Integrating Psychotherapy and Social Justice

- by Stacey Prince

This morning I remembered that I posted on the blog about my favorite article of 2010 at the very beginning of that year, so I thought I would do it again - and this time it's only January 1st!  So, my favorite article of the very young new year is actually not an article but an interview with Kenneth V. Hardy, Ph.D. , Professor of Family Therapy at Syracuse University and author of Teens who hurt: Interventions to break the cycle of adolescent violence.  He has written extensively about integrating diversity, oppression awareness and social justice orientation into the practice of psychotherapy.  The interview was facilitated by Dr. Randall Wyatt and appeared on www.psychotherapy.net.  We talk in TJP about integrating multiculturalism and an anti-oppression, social justice orientation into psychotherapy and other healing modalities.  I found this interview to be an excellent exploration of the topic, full of thoughtful, implementable strategies for doing so.

Dr. Hardy begins by describing how, as an African-American graduate student, he felt his training prepared him to be a "pretty good, decent white therapist".  In other words, he was exposed to models of psychopathology, interpersonal behavior and therapeutic change that were based on and developed for the dominant (white, middle class, male) culture.  However, as he got out into the world he began seeing a diverse population including immigrants, people of color, and families of low income.  He recognized quickly that his Euro-centric training had prepared him poorly for working with these individuals.  He has devoted his career since then to broadening both who psychotherapists work with and what they study in order to prepare for that work.

One of the interesting concepts he introduces is the idea of the psychotherapist as the "broker of permission".  Put simply, this refers to the idea that clients will not necessarily broach issues of race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. unless they feel invited to do so in the therapeutic relationship.  This may be especially true when there are differences in social membership between client and therapist.  So the therapist needs to take responsibility for acknowledging and talking about social group memberships--perhaps especially about race, because the rules in our society generally discourage people from talking about it.  Once that door is opened, rich discussions about social membership, privilege, oppression, and how they may play out both in therapy and in the client's other relationships may ensue.  However, rather than forcing those conversations or requiring an answer, he emphasizes simply "putting it out there" so clients can engage at a level of self-disclosure they are comfortable with.  He underscores the idea that with more privilege comes more responsibility: a therapist, already in a position of privilege and power vis a vis their client, needs to acknowledge difference and taking that risk, and this becomes even more true when the therapist holds a privileged social membership relative to the client (e.g., white therapist with client of color, male therapist with female client).

He also strongly emphasizes the importance of personal work as well as professional training in order to develop the skills necessary to do effective social justice oriented work.  He states, "it's hard to separate the personal from the professional lives of the therapist... the process of becoming sensitive begins with how each therapist lives his or her life.  Once change occurs on this level, it will be manifested within the therapy process."

The interview is rather long but full of richness and wisdom.  Although it is written with a focus on psychotherapy, I believe its ideas are applicable to a range of healing modalities.  I hope this brief introduction will entice you to read it in its entirety.  It can be accessed by clicking here.