-flops in cold weather, or you can tell their shoes or clothes are too small. Teachers also provide information about student needs.”

“As the school counselor, I have had the opportunity to help many of the families in my community,” Jones says. “Where I work, it is small enough that you get to watch your students grow up. You know all the families, and you care about your students long after they leave your building. Beyond data, I measure success in graduation invitations and students coming back to tell me they are going to college. [They are] often the first in their family to do so. There are many challenges to working with students living in a rural, high-poverty area, but there are opportunities to make a difference that make it the most rewarding profession.”

Embracing counseling’s core values

The counselors interviewed for this story emphasize that clients living in poverty want help and want to be heard. “The most important advice I can give [to counselors]: Be authentic and be understanding,” Zoldan says.

To build a therapeutic relationship with clients dealing with impoverishment — or any client, for that matter — practitioners must fall back on the core values of counseling, says Almeta McCannon, an ACA member who co-led a roundtable session at the 2016 ACA Conference & Expo in Montréal on counseling people affected by poverty. “I would advise clinicians to go back to the cornerstones of our profession: empathy, compassion, unconditional positive regard,” she says. “These are what allow us to relate to people who have experienced things we could never imagine and still be able to help them through a difficult time or situation. Assuming is the enemy here. I would encourage [counselors to ask] questions about the things that they do not understand and to really listen to the responses to those questions.”

Foss-Kelly believes counselors also need to take the next step and advocate for those living in poverty. “Counselors can play a key role in advocating for the marginalized, including those in poverty,” she says. “Of course, this advocacy begins with individual clients and communities, but it should also include spreading awareness in professional circles and among power brokers. People living in poverty come to counseling in a vulnerable state. We as counselors must fight to help other counselors understand their unique needs.”

 

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To contact the people interviewed for this article, email:

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics addressed in this article, see the following resources offered by the American Counseling Association.

Books (counseling.org/bookstore)

  • ACA Advocacy Competencies: A Social Justice Framework for Counselors edited by Manivong J. Ratts, Rebecca L. Toporek & Judith A. Lewis
  • Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory and Application, fourth edition, by Manivong J. Ratts & Paul B. Pedersen
  • Multicultural Issues in Counseling: New Approaches to Diversity, fourth edition, by Courtland C. Lee

Webinars (counseling.org/continuing-education/webinars)

  • “Why Does Culture Matter? Isn’t Counseling Just Counseling Regardless?” with Courtland C. Lee

Podcasts (counseling.org/continuing-education/podcasts)

  • “Hunger, Hope and Healing” with Sarahjoy Marsh
  • “Multiculturalism and Diversity. What Is the Difference? Is Not Counseling … Counseling? Why Does It Matter?” With Courtland C. Lee

VISTAS Online articles (counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas)

  • “Counselor Training and Poverty-Related Competencies: Implications and Recommendations for Counselor Training Programs” by Courtney East, Dixie Powers, Tristen Hyatt, Steven Wright & Viola May
  • “Preparing Counseling Students to Use Community Resources for a Diverse Client Population: Factors for Counselor Educators to Consider” by Sarah Kit-Yee Lam
  • “Professional Counseling in Rural Settings: Raising Awareness Through Discussion and Self-Study With Implications for Training and Support” by Dorothy Breen & Deborah L. Drew

In addition, counselors who would like to get involved in issues of diversity and social justice may be interested in joining Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA. Founded in 2000, CSJ’s mission is to work to promote social justice in society through confronting oppressive systems of power and privilege that affect professional counselors and their clients and to assist in the positive change in society through the professional development of counselors. Visit CSJ’s website at counseling-csj.org.

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies: Practical applications in counseling

By Manivong J. Ratts, Anneliese A. Singh, S. Kent Butler, Sylvia Nassar-McMillan and Julian Rafferty McCullough January 27, 2016

During the past three decades, counseling scholars and practitioners have argued that multicultural competence is a central concern to working effectively with diverse clients and to providing culturally responsive counseling environments. Counselors and clients both bring to the therapeutic relationship a constellation of identities, privileged and marginalized statuses, and cultural values, beliefs and biases to which counselors need to attend. Furthermore, clients increasingly bring to counseling issues of inequity that lead to unhealthy risk factors.

The Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC), developed by a committee consisting of Manivong J. Ratts, Anneliese A. Singh, Sylvia Nassar-McMillan, S. Kent Butler and Julian Rafferty McCullough in 2015, seek to address these issues. Carlos Hipolito-Delgado commissioned the committee during his tenure as president of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD), a division of the American Counseling Association. Both Branding-Images_justiceAMCD and ACA have endorsed the competencies, which can be found at counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies. Their endorsement signifies the need to integrate multicultural and social justice competencies into all aspects of the counseling profession.

Built upon the original Multicultural Counseling Competencies (MCC) developed by Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo and Roderick J. McDavis in 1992, the MSJCC represent emerging multicultural and social justice factors within our global society. The original MCC focused on attitudes, knowledge and skills as the foundation of multicultural competence and were geared toward “majority” counselors working with “minority” clients.

Nearly 25 years later, however, it is clear that the range of diversity, particularly considering the salience of intersectional identities, is truly endless. For example, it is not uncommon for marginalized counselors to work with privileged clients in today’s world. The MSJCC provide a framework for addressing the constellation of identities that clients and counselors bring to the therapeutic relationship. The MSJCC also set the expectation that counselors address issues of power, privilege and oppression that impact clients. Moreover, the MSJCC require counseling professionals to see client issues from a culturally contextual framework and recommend interventions that take place at both individual and systems levels.

In this article, we are highlighting the practical application of the MSJCC in counseling and share how they may be used in conjunction with other ACA-oriented multicultural and social justice competencies. We also emphasize implications for the use of the MSJCC. The January issue of the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development (JMCD) provides a more detailed description of the theoretical underpinnings of the MSJCC.

Conceptual framework

The conceptual framework of the MSJCC illustrates the major concepts related to developing multicultural and social justice competence. At the core is the belief that multiculturalism and social justice should be at the center of all counseling. This conceptual framework also introduces new terminology with which it is important for counselors to familiarize themselves: quadrants, domains and competencies.

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Quadrants: Quadrants reflect the complex identities and the privileged and marginalized statuses that counselors and clients bring to the counseling relationship. Clients and counselors are both members of various racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, economic, disability and religious groups, to list a few. These identities are categorized into privileged and marginalized statuses. A client or counselor may hold either status or both statuses simultaneously. These statuses are prevalent depending on how each individual is experiencing the current interaction.

Being attentive of these statuses highlights how issues of power, privilege and oppression play out between counselors and clients. The interactions are categorized into four quadrants:

  • Quadrant I: Privileged Counselor–Marginalized Client
  • Quadrant II: Privileged Counselor–Privileged Client
  • Quadrant III: Marginalized Counselor–Privileged Client
  • Quadrant IV: Marginalized Counselor–Marginalized Client

Conceptually, client and counselor interactions may fit into the quadrants in numerous ways. They reflect the fluidity of identities and how the dynamics of power, privilege and oppression impact the counseling relationship.

For example, a gay male counselor of color and a heterosexual female client of color may experience their interaction through various lenses. They both may perceive their interaction to stem from Quadrant IV because of shared racial identities — a common experience with respect to issues of racism. Alternatively, the client may consider their interaction from a Quadrant I perspective because of gender differences. The client may feel displaced and at a disadvantage because of the counselor’s male privilege. Another possibility is that the counselor might identify with Quadrant III because of their differences in sexual orientation. In such a scenario, the counselor may be placed at a disadvantage because of the client’s heterosexual privileges.

Domains: Domains are intended to be developmental in nature, and they focus on progressive levels of multicultural and social justice competence. The domains are:

1) Counselor self-awareness

2) Client worldview

3) Counseling relationship

4) Counseling and advocacy interventions

Counselor self-awareness is important for identifying one’s cultural values, beliefs and biases. This insight assists in identifying one’s worldview and hot-button issues that may interfere with helping clients. Second, being cognizant of a client’s cultural values, beliefs and biases may help counselors understand clients’ worldviews and identity development. Next, being aware of the extent to which shared and unshared identities; privileged and marginalized statuses; values, beliefs and biases; and culture influence the counseling relationship may be important in determining appropriate evidence-based treatment interventions. When counselors possess self-awareness, are attuned to clients’ worldviews and are cognizant of how this shapes the counseling relationship, they are better equipped to respond to client needs.

To respond effectively, the MSJCC set the expectation that counselors understand the sociocultural systems that are affecting their clients’ sense of well-being and address the corresponding issues appropriately. To this end, the socioecological model is embedded within the counseling and advocacy interventions domain to provide a framework for interventions and strategies at the interpersonal, intrapersonal, institutional, community, public policy and international/global levels. Moreover, the levels allow counselors to see client issues more contextually and aid in determining whether targets for health promotions need to occur individually or systemwide.

