A Case Study Exploring Supervisee Experiences in Social Justice Supervision

Clare Merlin-Knoblich, Jenna L. Taylor, Benjamin Newman


Social justice is a paramount concept in counseling and supervision, yet limited research exists examining this idea in practice. To fill this research gap, we conducted a qualitative case study exploring supervisee experiences in social justice supervision and identified three themes from the participants’ experiences: intersection of supervision experiences and external factors, feelings about social justice, and personal and professional growth. Two subthemes were also identified: increased understanding of privilege and increased understanding of clients. Given these findings, we present practical applications for supervisors to incorporate social justice into supervision.

Keywords: social justice, supervision, case study, personal growth, practical applications


Social justice is fundamental to the counseling profession, and, as such, scholars have called for an increase in social justice supervision (Ceballos et al., 2012; Chang et al., 2009; Collins et al., 2015; Dollarhide et al., 2018, 2021; Fickling et al., 2019; Glosoff & Durham, 2010). Although researchers have studied multicultural supervision in the counseling profession, to date, minimal research has been conducted on implementing social justice supervision in practice (Dollarhide et al., 2021; Fickling et al., 2019; Gentile et al., 2009; Glosoff & Durham, 2010). In this study, we sought to address this research gap with an exploration of master’s students’ experiences with social justice supervision.

Social Justice in Counseling
     Counseling leaders have developed standards that reflect the profession’s commitment to social justice principles (Chang et al., 2009; Dollarhide et al., 2021; Fickling et al., 2019; Glosoff & Durham, 2010). For instance, the American Counseling Association’s ACA Code of Ethics (2014) highlights the need for multicultural and diversity competence in six of its nine sections, including Section F, Supervision, Training, and Teaching. Additionally, in 2015, the ACA Governing Council endorsed the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC), which provide a framework for counselors to use to implement multicultural and social justice competencies in practice (Fickling et al., 2019; Ratts et al., 2015). All of these standards reflect the importance of social justice in the counseling profession (Greene & Flasch, 2019).

Social Justice Supervision
     Although much of the counseling profession’s focus on social justice emphasizes counseling practice, social justice principles benefit supervisors, counselors, and clients when they are also incorporated into clinical supervision. In social justice supervision, supervisors address levels of change that can occur through one’s community using organized interventions, modeling social justice in action, and employing community collaboration (Chang et al., 2009; Dollarhide et al., 2021; Fickling et al., 2019). These strategies introduce an exploration of culture, power, and privilege to challenge oppressive and dehumanizing political, economic, and social systems (Dollarhide et al., 2021; Fickling et al., 2019; Garcia et al., 2009; Glosoff & Durham, 2010; Pester et al., 2020). Moreover, participating in social justice supervision can assist counselors in developing empathy for clients and conceptualizing them from a systemic perspective (Ceballos et al., 2012; Fickling et al., 2019; Kiselica & Robinson, 2001). When a supervisory alliance addresses cultural issues, oppression, and privilege, supervisees are better able to do the same with clients (Chang et al., 2009; Dollarhide et al., 2021; Fickling et al., 2019; Glosoff & Durham, 2010). Thus, counselors become advocates for clients and the profession (Chang et al., 2009; Dollarhide et al., 2021; Gentile et al., 2009; Glosoff & Durham, 2010).

Chang and colleagues (2009) defined social justice counseling as considering “the impact of oppression, privilege, and discrimination on the mental health of the individual with the goal of establishing equitable distribution of power and resources” (p. 22). In this way, social justice supervision considers the impact of oppression, privilege, and discrimination on the supervisee and supervisor. Dollarhide and colleagues (2021) further simplified the definition of social justice supervision, stating that it is “supervision in which social justice is practiced, modeled, coached, and used as a metric throughout supervision” (p. 104). Supervision that incorporates a focus on intersectionality can further support supervisees’ growth in developing social justice competencies (Greene & Flasch, 2019).

Literature about social justice supervision often includes an emphasis on two concepts: structural change and individual care (Gentile et al., 2009; Lewis et al., 2003; Toporek & Daniels, 2018). Structural change is the process of examining, understanding, and addressing systemic factors in clients’ and counselors’ lives, such as identity markers and systems within family, community, school, work, and elsewhere. Individual care acknowledges each person within the counseling setting independent of their environment (Gentile et al., 2009; Roffman, 2002). Scholars advise incorporating both concepts to address power, privilege, and systemic factors through social justice supervision (Chang et al., 2009; Gentile et al., 2009; Glosoff & Durham, 2010; Greene & Flasch, 2019; Pester et al., 2020).

It is necessary to distinguish social justice supervision from previous literature on multicultural supervision. Although similar, these concepts are different in that multicultural supervision emphasizes cultural awareness and competence, whereas social justice supervision brings attention to sociocultural and systemic factors and advocacy (Dollarhide et al., 2021; Fickling et al., 2019; E. Lee & Kealy, 2018; Peters, 2017; Ratts et al., 2015). For instance, a supervisor practicing multicultural supervision would be aware of a supervisee’s identity markers, such as race, ethnicity, and culture, and address those components throughout the supervisory experience, whereas a supervisor practicing social justice supervision would also consider systemic factors that impact a supervisee, in addition to being culturally competent. The supervisor would use that knowledge in the supervisory alliance and act as a change agent at individual and community levels (Chang et al., 2009; Dollarhide et al., 2021; Fickling et al., 2019; Gentile et al., 2009; Glosoff & Durham, 2010; E. Lee & Kealy, 2018; Lewis et al., 2003; Peters, 2017; Ratts et al., 2015; Toporek & Daniels, 2018).

Researchers have found that multicultural supervision contributes to more positive outcomes than supervision without consideration for multicultural factors (Chopra, 2013; Inman, 2006; Ladany et al., 2005). For example, supervisees who participated in multicultural supervision reported that supervisors were more likely to engage in multicultural dialogue, show genuine disclosure of personal culture, and demonstrate knowledge of multiculturalism than supervisors who did not consider multicultural concepts in supervision (Ancis & Ladany, 2001; Ancis & Marshall, 2010; Chopra, 2013). Supervisees also reported that multicultural considerations led them to feel more comfortable, increased their self-awareness, and spurred them on to discuss multiculturalism with clients (Ancis & Ladany, 2001; Ancis & Marshall, 2010). Although parallel research on social justice supervision is lacking, findings on multicultural supervision are a promising indicator of the potential of social justice supervision.

     In recent years, scholars have called for social justice supervision models to integrate social justice into supervision (Baggerly, 2006; Ceballos et al., 2012; Chang et al., 2009; Collins et al., 2015; Glosoff & Durham, 2010; O’Connor, 2005). However, to date, only three formal models of social justice supervision have been published. Most recently, Dollarhide and colleagues (2021) recommended a social justice supervision model that can be used with any supervisory theory, developmental model, and process model. In this model, the MSJCC are integrated using four components. First, the intersectionality of identity constructs (i.e., gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, abilities, etc.) is identified as integral in the supervisory triad between supervisor, counselor, and client. Second, systemic perspectives of oppression and agency for each person in the supervisory triad are at the forefront. Third, supervision is transformed to facilitate the supervisee’s culturally informed counseling practices. Lastly, the supervisee and client experience validation and empowerment through the mutuality of influence and growth (Dollarhide et al., 2021).

