Stepping up Social Justice Training for Counseling Psychology Graduate Students

A large piece of the identity of counseling psychology is focused on embracing social justice advocacy. This practice is predicated on how counseling pyschologists make sense of our role in dismantling inequality, exploitation, and injustice in the world. Goodman and colleagues (2004) suggest that good social justice advocacy includes making individual commitments and emotional investments. As a current couseling psychology doctoral candidate, I have asked myself, does the training provided to counseling psychology students, across the country, reflect a commitment to social justice ? Are students aware of and prepared to make the commitments and investments necessary to advance social justice advocacy upon graduation?

I would suggest, that as a whole, counseling psychology students are not as well prepared as they could be to enagagae in social justice work beyond their graduate programs. The more I learn about what it means to be a counseling psychologist, the more I have realized that in order for the field of counseling psychology to advocate for social justice for all people, the way graduate programs approach social justice training  needs to adapt and grow with the changing world. Vera and Speight (2003) contend  social justice and multiculturalism go hand in hand, I agree. The language of multiculturalism and social justice are often touted in the classrooms and coursework, however simply using the language does not provide students-in-training with the space and guidance to develop the experiential skills necessary to be multiculturally competent social justice advocates. Goodman et al. (2004) recommends social justice work transpire on three different levels: a micro-level, meso-level and macro-level. Social justice work is not limited to the work that we do with individual clients, families, and their communities, but extends to policies on an institutional level. Our field provides solid training at the micro-level through practica, externships and internship, however the meso and macro levels are not as often emphasized. Embedding these additional levels during the training of counseling psychology graduate students may make it easier for students to reflect these principals in their professional identity upon graduation.

O’Brien and colleagues wrote about an experiential social justice experiment indicating a strong relationship between participation in a service learning projects and professional development. Including a service learning component to the training of counseling psychologist may be a way to help students develop a deeper understanding of how to incorporate social justice advocacy into their clinical practice. For example, creating opportunities for students to work in advocacy roles for non-profit organizations or take on leadership roles as organizers of marchs or rally’s for social justice issues on their campus. One way to take these experiences further may be to incorporate them into clinical training in a similar way as practicums or internship are integrated. This form of experiential learning may encourage students to spend at least one semester in their trainingfocused on larger advocacy issues and policy change. If students were offered this opportunity, they might be able to participate as advocates or facilitators in out-reach at a more systemic or social context level. Such an opportunity may challenge students to learn and develop methods for  incorporating social justice in their professional lives as they are fostering their professional identity. This may be in line with student’s desire to learn more skills and training opportunities related to social justice.

In their  2004 article, Dr. Lisa Goodman  and her co-authors pointed out that far too often social justice is talked about to graduate students, but no one shows counseling psychologist in training what social justice work “actually looks like” (p.794). Providing a space in training programs for students to actually participate in social justice work would not only benefit clients but also go a long way towards demonstrating what it means to be a counseling psychologist. Increasingly, psychology programs and organizations are reflecting on this criticism and have begun to do something about changing the status quo. For example, the University of Tennessee Knoxville switched their training model to a scientist-practitioner-advocate model to better reflect their commitment to social justice in the core areas of clinical work, research and teaching. Their program provides an excellent example of how to integrate social justice into the more traditional scientist-practitioner model. For psychologists who have already graudated, but are interested in furthering their training in social justice, the American Psychological Association and it’s divisions have several intitives including, the Congressional Fellowship Program, which focuses on legislative advocacy, and a repository of social justice curricula currently being curated by Division 17. In light of recent sociopolitical events, I urge counseling psychologist to reflect on how we can be better prepared to to be social justice advocates?

Jessica Jackson is a rising 5th year Counseling Psychology Ph.D. Candidate at New Mexico State University. She holds a BA in Psychology from North Carolina A&T State University and a MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from George Washington University. Her research interest includes race-related stress; health disparities, culturally relevant interventions and training.


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