FamilySuccessfully partnering with and providing culturally responsive services to communities of color require more than cultural competence. The multicultural counseling competencies, adopted by the American Counseling Association and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development in 1992, were a major step in recognizing the unique needs of communities of color. These competencies do not, however, sufficiently describe the advanced dispositions and skills necessary to partner with communities of color.

By definition, competence is a minimum standard — the basics of what is needed to provide a service or perform a task. To have a positive impact on the sociopolitical needs of communities of color and to provide culturally responsive academic and mental health services to those same communities, a higher standard of counseling practice — beyond competence — is essential.

To define a higher standard of culturally responsive practice, my research team (Judith Hermosillo, Tianka Pharaoh and Peggy Card-Govela) and I searched the counseling literature and were immediately drawn to the concept of “ally” in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and questioning (LGBTQIQ) community. Allies to the LGBTQIQ community have contributed to safer environments and promoted awareness of the LGBTQIQ community’s needs. Allies use their social privilege to support and advocate for the LGBTQIQ community. To be an ally requires more than basic awareness, knowledge and skills.

The research study

For the purposes of this research study, my team and I were specifically interested in 1) understanding what it means to be an ally to communities of color, 2) what experiences inspired white counselors to become allies to communities of color and 3) what interventions these counselors employed with communities of color. After soliciting nominations from graduate students of color, my research team was able to identify and interview six white counselors who are considered to be allies to communities of color.

Using a constant comparative method of data analysis, my research team was able to answer research questions No. 1 and No. 2. According to our participants, allies have the ability to deeply relate and understand communities of color, while striving for social justice with and on behalf of these communities. Furthermore, the participants described five categories of academic, personal and professional experiences that inspired them to become allies to communities of color:

1) Having positive experiences with communities of color

2) Learning from communities of color

3) Identifying shared values and life experiences with communities of color

4) Having firsthand experience of the inequities or injustices encountered by communities of color

5) Receiving encouragement to be an advocate for communities of color

For white counselors to become allies to communities of color, they must move beyond simply developing their awareness, knowledge and skill. According to the findings of our study, white counselors who wish to be allies must develop connections and rapport with communities of color and possess a desire to promote social justice for these communities.

Building connections and rapport

For the participants in our study, building connections and rapport with communities of color was facilitated by having positive experiences with communities of color, learning from communities of color and identifying the values and common life experiences they shared with communities of color. When properly designed, cultural immersion activities are a great avenue for fostering positive experiences with communities of color and creating opportunities to learn from these communities. Journaling can also be used as a tool to identify shared values and life experiences.

Positive experiences and learning from communities of color. Cultural immersion experiences require counselors to engage in extended meaningful contact with a cultural community different from their own. Note that this is not merely attending a church service or going to dinner with someone from a different cultural background.

I assign a cultural immersion experience — called the Multicultural Action Project (MAP) — whenever I teach multicultural counseling. The MAP requires students to engage in a minimum of three experiences with a cultural community different from their own. At level one, students engage in more passive learning such as attending a meeting or lecture. At level two, students actively seek information about the cultural community they are engaged with by interviewing community members or visiting community resource centers. At level three, students are required to give back to the community by volunteering for service that is targeted for or sponsored by the community.

Three contacts with the same community are essential to a good cultural immersion experience and for developing rapport with community members. Having previously researched this topic, I can tell you that the first experience a student has with a community of color is typically negative. The student typically feels isolated and excluded the first time he or she enters a cultural community. Communities of color are rightfully distrustful of outsiders, and particularly white folks from outside the community. It requires multiple contacts for an outsider to build trust and demonstrate his or her commitment to working with a community of color.

My previous research on cultural immersion experiences indicated that by the third volunteer experience, students made positive connections with at least one member of the community and described a desire to continue working with that community. It is only then that immersion participants will have the positive experiences and learning opportunities that will aid them in becoming allies to communities of color.

Identifying shared values and life experiences. Much of the multicultural counseling literature emphasizes the cultural differences between communities of color and white-dominant society. Although acknowledging the differences between cultural communities is important for building awareness and knowledge, overemphasis of these differences creates barriers to developing rapport with communities of color. Allies to communities of color are able to identify values and life experiences that they share with these communities. These commonalities help to dissipate perceived barriers while building rapport and empathy with communities of color.