Prior to Dollarhide and colleagues’ (2021) model for social justice supervision, Gentile and colleagues (2009) proposed a feminist ecological framework for social justice supervision. This model encouraged the understanding of a person at the individual level through interactions within the ecological system (Ballou et al., 2002; Gentile et al., 2009). The supervisor’s role is to model socially just thinking and behavior, create a climate of equality, and implement critical thinking about social justice (Gentile et al., 2009; Roffman, 2002).

Lastly, Chang and colleagues (2009) suggested a social constructivist framework to incorporate social justice issues in supervision via three delineated tiers (Chang et al., 2009; Lewis et al., 2003; Toporek & Daniels, 2018). In the first tier, self-awareness, supervisors assist supervisees to recognize privileges, understand oppression, and gain commitment to social justice action (Chang et al., 2009; C. C. Lee, 2007). In the second tier, client services, the supervisor understands the clients’ worldviews and recognizes the role of sociopolitical factors that can impact the developmental, emotional, and cognitive meaning-making system of the client (Chang et al., 2009). In the third tier, community collaboration, the supervisor guides the supervisee to advocate for changes on the group, organizational, and institutional levels. Supervisors can facilitate and model community collaboration interventions, such as providing clients easier access to resources, participating in lobbying efforts, and developing programs in communities (Chang et al., 2009; Dinsmore et al., 2002; Kiselica & Robinson, 2001).

Each of these supervision models serves as a relevant, accessible tool for counseling supervisors to use to incorporate social justice into supervision (Chang et al., 2009, Dollarhide et al., 2021; Gentile et al., 2009). However, researchers lack an empirical examination of any of the models. To address this research gap and begin understanding social justice supervision in practice, the present qualitative case study exploring master’s students’ experiences with social justice supervision was undertaken.

We selected Chang and colleagues’ (2009) three-tier social constructivist framework in supervision for several reasons. First, the social constructivist framework incorporates a tiered approach similar to the MSJCC (Ratts et al., 2015) and reflects social justice goals in the profession of counseling (Ceballos et al., 2012; Chang et al., 2009; Collins et al., 2015; Glosoff & Durham, 2010). Second, the model is comprehensive. In using three tiers to address social justice (self, client, and community), the model captures multiple layers of social justice influence for counselors. Finally, the model is simple and meets the developmental needs of novice counselors. By identifying three tiers of social justice work, Chang and colleagues (2009) crafted an accessible tool to help new and practicing school counselors infuse social justice into their practice. This high level of structure matches the initial developmental levels of new counselors, who typically benefit from high amounts of structure and low amounts of challenge in supervision (Foster & McAdams, 1998).


The research question guiding this study was: What are the experiences of master’s counseling students in individual social justice supervision? We used a social constructivist theoretical framework and presumed that knowledge would be gained about the participants’ experiences based on their social constructs (Hays & Singh, 2012). The ontological perspective reflected realism, or the belief that constructs exist in the world even if they cannot be fully measured (Yin, 2017).

We selected a qualitative case study methodology because it was the most appropriate approach to explore the experiences of a single group of supervisees supervised by the same supervisor in the same semester. In this approach, researchers examine one identified unit bounded by space, time, and persons (Hancock et al., 2021; Hays & Singh, 2012; Yin, 2017). Qualitative case study research allows researchers to deeply explore a single case, such as a group, person, or experience, and gain an in-depth understanding of that identified situation, as well as meaning for the people involved in it (Hancock et al., 2021; Prosek & Gibson, 2021).

In this study, we selected a case study methodology because the study’s participants engaged in the same supervisory experience at the same counseling program in the same semester, thus forming a case to be studied (Hancock et al., 2021). Given the research question, we specifically used a descriptive case study design, which reflected the study goals to describe participants’ experiences in a specific social justice supervision experience. Case study scholars (Hancock et al., 2021; Yin, 2017) have noted that identifying the boundaries of a case is an essential step in the study process. Thus, the boundaries for this study were: master’s-level school counseling students receiving social justice supervision from the same supervisor (persons) at a medium-sized public university on the East Coast (place) over the course of a 14-week semester (time).

Research Team
     Our research team for this study consisted of our first and third authors, Clare Merlin-Knoblich and Benjamin Newman, both of whom received training and had experience in qualitative research. Merlin-Knoblich and Newman both identify as White, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, and trained counselor educators/supervisors. Merlin-Knoblich is a woman (pronouns: she/her/hers) and former school counselor, who completed master’s and doctoral coursework on social justice counseling and studied social justice supervision in a doctoral program. Newman is a man (pronouns: he/him/his) and clinical mental health/addictions counselor, who completed social justice counseling coursework in a master’s counseling program before completing a doctorate in counselor education and supervision. Our second author, Jenna L. Taylor, was not a part of the research team, but rather was a counseling student unaffiliated with the research participants who assisted in the preparation of the manuscript. Taylor identifies as a White, heterosexual, cisgender, and middle-class woman (pronouns: she/her/hers) with prior experience in research courses and on qualitative research teams. Merlin-Knoblich was familiar with all three participants given her role as the practicum supervisor. Taylor and Newman did not know the study participants beyond Newman’s interactions while recruiting and interviewing them for this study.

Participants and Context
     Although some scholars of some qualitative research methodologies call for requisite minimum numbers of participants, in case study research, there is no minimum number of participants sufficient to study (Hays & Singh, 2012). Rather, in case study research, researchers are expected to study the number of participants needed to reflect the phenomenon being studied (Hancock et al., 2021). There were three participants in this study because the supervisory experience that comprised the case studied included three supervisees. Adding additional participants outside of the case would have conflicted with the boundaries of the case and potentially interfered with an understanding of the single, designated case in this study.

All study participants identified as White, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class, and English-speaking women (pronouns: she/her/hers). Participants were 23, 24, and 26 years old. All the participants were students in the same CACREP-accredited school counseling program at a public liberal arts university on the East Coast of the United States. Prior to the study, the participants completed courses in techniques, group counseling, school counseling, ethics, and theories. While being supervised, participants also completed a practicum experience and coursework in multicultural counseling and career development.

All participants completed practicum at high schools near their university. One high school was urban, one was suburban, and one was rural. During the practicum experience, participants met with Merlin-Knoblich, their supervisor, for face-to-face individual supervision for 1 hour each week. They also submitted weekly journals to Merlin-Knoblich, written either freely or in response to a prompt, depending on their preference. Merlin-Knoblich then provided weekly written feedback to each participant’s journal entry, and, if relevant, the journal content was discussed during face-to-face supervision. Simultaneously, a university faculty member provided weekly face-to-face supervision-of-supervision to Merlin-Knoblich to monitor supervision skills and ensure adherence to the identified supervision model. The faculty member possessed more than 15 years of experience in supervision and was familiar with social justice supervision models.

Merlin-Knoblich applied Chang and colleagues’ (2009) social constructivist social justice supervision model in deliberate ways throughout the supervisees’ 14-week practicum experience. For example, in the initial supervision sessions, Merlin-Knoblich introduced the supervision model and explained how they would collaboratively explore ideas of social justice in counseling related to their practicum experiences. This included defining social justice, discussing supervisees’ previous background knowledge, and exploring their openness to the idea.