At the intrapersonal level, counselors who are multicultural and social justice competent discuss their own cultures and identities, inquire about their clients and provide open conversations related to how, collectively, privileged and marginalized identities might work to enhance or barricade the counseling relationship. It is essential that counselors are willing to authentically bring this discussion into the room. Such discussions can help counselors gain rich insight into their clients’ cultural backgrounds. Clients and counselors who engage positively in this dynamic may increase mutual trust and enrich the therapeutic alliance.

An important factor at the intrapersonal level is the exploration of client experiences with microaggressions and discrimination. Counselors can help clients develop critical consciousness around experiences with racism, sexism, ableism, classism, religious oppression, homophobia or transphobia and so on. This, in turn, helps clients externalize their oppression. Using culturally appropriate, empowerment-based frameworks and techniques to help clients express powerful feelings of anger or despair resulting from frequent experiences with discrimination and oppression is crucial to improving one’s mental wellness.

At the interpersonal level, counselors who are multicultural and social justice competent take initiative to explore client relationships with family, friends, co-workers and their communities. This work may occur inside or outside of “the office.” For example, counselors may step out of the comfort of their office settings to talk directly with individuals in their clients’ lives (with client permission). This approach may help to identify individuals who support or obstruct client progress.

Relatedly, it is critical to help clients develop networks with caring individuals who share a similar privileged or marginalized identity and with whom they identify. Examples include helping an African American client to connect with an African American student group such as a sorority or fraternity. White clients might find it beneficial to be in an organization in which other White individuals are doing anti-racism work. This exploration process may be enhanced when counselors take the time to attend these meetings with clients. Stepping outside the office setting and working alongside clients will likely create discomfort for counselors who are traditionally trained.

At the institutional level, multicultural and social justice counselors focus their efforts on institutional rather than individual change. Counselors may initially inquire about the climate within a client’s workplace, community organizations or school. For example, a counselor can ask a client, “What is it like being the only Latina woman in a predominately White workplace?” or “How is it to navigate your workplace as a person with a disability?” Counselors could take it a step further by conducting needs assessments of their clients’ workplaces or schools to determine the extent to which these organizations are supportive of the clients. This strategy involves collaborating with clients and their workplaces or schools to conduct a climate survey.

Counselors may also advocate for clients by connecting them to supportive people within institutions who may be instrumental in helping to reduce inequities that clients experience. As change agents, counselors can work to improve climates within agencies, schools or organizations that inhibit client growth and feelings of well-being. For example, a professional school counselor might advocate with, and on behalf of, students who miss valuable instruction time because they use wheelchairs and cannot get to class on time due to overcrowded hallways and a lack of automatic doors. Similarly, a clinical mental health counselor might attend a meeting as an ally at the client’s place of employment to discuss equity issues affecting the client’s work environment.

At the community level, multicultural and social justice counselors focus their attention on the norms and values in society and the influence of these factors on clients’ well-being. It is important for counselors to discuss how clients believe that others perceive them and if they think that society holds negative stereotypes or attitudes about their membership in a privileged or marginalized group.

For instance, a counselor might explore, through societal lenses, the difficulties that a nontraditional female student faces when she doesn’t feel that her mostly male cohort takes her seriously as a medical student. The counselor could explore with the client the societal perceptions of women in science and math fields and the added pressure of having to prove herself repeatedly to male classmates. Creating informative websites may be another positive way to bring the issue to public awareness. Counselors may also use broader social advocacy strategies to vocalize support for women in general or back their participation in male-dominated careers, thus transforming public perception of their strengths and capabilities. Lastly, counselors can conduct research that identifies societal perceptions of particular women groups, explore the impact of these discernments and investigate how to mediate negative attitudes toward them.

At the public policy level, multicultural and social justice counselors focus on the rules, laws and policies that impact clients and other members of their group. This work may involve altering oppressive laws and policies or helping to create more-inclusive policies. An example could include focusing on issues faced by a female transgender client who is forced by city or state laws to either use the public restroom of the gender recorded on their birth certificate or face legal consequences. The counselor might advocate with, or on behalf of, the client by using the counselor’s cisgender (person who is not transgender) privilege to work with city officials to alter policies and practices that are oppressive toward transgender people. Furthermore, counselors, along with their local counseling organizations and legislators, may help to create policies and laws that do not discriminate against the transgender population and other sexual and gender minorities who constantly feel the brunt of stigmatization.

