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Personal Theory of Counseling Danielle M. MacDonald Seattle University

COUNSELING PHILOSOPHY Abstract This paper is a detailed and in-depth account of the authors personal counseling philosophy,

shifting between scholarly research and personal insights. In addition to an extensive analysis of social justice advocacy, the author builds a bridge between advocacy and narrative therapy. Recognizing that narrative is valuable, but not viable for basic needs crisis counseling, the author suggests that advocacy must be the first line of defense. There is discussion about the importance of multicultural competence. Finally, the author critiques the tenets of both social justice advocacy and narrative counseling. The author concludes with an introspective analysis of the future of social justice advocacy.

COUNSELING PHILOSOPHY Introduction and Rationale The injustice of poverty was used as a litmus test for defining my school counseling philosophy. My values consistently align with the tenets of social justice counseling. Kiselica and Robinson (2001) urge social justice counselors to search inward for an injustice to which they would stand up and fight. The question and the answer are personal, political and valueladen, as is the theory of social justice (Vera & Speight, 2003). I do not feel neutral about marginalized and oppressed populations, and I want to align myself with the values and tools needed to be a change agent. Social justice is the only counseling paradigm with the tools to fight poverty and other issues of oppression and marginalization. I recognize that advocacy is not always required, and that direct counseling is often necessary. The values in narrative therapy align closely with the issues that I esteem in the social justice paradigm. In short, I

define myself as a social justice counselor using the process of narrative therapy when necessary. A social justice perspective is the only counseling theory that acknowledges issues of power, privilege and oppression, (Ratts, 2009, p. 160). Clients are viewed in the context of their environments. For example, children living in poverty have many social and physical problems that are out of their control such as: slower language development, behavior problems, higher rates of illness and increased school absenteeism (Krashen, 2011). Social justice counselors recognize that the problem is not within the individual. The problem is poverty. Direct counseling reinforces helplessness and self-blame. Social justice counselors intervene in the community on behalf of their clients (Ratts, 2009). The office is not the only place to meet with clients. For example, a counselor dealing

COUNSELING PHILOSOPHY with poverty would advocate on behalf of the child and family, by organizing help from the foodbank, financial assistance, and / or job training. The client becomes both the individual and the system. As a school counselor, I will be working with children from diverse backgrounds with unique needs, both marginalized and privileged. Social justice advocacy is the foundation of my counseling philosophy. In addition, I will incorporate the process of narrative therapy when direct counseling rather than advocacy is required. Social justice advocacy and narrative therapy align philosophically like pieces of a puzzle. Most importantly, narrative counselors also view clients in context with their environments (Nelson, McClintock, Ferguson, Sawver, & Thompson, 2008). Furthermore, the three main narrative counseling strategies align with social justice advocacy: externalizing problems, focusing on successes, and employing communities of concern. Externalizing the problem and separating it from the individual is the main tenet of narrative counseling. The problem is the problem. The person is not the problem, (Winslade & Monk, 2007, p. 2). For example, if a student was having difficulties in school, the problem would be named math, and would become an entity separate from the client. Narrative counselors use externalizing conversations by talking about the problem in the first person. The goal is to eliminate feelings of blame, so a new story can emerge. Similarly, social justice counselors view the environment as the problem for marginalized and oppressed populations. Social justice counselors promote empowerment among their clients by identifying strengths (Ratts, 2008). Narrative therapists identify strengths in order to rewrite success stories for their clients to internalize (Winslade & Monk, 2007). Social justice counselors identify

COUNSELING PHILOSOPHY marginalized and oppressed clients strengths to help them realize they have the ability to

overcome obstacles (Ratts, 2008). Rewriting narrative and identifying strengths is not enough to promulgate change. Social justice advocates and narrative therapists recognize the need to involve the community as support systems for clients. In short, social justice advocacy is both the foundation and sail guiding my personal counseling perspective, whereas narrative therapy is a valuable approach when direct counseling is required. Health, Dysfunction and Multiculturalism Social justice and narrative counselors do not attribute health or dysfunction to their clients. The client is not the problem. Social justice therapists assert that oppressive and unjust environmental issues are problematic, because they are unhealthy and dysfunctional. According to Prilleltensky (1994), society as a whole must be healthy in order to promote individual wellness. I agree. There is great dysfunction in a society that does not provide food, shelter, clothing, employment, or health care for all its citizens. It is impossible to flourish when basic needs remain unmet. Social justice counselors are in a position to help promulgate client health by making system-based interventions. For example, counselors can challenge unjust immigration laws, and lobby for increased government spending for social services. Marginalized and oppressed populations are subjected to unhealthy and dysfunctional societal norms. In my opinion, social justice counseling is an extension of the multicultural paradigm. Clients are viewed in the context of their cultural environment which is consistent with a multicultural and a narrative worldview. Multicultural and feminist theorists spearheaded the