Throughout the first 5 weeks of supervision, Merlin-Knoblich used exploratory questions to build participants’ self-awareness (the first tier), particularly around their experiences with privilege and oppression. During the next 5 weeks of supervision, Merlin-Knoblich focused on the second tier, understanding clients’ worldviews. They discussed sociopolitical factors and examined how a client’s worldview impacts their experiences. For example, Merlin-Knoblich discussed how a client’s age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, family structure, language, immigrant status, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other factors can influence their experiences. Lastly, in the final 4 weeks of supervision, Merlin-Knoblich focused on the third tier of social justice implications at the institutional level. For instance, Merlin-Knoblich initiated discussions about policies at participants’ practicum sites that hindered equity. Merlin-Knoblich also explored the role that participants could take in making resources available to clients, advocating in the community, and using leadership to support social justice. Table 1 summarizes how Merlin-Knoblich implemented Chang and colleagues’ (2009) social justice model.


Table 1

Social Justice Supervision in Practice


Merlin-Knoblich addressed fidelity to the supervision model in two ways. First, in weekly supervision-of-supervision meetings with the faculty advisor, they discussed the supervision model and its use in sessions with participants. The faculty advisor regularly asked about the supervision model and how it manifested in sessions in an attempt to ensure that the model was being implemented recurrently. Secondly, engagement with Newman occurred in regular peer debriefing discussions about the use of the supervision model. Through these discussions, Newman monitored Merlin-Knoblich’s use of the social justice model throughout the 14-week supervisory experience.

Data Collection
     We obtained IRB approval prior to initiating data collection. One month after the end of the semester and practicum supervision, Newman approached Merlin-Knoblich’s three supervisees about participation in the study. He explained that participation was an exploration of the supervisees’ experiences in supervision and not an evaluation of the supervisees or the supervisor. Newman also emphasized that participation in the study was confidential, entirely voluntary, and  would not affect participants’ evaluations or grades in the practicum course, which ended before the study took place. All supervisees agreed to participate.

Case study research is “grounded in deep and varied sources of information” (Hancock et al., 2021) and thus often incorporates multiple data sources (Prosek & Gibson, 2021). In the present study, we identified two data sources to reflect the need for varied information sources (Hancock et al., 2021). The first data source came from semistructured interviews with participants, a frequent data collection tool in case study research (Hancock et al., 2021). One month after the participants’ practicum experiences ended, Newman conducted and audio-recorded 45-minute individual in-person interviews with each participant using a prescribed interview protocol that explored participants’ experiences in social justice supervision. Newman exercised flexibility and asked follow-up questions as needed (Merriam, 1998).

The interview protocol contained 12 questions identified to gain insights into the case being studied (Hancock et al., 2021). Merlin-Knoblich and Newman designed the interview protocol by drafting questions and reflecting on three influences: (a) the overall research question guiding the study, (b) the social constructivist framework of the study, and (c) Chang and colleagues’ (2009) three-tier supervision model. Questions included “In what ways, if any, has the social justice emphasis in your supervision last semester influenced you as a counselor?” Questions also addressed whether or not the emphasis on social justice at each tier (i.e., self, client, institution) affected participants. Appendix A contains a list of all interview questions.

The second data source was participants’ practicum journals. In addition to interviewing the participants about experiences in supervision, we also asked participants if their practicum journals could be used for the study’s data analysis. The journals served as a valuable form of data to answer the research question, given their informative and non-prescriptive nature. That is to say, although participants knew during the study interviews that the interview data would be used for analysis for the present study, they wrote and submitted their journals before the study was conceptualized. Thus, the journals reflected in-the-moment ideas about participants’ practicum and social justice supervision. Furthermore, this emphasis on participant experiences during the supervisory experience aligned with the methodological emphasis on studying a case in its natural context (Hancock et al., 2021). All participants consented for their 14 practicum journal entries (each 1–2 pages in length) to be analyzed in the study, and they were added to the interview data to be analyzed together. Such convergent analysis of data is typical in case study research (Prosek & Gibson, 2021).

Data Analysis
     We followed Yin’s (2017) case study research guidelines throughout the data analysis process. We transcribed all interviews, replaced participants’ names with pseudonyms, and sent participants the transcripts for member checking. Two participants approved their interview transcripts without objection. One participant approved the transcript but chose to share additional ideas about the supervisory experience via a brief email. This email was added to the data. The case study database was then formed with the compiled participants’ journal entries, the additional email, and the interview data (Yin, 2017).

Next, we read each interview transcript and journal entry twice in an attempt to become immersed in the data (Yin, 2017). We then independently open coded transcripts by identifying common words and phrases while maintaining a strong focus on the research question and codes that answered the question (Hancock et al., 2021). We compared initial codes and then collaboratively narrowed codes into cohesive categories representing participants’ experiences. This process generated a list of tentative categories across data sources (Yin, 2017). Throughout these initial processes, we attended to two of Yin’s (2017) four principles of high-quality data analysis: attend to all data and focus on the most significant elements of the case.

We then independently contrasted the tentative categories with the data to verify that they aligned accurately. We discussed the verifications until consensus was met on all categories. Lastly, we classified the categories into three themes and two subthemes found across all participants (Stake, 2005). During these later processes, we were mindful of Yin’s (2017) remaining two principles of high-quality data analysis: consider rival interpretations of data and use previous expertise when interpreting the case. Accordingly, we reflected on possible contrary explanations of the themes and considered the findings in light of previous literature on the topic.

     We addressed trustworthiness in three ways in this study. First, before data collection, we engaged in reflexivity through acknowledging personal biases and assumptions with one another (Hays & Singh, 2012; Yin, 2017). For example, Merlin-Knoblich acknowledged that her lived experience supervising the participants might impact the interpretation of data during analysis and noted that these perceptions could potentially serve as biases during the study. Merlin-Knoblich perceived that the supervisees grew in their understanding of social justice, but also acknowledged doubt over whether the social justice supervision model impacted participants’ advocacy skills. She also noted her role as a supervisor evaluating the three participants prior to the study taking place. These power dynamics may have influenced her interpretations in the analysis process. Newman shared that his lack of familiarity with social justice supervision might impact perceptions and biases to question whether or not supervisees grew in their understanding of social justice. We agreed to challenge one another’s potential biases during data analysis in an attempt to prevent one another’s experiences from interfering with interpretations of the findings.

In addition, we acknowledged that our identities as White, English-speaking, educated, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class researchers studying social justice inevitably was informing personal perceptions of the supervisees’ experiences. These privileged identities were likely blinding us to experiences with oppression that participants and their clients encountered and that we are not burdened with facing. Throughout the study, we discussed the complexity of studying social justice in light of such privileged identities. We spoke further about our identities and potential biases when interpreting the data.

Second, investigator triangulation was addressed by collaboratively analyzing the study’s data (Hays & Singh, 2012). Because data included both interview transcripts and journals, we confirmed that study findings were reflected in both data sources, rather than just one information source (Hancock et al., 2021). This process helped prevent real or potential biases from informing the analysis without constraint. We also were mindful of saturation of themes while comparing data across participants and sources during the analysis process. Lastly, an audit trail was created to further address credibility. The study recruitment, data collection, and data analysis were documented so that the research can be replicated (Hays & Singh, 2012; Roulston, 2010).


In case study research, researchers use key quotes and descriptions from participants to illuminate the case studied (Hancock et al., 2021). As such, we next describe the themes and subthemes identified in study data using participants’ journal and interview quotes to illustrate the findings. Three overarching themes were identified in the data: 1) intersection of supervision experiences and external factors, 2) feelings about social justice, and 3) personal and professional growth. Two subthemes, 3a) increased understanding of privilege and 3b) increased understanding of clients, further expand the third theme.

