This learning experience is intense and very transparent. Learning is facilitated in a highly structured, supportive environment with immediate feedback cultivating critical thinking and self reflection. I find the placement to be highly demanding mentally and emotionally, but feel it will prepare me tremendously for future endeavors. It will inform my future practice and personal therapeutic framework. There is an added benefit of learning from extremely successful and accomplished women.
Consider these two scenarios and the ways that traditional family therapy models address
the larger systems at play in each of these individuals' realities: First, John,
a heterosexual white male and an American citizen by birth, has had the means to pursue
an education and possibly a lucrative career due to the fact that the capital necessary
to do it hasn't been a concern for him or his family. He lives comfortably with his wife
and two children. On the other hand, Josué, a heterosexual male of color and a legal immigrant
of the United States, had to work as soon as he finished high school in his home country.
He has also needed to do his best to learn English to attempt to get ahead in spite of his accent.
Josué's family values work over education particularly because the capital to pursue it isn't available
and because the immediate needs of a family have to be met. He lives with his wife and three daughters.
How does therapy look like for these two men in the face of absent or existing privileges and their effect on
their relationships with the larger systems they intersect?
As a student of an accredited marriage and family therapy program, it is apparent
that the skills needed to become an adept therapist involves having an understanding
of the work and history of family therapy overtime. The legacy of the body of work done
throughout the years in the field informs therapists and family therapy educators in their
own work constantly. Students are expected to know the ins and outs of theory and its practicality
with clients, as far as it can be learned from readings and case studies assigned.
Although having this information and knowledge is indispensable, the didactic training
received during academic coursework doesn't equip students to view therapy from the scope of a social justice framework.
Therapy is viewed as an opportunity to help clients find strength within themselves,
not realizing or taking into account that the strength that they have access to is
limited by their social location. This strength needs to be supported and buffered
by resources within a community of people that are prepared to think differently
about the status quo and thereby provide support.
Models of therapy ignore the sociopolitical backdrop that contributes to the issues
faced by many as if it didn't have a place in therapy, in what engages the mind,
behaviors, and beliefs about self and others. Mental health professionals need to
be trained to consider the various narratives that inform the families that present
themselves for therapy, even their own lived legacy of oppression and privilege in
the systems that intersect their lives. For example, the legacy of oppression and
privilege experienced by a white wealthy heterosexual male will differ greatly from
that of a person of color, a person in a lower social class, a person who is homosexual,
or a female. Taking these intersectionalities into account will further distinguish the
experience of each system that presents itself for therapy.
Without the opportunity to consider these factors personally through a training experience
that facilitates it, students of marriage and family therapy are en route to do more harm
than good thereby breaking the ethical codes that they have committed to uphold. Students
may not adequately be prepared to bring about social justice-based therapy to clients if
the student isn't aware of his or her own social location and contribution to the legacy
of power and oppression. Being a part of a training program where students have this
opportunity can bring about the preparedness to truly make therapy available to everyone:
the privileged and the oppressed. This opportunity, however, isn't a valued aspect of training
in graduate programs that educate therapists, nor is it required. This reality leaves many
marriage and family therapy students in a position to fail at the task that they signed up
for, to become a fully trained professional in the field of helping families and couples
navigate the systems they encounter daily.
However, this reality doesn't find its limits in the marriage and family therapy classroom.
Education in local schools fails to engage students in a way that prepares them to face the
challenges that lie ahead. School is a place where young minds are trained to face the world
as they enter adulthood; it has also become a place where the power and privilege that determines
people's social location remains unchallenged. Although it is encouraged to accommodate the needy,
the same can't be said when it involves disenfranchising the privileged. The level of critical
thinking encouraged in students is limited by the critical consciousness of the educator and the
policies that dictate the shape education should take. If those who hold the keys to education
refrain from addressing the legacy of power and oppression in any subject area, children will
continue to promote the very norms that keep some at the top and the majority at the bottom.
The rules that maintain the status quo and power imbalance will remain and those who are
marginalized will find themselves in the same predicament that has defined their history.
The responsibility to effect social change lies with everyone, but particularly with those
who have taken on the duty of teaching and training others. Making any classroom experience a
training ground for social change must be at the forefront of the educational objectives met.
Education must be redefined to allow the discomfort of the privileged. Perhaps if more students
have the opportunity to address and assess their own journey with power and oppression, many more
clients will have the access to social justice-based therapy. Only then will clients be liberated
from the oppressive systems that promote privacy and isolation and thus, find healing.
Looking at my experience of school, my professional organization, and my job- I often find myself
feeling what I imagine our clients may experience after interacting with us- knowing someone cares
and wants to help, but being told in some shape or form that social injustice is just someone else's
job to solve. As a student of color in Psychology and Social Work undergraduate programs, I found that
our curriculum silently made the assumption that if one has reached a university level, one has "made it".
Or that, at least, by that stage in our lives, we should have acquired the necessary skills and tools to
navigate the forces of oppression which may have stood in the way. While we undoubtedly have overcome
numerous hurdles as college or graduate students, or even as recent graduates, the obstacle race is by no means over.
Looking back to my student days in undergraduate and graduate school, our conversations about social
justice were seldom connected to my personal experience as a woman of color, nor other dimensions of
my self, and how these issues- which I needed to learn how to address in order to help my future clients- impact
me. Once I entered the Social Work program and declared my intent to become a social worker- it is as if this
was now my primary identity within the professional realm. This continued into my graduate school Social
Work program, and into my involvement in our professional organization and place of work. I have been,
at times lucky, and at times consciously dedicated to finding mentors and teachers who operate from a critically
conscious perspective. I have sought to develop a network around me where I can truly and more fully be nurtured
in my development as a professional- with the understanding my job title does not replace or supersede my other
identities, but intersects and is often shaped by them.
