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Elena Yee Jan 3, 2019

Why Cultural Competence Matters

Last month I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama with my mentor to see the Peace and Justice memorial. After reading about it last April, I knew I had to go and see it, and having my mentor, Ellen Ziskind who was a Freedom Rider, join me would make the experience even more impactful and meaningful. Yet I also knew it would be a difficult experience in walking through a place that was memorializing all who were killed by lynching in the United States. Even so, I felt it was important for me as one who was born in the United States to further understand and grasp the reality of this history of racial oppression and violence. 

Once we arrived at the memorial, we immediately were silenced and sobered by the very space, which was mostly grass until you began to move your gaze upward. We slowly walked past statues of a family in shackles and being torn apart then eventually arrived at the entrance. While looking at the thousands of steel slabs with engraved names that were known and unknown, I began to comprehend that this is not past history but a living history that is affecting individuals, families and communities to this very day.

This was made even more apparent as me and my mentor serendipitously met with locals who talked about their life experiences in and outside of Montgomery. We were able to visit Selma and heard stories and saw places for which the Civil Rights Movement was being birthed. We saw the bus station that my mentor was at when she was a young woman in her early 20s as a Freedom Rider. She told me that they had to immediately leave the bus area because there were White men coming to the station to harass and harm them.

So, what does these experiences have to do with cultural competence in counseling? In my context, I work in college counseling, and as many of us may know, the racial and ethnic diversity of students has grown dramatically and will continue to do so as the demographics of our nation changes. The memorial was a keen reminder that many of these students come from generations who experienced trauma through enslavement, family separation, genocide, or internment. For others, the trauma may be more recent such as the threat of deportation, e.g. DACA students or U.S. born students whose parents are undocumented.

As counselors, we abide by and uphold the ACA Code of Ethics, which calls upon us to consider and value the cultural differences and values of our clients, as well as incorporate a social justice and advocacy lens that is put into action into our work. However, it is disconcerting how many counselors I have met who tell me that diversity and inclusion is not relevant in their context due to living and working in a racial majority region, or when I was graduate school, the level of ignorance and stereotyping that students had about their clients. As such, I am even more adamant that it is contingent upon us to go beyond having taken the one course about diversity that we “check off” or “get it over with” to earn our degrees.

What to do next? Here are some suggestions:

I can attest that it is absolutely worth taking the time and effort to explore, appreciate and value the differences that exist among us. This includes learning to understand and coming to grips with the reality of past and present bias, prejudice, and discrimination as well as power, privilege and access to resources. So, after spending a weekend with Ellen to contemplate, to weep, and be in awe of the resilience of people who have suffered so much for generations into the present, I’m more committed than ever to what should be foundational to our work as counselors – diversity, inclusion, and social justice for our clients and in our profession.
Elena Yee is a mental health counselor in the Wellness Center at Alfred University in upstate New York. She received her MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Rhode Island College in Providence, Rhode Island. She is interested in the healing of trauma through EMDR and IFS, effectively assessing for suicidality, increasing diverse representation in college counseling centers, and advocating for the needs of those most vulnerable in our society. You can learn more about Elena at



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