Since its inception, the counseling profession has positioned itself on the front-lines of social change and the amelioration of social disparities. For example, from Frank Parsons’ brave Boston Vocational Bureau movement to Carl Rogers’ groundbreaking peace and reconciliation work in apartheid era South Africa, counselors have demonstrated the grit, skill, and determination necessary to bring unification, valuing of differences, and resolution of conflict at micro, meso, and macro societal levels. Our profession’s core values of care, compassion, and empathy have and continue to serve society well during difficult times.
The end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 hurtled our world into a New Year hopeful but weary of the violence and division that characterized many recent events. Personally, I could not forget the image of a young school girl dragged from her chair in a South Carolina classroom. A Facebook group of school counseling colleagues and I asked the same questions, “How could this happen?” “How can school counselors reframe and balance educational discourse on student discipline, wellness, and school policing?” Collectively, counseling professionals pondered the dreadful terror attacks in Mali, Beirut, Paris, and Colorado as stark reminders of the mindsets that seem to produce many of these troubling events: division, disparaging of differences, and unresolved conflict.
At its most visceral, professional soul-searching leads us to ask, “What can I do?” This question has left me sometimes feeling disempowered, especially in consideration of the size, scope, and complexities of the challenges we face, the seemingly innumerable needs caused by division between groups, and what often appears to be lack of concern for each other. Divisions can result in separation; disparaging of differences can lead to intolerance; and unresolved conflict can contribute to excessive competition for resources. I believe that we, as members of ACA, have harnessed the power of our individual hopes and individual contributions to change fundamentally mindsets associated with professional counselors and their roles in facilitating social change. Accomplishments such as the authorization of Licensed Professional Counselors’ independent practice in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act and establishment of counseling licensure in all 50 of the United States and Puerto Rico point to the collective impact the profession has made in changing public understanding about what counselors do. While there is much to do, these accomplishments have led to the creation of new initiatives that enhance and democratize access to counseling services for many people.
Yet, the question remains. “What can I do?” Growing up, I took my most difficult questions about life to my father. Although he did not have much formal schooling, the benefits of his wisdom and practicality far exceed anything I learned in the classroom. Having lived in the deep south during Jim Crow and coming of age in the 1950’s and 1960’s, my father had first-hand experience grappling with “What can I do?” in the face of crushing oppression and inequities. Still, in teaching me how to cope with disappointment and hurt about how the world is versus how it should be, he reminded me that a mindset to do well toward others is incomplete without a heart-set toward one’s fellow human beings. That is, my will to help others would only be sustained by a heart towards others. In counselor training, we called it “empathy.” The demands of being a professional counselor are many and sometimes in the quest to teach, publish, counsel, and work, demonstrating the care, compassion, and presence necessary to be empathetic takes great effort. So, as we move into 2016, we will undoubtedly celebrate wonderful things that come to fruition and strive to find solutions for challenges that persist. I am persuaded that the simplest and most courageous thing that I can do is to have a heart-set that demonstrates care for others from the briefest of personal and professional interactions to establishing policies and practices that can affect my students, their career trajectories, and those of successive generations.
Dr. Rhonda M. Bryant is a student affairs administrator and a counselor educator In these roles, she provides advocacy and counseling services in K-12, college/university, and community settings.