Cirecie West-Olatunji, ACA President

Advocacy must mean more to professional counselors than legislative action on Capitol Hill and calling child protective services when we suspect that our clients have been abused. That doesn’t mean these forms of advocacy are not valued or not needed, but we must incorporate other forms of advocacy into our professional skill sets.

I don’t believe the progenitors of our profession conceptualized us as working primarily in our offices while ignoring the social ills that plague our clients on a daily basis. Vulnerable populations are often the most marginalized in communities. They are the poor, the elderly, the young, the disabled and those who are sexual, ethnic or religious minorities. But engaging in clinical outreach means more than assuming the cape of a do-gooder and swooping down into a community to rescue clients from their problems.

What, then, is the nature of our outreach as professional counselors? How do we visualize ourselves as mental health professionals, and how does that change how we work? As counselors, we are called to a) incorporate an understanding of the relationship between our clients’ presenting problems and the sociopolitical realities that they face and b) take action to reach out to the most vulnerable of our client populations. This means we do not have to wait until our clients come to us. Rather, we must incorporate proactive interventions in communities.

For professional counselors, context (or environment) is everything. Our conceptualization of a client’s problem relies not only on our ability to understand what is articulated, but also our ability to imagine what is not stated so we can provide a three-dimensional view of the client’s reality. To do this effectively, we must understand what it means to be vulnerable within the client’s system. This is a difficult task for most of us because we often come from privileged backgrounds wherein our lived experiences create barriers to our understanding of others.

Reaching out to vulnerable populations allows us to strip off the cloak of professionalism and assume the role of learner in the client’s world. Stepping away from our offices and entering into communities affords us opportunities to be humbled by our clients’ courage, strength and sheer willingness to live through life’s challenges. From this vantage point, we are able to learn more about our clients and their situated realities.

Outreach to the vulnerable permits us to learn more about ourselves, thus allowing us to grow as human beings and as professionals. From this more accurate conceptualization of clients’ problems, we are able to provide more appropriate and expedient interventions that are grounded in clients’ own worldviews and values.

Taking action within the context of our clinical roles and responsibilities transforms our work so that it is more humanizing, allowing us to become more strongly connected to our clients and the world. Reaching out to vulnerable client populations allows us to become vulnerable. In our vulnerability lies the opportunity to truly experience the space between the past and the present, between oppression and liberation, between being stuck and embracing change. Thus, outreach has the potential to serve as a catalyst for transformation that is trans-subjective. That is to say, transformation occurs both for the client and the counselor.

This year as ACA president, I have focused on outreach as a key aspect of our identity. At the upcoming annual conference in Honolulu, several sessions will highlight the work of ACA members who understand the importance of outreach to our professional growth and development. I encourage each of us to step up and step out of our comfort zones to transform our clients, ourselves and the world.



Follow Cirecie on Twitter: @Dr_CWO