In Memoriam

Feb 7, 2017

Dr. Paul B. Pedersen

Paul B. Pedersen: Counseling’s multicultural pioneer
In Memoriam written by Allen E. Ivey

“All interviewing and counseling is multicultural. Each client comes to the session embodying multiple voices from the past.” — Paul B. Pedersen


A great loss has occurred. Paul B. Pedersen passed away in Minneapolis on Jan. 11, 2017, surrounded by his wife, Doris Hsio Feng Chang, and his loving family. The loss for us in the counseling field is also personal because Paul was first of all a kind and loving person, a friend to all. His openness and sharing of his expertise is a model for us to emulate.

Professionally, the loss of Paul is equal to the personal. No one in our field, nor in allied fields, has made as substantial a contribution to counseling and therapy practice. PaulPaulPedersen was not known as a theorist, but his ideas and influence are present in all of the counseling and therapy theories that we teach and practice. No one can be an effective professional without his influence, even though they may not be aware of it. In short, in my mind (and in the minds of many others), he ranks with Beck, Ellis, Rogers and others who are seen as the basis and leaders for our field.

As we explore the wide path that brought Paul to counseling, his life story is almost magical, helping us to expand our awareness of the world and the practical importance of individual and multicultural difference. Paul was born on a farm in Iowa on May 19, 1936. His Danish background of awareness and caring for others formed a foundation for the future. In his 20s, he hitchhiked through Europe, was hit by a train, survived and wrote his first book, Hitchhiking for Small Change. This was the first of more than 50 books, 100 articles, 32 chapters and 22 monographs to come, translated into multiple languages.

Paul was interviewed by the publication Church and Life and described “three lifetimes.” 

After graduation from Grand View College, he earned his master’s from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and became a missionary in 1962 in North Sumatra, Indonesia. He and his family found themselves in the midst of a revolutionary change — events familiar to many because of the book and film versions of The Year of Living Dangerously. Paul’s stay paralleled that of Barack Obama, who lived in Jakarta with his mother. Hundreds of thousands were killed during this time, influencing Paul on his journey to peace and international understanding.

Returning to the U.S., Paul earned a master’s in counseling and student personnel psychology at the University of Minnesota and then his doctorate in Asian studies with special reference to counseling at Claremont Graduate School. He then returned to Taiwan and Malaysia, where he taught at the University of Malay and continued youth work for the Lutheran Church.

His second lifetime was as an academic at the University of Minnesota and the University of Hawaii, where he translated his wide international experience to teaching awareness of cultural multiplicity and the need for understanding of both individual experience and cultural background. Paul pointed out that we are all multicultural in our nature, coming from highly diverse experiences through our ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability/disability and the many factors that define diversity.

A government grant enabled Anthony Marsella and Paul to conduct research that led to an academic foundation for the multicultural movement. Of particular importance was a 1979 conference that brought together 15 scholars in Honolulu to discuss and then write about foundations of multiculturalism for the first time. In 1981, Marsella and Paul published the influential book Cross-Cultural Counseling and Psychotherapy.

Tony Marsella has this to say about Paul: “Paul and I maintained our friendship via daily telephone calls. We would talk about professional and personal topics, sharing the intimacies of our lives as affirmations of our opinions. Paul’s mind was still alert even as his body yielded to the punishing ravages of Parkinson’s disease.

“Paul was eager to talk about the concept of ‘incarnation’ (embodying the Spirit in one’s life and actions). He had maintained this interest since his early training in theology as a Lutheran minister and missionary. I came to understand the powerful role of conscience and critical consciousness in his life. He was compelled to speak against the abuses of racial and cultural biases in counseling, therapy and psychology. Paul Pedersen was, and will always be, an iconic figure for his pioneering efforts in advocating the critical and essential role of cultural influences and determinants in the counseling and therapy process.”

Paul fell in love with the beauty of Hawaii and with Anne Bennett, who became his wife and his partner in presentations and culturally oriented writing.