Intersection of Supervision Experiences and External Factors
     One theme evident across the data was that participants’ experiences in social justice supervision did not occur in isolation from other experiences they encountered as counseling students. Coursework, overall program emphasis, and previous work experiences were external factors that created a compound influence on participants’ counselor development and intersected with their experiences of growth in supervision. Thus, external factors influenced participants’ understanding of and openness to a social justice framework. For example, concurrent with their practicum and supervision experiences, participants completed the course Theory and Practice of Multicultural Counseling. While discussing their experiences in supervision, all participants referenced this course. For example, Casey explained that exposure to social justice in the multicultural counseling course while discussing the topic in supervision made her more open and eager to learning about social justice overall.

Participants’ experiences prior to the counseling program also appeared to intersect with and influence their experiences in social justice supervision. Kallie, for instance, previously worked with African American and Latin American adolescents as a camp counselor at an urban Boys and Girls Club. She explained that social justice captured the essence of viewpoints formed in these experiences, saying, “I really like social justice because it kind of is like the title for the way I was looking at things already.” Casey grew up in California and reported that growing up on the West Coast also exposed her to a mindset parallel to social justice. Esther described that though she was not previously exposed to the term “social justice,” studying U.S., women’s, and African American history in college influenced her pursuit of a counseling career. This influence is evident in Esther’s third journal entry, in which she described noticing issues of power and oppression:

My own attention to an “arbitrarily awarded power” and personal questioning as to what to do with this consciousness has been at the forefront of my mind over the past two years. Ultimately this self-exploration led me to school counseling as a vehicle to advocate and raise consciousness in potentially disenfranchised groups.

This quote highlights how Esther’s previous studies in college may have primed her for the content she was exposed to in social justice supervision.

Feelings About Social Justice
     The second theme was a change in participants’ feelings toward social justice over the course of the semester. Two of the participants expressed that their feelings toward social justice changed from intimidation and fear to comfort and enthusiasm. Initially, Casey explained that social justice supervision created feelings of intimidation. Casey felt fear that the supervisor would instruct her to be an advocate at the practicum site, and that in doing so, Casey would upset others. However, Casey reported that she realized during supervision that social justice advocacy does not necessarily look one specific way. Casey said, “I think a lot of that intimidation went away as I realized that I could have my own style integrated into social justice.” Kallie expressed a similar pattern of emotions, particularly regarding examining clients from a social justice perspective. When asked to explore clients through this lens in supervision, an initial uncomfortable feeling emerged, but over the course of practicum, Kallie reported an attitude change. In the sixth journal entry, Kallie explained that she was focusing on examining all clients through a social justice lens, and “found it to be significantly easier this week than last week.”

Esther also shared evidence of changed emotions during social justice supervision. Initially, Esther reported feeling excited, but later, she was confused as to how counselors could use social justice practically. Despite this confusion, Esther shared that she gained new awareness that social justice advocacy is not only found in individual situations with clients, but also in an overall mindset:

Something I will take from it [supervision] . . . is you incorporate that sort of thinking into your overall [approach]. You don’t necessarily wait for a specific event to happen, but once you know the culture of a place, you have lessons geared towards whatever the problem is there.

Despite these mixed feelings, Esther’s experience aligns with Casey’s and Kallie’s, as all reported experiencing a change in emotions toward social justice over the course of supervision.

Personal and Professional Growth
     Participants also demonstrated changes in professional and personal growth throughout the supervision experiences, the third theme identified. In early journal entries, they reported nervousness, doubt, and insecurity regarding their counseling skills and knowledge. Over time, the tone shifted to increased comfort and confidence. This improvement appeared not only related to overall counseling abilities, but specifically to participants’ understanding of social justice in counseling. For example, in Esther’s second journal entry, she noted the influence that social justice supervision had on the ability to recognize oppression and bring awareness to it at practicum. Esther wrote, “Just having this concept be explicitly laid out in our plan has already caused me to be more attentive to such issues.”

Similarly, professional growth was evident in Kallie’s journal entries over time. In the fourth journal entry, Kallie described discomfort and nervousness when reflecting on clients’ sociopolitical contexts. However, in the ninth journal entry, Kallie described an experience in which she adapted her counseling to be more sensitive to the client’s multicultural background. Casey also highlighted growth with an anecdote about a small group she led. Casey explained that the group was for high-achieving, low-income juniors intending to go to college:

In the very beginning, I remember thinking—this sounds terrible now, but—“It’s kind of unfair to the other students that these kids get special privileges in that they get to meet with us and walk through the college planning process.” ’Cause I was thinking, “Wow, even kids who are high-achieving but are middle-class or upper-class, they could use this information, also. And it’s not really fair that just ’cause they’re lower class, they get their hand held during this.” But, throughout the semester, realizing that that’s not necessarily a bad thing for an institution to give another one a little extra help because they’re gonna have a deficit of help somewhere else in their life, and it really is fair. It’s more fair to give them more help ’cause they likely aren’t going to be getting it at home. . . . So, by having that group, it actually is making a greater degree of equity . . . through supervision and through processing all of that, [I learned] it was actually evening the board out more.

     Participants also expressed that their professional growth in social justice competencies was intertwined with personal growth. Casey reported that supervision increased her comfort when talking about social justice issues and led to the reevaluation of personal opinions. Similarly, Kallie summarized:

I am very thankful that I had that social justice–infused model because it changed the way I think about people. . . . It kinda opened my eyes in a way I had not anticipated practicum opening my eyes. I didn’t expect that—social justice. I didn’t realize how big of an impact it would actually have.

Increased Understanding of Privilege
     Participants reported that understanding their privilege was one area of growth. During practicum, participants considered their areas of privilege and how these aligned or contrasted with those of clients. For example, in Esther’s third journal entry, she noted that interactions with clients made her more aware of personal privileges, which led her to create a list regarding gender identity, socioeconomic background, and sexual orientation. Casey and Kallie further described initially feeling resistant to the idea of White privilege. Casey explained:

I was a little resistant to the idea of White privilege originally, which I’ve since learned is a normal reaction. ’Cause I’ve kind of had the thought of “No! It’s America! All of us pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and everyone has the same opportunity,” which just isn’t the case. And so that definitely had a huge influence on me—realizing that I have huge privileges and powers that I did not, maybe didn’t want to, recognize before.

After initial resistance, participants reported that they transitioned from feeling shame about White privilege to an increased understanding and excitement to use privilege to create change.

Increased Understanding of Clients
     Lastly, participants also reported specific growth in their understanding of the clients whom they counseled. Participants believed they were better able to understand clients’ backgrounds and experiences because of social justice supervision. Kallie described how reflecting on clients’ sociopolitical contexts helped her better understand clients. She noted that the practice became a habit, saying, “It just kinda invaded the way I look at different people and see their backgrounds.” Casey also described an increased understanding of clients by sharing an example of a client who was highly intelligent, low-income, and Mexican American. Casey learned that the client intended to go to trade school to become a mechanic and was not previously exposed to other postsecondary education options like college. Casey described this realization as “a big moment” and said, “My interaction with him, for sure, was influenced by recognizing that there was social injustice there.”


The purpose of this study was to explore counseling students’ experiences in social justice supervision. Findings indicated that participants had meaningful experiences in social justice supervision that impacted them as future counselors. Topics of privilege, oppression, clients’ sociopolitical contexts, and advocacy were reportedly prominent in the participants’ supervision and influenced their experiences.