At the international/global level, multicultural and social justice counselors stay current and understand the impact that international activities may have on clients. For instance, the November terrorist incident in Paris involving the Islamic State may create toxic conditions in which Middle Eastern clients in the United States experience a significant increase in discrimination. In addition to discussing the impacts on clients, it would be essential for counselors to increase their knowledge and seek professional development that furthers their understanding of the political and historical contexts surrounding such occurrences. This knowledge may in turn equip counselors with the ability to work with other community leaders to create programs that ward off potential hate crimes.

Competencies: Counselors who are multicultural and social justice competent are in a constant state of developing attitudes and beliefs, knowledge, skills and action (AKSA) that allow them to effectively work with clients from a multicultural and social justice framework. The AKSA competencies are embedded within the counselor self-awareness, client worldview and counseling relationship domains described above.

Attitudes and beliefs refer to possessing awareness of the values, beliefs and biases that counselors possess about themselves and their clients. Knowledge denotes counselors being well-informed on the complexities surrounding counselor and client identity development, worldviews, the nuances of culture and the positive and negative effects of privileged and marginalized statuses. Skills refer to counselors’ abilities to tailor interventions that align with the cultural worldview of clients. Action refers to counselors taking steps to operationalize attitudes and beliefs, knowledge and skills with clients. The action component, also endorsed by Allen Ivey, Mary Ivey and Carlos Zalaquett, is based on the belief that possessing attitudes and beliefs, knowledge and skills is not enough if these competencies are not operationalized.

Using the MSJCC in tandem with other competencies 

Counselors can use the MSJCC alongside other ACA competencies to provide culturally responsive counseling and contextually appropriate interventions. The ACA Advocacy Competencies, which emerged out of Counselors for Social Justice, another division of ACA, were developed to describe how counselors might advocate with clients or on behalf of clients. These competencies further delineate the micro (e.g., student, client), meso (e.g., school, community) and macro (e.g., public arena, public policy) levels of advocacy that counselors may use.

As discussed earlier, the MSJCC embed action within counseling competence, with the expectation that counselor awareness, knowledge and skills are linked to counselor action in addressing issues of privilege and oppression when working with a wide variety of social identities espoused by clients. Therefore, in essence, the MSJCC extend the advocacy competencies to a more comprehensive approach that works with clients and continues outside of the duration of counseling. However, the advocacy competencies still have value, and counselors can consult these competencies together with the MSJCC to identify the most effective levels of action intervention. Interventions should be in collaboration with clients (e.g., developing self-advocacy skills) or on behalf of clients (e.g., advocating for gender-inclusive bathrooms for transgender people).

The Association for Specialists in Group Work (ASGW), another ACA division, developed the Multicultural and Social Justice Principles of Group Work to revise an earlier document titled “Principles for Diversity-Competent Group Workers.” Similar to the need to revise the AMCD multicultural competencies, ASGW was supportive of efforts to integrate multicultural and social justice principles into one document guiding the development of competence in leading group work. Counselors may use the MSJCC to guide both individual and group work with clients, using the MSJCC model to identify social identities of similarity and difference with clients, while also using the three domains of the ASGW Multicultural and Social Justice Principles of Group Work to explore the specific development of multicultural and social justice competence when facilitating group modalities. The three domains of these principles include the awareness of self and group members, strategies and skills (with two sub-domains: group worker planning and group worker processing), and social justice advocacy.

The MSJCC focus specifically on awareness, knowledge, skills and action that counselors should develop in multicultural and social justice competence. Meanwhile, the ACA Competencies for Counseling With Transgender Clients and the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling Competencies for Counseling LGBQQIA Individuals explore this competence within CACREP training domains (e.g., social and cultural foundations, assessment) when working with transgender and lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, questioning, intersex and ally (LGBQQIA) clients. Counselors may therefore use the MSJCC model to identify the privilege and oppression identities of counselor and client, while using the transgender and LGBQQIA competencies to examine these identities specifically within sexual orientation and gender identity.

Other ACA division competencies also exist (see counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies). The extent to which these competencies specifically address or embed multicultural and social justice competencies varies. When using these competencies, the MSJCC will help counselors specifically give attention to the multiple issues of privilege and oppression that influence counselor awareness, knowledge and action competence.