As a clinical social worker, Supervision has been a space where my personal struggles with my intersecting
social locations have played out as I have worked to reflect on my work with clients of color with a White
female supervisor. It has been my experience, and that of colleagues of color of mine, that the burden is
often on us to bring up issues of race and lead the dialogue based on its relevance to our work. When we
take that risk, despite our fear of not being heard, understood, or even "pathologized", it is met with sometimes
confusion or dismissal, sometimes empathy, and at times even validation. However, without a solid understanding
regarding the interconnectedness of our identities and the dynamics of power, privilege, and oppression- the process
stops there. No action or discussion regarding accountability for change develops-nor the idea of change explored,
or nurtured into reality beyond micro interventions to address problematic behaviors within a family. We work so
hard to help our clients feel empowered to change their realities, which we readily recognize as impacted by social
injustice, yet we don't often acknowledge we have our own realities to shape and have the power and responsibility
to do it. How can we effectively advocate for social justice for our clients, when we don't have the tools and
knowledge to do so for ourselves, within our profession, our places of work, and other realms of our lives?
Our curriculums would lead us to believe the playing field has been leveled within our profession and subsequently
fails to prepare a young woman of color such as myself for the structural barriers which my Degree did not resolve.
This lack of consciousness and understanding may have me one day forget why it is that White people hold most of
the wealth in this country; Why people of color are overrepresented in so many negative statistical categories;
Why we are called the "minority"; and. on whose shoulders I am standing? I can grow comfortable in allowing my
internalized oppression to dictate my choices and limit my potential, and that of those who look like me.
I can box my shifting experience of privilege and oppression across my intersecting identities only to be opened
under the care and supervision of a licensed therapist of my own. I can begin to accept my reality as stagnant
and impossible to change and deny my responsibility as a heterosexual, able-bodied, light-skinned Latina, with
some capital, to use my privilege as an ally to those who are being denied based on those dimensions. I can be
complicit in the dehumanizing of others by reducing White people, or anyone with privilege I lack, to an "oppressor"
and fail to develop allies without whom my struggles will be that much more difficult to face. And with no hope for change and lack of clarity of how we got here- I will simply be used by the systems which maintain these arrangements in support of White, heterosexual, male privilege that so many before have lived and died trying to liberate all of us from.
All of us would benefit from the addition of material to our curriculums which help us be able to relate to each other across hierarchies of power through safe and authentic dialogue which unapologetically demands that we actively reflect the world we are trying to build. Although this type of process of healing is not easy to quantify, categorize, and replicate due to the complex nature of human interactions and intersecting identities, I believe our growing understanding of our full humanity as professionals is likely to yield the most powerful impact in the outcomes we so often talk about as we become better prepared to bring our full selves to our work with those we are hoping to help, heal, or teach.
It is basically impossible to provide services and address client issues without acknowledging or critically evaluating all the parts that define their experiences and relationships. It is the only way to get a clear picture of how power, privilege, and oppression play a central role in the lives of individuals. One client framed it well when he realized why he may be depressed. He mentioned he thought maybe it was the years of constantly being treated in a demeaning way by systems he had reached out to for services. He thought it may have been the perceptions other individuals have of what, he described, ".a poor black guy". This realization brought
him to acknowledge a larger problem, one that is not intrinsic in nature or that can be easily fixed with medication. He was on the right track and as a therapist, I knew that these issues had to be included in interventions. They are invisible and usually ignored by most therapists, even though they must be acknowledged for a client to reach a place of healing.
As a student with varied interests, I have experienced the absence of conversations about social justice in a couple of curriculums. Institutions, professionals, individuals may become uncomfortable with this topic and desire for certain aspects of our history to remain invisible. Our history has left us with beliefs and behaviors that still affect all of our relationships, personal and professional. We each have reactions to patriarchy, homophobia, violence, etc. and we do not connect these entities to our intersectionalities and experiences.
Since we all fall into the roles of being victims, perpetrators or bystanders, we must have clarity around these issues and maintain conversations focused on them in all contexts. Since I identify as a gay, Hispanic, male, both personally and professionally, it is my responsibility to find ways I can expand my critical consciousness, acknowledge my role, and participate in bringing about equity.
We all have witnessed the devastation that came from our financial sector due to the individualistic ideals in business about success and competency. In fact, we all witness how many disciplines, whether they be business or mental health, do not focus on objectives that allow for inquiry and dialogue to promote critical consciousness. Individuals that make decisions affecting all of us usually do not have this critical consciousness that would facilitate social justice.
I have come to reflect on the implications of what practice and policy would look like if those in power were willing to engage in conversations about one's social location around power, privilege, and oppression, something my graduate experience in Social Work never engaged in. In fact, challenging someone's privilege or power seemed taboo and at times would result in consequences.
I continue to observe this behavior due to lack of critical consciousness in many professional settings. Individuals are unable to acknowledge how all the parts that make up an individual, all the intersectionalities, affect a person's experience in different contexts. They are able to ignore issues that belong to the "other" populations. So, why mention "racial profiling" when discussing anti-immigration laws currently are being drafted and passed in Arizona and Alabama? Why discuss the consequences of not fitting into societal rigid
expectations about being a man or woman when LGBTQ students in Minnesota are told they should scurry home before the other students bully them? With years of exploring gaps in access to mental health for people of color, some may argue there is no need to discuss the ramifications of federally qualified agencies providing shorter sessions for marginalized populations. Clearly the fact that there is no recognition of how the many dimensions of a person affect their experiences, allows those who hold power to avoid discussions about real, pressing issues.
It makes sense to me that as mental health professionals, instruments of change, and members of many communities, we should