COUNSELING PHILOSOPHY conversation about the impact environmental factors have on clients health and well-being. Social justice theorists developed an action plan to deal with an unhealthy and dysfunctional

environment. Social justice and multicultural counselors define problems within the system, not within the individual. Process of Change Change for the individual is not possible without system-based modification (Brubaker, Puig, Reese, & Young, 2010). The goal is for entire communities to change. The first step in social justice advocacy is to ascertain if basic needs are being met, and then to examine clients in context with their environments. Social justice counselors intervene in the system on behalf of their clients to promulgate transformation. I agree with Vera and Speight (2003), the goal of social justice counselors is not just to redistribute resources, but to transform the system that allows for people to be marginalized. The process of change at the system level is political and value-laden. For example, the budget cuts in education have drastically impacted children living in high-poverty situations, by eliminating specialists that work one-on-one with struggling students (Tivnan & Hemphill, 2005). In the short term, social justice counselors would organize tutoring for immediate results. In the long term, social justice counselors would attend schoolboard meetings, write letters to government officials, and speak in public forums, to name a few. Change for the individual client is important, but social justice counselors seek to transform the entire system. Advocacy is a change agent in two ways. First of all, advocacy transforms environments. Secondly, the process of advocacy educates the individual about the negative effects of living in

COUNSELING PHILOSOPHY oppressive conditions. According to Ratts and Hutchins (2009), individuals that live in oppressive conditions often blame themselves. Narrative therapists and social justice advocates align in terms of their desire to uncover and externalize feelings of shame, blame and

helplessness. One of the main goals of both social advocacy and narrative therapy is to pinpoint clients strengths so they feel empowered to act (Friedrich, 2008; Ratts & Hutchins, 2009). Narrative therapists externalize the problem, so as to rewrite a new narrative which includes clients successes. Training clients to advocate on behalf of themselves is a tool used by social justice counselors. Skill development is needed for self-advocacy (Ratts & Hutchins, 2009). For example, clients may need some hygiene guidelines, or assistance with interview protocol. The final stage of individual change is to develop a plan of action for client self-advocacy (Ratts & Hutchins, 2009). For example, a client searching for employment may need a plan to procure new clothes, and access to a computer. Espousing the new narrative would be an effective tool to prepare the client for the interview. In short, the process of change begins with system-based interventions, and gently leads the client to empowerment and self-advocacy. Therapeutic Goals A social justice-informed psychologist seeks to transform the world, not just understand the world, (Vera & Speight, 2003, p. 261). The aim is lofty, but the therapeutic goal of social justice counseling is to change the system which perpetuates oppression and marginalization. Prilleltensky (1994) asserts that social justice advocates should work to secure distributive justice wherein resources and opportunities are equally distributed. For example, I feel strongly that


safe housing should be available for all children. Internalizing the goal of distributive justice is a value that guides my life. I do not require a client in order to speak up about injustice. On a micro-level, the therapeutic goal of social justice counseling is to empower clients so they have the skills and ability to self-advocate. The therapeutic goal of narrative therapy is for the client to feel empowered by internalizing a success story (Winslade & Monk, 2007). For example, students living with food insecurity would externalize poverty and internalize their survival instincts. The narrative goal is for the client to feel capable and strong for surviving under horrific conditions, and then walk into the future living the new story. The macro-level therapeutic goal is to advocate for the dismantling of unjust systems. Micro-level goals for both social justice advocates and narrative therapists are to empower clients either to self-advocate, or to internalize and live-out a success story. Therapeutic Alliance The ideal therapeutic alliance in both the social justice and narrative counseling theories is an informed partnership wherein each participant has an expertise (Fraenkel, Hamelin, & Shannon, 2009; Ratts, 2008). Clients are experts on their life stories, future goals, and the environments in which they live. Counselors are experts in system advocacy, and the therapeutic approaches to which they align. The process is democratic, inclusive and egalitarian (Prilleltensky, 1994). Ideally the client presents a problem, and through mutual discussion an intervention is agreed upon and an action plan is defined. It is important to note that marginalized and oppressed clients do not always have the ability to actively participate in