Summary

The MSJCC provide:

  • A comprehensive framework for viewing one’s attitudes about newly emergent populations
  • A fresh start for looking at the worldviews of populations with whom one may come in contact and provide counseling services for daily
  • An opportunity to examine the impacts of these internalized attitudes and, taken together with client worldview, delve into the influences those dual dynamics have on the counseling relationship, both in traditional and broader senses

Thus, the aspirational quality of the MSJCC is critical in every single counseling encounter. In mental health and school settings, we may continue to serve clients from marginalized groups, and they may continue to overrepresent traditionally beleaguered populations. However, the way oppression is manifest in today’s world is ever-changing. For example, recent immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, face daily persecution. Others might belong to refugee groups that have been oppressed in their countries of origin and come to the United States only to face new subjugations.

Moreover, the expansion of the counseling role, beyond the actual traditional relationship and into a role of advocacy and social action as an expectation of the profession, creates room for stretching and growth on the part of counselors and their delivery models and systems. For example, should a counselor note an inherent bias within the agency structure, a learning curve might exist in terms of figuring out whom to talk to or what actions to take to create change. Consequently, some personal risk to one’s job security may be present in taking such action.

Regarding community action, this role involves a new set of activities on the part of counselors to identify and network with community leaders and become involved with community action networks. Finally, the policy level is often intimidating and overwhelming for counselors in terms of understanding policymaking players and processes. However, consider what could happen if counselors were to become activists in changing managed care, for example, through lobbying and other large-scale education efforts. Not only would clients be better served if that were to happen, but counselors could also avoid becoming caught up in their own webs of helplessness or hopelessness that often lead to professional burnout. Additionally, training gaps often exist between newly trained and veteran counselors who have served in the field for longer periods of time. With the benefit of renewed multicultural competence training, successes and changes may inadvertently serve to engage experienced counselors at new levels, inspiring them to continue striving for multicultural and social justice competence.

 

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Manivong J. Ratts, Anneliese A. Singh, S. Kent Butler, Sylvia Nassar-McMillan and Julian Rafferty McCullough served on the committee that developed the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

Revisiting Ferguson

By Holly Wagner, Christina Thaier and Brian Hutchison November 17, 2015

[Editor’s note: Roughly one year ago, CT Online wrote an article about the initiatives the counseling department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) was engaging in as protests and turmoil rocked the city of Ferguson after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson.

This fall, we’ve asked some of those counselors to reflect on what they have experienced and learned since serving as witnesses to history and trying to help others find their voices as “storytellers.”

Brian Hutchison is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and associate professor at UMSL; Holly Wagner is an LPC and assistant professors at UMSL; and Christina Thaier is a provisional licensed professional counselor (PLPC) working on a doctorate in counselor education and supervision at UMSL. They are all American Counseling Association members.]

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As a St. Louisan, I [Christina] have started to mark time — or perhaps how I recognize myself or my city — as before, during and after Ferguson. Post-Ferguson, one of the things I’ve come to understand is the power of the storyteller. I’d heard many times in history classrooms (which were not my favorite) that history is determined by the one who is telling the story. I believed it then, I’m sure, but I’ve come to understand it differently post-Ferguson, in a know-it-in-your-bones sort of way.

And so, as the three of us do our best to honor this opportunity to serve as storytellers about our experience of Ferguson, we do so recognizing the weight of such a privilege, knowing there are voices more worthy than ours to do so, and hoping to honor the young man (Michael Brown), our fellow St. Louisans and the city the story truly belongs to.

From Holly Wagner: A time to respond, a place to be heard and a space where crisis and growth convened

Timing can mean a lot in life. When someone is asked why a certain decision was made or a sequence of events occurred, the response is often about timing. For example, we often hear folks say, “It’s time for a change” or “It’s about time” or “It just wasn’t the right time.”

As I reflect on the events that led up to the crisis in Ferguson in August 2014, as well as the community responses following Michael Brown’s death, the concept of timing and time seem significant. For the people of Ferguson and the surrounding North City of Saint Louis, it was “past time for a change.” The time had come for their voices to be heard. In our own small, unique way, the faculty and students at UMSL showed up to listen.

August 2014 was my first semester as a faculty member in the UMSL Department of Counseling and Family Therapy. I had literally just arrived on the UMSL scene when it was time to respond. It was time to act, to do something helpful, and there was no time to be hesitant about it. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the energy and intention that surrounded me as my new colleagues and students leapt into action, driven by a desire to be helpful, yet unobtrusive. We talked about how to show up in ways that would truly benefit the people who were hurting. The idea of the sand tray naturally emerged as a potential medium for expressions to come forth during the crisis.

