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 unquestioned.

What 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 programs.

Larger System Commitments

            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.

            Others 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.

How 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."

Students (Sometimes) Respond

            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 of MFT."

            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.     

Changing 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 events.  

            "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."

Final Thoughts

            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.

Frank 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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