...AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
Social Justice in MFT Training Programs
by Frank Thomas, Ph.D.
Large numbers of family therapists
are passionate about social justice, but what place does social justice
hold within MFT training? Are students confronted with the important
social issues of our times? Where might one seek training that is
particularly sensitive to social justice? How are faculty and trainees
working together to create a profession inspired to seek justice?
It appears that the intersection of social justice and MFT training
could be a gridlock or (worse) an accident site, depending on the training
program. The crossroads is rife with risk:
tenured professors may promote a social agenda that administrations
do not support; students might not respond to supervisors' social
justice directives and be caught in political crossfire; or a program may
espouse positions on oppression, racism, or gender equality but fail to
meet accreditation expectations. Methods and topics related to social
justice vary greatly, but the commitment of the faculty I interviewed is
Are the Issues?
MFT students in some programs are exposed to a wide spectrum of
social justice issues, from "internal ethnic and cultural discrimination
to the demographics of diversity," says Scott Johnson, PhD, associate
professor and program director of the MFT PhD Program at Virginia Tech
University. He said that "we also try to convey a historical sense of
social concerns, since today's causes will most likely not be the
controversies of tomorrow."
Usually, the faculty sets the agenda. "Most programs are at a
place of integration, driven by what faculty are there at the time,"
stated Toni Schindler Zimmerman, PhD, professor and director of the MFT
Program at Colorado State University. The interests as well as personal
commitments of MFT teachers and supervisors seem to have the greatest
impact on which issues receive the greatest emphasis.
And although specific issues and methods vary, the ethics of
justice is widely emphasized. For example, "we talk about fairness to
all clients in terms of ethical issues" from local to global, responds
Thorana Nelson, PhD, associate professor and director of the MFT Program
at Utah State University. Her position appears to be the norm among MFT
There appears to be wide variation in support of social justice
within the structures supporting MFT programs - departments,
universities, and COAMFTE. Clarity regarding the Commission's positions
on the importance of social justice in accredited programs varied.
Some, like Zimmerman, praised the COAMFTE requirements. "We need
to give evidence in our (COAMFTE) annual reports, self-studies, and site
visits on how we are making sure our students are learning about social
justice - it's helpful to have this mandate," she said. Sally St.
George, PhD, associate professor in the MFT Program at the Kent School of
Social Work, University of Louisville, sees the social justice emphasis in
her program as an extension of traditional social work views, as
curriculum "must embody social justice stances throughout."
"Looking at family problems as manifestations of more
encompassing societal dynamics allows the MFT to see family interactions
as intimately intertwined with larger systemic levels, not as separate
levels competing for attention," she said.
I interviewed experienced benign neglect (at best) or political pressure
(at worst) from their administrations related to the promotion of social
justice in the MFT program, giving examples but asking that they not be
cited because of the possibility of repercussions. All institutions and
accrediting bodies promote ethical practice and tolerance of differences;
how proactive faculty members or programs can be, however, is closely tied
to the politics of the context.
Students Are Exposed
Zimmerman says that "you have to make a point of focusing on
social justice and weaving it into everyday conversations or it gets
lost." This concept of weaving was emphasized by other training
directors as well. While diversity and justice may be highlighted in a
particular course, the general approach is bringing issues of justice to
the foreground in most supervision sessions and integrating social justice
into all courses. "With faculty with strong multicultural and feminist
perspectives, issues of justice are woven into the curriculum and
supervision," says William Doherty, PhD, professor and director of the
MFT PhD Program at the University of Minnesota. "Seeing families in
their wider context, including social, political, cultural, and economic
realities, is an important value to us; we are now working on connecting
this with action in the public sphere."
Also, the setting of the training program can have an impact on the
experiences students receive outside the classroom. Clinical experiences
in parts of the U.S. and Canada (such as the rural Midwest or Utah) may
expose trainees to class and gender differences in families but lack
diversity in terms of race and ethnicity.
Supervisors lead from the front and influence by example. Zimmerman
says, "the idea that you can impact a community or the world can be
overwhelming to a student, but they learn a lot from your example (as a
faculty member/supervisor)." "We examine action in the service of
social justice," says St. George. "It's incumbent upon the faculty
to lead the way in modeling and living socially just principles."
And, of course, students bring unique experiences and perspectives to
the lives of their colleagues, professors, and families in the clinic.
"It's wonderful to have students who have been in the Peace Corps or
have worked in oppressive structures," stated Zimmerman. "Their
personal stories and experiences create lots of interest in both their
clinical work and in their research."
The training directors I interviewed varied greatly in their views
of student responses to social justice issues. "I believe most of their
experiences have been that we have tried to widen their lens, not change
their lens" says Zimmerman, "and many students go on to involvement in
broad-based community work." Johnson said that "our students come to
us with many social concerns of their own. Like us, they are a diverse
group in many obvious and less obvious ways. Our task is to help them
thoughtfully explore these issues in ways that fit best with them."
"Our students develop a
confidence in living social justice principles in their current and future
professional practices," said St. George. "They are aware that they
are developing their MFT identity in ways that expand traditional notions
Others were less convinced that students graduated with commitments
to social justice values and practices. Efforts to include social justice
are often met with "silence and avoidance" by faculty, students, and
administration alike, said one respondent, and the proof of commitment
lies in the future.
Families / Changing the World
Do students gain a sense of responsibility to change the world in
their training programs? MFT's emphasis on contextual practice creates
obvious transitions from the therapy room to the community, but successful
transfer varies across students and programs.
For most, focus on the person of the therapist leads naturally to
an increased awareness of injustice. Johnson cites the importance of
"experiential diversity" and self-of-therapist explorations as
students develop connections between personal values and current social
"We examine ourselves," states Nelson. "Students are willing
to grapple with the ideas and begin to understand," but it is a struggle
for some to see and act beyond the therapy room.
Doherty's focus is a bit different: "We are just beginning
conversations about how to be more systematic across the MFT program about
how we connect individual family practice with changing the world," he
says. "In fact, our MFT faculty recently decided that our program will
now have a special emphasis on 'family-centered community building.'
It is broader than focusing only on remedying social justice inequities by
emphasizing how families in communities can tackle problems together."
The possibility that family therapy and issues of social justice
might not converge never came up in these interviews. Some programs place
greater emphasis on addressing in-session problems (parent-adolescent
communication, partner abuse, or accusations of child neglect, for
example) while others quickly connect these individual family struggles
with broader social issues (such as lack of teen supervision in society,
male power and privilege, or overworked/underpaid parents). "Our
students' first obligation is to change family therapy," states
Johnson. "All, we trust, will emerge with a greater appreciation of the
social complexity of humanity and with a greater sense of what it truly
means to be a tolerant, aware, and accepting human being."
All those I interviewed would agree with St. George: "The
interconnectedness between MFT and social justice must include more than
intellectual understanding. It must include action that joins efforts of
all involved - clients and therapists alike."
Is there an expectation that all MFTs - students, faculty, and
practitioners - actively address such issues? Can we assume that MFT is
creating new "roots," adding the practice of effective activism to
clinical competency? If most MFT training programs practice the commitment
to social justice I have encountered in these interviews, the next
generation of MFTs will further this commitment to social justice from the
therapy room to the community and world at large.
Thomas, Ph.D., LMFT is Dean of the Reunion Institute and an outpatient
family therapist with the Salesmanship Club Youth and Family Centers in
Dallas, Texas. He is an AAMFT Clinical Member and Approved Supervisor, and
serves on the AAMFT Elections Council.
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