Through previous experiences with sand tray work with both children and adults, I felt innately that it could be the conduit needed for peoples’ voices to be heard. We were intentional in framing our work as an expressive technique to facilitate storytelling rather than sand tray therapy. We approached the events simply with sand and figurines, as well as open ears and hearts. What transpired made it evident that this simple approach was truly all that was needed at that time.

I have often heard that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” also contains aspects of the word “opportunity.” At the time of the Ferguson crisis, it seemed difficult to hold those two words or truths together. It was hard to imagine something good coming from the pain and struggle that was so palpable at the time. As counselors, however, we understand that healing is a process that takes time and space during which meaning can be made. Over time, if we are given the space to create insight and meaning, we can adapt and grow in response to the trauma or crisis we experienced. Thus, this was our intention as we showed up to the various events surrounding the Ferguson crisis. We witnessed the immediate effects of freely expressed emotions, meaning making and insight, and relief and validation related to a story being told.

While it is more difficult to ascertain any long-term effects that our engagement may have had on our community members, it has truly been amazing to hear the accounts of the impact this participation has had on our own students’ growth, awareness and counselor development. For many students involved, working with a sand tray or responding to a community crisis had been solely discussed theoretically up until that time. Responding to our community’s needs allowed students an opportunity to experientially engage in ways that they found meaningful to their development as persons and [as] counselors, while igniting a passion for social justice work. It was a time we will never forget.

 

From Christina Thaier: Showing up

On a sleepy, snowy afternoon when I was 18 years old, I was complaining to a friend’s mom about how I didn’t want to get dressed up for a family member’s wedding that evening. She looked at me gravely, in that “I’m about to say something really important” sort of way, and offered some unrequested advice. As if it were an absolute truth, she declared, “You honor the people you care about by showing up” — she was talking about weddings, funerals, birthday parties, dinner parties and probably even church — “and you should take the time to look nice. It tells them that their celebration matters to you.”

In other words, go put on a dress and a smile, and act like you know better than to think you are the center of the universe.

Though I’m stubborn, and it took me longer than it should have to understand the wisdom of her words, they eventually became part of who I am and what I do. In August of 2014, when our city was in a state of crisis, when we had no idea what was going to happen next, what was the right thing to do or how to go about it, her words offered a familiar solace — you show up, where you are invited, if someone matters to you.

As school was opening, many of us were asking the same questions: As counselors-in-training, what is our role? What do we do? How can we be helpful? Dr. Brian Hutchison and Dr. Holly Wagner offered us an answer. They asked our chapter of Chi Sigma Iota, of which I was currently serving as president, to consider showing up with them.

They taught us how to build a mobile outreach unit made up of sand trays, story stones, paint and symbolic figurines. They told us there was no manual, no evidence-based protocol, no textbook or peer-reviewed article with the answers we needed. They were willing to let us see that they didn’t really know what healing tents at a protest might look like — but they went anyway.

I remember being afraid as I drove to the first protest with a car full of sand and figurines. Were we crazy? Was it safe? Did I have anything to offer? Would I say the wrong thing? Did I know what I was getting myself in to?

Viktor Frankl said that despair is suffering without meaning. We had hoped to offer others, in our own small way, an opportunity to discover something meaningful for themselves during this crisis. The truth is, we might have been the ones most moved by the experience.

It turned out that the few hours I spent with my colleagues, holding a space for strangers to tell their stories, was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. We laughed and cried and mourned and hoped and, most of all, we witnessed human beings seeing and hearing each other as we truly were during Ferguson. To say it was beautiful is not enough.

 

From Brian Hutchison: Who am I?

I remember the last time I was called a racist. It was approximately 11 years ago. I believe at the time that this fact was no longer true, but it shook me deeply because I knew that at one time, early in my life and into my late teens, it was. At that time, I had never known a person of color, nor had I read the works of Baldwin or Biko or Douglas or Coates or any of the myriad authors who have shaped my worldview over the past 25 years.

Having been asked to reflect on my personal experience while working with residents and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, following Michael Brown Jr’s death, my thoughts go back to that moment when I was last called a racist. I had already decided that much of my work would focus on issues of social class, urban poverty and black people, yet that wound — inflicted by the social experience of my youth and not the person who called me a racist — throbs with raw pain still today. And I am a person who is able to set that acute pain aside, who can deflect by focusing on the power of choice and mastery I feel in my life. In essence, I am a person who is male and white and straight and educated living in the United States in the early 21st century.