therapy. Democracy still governs the client / counselor relationship, but the counselor may have to take a leadership role to combat injustice. In order to act on behalf of a client, the counselor is ideally embracing honest self examination and disclosure. I agree with Ratts (2008) contention that counselors discuss their human limitations with clients and demystify the relationship (p. 3). For example, my passion is to serve those living in poverty, yet I have never been homeless, hungry or oppressed. I am not an expert on poverty. My expertise is at the system level as a tireless advocate. Honest selfdisclosure helps to cement a democratic client / counselor relationship. In short, the ideal therapeutic relationship between the client and counselor is egalitarian. Role of Counselor and Client Ideally the role of the counselor is to partner with a client to discuss and determine an appropriate plan of action. However, oppressed clients may not always have the emotional and physical strength to join forces with their counselors. The counselor may need to take a leadership role in the partnership. Indirect counseling or advocacy on behalf of clients is a critical role (Ratts & Hutchins, 2009). The client must agree with the suggested intervention, even if they do not have the energy to actively participate. For example, the Mckinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act outlines the rights of homeless children, which includes transportation to and from school (Krashen, 2011). The family may not have the emotional strength to make phone calls to secure cab rides. In my opinion, the counselor is ethically bound to inform the family, and then to organize transportation on their behalf.



Counselors may also have to take the leadership role when enacting direct counseling for clients that are oppressed and marginalized. In the case of a homeless child without any positive self regard, a narrative counselor would listen intently to find the smallest seed of client success for the new story (Winslade & Monk, 2007). If clients are too broken to actively participate, the counselors role is to uncover positive attributes and obtain agreement on the success story. The therapeutic role of the counselor is to directly and indirectly advocate on behalf of oppressed clients until they can self advocate. In short, the role of the counselor depends on how the client presents. The relationship is always democratic, but marginalized and oppressed clients often need the counselor to lead. The role of the client is to agree with suggested interventions, and actively participate in the process when they feel emotionally anchored. Techniques and Approaches In order to adequately meet the needs of marginalized and oppressed populations, both direct and indirect counseling interventions are needed. Indirect social justice counseling skills include but are not limited to forming rallies and protests, consulting with community leaders, collaborating with teachers, writing grants, giving presentations, lobbying for legislation, action research, and meeting with legislators, (Ratts, 2009, p. 165). In my opinion, a social justice counselor may use each of the above aforementioned skills at the same time. For example, the battle against homelessness and food insecurity requires a saturated system-based intervention. I feel strongly that advocacy is a personal value, and counselors should be proactive in taking a stand against injustice.



Narrative therapy is also practical and proactive. Externalizing the problem and writing a new positive narrative will be important items in my tool-box. However, I am most excited about the proactive opportunities within narrative therapy. With the correct frame of mind, namely that all children are amazing, school counselors can spend time observing and interacting with students. Individual achievements will be identified, and the students can be praised for their greatness. Specific attention can be paid to the children that are marginalized and oppressed. At this point, identifying communities of concern will be important to solidify the new narrative (Winslade and Monk, 2007). For example, counselors can write letters to teachers and parents to evoke support. In actuality, marginalized and oppressed populations require positive support systems in order for their success stories to take root (Fraenkel et al., 2009). Community support is also a tool used in social justice advocacy. In my opinion, developing a network of concerned citizens is the only way to combat injustice. Multicultural Considerations Multicultural counseling is the foundation upon which social justice advocacy was built; they work together and are intertwined. In fact, the most important component of social justice advocacy is viewing clients in context with their cultural environments (Ratts, 2009). Social justice advocacy is not possible without multicultural competence. In addition, narrative therapy compliments social justice advocacy, because multicultural competence is required (Winslade & Monk, 2007). For example, cultural awareness is needed for both advocacy and to rewrite the story of poverty and homelessness. Without multicultural competence, social justice advocacy is not possible, and the new narrative cannot be internalized.

COUNSELING PHILOSOPHY Multicultural competence and social justice advocacy are values enacted by individuals


with biases and flaws. The main limitation in the partnership of multicultural counseling, social justice advocacy and narrative therapy is that the onus is on the counselor to develop multicultural competence. A system of checks and balances is not in place. Counselors are not immune to the idea of hegemony. Prilleltensky (1994) defines hegemony as a process wherein those in power promote an idea, followed by the population internalizing the concept, and then inadvertently beginning to exert pressure on their peers to conform (p. 16). Counselors, with the purest of intentions, may unwittingly internalize status quo definitions and cause more harm to marginalized populations. Social Justice Social justice advocacy is a value that guides my life and my counseling goals. Narrative therapy and social justice techniques align with each other in the following ways: client is the family, community and environment, problems are external, client successes are implicit, office is not the only place to counsel, past, present and future are important, and community advocacy is crucial (Ratts, 2008; Winslade & Monk, 2007). Narrative therapy is a practical tool that I will use in conjunction with social justice advocacy. The first step is advocacy. New narrative is introduced to promulgate clients feeling of empowerment. In short, the new narrative has a place in social justice advocacy, but it is not the predominant item in the tool-box. My goal is to work with children living in poverty. Therefore advocacy or out-of-office interventions will dominate my case load. Narrative therapy will also be used as a proactive outof-office intervention, as I spend time searching for student success stories and dispersing the

