Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy Diversity Column

Jeanne Steffen, Ph.D.
Jeanne Steffen, Ph.D.

Group Psychologists as Social Justice Advocates

Our society is more connected than ever. This means that we have more access to news and resources than at any other point in history. We are also being exposed to multiple perspectives now more than ever as any person with a video enabled cell phone and internet access can become a one-time or part time journalist and post, blog, or twitter their daily experiences. Perhaps this is one reason that news of attacks against marginalized, non-dominant groups in our country appears to have increased so significantly. As I write this article, the most recent example occurred June 12th: the horrific murder of at least 49 people during a Latin night celebration at Pulse, an Orlando, Florida gay nightclub. According to the New York Times, this incident was the deadliest mass shooting in national history and maybe one of the most complex, as news reported that both perpetrator and victims had aspects of their identities that were both marginalized and privileged. Despite and maybe because of the complexity of the dynamics, it is hard to ignore the call to action that this incident and those like it draw. When we don’t speak up we become part of a silent majority—those of us that support social justice in theory; however have a difficult time engaging in actively speaking up or showing up for social justice for one reason or another. As my time as chair comes to a close, I thought I would highlight an area that is particularly challenging to many, including myself: increasing social justice advocacy.

In 1992 Sue, Arredondo, and McDavis formally initiated a call for counselor multicultural competency by publishing an article organizing multicultural competency into three domains, which included: a) counselor self-awareness of cultural values and biases, b) counselor awareness of client worldview, and c) culturally appropriate intervention strategies. Under each of these domains were organized three multicultural and culture-specific developmental dimensions related to counseling interactions: attitudes and beliefs, knowledge, and skills. The dimensional sequence was arranged in this way to support the theory that internal self-awareness and knowledge is the first step to understanding the worldview of others. This understanding of the self in relation to others would then extend to gaining knowledge of group differences and the ways that culture, power, privilege, and oppression affect the counseling relationship and larger group dynamics. As the process unfolded the stage was set for collaborating with clients to choose treatment interventions that were culturally aligned and appropriate for each client operating within their unique cultural context.

In 1996, Arredondo and colleagues worked to operationalize the competencies to improve specificity. They defined the Personal Dimensions of Identity model and added explanatory statements under each dimension and domain. For example, under the domain of Culturally Appropriate Intervention Strategies, explanatory statements for the skills dimension included seven sections with specific examples, such as: “can describe concrete examples of situations in which it is appropriate and possibly necessary for a counselor to exercise institutional intervention skills on behalf of a client” (p.71) andare familiar with resources that provide services in languages appropriate to clients” (p.72). They also included strategies to achieve competencies and objectives in the appendices. Operationalizing the competencies shifted the focus on a fourth dimension, action, and some scholars indeed added this dimension to the original attitudes and beliefs, knowledge, and skills sequence (Ratts, Singh, Nassar-McMillan, Butler, & McCullough, 2016). Arredondo and colleagues also noted that, although the multicultural competency model was directed at counselors to build individual competency so they could effectively work with clients from differing racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, if the systems in which clients operated and lived did not change (e.g., institutions that influenced policy and legislation), then the the status quo of oppression would continue to exist.

In 2003, Vera and Speight echoed what multicultural scholars before them had voiced, that one-on-one counseling does not change the status quo of power structures that continue to act to marginalize non-dominant groups. In their article, they challenged psychologists to reexamine multicultural competence and expand our roles to function as change agents at the larger group level (communities, organizations, institutions). Further, they presented some models to include roles such as advocate, psychoeducator, and/or collaborator with community leaders. A bit of self-disclosure: as I was researching for this article (motivated to the topic through exposure to seemingly more and more hate crimes this year and the sociopolitical arguments of the presidential candidate debates), I was conflicted. Part of me was motivated and committed and I was thinking such things as, “I can do this” and “social justice advocacy is a group level process—most psychologists who do group work do some of this already and/or are poised for this.” The other part of me was thinking, “I was better at this when I was younger and engaged in academic systems” and “I don’t have time for this (followed by a list of everything I already do and how many hours I already work and how this work is for extroverts and I can barely be considered as such).” In short, I got all judge-y with myself, and the guilt and shame did not help my motivation and the urge to act. I share my reaction because it gives a bit of insight into the process of complacency (rationalization as a response to guilt and shame) that results in inaction. My motivation was bolstered when Janet Helms introduced “A Pragmatic View of Social Justice” (2003).

Helms, as a response to Vera and Speight, discussed some dynamics that make social justice work a challenge, such as systemic and economic issues. For example, psychology education traditionally focuses on individuals or small groups as the site of intervention with little attention to strategies to intervene at a large group or systems level. Thus, we weren’t specifically taught how to be effective social justice advocates. She suggested emphasizing strategies from consulting and organizational psychologists, who have historically worked in macro level group environments. Helms referenced Shullman’s 2002 competencies, which included a focus on (a) workgroups and intergroup problem solving, (b) identity groups and intergroup relations, and (c) alignment of groups with organizational objectives.  At the systemic level, recommendations included a focus on (a) organizational theory and design, (b) organizational assessment and diagnosis, (c) organizational change and development, and (d) consulting ethics. I appreciated the more concrete examples Helms described regarding developing group counseling skills in order to improve relational interactions between and among marginalized community groups. For instance, “facilitating negotiations among gangs or warring factions within a single community” and “building coalitions across groups to lobby politicians for common goals such as policy changes to benefit all of the marginalized communities.” She also gave the example of promoting identity groups and intergroup relations to “shift the focus of interventions from improving the status of individual members of sociodemographic groups…toward the redistribution of authority and power among identity groups within and across societal strata” (p. 309). Emphasis on these examples brings to mind some of the advocacy work group counselors already do and perhaps provides hope that adding a social justice component is doable, particularly in a group context.

Certainly, the focus on social justice advocacy in the past decade or so has called for a conscious expansion of normal group practice in psychology. However, I think there are ways group psychologists can speak up and show up for social advocacy that we don’t necessarily consider as “counting” when we are evaluating our influence in social systems. For example, showing up, speaking up, and stepping up were actually highlighted on the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students psychology blog #WeAreOrlando. These new generation of psychology leaders offered specific suggestions regarding how we can make a difference and advocate for social justice. For more information please follow the link:

As my time as chair draws to a close, I look forward to welcoming new leadership to our Division 49 Diversity Committee at the 2016 convention of the American Psychological Association—I hope you make it to Denver in August!

As always, I welcome questions, concerns and ideas for future columns. Please email me at:


American Psychological Association. (2002). Multicultural guidelines on education and training, research, practice and organizational development. Washington, DC.

Arredondo, P., Toporek, R., Brown, S. P., Jones, J., Locke, D., Sanchez, J., & Stadler, H. (1996). Operationalization of the multicultural counseling competencies. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 24, 42-78.

Helms, J.E. (2003). A pragmatic view of social justice. The Counseling Psychologist, 31, 305-313.

Ratts, M.J., Singh, A.A., Nassar-McMillan, S., Butler, S.K., & McCullough, J.R. (2016). Multicultural and social justice counseling competencies: Guidelines for the counseling profession. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 44, 28-48.

Sue, D.W., Arredondo, P., & McDavis, R.                 J. (1992). Multicultural counseling competencies and standards: A call to the profession.          Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 20, 64–88

Vera, E. M., & Speight, S. L. (2003). Multicultural competence, social justice, and counseling psychology: Expanding our roles. The Counseling Psychologist, 31, 253-272.