Who am I to be asked to be helpful to the mostly black community of Ferguson? Who am I to be asked to be helpful to the mostly black community of protestors? Who am I to be asked to help the mostly young, black community of organizers? More than anything else, being asked to reflect on my personal experience of being asked to help in Ferguson makes me think, “Who am I?”

My answer does not feel elegant enough to put to the page, yet I am compelled. I am a person who did not ask to be male, white, straight, able-bodied, and to have an opportunity to be this educated. The choices I have been given were not mine to decide when the seeds of their possibility were first planted. These choices are my privilege, but the choices for most whom I have met in the schools, community centers, tents and streets of the St. Louis community do not look like mine. They are not made with an ingrained sense of mastery and power. They are choices made despite the circumstances of their lived experience.

What I did choose was to say yes. I did choose to ask if I could be helpful versus demanding to help (from my privileged worldview in my privileged way). I did choose to show up as often as I could when asked but never to ask if I could show up. I did choose to do what was asked instead of what I wanted to do. These choices were simple, yet did not come to me easily because of my 44 years of accrued habits lived within my bubble of privilege.

The gifts I received were the knowledge that I can step outside of myself and be led by others, do have the capacity to work through my own history of guilt to be helpful and that there is something to be gained by counselors — all types of people who are counselors — if we simply say yes, be humble and show up when asked.

 

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(Clockwise, left to right) UMSL students Jeremy Kane, Korey Lowery, Emily Muertz, Christina Thaier, UMSL assistant professor Holly Wagner and Gabrielle Fowler create story stones during a protest in downtown St. Louis in October 2014. The group used story stones, sand trays and other therapeutic tools with protesters.

UMSL_2

 

As you can probably tell, the three of us can be taken back to during Ferguson quite easily. We look back at that time of crisis in our city and shudder at images we can’t unsee — violence and grief and so many raw emotions on every television, computer screen and headline. We see breaking news and front pages that paint a portrait of St. Louis as divided and conquered. All of that was part of the story, yes. But somewhere in the wreckage and loss, the black and white, the debate and the protest, mourners came together and explored what it meant to be a St. Louisan during, and then after, Ferguson.

In the last year, in post-Ferguson St. Louis, what have we learned? We know that history-making happens in the present. We know that art and connection have the potential to be transcendent. We know that words like “race” and “privilege” are easier to say with practice but not nearly as important as words like “value,” “worth” and “dignity.” We know that holding a space for someone else is a gift for both parties. We know that people will surprise us — for the good and the bad. We know that our city needs more change and that we love her despite her imperfections. We know that we want to continue being part of that change. We know we don’t really know what that looks like, and we can’t find the answers in our textbooks or journals or empirical truths. But we think it might start by showing up. And listening.

 

The UMSL sand tray team (left to right), Brian Hutchison, Katy Leigh, Brianne Overton, Jennifer Culver, Susan Kashubeck-West and Holly Wagner, pictured at a wellness night event organized soon after the 2014 protests began. Leigh, Overton and Culver are UMSL doctoral students; Hutchison, Kashubeck-West and Wagner are UMSL faculty. The wellness night was sponsored by the Organization for Black Struggle and the Hands Up Coalition to provide those who had been sleeping out at night for days a place to rest, eat, get a massage and do some sand tray storytelling, says Hutchison.

The UMSL sand tray team (left to right), Brian Hutchison, Katy Leigh, Brianne Overton, Jennifer Culver, Susan Kashubeck-West and Holly Wagner, pictured at a wellness night event organized soon after the 2014 protests began. Leigh, Overton and Culver are UMSL doctoral students; Hutchison, Kashubeck-West and Wagner are UMSL faculty. The wellness night was sponsored by the Organization for Black Struggle and the Hands Up Coalition to provide those who had been sleeping out at night for days a place to rest, eat, get a massage and do some sand tray storytelling, says Hutchison.

 

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See Counseling Today’s article from one year ago, “Storytelling and hope in Ferguson” at wp.me/p2BxKN-3L6

 

 

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Fulfilling a counselor’s obligation to social justice work

By Robin J. Landwehr June 4, 2015

One of my favorite things about graduate school was doing literature reviews. I enjoyed finding the perfect articles to support my positions, gaining really useful insights and simply being amazed at some of the things that we have learned about being human.

A thought frequently ran through my mind as I was doing literature reviews: I wish more of this very important information would find its way into the awareness of the general public. The truth is, some SocialJustice1academics do a really great job of passing very useful information back and forth to one another, but I am not sure that the public always benefits from what we are learning.

