Preparing to do the work…by doing the work

As I write this, the United States is suffering through the devastation of three major hurricanes, the largest mass shooting in recent history, as well as long-standing issues of oppression and an ever-growing political divide. Social media is rife with people choosing sides and resorting to personal attacks instead of coming together in the face of tragedy. It seems the more people talk the less progress we make. I believe, as counselors, we hold not only a responsibility to the community to provide a source of support, but also to advocate for social justice and help society move forward. At least one professional organization defines Social Justice in the field of counseling as:

“The promotion of equity for all people and groups for the purpose of ending oppression and injustice…”

So how do we get there? There is no easy path to ending oppression and, due to the complex nature of society and identity, people may feel a bit lost when it comes to promoting social justice. There are rarely any absolutes; phrases and terms used by one individual may be deeply problematic for another even if the individuals come from the same community.

Still, I believe that we are called to ask the hard questions. For example, how do we give space for people to speak about their experiences without calling on them to act as a representative of a community? How do people from a privileged or majority group advocate for social justice without drowning out the voices of those they wish to serve?

For many, the 2002 release of the APA Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice and Organizational Change for Psychologists served as a call to action. Since that time, many new strategies have been suggested or implemented to help foster social justice within the counseling field. Toporek and colleagues (2012) wrote about the need for changes in counseling training on a programmatic level, within curricula, and in the creation of community partnerships. In addition, Jackson (2017) wrote an interesting op-ed piece for SCP in which she pushed for integrating social justice community work into counseling programs.

Here are some ideas that I’ve been processing that I think would help graduate students, faculty, and perhaps even current practitioners progress toward meeting our shared social justice aspirations:

  • Preparing to do the work, by doing the work – Faculty are often the models that students use to guide their development, as such, faculty must be willing to have tough conversations within their program. We must find opportunities to be active in the community and create pathways for students to get involved.

 

  • Provide Training – It is not enough to teach students how to deal with challenging conversations with clients. Students need to be taught effective strategies for approaching difficult conversations with peers and those in authority. In many cases, students may look to an advocate within the faculty to handle problems, if they feel unprepared to deal with the situations themselves. These advocates may successfully find a resolution to the present situation, but the question remains as to whether or not the student will be able to handle these situations in their professional life without any hands-on experience.

 

  • Build-in Feedback – Feedback only works if people listen. Developing a system of feedback that corrects student and/or faculty misconceptions or errors regarding social justice issues, while considering the psychology behind people’s reception of critical feedback, may foster a trend of accepting and incorporating feedback in students.

 

  • Foster Interaction – Create opportunities for active engagement with the many branches of psychology on the topic of social justice. Clinical and school psychologists (for example) serve a similar practice-oriented role in the community and have a direct impact on people’s lives. Research-focused psychologists design the models, theories, and tools that inform the field of psychology.

 

  • Call others in rather than “calling others out” – When someone makes a problematic statement or reveals a bias, it is important to address the issue, but often the first reaction is to call them out, which often leads to defensiveness and a closed mind. The second reaction is to create distance between oneself and the “wrongheaded” individual. As a result, we may feel good about calling out a social justice issue, but we may have done very little to increase awareness of social justice issues in the other person. As professionals, we can do better, especially when these individuals may carry both problematic views and the title of “psychologist” into their future careers.

This list is a product of my personal experience and current beliefs and I plan to continue to revise it as I gain further knowledge and experience in the field of counseling. Just as we ask our clients to challenge themselves and create positive change in their lives, I aspire to challenge myself and my beliefs going forward. To my fellow counselors-in-training, I hope that you will make social justice a part of your life-long educational experience. The path to a just society may be a long one, but it is a road we are called to travel by our profession and by the people we serve.

 

Ian Mosier is a first year counseling psychology doctoral student at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He earned a BA in Psychology at San Francisco State University. Ian is interested in researching the connection between self-talk and resilience. Prior to starting graduate school, Ian worked for over a decade providing leadership, team-building, and personal development opportunities for youth in the San Francisco Bay Area as part of the Pacific Leadership Institute.

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