In 1981, Paul and I filmed the first multicultural counseling training video developed for Microtraining Associates. Not even a single copy was sold during the first two years, indicative of where multicultural awareness was at that time. However, the video later went on to become an influential part of counselor education and student development. In addition to his books, Paul was active in a number of video productions and, of course, many national and international presentations.

Anne and Paul then moved to Syracuse University, where he became chair of the Department of Counselor Education. An interesting and important interlude came when Anne and Paul were professors with the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea. To their surprise, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa had a cabin next to them. This provided another spiritual and cultural growth experience as ideas were shared, further expanding Paul’s humanistic, but also spiritual, orientation. To Paul, helping was a life mission. In addition, Paul and Anne taught at Harvard University during summer sessions. Anne had developed a brain tumor at the University of Hawaii but remained active for 10 years until she passed away.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham marked the beginning of Paul’s third life. At all of these institutions, his writings and influence expanded. He was a nonstop producer, a mentor to many and a generous co-author with many well-known scholars. At this time, he met and married Doris Hsio Feng Chang. Shortly thereafter, the couple returned to Hawaii, where he and Doris continued working and writing, while Doris also taught in Taiwan. Together they made a real difference.

Paul received many awards during his career. Key among these was the 2010 Distinguished Contributions to the International Advancement of Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association. His international teaching and consulting are legendary, including receiving a Senior Fulbright award at National Taiwan University.

Paul’s personal and professional influence in the profession is represented by comments from the following leading scholars.

Patricia Arredondo, a past president of the American Counseling Association: “‘Multiculturalism as the fourth force in counseling’ represents Paul’s vision for the profession. These prophetic words in 1991 now are present in every aspect of multicultural theory, research and practice and are one of his many legacies to ACA. He was key in the development of the centrality of multiculturalism and intersectionality in contemporary Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (2015). His triad [training] model disrupted the dyadic model, bringing varying cultural perspectives into the counseling space.

“I always looked to Paul as a wise mentor, someone committed to words and actions. He reached out to me as a junior professor at Boston University, and I will always remember how he encouraged me to keep on going with our shared fervor for multiculturalism in counseling. He was one of a kind.”

Fred Bemak, a past president of Counselors for Social Justice:

“Paul was always way ahead of his time. He was exploring the application of culturally responsive cross-cultural psychological practices in the international world long before these ideas became of interest in the fields of counseling and psychology. His journeys to faraway places and the rich lessons he brought back paved the way for so many of us to wander afar with our multicultural skills and apply them throughout the globe. Paul was not only a national treasure, but an international treasure as well.”

Derald Wing Sue, a past president of the Society of Counseling Psychology: “I am so blessed to have called Paul Pedersen my friend and colleague. He was not only a giant in the field, but a creative and courageous pioneer of multiculturalism, long before it became fashionable. Early in his career, he was one of the few voices that challenged the Eurocentric theories of counseling and psychotherapy, indicated how they were culture-bound, chided mental health professionals for not understanding the sociopolitical nature of their practices and warned that traditional counseling and therapy may become forms of cultural oppression. His contributions and outside-the-box thinking were not only creative but revolutionary.

“Paul helped counselors expand the therapeutic repertoire of their helping skills to include behaviors and roles that reached outside the traditional office setting. He believed strongly that problems for marginalized groups were often the result of systemic injustices. In his later years, he became a staunch advocate of social justice counseling. Paul was also one of the pioneers of cultural competence, developed a model for the intersection of multiple identities and devised innovative training techniques which always highlighted the influence of culture.”

The following words from Derald Wing Sue are a good way for all of us to remember Paul Pedersen, the person and professional:

“I will miss Paul dearly but am heartened that, although he has departed this world, his contributions live on in the ‘multicultural lifeblood’ of our profession.”




Allen E. Ivey is an ACA fellow, a diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology and distinguished university professor (retired), University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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