I decided I would try to do something about that in my own practice as a counselor. I started a personal blog with the intention of writing about social justice issues through the lens of a counselor. I wanted to write in a style that was easy to understand, despite much of the information being based on research literature.

I firmly believed then, as I do now, that if people became more aware and educated about social justice issues, then they would feel compelled to act on these issues.

Shortly after starting my blog, I also became a contributing writer for the online magazine Everyday Feminism. This platform has permitted me to write several articles pertaining to mental health and social justice work that have been shared thousands of times on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter by people all over the world.

We have some extraordinarily intelligent people around us, but not all of them are counselors, social scientists or researchers who have the time to pore over hundreds of articles to get accurate information about the many social justice issues that are out there. And I think that it is partly our responsibility as counselors to offer this information.

So, I encourage individual counselors to be actively looking for ways to get involved, in a very public way, with social justice work.

I think that taking up this position helps the counseling profession in many ways. For one thing, I think that it is a great way to earn public trust. It certainly isn’t a secret that people have a real distrust of mental health professionals. And they may not have a clue that social justice work is even something that we are supposed to be doing.

Why would they? The only image of us is the traditional counselor sitting in the office counseling a client who is relaxing on a psychoanalysis couch.

If we make an effort to get more involved with social justice issues, then hopefully the people for whom we advocate and provide our expertise can see that we are interested in helping to improve social conditions for them. I can’t think of a better way to increase the public confidence in our profession.

Every week I read the comments that Everyday Feminism, various mental health blogs and other sources receive on their social media sites regarding various social justice issues. It seems to me that people really want solid information. But in the absence of accurate information, myths abound.

While I give praise to the American Counseling Association and other mental health organizations for taking very public stands on critical social justice issues, I don’t think that individual counselors should be satisfied with leaving social justice work up to our professional organizations alone. There are simply too many things out there that we can play an instrumental role in improving if we look for more opportunities.

I serve on the board of directors for the nonprofit organization Lesbian Health Initiative (LHI) in Houston. The mission is to help eliminate health disparities in the LGBTQ communities — a clearly marginalized group. I have used my experiences in behavioral health in medical settings, writing articles and nonprofit work to do what I can to help with this social justice endeavor.

Counselors possess a unique purpose and specialized training that make us perfect for serving in social justice movements. The issues that we help people with in the counseling setting are often the result of the issues that play out in our society. Unequal treatment, violence, trauma and poverty are just a few of the issues we know our clients are dealing with. Many of us are survivors ourselves.

Ultimately, if we really want our clients’ lives to improve, then we must change the circumstances that aid in their psychological distress. And it makes sense that some of the best-equipped people to help make these changes are the individuals who study these issues.

From a purely selfish perspective, I know that a better society benefits me too. I will never really know all of the ways that social justice advocates throughout history have created opportunities for me. What I do know is that I want part of their legacy to be mine — that when my time has passed, someone can say that I left opportunities behind for others.

My heart becomes full when I read about counselors who are not only responding to change and crisis but who also station themselves right in the middle while it is occurring around them. They are right there to influence things for the better.

For example, the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) counseling department staff and students have been very involved in the highly volatile situation that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown. Those counselors and students realized that their community was hurting and headed right toward it. Their efforts were highlighted in a CT Online article.

They did not just offer crisis counseling and support, although that may have been good enough. They also spoke out about the long history of racial inequality in that community and recognized that it was a major reason why the people of Ferguson began their movement.

The students and staff of UMSL made an effort to understand the issue. They have comforted the hurting and have been beside them while they demand social justice.

That is exactly where we belong.

I should probably point out that social justice work takes a certain amount of courage. Not everyone wants social justice, believe it or not. There are some people who benefit from the status quo. Putting yourself out there as a person who does social justice work means that you may not always receive a warm welcome. I have certainly been on the receiving end of some not-so-friendly tweets.

When this happens, we have to trust the information that we have gathered. We have to believe in ourselves and our cause. We have to remind ourselves that we don’t stand alone; rather, there are thousands of us.

SocialJustice2The next thing I plan to do is become a member of the Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA. I will continue to look for social justice opportunities in my own community and beyond.

I believe that all counselors should be looking for their social justice niche and make their voices heard on behalf of the clients they serve.

The keyboard is one medium that I use to promote social justice. I get to combine my love of writing and hunting down information and use it for a good purpose.

What will you do?

 

 

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Robin J. Landwehr is a licensed professional counselor in North Dakota and a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. She is also a national certified counselor. Contact her through her blog at thehippieinmeblog.com.