Gerard Lawson, ACA’s 66th president

Counselors believe that the importance of honoring diversity underpins all that we do. I identified two areas of focus for my year as president, including trauma and disaster mental health, the importance of which we have seen highlighted several times since summer. The other area of focus has to do with cultural encounters and how we, as counselors, can serve our communities by helping people who do not normally encounter one another to understand each other more completely.

Last month’s issue of Counseling Today highlighted the importance of diversity in the counseling profession. I enjoyed reading the perspectives of leaders in the counseling field on how to make the profession more diverse. I was particularly struck by a comment made by my friend Carlos Hipolito-Delgado, who noted that in a study of students of color, the two primary reasons given for entering the counseling profession were exposure to the profession and commitment to diversity and social justice. Let’s stop and consider that for a moment: Students from diverse backgrounds decided to become counselors because they met a counselor, who likely demonstrated the values of the profession, including a commitment to diversity and social justice. Those values make our profession unique, and I find that to be very hopeful.

This is a wonderful time of year to talk about diversity and perhaps expand our understanding of the communities in which we live. December brings times of celebration for so many faith traditions. I am personally aware of Mawlid al-Nabi (birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), Hanukkah (Jewish Festival of Lights that commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple), Bodhi Day (commemoration of the Buddha’s enlightenment), Yule (winter solstice) and Christmas (the birth of Jesus Christ). There are probably others that are not yet familiar to me. Most of these celebrations I know only a little about, but I find them beautiful for the meaning that they bring to the lives of family members, friends, neighbors or colleagues. It seems that should be the spirit with which we approach our work every day, to increase understanding of those who are culturally different from us, and not just during the holidays.

Skilled counselors are adept at understanding how an individual’s culture and identity influence his or her understanding of and interactions with the world around them. Whether it involves faith tradition, gender, race, ethnicity, social class, socioeconomic status, gender expression or sexual identity, cultural heritage and cultural identity bring meaning to the lives of our clients. Additionally, an understanding of the lived realities of our culturally different clients brings to light potential barriers that they may face in the world. We want their experiences with a counselor to be affirming, not another barrier.

Honoring the values and traditions of people who are culturally different from me does not necessarily mean that I also celebrate or agree with these values. It does, however, convey that I understand and respect that these values hold significance for some people. This requires me to practice some humility, accepting that the things I believe or practice, the characteristics that make me who I am, are not the only ones that are valid. I meet my clients where they are and accept the things that are most meaningful to them.

So, as much as the holidays are a wonderful time to seek out and celebrate the diversity among us, the truth is that every season is the right time to expand our cultural understanding. A more complete understanding of diversity requires us to move beyond holiday traditions. We serve our clients better when we celebrate diversity and seek to understand them more completely. The value that the counseling profession places on diversity makes the world a better place, and that is worth celebrating.