Despite many calls for social justice supervision in the counseling profession (Baggerly, 2006; Ceballos et al., 2012; Chang et al., 2009; Collins et al., 2015; Glosoff & Durham, 2010; O’Connor, 2005), this is the first known study about supervisees’ experiences with social justice supervision. It represents a new line of inquiry to understand what social justice supervision may be like for supervisees. Findings indicate that participants wrestled with understanding social justice and viewed it as a complex topic. They also suggest that participants found value in making sense of social justice and using it as a tool to better support clients individually and systemically. Similar to research on multicultural supervision, participants indicated that receiving social justice supervision was a positive experience and impacted personal and professional growth (Ancis & Ladany, 2001; Ancis & Marshall, 2010; Chopra, 2013; Inman, 2006; Ladany et al., 2005).

Notably, findings align with some, though not all, of Chang and colleagues’ (2009) delineated tiers in the social justice supervision model. Some of the themes reflect the first tier, self-awareness. For example, participants’ feelings about social justice (Theme 2) and increased understanding of privilege (Theme 3a) highlight how the supervisory experience enhanced their self-awareness as counselors. As their feelings changed and knowledge of privilege grew, their self-awareness improved, a critical task in becoming a social justice–minded counselor (Chang et al., 2009; Dollarhide et al., 2021; Fickling et al., 2019; Glosoff & Durham, 2010). Participants’ increased understanding of clients (Theme 3b) reflects the second tier in Chang and colleagues’ (2009) model, client services. In demonstrating an enhanced understanding of clients and their world experiences, the participants reported thinking beyond themselves and into how power, privilege, and oppression affected those they counseled.

The final tier of the social justice supervision model, community collaboration, was not evident in participant data about their experiences. Despite the supervisor’s intent to address this tier through analyses of school and district policies, as well as community advocacy opportunities, themes about this topic did not manifest in the data. This theme’s absence may suggest that the supervisor’s efforts to address the third tier were not strong enough to impact participants. Alternatively, the absence may suggest that participants were not developmentally prepared to make sense of social justice at a systemic, community level. Instead, their development matched best with social justice ideas at the self and client levels.

Participant findings did align with previous research about supervision. For example, Collins and colleagues (2015) studied master’s-level counseling students and found that their lack of experience in social justice supervision led them to feel unprepared to meet the needs of diverse clients. In this study, the presence of social justice supervision helped participants feel more prepared to support clients, as evidenced in the subtheme of increased understanding of clients. Furthermore, this study reflects similar findings from multicultural supervision research. We found that multicultural supervision was associated with positive outcomes of being prepared to work with diverse clients and engaging in effective supervision (Chopra, 2013; Inman, 2006; Ladany et al., 2005). This pattern is reflected in the current study, as participants reported positive experiences in social justice supervision. Ancis and Ladany (2001) and Ancis and Marshall (2010) found that incorporating multicultural considerations into supervision increases supervisees’ self-awareness and encourages them to engage clients in multicultural discussions. These same results were evident in the present study, with participants reporting personal and professional growth, such as stronger awareness of White privilege and greater willingness to examine clients’ sociopolitical contexts. Findings also reflect general research on supervision, which indicates that supervisees typically experience personal and professional growth in the process (Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, 2011; Watkins et al., 2015; Young et al., 2011).

Furthermore, study findings also align with assertions from supervision scholars regarding the value of social justice supervision. They support Chang and colleagues’ (2009) claim that social justice supervision can increase counselor self-awareness and build an understanding of oppression. Additionally, the findings also reflect Glosoff and Durham’s (2010) assertion that social justice in supervision helps supervisees gain awareness of power differentials. Finally, Ceballos and colleagues (2012) posited that social justice supervision will help counselors develop empathy for clients as counselors conceptualize clients in a systemic perspective. The participants’ enhanced understanding of White privilege and their clients’ contexts supports each of these ideas. Though findings are not generalizable, they appear to confirm scholars’ ideas about social justice supervision and suggest that the approach can be a positive, beneficial experience for counselors-in-training.

     Study findings ought to be considered in light of the study’s limitations. First, although case study research focuses on a single identified case by definition and is not designed for generalization (Hays & Singh, 2012), the case in this study consisted of a demographically homogenous population of only three participants lacking racial, gender, and age diversity. This lack of diversity influenced participants’ experiences and study findings. Second, although the supervisor in this study did not conduct the semistructured interviews with participants in an attempt to prevent bias, participants were aware that Merlin-Knoblich was collaborating on the study, and this knowledge may have influenced their reported experiences. Merlin-Knoblich and Newman also began the study with acknowledged biases toward and against social justice supervision, and although they engaged in reflexivity and dialogue to prevent these biases from interfering with data analysis, there is no way to verify that this positionality did not influence the interpretation of findings. Lastly, our privileged identities served as a potential limitation while studying a topic like social justice supervision. Our racial, educational, class, language, and sexual identity privileges continually blind us to the experiences of oppression that others, including supervisees and clients, face. Seeking to know these perspectives better can increase our understanding of the implications of social injustices in society.

Implications for Counselor Educators and Supervisors
     The positive participant experiences illuminated through this study suggest that supervision based on this model may yield positive experiences for counselors-in-training, such as supporting students in developing self-awareness, understanding of clients’ sociopolitical contexts, and advocacy skills (Chang et al., 2009). Although the supervisor in this study used social justice supervision in individual sessions with participants, counselor educators may choose to apply social justice supervision models to group or triadic supervision. Counseling supervisors in agency, private practice, and school settings may also want to consider using social justice supervision to support counselors and subsequently clients (Baggerly, 2006; Ceballos et al., 2012; O’Connor, 2005). Furthermore, counselor educators teaching doctoral students may want to incorporate social justice supervision models into introductory supervision courses. Including these models into course content may in itself increase student interest in social justice (Swartz et al., 2018).

Regardless of the setting in which supervisors implement social justice supervision, the findings suggest practical implications that supervisors can consider. First, supervisors appear to benefit from considering social justice supervision models in their work (Chang et al., 2009; Dollarhide et al., 2021; Gentile et al., 2009). The findings in this study, plus previous research indicating positive outcomes for multicultural supervision (Chopra, 2013; Inman, 2006; Ladany et al., 2005), suggest that social justice supervision may potentially benefit counseling. Second, supervisors using social justice supervision may encounter supervisee confusion, discomfort, and/or enthusiasm when introduced to social justice supervision. These feelings also may change over the course of the supervisory relationship when learning about social justice. Third, supervisors ought to be mindful of all three tiers of Chang and colleagues’ (2009) social justice supervision model and a supervisee’s developmental match with each tier. As seen in this study, supervisees may be best matched for the first and second tiers of the model (self-awareness and client services), but not the third tier (community collaboration). Supervisors would benefit from assessing a supervisee’s potential for understanding community collaboration before deciding to infuse its focus in supervision.

More research is needed to understand social justice supervision. A variety of future studies, including different models, methods, and settings, would benefit the counseling profession. For example, a study implementing the social justice supervision model proposed by Dollarhide and colleagues (2021) can add to the needed research in this field. Additional qualitative studies with diverse supervisees in different counseling settings would be helpful in understanding if the experiences participants reported encountering in this study are common in social justice supervision. Quantitative studies on social justice supervision interventions would also add to the profession’s knowledge on the value of social justice supervision. Lastly, studies on supervisees’ experiences in social justice supervision compared to other models would highlight benefits and drawbacks of multiple supervision models (Baggerly, 2006; Chang et al., 2009; Glosoff & Durham, 2010).


