“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” –Albert Einstein
The American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code preamble requires psychologists to “respect and protect civil and human rights” . Psychologists share this commitment with allied professions: social work, nursing, medicine, anthropology, sociology, political science, and public health . The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) asserts that human rights include freedom from discrimination and access to health care, food, and housing. However, the field of psychology has a checkered human rights history, with theory, research, and practices reinforcing and lending credibility to discriminatory practices against historically marginalized groups.
Social justice can be defined as activities designed to dismantle systemic injustices and human rights violations. Psychology’s history of collusion with human rights abuses, current mental health access, and outcome disparities , and psychology’s poor reputation among members of historically underserved groups [4,5,6], demand a social justice orientation for current and future psychologists.
It is well documented that mental and physical health outcomes are challenged by racism, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism, discrimination, restriction of opportunities, and economic injustice . The emerging psychologists of today are the field leaders of tomorrow. How we engage with the human rights struggles of our era will determine the future and, perhaps, the relevance of psychology as a 21st-century profession.
We can draw inspiration from the rich, but often overlooked, history of social justice in psychology. For example:
- Between 1920 and 1938, free outpatient clinics in low-income neighborhoods were established across the country by early generations of politically active psychoanalysts .
- In the early 1900s, the discipline of counseling psychology was specifically dedicated to addressing issues of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness.
- In 1944, the seminal social psychologist Kurt Lewin founded the Commission on Community Interrelations, the objective of which was to undertake action research on how to reduce prejudice .
- In the second half of the 20th century, feminist theorists articulated a vision for combining personal and political goals within therapy.
- In the 1970s, emerging from the community mental health movement, Community Psychology dedicated itself to “enhancing well-being and promoting social justice for all people” .
- Liberation psychology articulates a vision of psychological healing that stems from critical consciousness related to oppression .
- Organizations like the Association of Black Psychologists (1968) explicitly articulate a mission of social change.
- World Wars I and II and the threat of nuclear war produced generations of war and peace research and spawned professional institutions, like the activist organization Psychologists for Social Responsibility (1982) and other forerunners of today’s APA Division 48, The Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence .
- Today there are ten APA divisions that include social justice in their missions (Divisions 9, 17, 27, 35, 43, 44, 48, 39, 51).
The Fifth Wave: Social Justice Counseling & The Advocacy Competencies
Social justice is being described as the fifth wave within psychology. The adoption of the APA Multicultural Guidelines (2003) suggests that psychologists will increasingly be trained to embrace a multicultural worldview that acknowledges intersectional complexity and context. But, as seminal multicultural psychologist Allen Ivey points out: “Guidelines for practice remain guidelines. They are meaningless without implementation. The social justice orientation now becomes central—are we going to ‘walk the talk?’” . Ideally, as clinicians develop multicultural competence , they begin to see and understand how systems of oppression contribute to clinical problems and practice in ways that ameliorate these systematic oppressions.
In 2003, the American Counseling Association (ACA) adopted the Advocacy Competencies. Advocacy includes interventions at the micro, meso, and macro level, and can include working with a client directly, such as role playing self-advocacy skills to address oppression.
It can also include providing resources and referrals to empowerment-oriented activities designed to liberate the client from the oppressive forces (e.g., microcredit lending seminars for a client in poverty).
Advocacy work can also include collaborations between psychologists and community organizations, such as community-based social action research.
Finally, advocacy can include work on behalf of clients, such as writing to lawmakers to oppose anti-LGBT legislation, or participating in community rallies against police racial profiling, for example.
Two Portraits: Psychologists For Social Justice
In the Wake of Ferguson
In the fall of 2014, America watched as the small town of Ferguson, Missouri erupted into grief and protest against police brutality in the African American community. ABPsi psychologists were ready.
Prior to these events, ABPsi psychologists had been working together with a non-profit organization, Community Healing Network. Together, they created a self-help, community-based group intervention called Emotional Emancipation Circles, designed for and led by members of the African American and African diaspora community.
The goal of the EE Circles is to “address the root cause of racial injustice—the lie of Black inferiority [and] its psychological impact on people within and outside of the Black community” . EE Circles and trainings have been offered in many cities both domestically and internationally, and they were immediately mobilized to serve the traumatized community in Ferguson.
Advocacy for Sex Trafficking Victims
Eighteen years ago, Romanian psychologist Iana Matei was contacted by the local police department, requesting clothes for several “prostitutes” who had been recently arrested. When Dr. Matei got to the station, she was horrified to find that the “prostitutes” were young girls, abused, and sex trafficked. She was further enraged to hear child protection workers remark that the girls could not be placed into foster care, lest they set a “poor example” to the other children.
That very week, Dr. Matei founded Reaching Out Romania, that country’s first sex trafficking shelter, providing psychological, medical, legal, vocational, and educational assistance to the survivors. Since then the organization has rescued over 450 young girls from global sex trafficking .
Before most graduate students were born, Dworkin and Dworkin wrote, “counselors can sit on the sidelines and hope that everything turns out all right, or they can become actively involved and try to have an impact on the direction of the change process” .
Whether you are a front-line service provider or a research-oriented academic, social justice can and should be integrated into your professional identity as a psychologist.
As Thomas Parham impassioned wrote, “our clients are hurting, institutions are still oppressive, organizations are still discriminatory, and we must seek to change this condition” . Let’s not sit on the sidelines.
Resources for Learning
Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918–1938
A historical text on the social-action origins of psychoanalysis, especially related to economic injustice.
Decolonizing “Multicultural” Counseling through Social Justice
Offers a transformative perspective on clinical practice through analysis of structures of power and dominance within all aspects of psychological practice.
Handbook of Critical Psychology
A comprehensive and thorough multidisciplinary text providing a history of and future directions for critical psychology. Chapters address psychology sub-specialties, diverse intersectionalities, indigenous and critical emancipatory psychology, and international perspectives.
Counseling for Multiculturalism and Social Justice: Integration, Theory, and Application
This text articulates a paradigm for practice, the Counselor-Advocate-Scholar model.
Concepts of Social Justice in Community Psychology: Toward a Social Ecological Epistemology
This article contextualizes social justice within specific frameworks of community psychology.
**The views and opinions expressed in this article are purely the article author’s, and not necessarily the views and opinions of Time2Track LLC.**
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 “About Reaching Out Romania,” retrieved from http://www.reachingout.ro.
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