Multicultural counseling is grounded in social justice perspectives about human development and psychological well-being. These perspectives contrast sharply with the traditional individualistic, intrapsychic theoretical focus that many counselors have been and, in many instances, continue to be trained to implement in their work.

It is well known that the multicultural-social justice counseling movement has been subjected to many assaults from persons who strongly adhere to culturally biased theories of counseling and human development. These theories have dominated the discourse in our profession for decades. However, the United States’ rapid cultural-racial diversification and the expanding knowledge base related to the ecology of human development has led to a significant acceptance of the multicultural-social justice counseling perspective among many persons in the American Counseling Association.

Despite the progress being made in moving multicultural-social justice counseling and advocacy considerations to the center of our profession, some people suggest it is not appropriate for professional counselors to include social justice counseling and advocacy services in their work. This month’s article discusses several central issues to keep in mind when dealing with individuals who argue against using social justice counseling and advocacy approaches.  In presenting these ideas, we want to emphasize how the multicultural-social justice counseling perspective can promote a broader vision of the counselor’s role in our contemporary society as well as build a greater sense of unity in ACA.

Meeting the challenges of our changing demography

Among the central challenges facing professional counselors in the 21st century is the degree to which we will acquire new, culturally relevant competencies to augment traditional approaches to counseling. This challenge is central to the future viability and relevance of the counseling profession. In contrast to the rapid cultural-racial diversification of our nation, the counseling profession has been slow to embrace multiculturalism as a major force in the field.

Another challenge is that many people from different cultural groups do not go to counselors or other mental health professionals to address their psychological, academic and personal needs. This fact is highlighted in numerous research publications, including the comprehensive 2001 report published by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity.

Counselors in general and ACA members in particular are clearly making progress in becoming more effective when working with persons from diverse groups. People from these groups are often either suspicious of working with mental health professionals or perceive counselors as being unable to truly empathize with their life experiences. The progress being made is due, in part, to the willingness of increasing numbers of counselors to integrate individual change strategies with ecological counseling approaches that embrace a multicultural-social justice perspective.

This approach is based on three fundamental premises that most counselors are likely to acknowledge as true. The first premise simply states that environmental factors can either nurture or undermine a person’s psychological development and mental health.

The second premise acknowledges that the environments in which many persons from devalued and marginalized groups live, work and grow are characterized by various social injustices that adversely impact their overall health and sense of well-being. This includes individuals who routinely encounter various types of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism or classism.

The third premise is that the rapid demographic changes occurring in the United States include a dramatic increase in the number of persons from groups that are marginalized in our society. This includes older adults, people with disabilities, poor persons and immigrants, as well as individuals of Latino/

Latina, African, Asian and Native American descent. When encountering members of our profession who argue that counselors should not include social justice counseling and advocacy endeavors in their work, it may be useful to discuss these premises with them. This approach might encourage more thoughtful consideration of the new challenges facing counselors in a culturally diverse, 21st-century society.

Infusing research findings into our practices

Many people from cultural-racial groups devalued in our society are known to experience heightened levels of stress that are clearly linked to various injustices. These injustices are most often manifested in the structural arrangements and power relations between privileged members of the dominant cultural group and disadvantaged individuals in marginalized groups.

Research publications have empirically demonstrated the myriad of personal, educational, physical, psychological, social and emotional problems that persons from marginalized groups commonly experience as a result of being routinely subjected to various forms of discrimination, stereotyping, oppression and injustice. An abundance of research that provides clear evidence of this point has emerged in the fields of multicultural counseling, social psychology, community psychology, sociology, human development, public health, medicine and anthropology.

Counselors have a responsibility not only to familiarize themselves with this broad body of research but to then act in an ethical manner that clearly reflects their understanding of the importance of working to foster both individual client changes and organizational-community-social changes.

We are mindful that one of our basic ethical responsibilities is to “do no harm” to our clients. All counselors are likely to agree with this fundamental professional ethic, yet many multicultural counseling theorists have noted that counselors often unintentionally foster harmful outcomes when working with diverse clients who come from devalued groups. These theorists suggest that such harm occurs when counselors use traditional counseling theoretical strategies that overemphasize individual-personal-intrapsychic change strategies without directing equal attention to fostering environmental alterations that reduce the toxic conditions associated with the daily life experiences of such clients.

With this perspective in mind, it may be useful to interject the following question when interacting with members of our profession who assert that counselors should not implement social justice counseling and advocacy strategies in their work: Is it really ethical to help clients gain an increased sense of self-worth, self-esteem and personal agency in counseling sessions without also addressing the environmental conditions to which they must return, especially when those settings are marked by serious injustices that would predictably undermine the health and well-being of even the most resilient clients?

Giving Back to the Community at the ACA Convention in Detroit

Like any professional organization, ACA can more fully realize its potential when it commits to promoting ongoing “visioning” processes that give voice to all its members. This approach promotes a genuine sense of shared purpose, direction and unity. ACA would do well to institutionalize such ongoing processes to foster a heightened sense of community within our association.

We have highlighted the demographic changes occurring in our nation, the reluctance many persons from devalued groups exhibit in using mental health professionals and the expansive knowledge base that illuminates the negative impact of social injustice on healthy human development. All of these points underscore the need to put multicultural-social justice counseling and advocacy issues at the center of such a visioning and unity-building process.

With this in mind, counselors from the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, and Counselors for Social Justice, as well as members of the National Institute for Multicultural Competence, are working together with counselors in the greater Detroit area to implement a unique project the day before the opening of the 2007 ACA Convention.

This event is being called “Giving Back to the Community: Building Unity and Vision From a Social Justice Perspective.” The Giving Back to the Community project represents a collaborative effort in which counselors and other mental health and education professionals from the greater Detroit area, as well as ACA members from across the United States, will engage in a vision-building process that places multicultural-social justice considerations at the center of the discourse. The goal is to help build a greater sense of unity and shared purpose among all involved.

Of course, some counselors will continue to believe that this sort of multicultural-social justice visioning and unity-building project is not appropriate for the work counselors should be doing. We hope these individuals, and anyone else interested in being part of this collaborative venture, will attend the Giving Back to the Community project on March 22. It is hoped that we will all learn from one another, expand our collective professional vision, increase our sense of shared purpose and unity, and come to agreement about the ways counselors can more effectively promote human dignity and development through diversity and social justice.

For more information about this event, please contact Michael D’Andrea via e-mail at