In this article, we explored master’s-level counseling students’ experiences in social justice supervision via a qualitative case study. Through this exploration, we identified three themes reflecting participants’ experiences in social justice supervision: intersection of supervision experiences and external factors, feelings about social justice, and personal and professional growth, as well as two subthemes: increased understanding of privilege and increased understanding of clients. Findings suggest that social justice supervision may be a beneficial practice for supervisors and counselor educators to consider integrating in their work (Chang et al., 2009; Dollarhide et al., 2021; Gentile et al., 2009; Pester et al., 2020). Further research across contexts and with a range of methodologies is needed to better understand social justice supervision in practice.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.



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Appendix A

Semistructured Interview Questions

  1. What brought you to this counseling program?
  2. Overall, how would you describe your practicum experience last semester?
    1. Where did you complete your practicum?
    2. How would you describe the population you worked with at your practicum?
  3. What previous experience, if any, did you have with social justice prior to individual practicum supervision?
  4. During individual practicum supervision on campus last semester, what were some of your initial thoughts and feelings about a social justice–infused supervision model?
  5. In what ways, if any, did those thoughts and feelings about social justice change throughout your
    supervision experience?

These next three questions address three areas of social justice that were incorporated into your individual practicum supervision model: self, students (clients), and institution (school or school districts).

6. Do you think that the emphasis on social justice related to self (i.e., your power, privileges, and experience with oppression) in individual practicum supervision on campus had any influence on you?

    1. If yes, what influence did this emphasis have on you?
    2. If no, why do you think that’s the case?

7. Do you think that the emphasis on social justice related to others (i.e., the sociopolitical context of students, staff, etc.) in individual practicum supervision on campus had any influence on you?

    1. If yes, what influence did this emphasis have on you?
    2. If no, why do you think that’s the case?

8. Do you think that the emphasis on social justice related to institution (i.e., your practicum site, school district) in individual practicum supervision on campus had any influence on you?

    1. If yes, what influence did this emphasis have on you?
    2. If no, why do you think that’s the case?
  1. In what ways, if any, has the social justice emphasis in your individual practicum supervision influenced you as a counselor?
  2. In what ways, if any, has the social justice emphasis in your individual practicum supervision influenced your development as a person?
  3. How would you define social justice?
  4. Is there anything else you would like to add regarding your experience in a social justice–infused model of supervision last semester?
  5. Is there anything else you’d like to share?


Clare Merlin-Knoblich, PhD, NCC, is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Jenna L. Taylor, MA, NCC, LPC-A, is a doctoral student at the University of North Texas. Benjamin Newman, PhD, MAC, ACS, LPC, CSAC, CSOTP, is a professional counselor at Artisan Counseling in Newport News, VA. Correspondence may be addressed to Clare Merlin-Knoblich, 9201 University City Blvd., Charlotte, NC 28211, cmerlin1@uncc.edu.


Grounded Theory of Asian American Activists for #BlackLivesMatter

Stacey Diane Arañez Litam, Christian D. Chan

A grounded theory study was employed to identify the conditions contributing to the core phenomenon of Asian American activists (N = 25) mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in 2020. The findings indicate achieving a collective oppressed identity was necessary to mobilize in thick solidarity with the BLM movement and occurred because of causal conditions: (a) experiences of COVID-19–related anti-Asian discrimination, and (b) George Floyd’s murder. Non-action, performative or unhelpful action, and action toward thick solidarity were influenced by contextual factors: (a) alignment with personal and community values, (b) awareness and knowledge, and (c) perspectives of oppression. Mobilization was also influenced by intervening factors, which included affective responses, intergenerational conflict, conditioning of “privileges” afforded by White supremacy, and the presence of organized communities. Mental health professionals and social justice advocates can apply these findings to promote engagement in the community organizing efforts of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities with the BLM movement, denounce anti-Blackness, and uphold a culpability toward supporting the Black community.

Keywords: Asian American, solidarity, social justice, Black Lives Matter, grounded theory


Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012 reignited conversations about the underlying sentiments of White supremacy that remain deeply entrenched in American society (Khan-Cullors & Bandele, 2017; Taylor, 2016). Shortly thereafter, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement was launched to address acts of police brutality on Black and Brown people and challenge the systemic oppression within the justice system (Lebron, 2017). Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the role of silence in perpetuating complicity resurfaced, and the familiar narratives and gut-wrenching images of non-Black police officers harming Black bodies once again found a place in the limelight (Chang, 2020; Elias et al., 2021). However, this time there was something noticeably different; one of the non-Black officers was Asian American.

Tou Thao’s role in sanctioning George Floyd’s murder illuminated the complex history of anti-Blackness within Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities; created momentum for conversations about race, discrimination, and oppression; and echoed earlier support for the BLM movement among AAPIs (J. Ho, 2021; Merseth, 2018; Tran et al., 2018). These discussions may have been traditionally avoided, given the narrative invoked by racial and colonial notions that diminishes critical consciousness about racial histories and relations in AAPI communities (Chang, 2020; David et al., 2019). Because of the structural conditions of White supremacy and colonialism, AAPI communities have been forced to adopt Whiteness as a pathway to success, minimize salient cultural values, and trivialize manifestations of anti-Blackness (J. Ho, 2021; Poon et al., 2016). Erasing critical consciousness among AAPI communities has served as an insidious attempt to maintain a racial hierarchy that neither supports AAPI visibility nor eradicates racial tensions (Chou & Feagin, 2016; David et al., 2019). The invisibility of AAPI history absolves the United States from long-standing histories of anti-Asian racial violence (Li & Nicholson, 2021) and endorses complacency of White supremacy (Museus, 2021; Poon et al., 2019). Although this contention exists, a greater number of AAPI voices have begun to mobilize in solidarity with the BLM movement and the Black community in recent years (Anand & Hsu, 2020; Lee et al., 2020; Merseth, 2018; Tran et al., 2018).

Despite a complex racialized history of White supremacists weaponizing communities of color against each other (Nicholson et al., 2020; Poon et al., 2016), AAPI individuals have a long-standing history of pursuing thick solidarity and activism with the Black community and supporting Black civil rights (J. Ho, 2021). These racial coalitions have been evidenced through the Third World Liberation Front Strikes and the tireless efforts of activists like Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, and Richard Aoki (W. Liu, 2018; Sharma, 2018). Thick solidarity is achieved when racial differences are acknowledged while emphasizing the specificity, irreducibility, and incommensurability of racialized experiences (W. Liu, 2018). Although understanding the factors that influence AAPIs to mobilize with the Black community represents a critical step toward thick solidarity (Tran et al., 2018), previous studies investigating the phenomenon have been limited to quantitative methods (Merseth, 2018; Yoo et al., 2021) or focused solely on Southeast Asian American populations (Lee et al., 2020).

The following sections outline the histories of racialized oppression faced by Asian American and Black communities and provide a brief overview of the extant research linking Asian American solidarity with the BLM movement. A grounded theory that identifies the emergent process that contributed to Asian American activists mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020 is additionally presented.

The Racialized Experiences of Asian Americans and Black Communities in America
Prior to engaging in a grounded theory, researchers must build upon preexisting processes, theories, and perspectives documented in extant research (Charmaz, 2017). Thus, one cannot explore the processes that contributed to Asian American activists mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020 without first addressing the nuanced and racialized experiences of AAPI and Black communities in America. Tran et al. (2018) asserted that navigating an oppressive system embedded in White supremacy has forced communities of color to make historical adaptations that leave AAPI voices out of the BLM movement. The following section provides a brief description of the complexity in which AAPI and Black identities are juxtaposed and elaborates on the model minority myth, racial triangulation, and historical anti-Blackness in AAPI communities as processes that may complicate the process of achieving thick solidarity.