In my multicultural counseling courses, I use journal assignments to aid students in identifying commonalities they share with communities of color. For example, when teaching immigration and acculturation, I ask students to identify a time in their lives when they felt like an outsider. Then I ask students to apply John W. Berry’s strategies of acculturation to describe how they adapted to this situation. Although it might be argued that this assignment trivializes the immigration experience, it aids students in empathizing with immigrant counselees because students are better able to understand what it feels like to be outside of the mainstream and forced to adapt. In fact, students frequently share with me that the assignment helps them to personalize the acculturation experience and provides a small insight into the experiences of immigrants.

Fostering a drive for social justice

White counselors who are allies to communities of color also possess a drive to advocate for social justice for those communities. This drive is facilitated by personalized experience of the inequities faced by communities of color and encouragement to be an advocate for communities of color.

Experiencing inequities. Personalized experience takes place when a white counselor witnesses inequities firsthand or is able to personally realize the impacts of inequities on communities of color. The counseling literature often utilizes statistical evidence to demonstrate the disparities that exist in U.S. society. Although statistical evidence provides information on the scope or prevalence of social inequities, statistics do not convey the lived experience of discrimination and marginalization. Furthermore, statistics can be dehumanizing, turning the experience of inequity into a numerical value.

To aid my students in personalizing the inequities faced by communities of color, I rely on multimedia. As a multicultural instructor, I am continually searching for short stories, songs and video that can provide counselors-in-training with insights on the experience of discrimination and oppression faced by marginalized communities. The use of audio and video can be impactful in personalizing inequities, allowing counselors to hear and see the lived experience and consequences of inequity through firsthand accounts.

When these experiences are visually documented, counselors can see the expressions and cognitive and emotional reactions of communities of color; students are able to hear and feel the pain and rage of those affected. Students, particularly millennials, frequently tell me that the incorporation of multimedia is the aspect of my courses that they most enjoy, specifically stating that it helps bring the experiences of communities of color to life.

Even so, firsthand experiences of inequities are still most powerful. With multimedia, bias or selective sampling might be argued. Additionally, with multimedia, a degree of separation exists from those being affected by the inequity. As such, firsthand experience provides an increased likelihood for personalizing inequities. Although there is no way to guarantee a student will have an encounter with inequities, the chance of this can be elevated by having the student conduct practicum or internship activities in underserved communities of color. I recommend that counselor education programs develop partnerships with community agencies that serve disadvantaged communities of color to provide students with this opportunity in a safe environment.

Role modeling. Motivation to advocate for social justice is also a vital component of becoming an ally to communities of color. This motivation might come from personal values, such as spirituality, or from external sources, such as instructors and parents. As such, counselor educators are encouraged to become role models for social justice.

It is easy for counselor educators to extol the virtues of advocacy and social justice in the profession, but it is much more meaningful and impactful to model and enact these values for our students. I recommend that counselor educators become engaged in volunteer work with and on behalf of communities of color and share this involvement with their students. Likewise, counselor educators who are engaged in advocacy work can invite their students to join in their advocacy efforts. Having a role model for social justice advocacy may inspire white counselors to be allies to communities of color and increases accountability to continue advocacy efforts.


Developing cultural competence is the first step counselors can take toward providing communities of color with culturally responsive services. However, to effectively partner with and support the needs of communities of color, counselors require more advanced skills and dispositions — such as those possessed by allies. Allies to communities of color have a profound understanding and commitment to these communities. They are able to deeply understand and relate to communities of color, while also advocating for social justice for these communities.

All white counselors can become allies to communities of color. However, this requires committing to engage in activities that lead to positive experiences with communities of color, learning from communities of color and identifying values and life experiences the counselor shares with communities of color. It also entails developing a personalized understanding of inequities and a motivation to advocate for social justice. It is hoped that this article inspires more counselors to go beyond cultural competence and become allies to communities of color.




Knowledge Share articles are adapted from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.


Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado is an associate professor in the counseling program at the University of Colorado Denver and president-elect of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development. Contact him at


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