In Memoriam: Remembering Clemmont Vontress, the father of cross-cultural counseling
By Lindsey Phillips
On April 10, 2021, Clemmont Vontress, a pioneer in cross-cultural counseling, died just 12 days before his 92nd birthday. His career was devoted to expanding the counseling profession’s understanding of culture, existentialism and humanity.
Vontress “had such an insight into humanity and what it meant to be human. … That was his gift,” recalls Andre Marseille, a licensed professional counselor and owner of SafePaces Counseling, Coaching and Consulting Services in Washington,
A native of Kentucky, Vontress received a bachelor’s degree in French and English from Kentucky State University in 1952. He obtained both a master’s (1956) and doctoral degree (1965) in counseling from Indiana University. After earning his
doctorate, Vontress joined the counseling faculty at Howard University, and in 1969, he became a counseling professor at George Washington University.
He was an American Counseling Association member for more than 60 years, and in 2010, he was recognized with two of ACA’s highest awards: the Presidential Award and the ACA Fellows Award.
Impact on the counseling profession
Vontress’ fundamental concern was the question of culture. He deepened the profession by highlighting the importance of understanding clients in terms of their culture and the role of counseling in perpetuating the marginalization of minorities.
He made a case for the cross-cultural encounter to be a separate counseling discipline, one worthy of serious study.
“Vontress was a major intellectual force in the counseling profession for more than 50 years,” says Courtland Lee, a professor in the counselor education program at the Washington, D.C., campus of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
“His early thoughts and writings about human diversity helped to shape the development of multicultural counseling as a major discipline. His work continues to play a significant role in advancing the important issues of race and culture in
mental health intervention.”
Before Vontress’ research, “the counseling field had a very topical understanding of culture,” notes Marseille, a full-time lecturer of psychology and counseling at Chicago State University who studied under Vontress. “His work
helped people understand that culture [is] something that you have … to understand in a sensitive way when you’re doing counseling.”
Vontress’ work, says Marseille, defined what culture is: It’s what shapes us as a person. It’s who we are, what we do and how we see the world. And as Marseille points out, Vontress’ writing on culture endures because of
his existential premise — our humanity unites us no matter the culture we come from.
“Through my work with Vontress, I came to understand existentialism as a way of being, of living one’s life, and that foundation influences how I view the world and interact with others,” says Lynn Linde, ACA’s chief knowledge
and learning officer. “It also helps me realize what is truly important in life and what is not.”
Linde, a past president of ACA, also developed a better understanding of the importance of multiculturalism and the role of culture in counseling through Vontress' teachings. When the counselor views the client within their cultural context, they both
begin a journey of growth. “The core mutual respect transcends the differences between the two, and they are able to move forward in a positive manner,” Linde explains. “Since both are on the journey together, the issues of competence
and differences are not barriers, as the counselor and client learn from each other.”
In his later work, Vontress contributed significantly to the literature on traditional healing, especially as practiced in West Africa. He first wrote about this topic in the 1991 article "Traditional Healing in Africa: Implications for Cross-Cultural
Counseling," published in the Journal of Counseling and Development.
“He was also a powerful voice of cultural consciousness and reason within ACA and its divisions,” says Lee, a past president of both ACA and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development.
In fact, the concepts that Vontress wrote about during his career are fully evident in the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, Linde says. As she notes, the ethics code makes it “clear that the practice of counseling is about the client, not the counselor,
and that the counselor is expected to do whatever is necessary to understand the client, the intersectionality of social factors the client brings to counseling, and to provide competent and ethical assistance.”
Impact as a mentor and friend
Beyond being a scholar, Vontress was a mentor and confidant to many counseling professors and practitioners. There are few multicultural counseling scholars, either in the United States or abroad, who have not been influenced by his scholarly work.
People often knew Vontress’ reputation as a scholar, but not as many knew “how kind and generous and humorous he really was,” Linde says. She fondly recalls two meetings she had with him when he was her doctoral adviser at George Washington
University: “Twice when I went in to meet with him, I had to bring one of [my children] with me. And he just would clear a corner of his office that was next to a blackboard … and he would give … [my] child … some chalk.
[My child] would sit there and play quite happily, and we’d meet about my dissertation.”
Marseille also benefited from Vontress’ mentorship and friendship throughout his professional career. He first met Vontress when he took a multicultural course from him at Howard University. “From all the schools I’ve been through, all
the great teachers I’ve had, he was different because he really was into developing people, mentoring them,” Marseille says. “I’ve never run into … a professor who was so interested in not only teaching students when
they’re in the classroom but [also] helping them become something more. I’ve never seen someone so hands-on and so thoughtful and so ready to help and assist.”
Marseille says Vontress pushed and encouraged him from the moment they met. When he discovered that Marseille had never presented at a conference, he helped Marseille put together a proposal, which was accepted, and Marseille had the pleasure of presenting
alongside Vontress at the ACA Conference that year.
Their professional relationship continued even after Marseille graduated. In presenting and writing more scholarly works together over the years, their relationship also evolved into a friendship. For the past 15 years, Marseille and Vontress had gotten
together for lunch every Sunday.
Vontress’ intellectual legacy continues through his numerous scholarly works, including his well-known book Cross-Cultural Counseling: A Casebook, and the professionals he has mentored and shaped along the way, including his grandson, Bryan
Ellis, who recently co-authored with Fred Pincus the third edition of Understanding Diversity: An Introduction.
In many ways, his voice will continue to guide those he mentored. Marseille recalls several occasions when Vontress gave him advice that didn’t make sense to Marseille at the time. He would leave the conversation thinking, “What is he talking
about?” But a few months later, some event would happen, and he would suddenly understand what Vontress had meant.
“I wonder how [many] more of those statements and insights I will discover moving forward without him in my life. I wonder how many more times in the next 10 or 15 years I’m going to be like, ‘Oh, that’s what he meant,’”
Marseille says. “That is what I’m looking forward to: having a spiritual guide that will illuminate itself when I need it.”
Vontress exemplified existentialism’s concept of living one’s life in the most authentic way possible. “Having the courage to be your authentic self in all spaces is a lifelong thing to try to accomplish,” Marseille says. “And
he did that with such grace and such courage, and he found comfort in just being himself.”
ACA’s free CE of the month for July will involve a retrospective of Clemmont Vontress’ work and will feature a posthumous interview with Vontress.
Inquiries about the memorial service and condolences may be sent to Dr. Bryan R. Ellis at email@example.com.
(Left to right) Dr. Charles Topper, Dr. Carl Rogers and Dr. Clemmont E. Vontress at the AACD convention in Houston, Texas, March 1984.