Racial Triangulation
According to Kim (1999), racial triangulation theory refers to a “field of racial positions” (p. 106) that was proposed to extend the conceptualization of racial discourse beyond the Black and White narrative. The field of racial positions is mapped onto two dimensions. The superior/inferior axis represents the process of relative valorization, whereby Whites valorize Asian Americans relative to Black Americans in ways that maintain White privilege and White supremacy (Kim, 1999). The second dimension, an insider/foreigner axis, refers to the process of civic ostracism, in which Whites position Asian Americans as foreign, unassimilable, and outsiders (Kim, 1999; Xu & Lee, 2013). Although Asian Americans may be afforded social and economic benefits due to their proximity to Whiteness, this social location functions as an incomplete portrayal that conceals inequities, treats Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, and maintains the status of White supremacy over communities of color (Bonilla-Silva, 2004; Nicholson et al., 2020). As a result, members of Asian American communities may be racialized to be White-adjacent and create an illusion of success with a conditional set of privileges (Kim, 1999; Museus, 2021).

One example of racial triangulation is the model minority myth, which essentializes Asian Americans by portraying them as a monolithic group with universal educational and occupational success (Chou & Feagin, 2016; Yi et al., 2020). According to Poon et al. (2016), scholars must acknowledge the model minority myth’s history to challenge processes of racial triangulation and deficit thinking. The model minority myth creates barriers to social justice efforts and racial coalitions by pitting communities of color against one another (Chang, 2020), invalidating experiences of systemic oppression and discrimination (Nicholson et al., 2020; Pendakur & Pendakur, 2016), and maintaining “a global system of racial hierarchies and White supremacy” (Poon et al., 2016, p. 6). When contextualizing the model minority myth through the lens of critical race theory, Asian Americans may be conceptualized as a “middleman minority” (Poon et al., 2016, p. 5). Originally coined by Blalock (1967) and later expanded upon by Bonacich (1973), middleman minorities are foreigners who buffer the power struggles between two major groups in a host society. Similar to other historical middleman minority groups, the minority model myth exploits Asian Americans by granting economic privileges while denying political or social power (Poon et al., 2016). As a more egregious consequence, the model minority myth can lead communities of color to harbor feelings of resentment toward Asian American communities, especially Asian immigrants who may feel pressured to prove their loyalty to American values (J. Ho, 2021) and embrace the submissive, hardworking qualities espoused by the model minority myth (Poon et al., 2019).

The complex relationship between AAPI and Black communities becomes even more complex as communities of color, including Black Americans, continue to define the boundaries of inclusion about “who belongs in communities of Color” (Tran et al., 2018, p. 78). As a result, Asian Americans are rarely included in race dialogues; may not be identified as “of color” by other groups; and are forced to navigate their weaponized, conditional identities as racialized in some spaces and White-adjacent in others (C. D. Chan & Litam, 2021; Litam & Chan, 2021; Museus, 2021; Poon et al., 2016).

Understanding Anti-Blackness in Asian American Communities
The denigration of Black identities and the desire to be viewed as distinct from Black Americans are evidenced across the histories of several Asian American ethnic subgroups. For example, in the mid-20th century, access to U.S. citizenship was limited to free White persons and persons of African descent (Pavlenko, 2002). At the time, the system was not set up to accommodate Asian Americans or other racialized groups, as evidenced by the landmark cases of Takao Ozawa and Bhagat Singh Thind (Chou & Feagin, 2016; Haney López, 2006). After living in the United States for over 20 years and articulating his relationship to White racial groups because of his light skin, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man, was judged to be a race other than those able to obtain citizenship and deemed ineligible for naturalization (S. Chan, 1991; Yamashita & Park, 1985). Bhagat Singh Thind, an Asian Indian man, attempted to align specifically with the use of “Caucasian” and White racial ideologies, but was also denied citizenship by the U.S. Supreme Court (Haney López, 2006). Following the United States v. Bagat Singh Thind ruling, nearly 50% of Asian Indian Americans had their U.S. citizenship revoked (Haney López, 2006). Despite attempts to prove their loyalty to Whiteness, both cases reified how Asian Americans are placed in a vexing situation that provides an illusion of privileges but excludes them from fully participating as U.S. citizens (Haney López, 2006; Nicholson et al., 2020). Both cases also exemplified early instances of Asian American individuals who were pressured by prevailing racial ideologies to eschew Blackness and assimilate into dominant norms of White supremacy.

Examples of anti-Black sentiments are deeply rooted in people of Filipino descent who may endorse colonial mentality, an internalized form of oppression characterized by a preference for Western attitudes and the denigration of Filipino culture following years of colonization by the United States (David & Okazaki, 2006a, 2006b). For example, internalized anti-Black sentiments in Filipino culture are evidenced by the systematic discrimination against the dark-skinned Ati people, who are indigenous to the Aklan region (Petrola et al., 2020). As a result of the mining, logging, and tourism industries, the Ati have been forced to relocate onto smaller plots of land, face physical violence, and are denied various human rights (Petrola et al., 2020). Other insidious anti-Black attitudes that permeate the Filipino worldview include White-centered beauty notions that venerate straight hair and light skin over textured locks and dark skin (Nadal, 2021; Rafael, 2000). Despite their documented toxic and dangerous consequences, skin whitening products in the Philippines are a billion-dollar industry (Mendoza, 2014). These examples relay cultural and economic implications that are predicated on histories of global imperialism and colonialism, which root out indigeneity in favor of Eurocentric values and White norms (Fanon, 1952). Examples of anti-Black sentiments in Filipino communities are a sample of the ways in which colonialist movements mapped anti-Blackness onto Filipino communities and culture by occupation of the land, terrorism, and brutality (David, 2013; Nadal, 2021).

History of anti-Black attitudes may also exist in Korean Americans following the 1992 Los Angeles riots. After White officers were exonerated in the beating of Rodney King and a Korean store owner fatally shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, tension erupted between the Black and Korean American communities due to the lack of accountability for the killing of a Black person. Media reports of widespread rioting, theft, injuries, and damage to businesses were attributed to poor race relations between African American and Korean communities and larger issues of systemic racism were disregarded (Oh, 2010; Sharma, 2018). Despite calls to law enforcement for help, Korean voices were overlooked by the police (Yoon, 1997), which potentially illustrates how the law enforcement system reacts in favor of White interests. Once again, White media highlighted the undercurrent of racial tension between ethnic and racial groups as noteworthy and masked preexisting racial coalitions between Black and Asian American communities. These news stories deterred Asian American and Black communities from looking outward and acknowledging the larger issues of ongoing police brutality and inequitable justice systems (F. Ho & Mullen, 2008).

Chinese Americans may harbor anti-Black notions following the conviction of Peter Liang, who fatally shot Akai Gurley in New York City (W. Liu, 2018). Although he was the first officer indicted for killing an unarmed and innocent Black man, Liang’s conviction resulted in conflict between Chinese American and Black American communities (R. Liu & Shange, 2018; W. Liu, 2018). Many individuals within Asian American communities argued for the fair sentencing and punishment of Liang (Tran et al., 2018), but others protested the charge and believed the courts used him as a scapegoat to detract from BLM activists who called for police reform (R. Liu & Shange, 2018; W. Liu, 2018).

