As counselors, we understand all too well how many of our clients struggle in an imperfect and unfair world. Our desire to advocate and see positive change is often passionate. Some have even suggested that counseling is essentially a “sociopolitical” act. To the extent that counselors work to improve people’s quality of life — one client at a time — I enthusiastically agree. However, given the many needs of the human condition, we continue to struggle with how counselors as a group can or should serve as a catalyst for societal change, at least at the macro level.

Personally, I have a very long list of “things that need to change.” The plight of First Nations and Aboriginal people, crime, poverty, racism, genocide, religious oppression, oppressive and inequitable taxation, personal rights and freedoms, sound economic and energy development policies, along with many other issues, are critically important to many and, therefore, arguably deserving of attention. While many would like to employ the prestige and resources of the American Counseling Association to advocate for these and other issues, we need to tread cautiously, not for lack of desire, but for pragmatic reasons.

Fundamental to this conversation, which issues do we champion and which do we ignore? Given the diversity of opinion that exists within our profession, how do we collectively prioritize our efforts? Equally important, how do we ensure that all voices participate in such conversations, not just the ones that echo our own beliefs and priorities? Many issues present differing opinions and competing priorities. Open debate is healthy. However, demanding that everyone conform to a single set of beliefs, devoid of overwhelming consensus or compelling factual evidence, goes beyond “political correctness” and into the realm of “intellectual fascism.”

Current ACA policy holds that absent compelling evidence or a clear consensus among our members, ACA as an organization does not possess a legitimate mandate to advocate for any particular position or course of action on issues not directly related to counselors and the counseling profession. ACA can take a position on a particular issue, but the standard for doing so is very high, and for good reason.

Now before passionate advocates of particular causes react too harshly to what may be seen as a potentially restrictive and unresponsive policy, let’s consider what underlies this position. In its design, it is a principled policy that values and protects the multiple perspectives and broad range of opinion within our membership. If our association takes a position on a particular issue (e.g., gun control, abortion rights, the Cuban embargo and so on), we invariably end up advocating against the personal beliefs of many of our members, thereby alienating them.

With regard to political issues, the bar is even higher. As a nonprofit corporation, ACA is prohibited by law from endorsing or opposing specific political candidates, or from engaging in political activities that fall outside the scope of issues related to professional counseling. For example, ACA can legally lobby for third-party equity for counselors and professional practice issues, but it is illegal for us to lobby for or against the war in Iraq. However, as individuals, counselors can and, I hope, will engage in political and social advocacy efforts that promote and advance causes which they deem important.

Of course, this entire conversation is moot if we neglect the basic business of promoting the needs of counselors and the counseling profession. Without a strong and viable professional association, we will have neither the membership numbers nor the resources to effectively advocate for ourselves or anything else. We are, first and foremost, a professional association — that is, an organization composed of approximately 41,000 individual members.

As we continue to debate issues of importance to counselors and the counseling profession, I hope we can do so in a spirit of collegiality. In my work with couples and families, as well as in my work with colleagues, I find it useful to remember that reasonable people — people of good intent — often disagree on some issues.

Our profession and association face critical challenges, including professional identity, accreditation standards and universal professional licensing for counselors, to name a few. Fortunately, my concerns are far outweighed by my optimism as a professional counselor. In the years to come, as we mature as a profession through research and scholarship, I believe we will be increasingly effective in addressing a wide range of social, professional and organizational challenges. Given the many dedicated and talented people working in the counseling profession, it could not be otherwise.