Counseling for social justice, part 1: Can we learn from counselors of previous generations? Can we learn with them?

It’s been difficult to find time to write for anyone other than my professors for the last five years, but I want to start trying. I’m interested in writing about trying to become a professional mental health counselor with a strong focus on social justice, since it’s been difficult for me so far.

Here’s the dynamic I think I’m noticing: for good reason, elders in the counseling world want young counselors-in-training (CITs) to adopt a posture of humility and learning. They want us to recognize that there is so much we don’t know about treating our clients well, and to be dependent on them to learn. That is well and good. It is true that we have much to learn.

But Sue, Arredondo and McDavis was published in 1992, and I imagine it took quite some time to get incorporated into the way that CITs were trained. This means that many of today’s counseling elders likely came up in a system in which Eurocentric approaches to mental health were the largely-unquestioned norm. I imagine that is still the case in a lot of places. In my Theories of Counseling course, we didn’t get to theories that start to question those norms, postmodern theories like multicultural, feminist, narrative and collaborative, until the last two chapters of the book and the last week or two of the semester, when we were already rushing to finish our final papers and the class. So you could say that a strong social justice perspective is still lacking in counselor education. Of course, I can only speak for my own experience, but since my program is close to becoming accredited by CACREP, which places many requirements on curriculum, I’m sure the experience is not wildly different for others students in CACREP programs. I’m grateful my program has some faculty with social justice orientations that compensate for the dearth of it in the curriculum. One of them is responsible for bringing the Multicultural Issues in Counseling course into the twenty-first century by imbuing it with a focus on social justice.

So, while I understand that I and my fellow CITs have much to learn about counseling, treatment planning, note writing, etc., I wish that counseling elders would more readily acknowledge that they may be less practiced in questioning norms than those of us who’ve grown up in a world where doing so is increasingly an expectation. If they did, it would be easier to combine the best of what we each know, rather than falling into the age-old trap of indiscriminately rejecting the values of the previous generation.