COUNSELING PHILOSOPHY new narrative. Developing the new narrative will be the focus during in-office interventions. Despite my grandiose plans, the balance between in-office and out-of-office counseling will


depend on clients needs. For example, a client may not be ready for advocacy and may require extended in-office interventions. The client must dictate the plan of action. Critique Social justice advocacy is the only counseling paradigm that equips therapists to effectively assist marginalized and oppressed populations. Outlining the strengths of social justice advocacy limits its scope. In my opinion, social justice advocacy is a personal value and a world-view. I agree with Vera and Speight (2003) that advocacy has the ability to transform the world (p. 47). There is no greater privilege than to help lift someone out of oppression. Narrative therapy is a well-suited compliment to advocacy. The three main narrative approaches are strong allies in advocacy work: externalizing problems, focusing on successes, and employing communities of concern. However narrative is limited in that it is not strong enough to redefine emergent crisis. In the case of homelessness, the story cannot be rewritten, internalized and dispersed without securing food, shelter, clothing and safety. Narrative therapy must be partnered with social justice advocacy in order to adequately meet the needs of oppressed and marginalized clients. I consider social justice advocacy a way of life, and yet there are some limitations. First of all, as King (2011) states there is a lack of peer-reviewed scholarly research afforded to social justice counseling practices (p. 46). Admittedly, scholarly research is needed to legitimize and promote this new field of social justice advocacy. The second limitation with social justice



advocacy is counselor burnout and resistance (Olatunji, 2010). Advocacy has no definable end. Counselors that do not utilize community networks run the risk of burnout. In addition, change is unnerving, and resistance from peers may cause self-doubt and timidity; successful advocacy requires counselors to be infused with confidence. The third limitation of social justice advocacy is the similarities to the field of social work (King, 2011). I personally feel that counselors should respond to the needs of their clients, and that there is room for all helping professions. Finally, insurance companies do not see the value of advocacy in terms of billable hours. In my opinion, the strengths of social justice advocacy outweigh any limitations. Application My goal is to work as a counselor in a title one school. Children living in poverty have many social and physical problems (Krashen, 2011). Proactive advocacy and narrative therapy will guide my workday. I plan to spend time discerning students strengths and dispersing success stories across the system. More importantly, my job will encompass securing basic needs for students and their families. For example, I may need to procure a bus pass or winter jacket for a student lacking financial resources. In addition, I will need to be involved with the communities in which the students live, developing networks and communities of concern. Advocacy with teachers, parents and administrators will also be important. In addition to proactive advocacy, I will need to address students problems as they develop. Ultimately, I aspire to develop partnerships that help empower students so they can self-advocate. Reflection

COUNSELING PHILOSOPHY In 2005, I volunteered to run the free and reduced breakfast program at Westhill Elementary. I became deeply attached to the students and their problems. I started talking to


teachers and friends, trying to develop a safety net for these amazing children and their families. I found that people were bothered by injustice, but not willing to be part of the solution. I decided that pursuing a career in school counseling would legitimize my concerns and provide more opportunities to affect change. As a student, I studied counseling theories looking for any tools that would help me work with marginalized and oppressed populations. In my opinion, each theory fell short in the battle against injustice. It was frustrating not to find a match for my concerns. Social justice advocacy outlines the tools needed to promulgate change for a diverse population. Writing this paper was a relief, because I finally uncovered a theory that could help me with my frame of interest: poverty. Future Directions I feel empowered to affect change with the principals of social justice advocacy. However, I am not completely confident in my multicultural competence. I need to spend time educating myself about other cultures and customs. Many oppressed groups such as women and racial minorities have strong collective voices. They have rallied to express their needs and concerns. As counselors, we have a place to start. Poverty on the other hand does not currently have a voice. People living in poverty have not rallied with a list needs. I am interested in conducting scholarly research to help uncover the needs of families living in poverty. The most important thing I can do at this stage in my education is to align myself with other counselors that value social justice advocacy.



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COUNSELING PHILOSOPHY Storytelling narratives: Social bonding as key for youth at risk. Child Care Forum, 37, 127-137. Olatunji, C. W. (2010). If not now, when? Advocacy, social justice, and counselor education. Counseling and Development, 42(8), 1-12.


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