Challenging Historical Anti-Blackness in Asian American Communities
Challenging anti-Blackness in Asian American communities underscores a cultural paradox. On one hand, Asian American individuals, especially East Asian subgroups, benefit from social and economic privileges because of their proximity to Whiteness and identities as non-Black minorities (Bonilla-Silva, 2018; Poon et al., 2016). Thus, some Asian American individuals endorse aspects of the model minority myth because of the privilege it affords (Kim, 1999), even at the expense of maintaining a racially triangulated identity (Bonilla-Silva, 2004; Poon et al., 2019; Yi et al., 2020). Anti-Blackness therefore moves beyond prejudicial attitudes against Blacks and encompasses a performance of Whiteness (W. Liu, 2018).

Movements initiated by younger Asian American generations that challenge anti-Black sentiments (e.g., #Asians4BlackLives) are gaining traction (Anand & Hsu, 2020; Lee et al., 2020) and can help Asian immigrants move beyond their own unacknowledged pain and racial trauma to appreciate the challenges of other marginalized communities (David et al., 2019; Tran et al., 2018). For example, Letters for Black Lives is a crowdsourcing project that empowers communities of color to have conversations about anti-Blackness with older generations (R. Liu & Shange, 2018) who may endorse anti-Black attitudes following injustices against Asian people (e.g., Peter Liang) or anti-Asian historical events (e.g., the LA riots). These letters help younger Asian American communities describe ambiguous and complex issues related to social justice, racism, and systemic oppression with their families and have been helpful in promoting support for the BLM movement (Arora & Stout, 2019).

Extant Research on Racial Coalitions

Extant research posits how experiences of ingroup discrimination cultivate increased empathy, positive attitudes, and a collective sense of community (Craig & Richeson, 2012; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). As rates of anti-Asian discrimination have substantially increased following the COVID-19 pandemic and negatively affected the psychological well-being of Asian American communities (C. D. Chan & Litam, 2021; Jeung & Nham, 2020; Litam, 2020; Litam & Oh, 2020, 2021; Litam et al., 2021), the Common Ingroup Identity Model (CIIM; Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000) may help explain the increasing number of Asian American voices in support of BLM. According to the CIIM, experiences of racial discrimination toward one’s own racial group may lead to a shared disadvantaged racial minority identity that engenders positive attitudes and feelings of closeness toward other racial minorities. Compared to White, male, high-status groups, racialized minorities (e.g., Asian Americans) may be more likely to experience feelings of solidarity and affiliation with other communities of color believed to share experiences of racial discrimination (Brewer, 2000; Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000).

Preliminary support for the CIIM may be evidenced by a quantitative study conducted by Merseth (2018). Using a nationally representative sample of data, Merseth determined AAPIs who supported BLM were more likely to perceive anti-Black discrimination in the United States and identify race-based linked fates. A recent ethnography that examined AAPI support for the BLM movement identified the importance of community-based educational spaces as paramount to engaging in antiracist work and cultivating cross-racial coalitions among Southeast Asian Americans (Lee et al., 2020). Lee and colleagues’ (2020) results illuminated the importance of educational institutions that provide the foundation and language needed to challenge anti-Blackness among Southeast Asian communities. Combined with these studies, a more recent investigation by Yoo et al. (2021) involved a quantitative measurement of racial groups and their support for the BLM movement. Although this crucial study revealed the implications of solidarity among several racial groups with the BLM movement, the Yoo et al. study only involved a convenience sample of college students and did not necessarily account for the nuances within participants’ social identities, their motivations for support, or historical and political contexts. In the context of increased anti-Asian racial discrimination in the wake of COVID-19, shared experiences of anti-Asian discrimination may result in “a common ground of solidarity that Asian Americans and African Americans can forge against White supremacy” (Anand & Hsu, 2020, p. 194).

Purpose of the Present Study
The centralization of police brutality on Black and Brown people has reignited conversations about systemic oppression and has illuminated the need for civil rights, racial equity, and the dismantling of White supremacy (Elias et al., 2021; R. Liu & Shange, 2018; W. Liu, 2018; Tran et al., 2018). Although AAPIs may face discrimination in the wake of COVID-19 in ways that may result in solidarity with the BLM movement (Chang, 2020; J. Ho, 2021), a qualitative study that underscores this process with diverse Asian American voices can further contextualize meaningful opportunities for racial coalitions. Given the historical presence of anti-Blackness in Asian American communities (W. Liu, 2018; Tran et al., 2018), generating an emergent process that outlines the path of Asian American activists mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement is of paramount importance to continue bolstering efforts toward racial coalitions (Lee et al., 2020; Merseth, 2018). To address the paucity of literature, a grounded theory was conducted to examine the following research question: What is the process that mobilizes Asian American activists to pursue thick solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020?


Qualitative methods are appropriate when researchers seek to develop a complex or detailed understanding of an experience (Creswell & Poth, 2018). Specifically, grounded theory is a qualitative method used to generate a theory grounded in the data from participants who have experienced the process under inquiry and focuses on maximizing numerous perspectives constructed over phases of time (Charmaz, 2017). Given our desire to understand the process of action through which Asian American activists mobilize toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement, a grounded theory approach was deemed appropriate. To this end, the grounded theory focused on what participants experience and how the process of mobilizing in solidarity for BLM unfolds.

This study was implemented using a social constructionist paradigm to complement Charmaz’s (2014) constructivist grounded theory. Social constructionist researchers recognize the presence of multiple, processual, and constructed realities while acknowledging the role and importance of the researchers’ and participants’ positionality (Charmaz, 2014; Clarke, 2012). Social constructionism augments three overarching themes: (a) critiquing the neutrality of participants’ and researchers’ values by locating perspectives within social contexts (e.g., time, culture); (b) revealing language as a vehicle for shaping representation within particular communities; and (c) introducing different perspectives to unsettle social conditions and co-create new knowledge (K. J. Gergen, 2020; M. Gergen, 2020).

Procedure and Participants
Internal Review Board approval was obtained before beginning the study. Participants in this study were selected through the use of purposive and theoretical sampling (Timonen et al., 2018). The first and second authors, Stacey Diane Arañez Litam and Christian D. Chan, used purposive sampling to disseminate recruitment materials to key social media groups and community networks focused on AAPI community organizing. In the initial stages, Litam interviewed the first group of participants and ascertained their social identities. Next, theoretical sampling was employed. To introduce additional perspectives after the first group, Litam focused on soliciting more participants to expand the sample based on region, gender, and ethnic identities. Prospective participants could participate if they (a) self-identified as a member of the Asian American community and (b) identified as being engaged in ongoing support of the BLM movement. Prospective participants were recruited by posting on social media pages frequented by Asian American individuals actively involved in BLM activism. Prospective participants were asked to email Litam and were given more information describing the study’s purpose, design, and research questions. Eligible participants were informed that participation was voluntary, the research would not directly benefit them, and no compensation would be offered. A consent form was completed before participation occurred. Interviews were held on a HIPAA-compliant Zoom account.

This study consisted of interviews with 25 AAPI individuals who were actively engaged with the BLM movement. To protect confidentiality, participants were given pseudonyms. Participants reported a diversity of identities that increased the heterogeneity of the sample. Participants’ ages ranged from 25 to 73, and ethnic identities of participants included Filipino (n = 10), Korean (n = 5), Chinese (n = 2), Japanese (n = 1), Vietnamese (n = 1), Chamorro (n = 1), and multiracial (n = 5) descent. The gender identities of participants included women (n = 17), men (n = 5), and non-binary (n = 3). Most participants reported being a U.S. citizen and one participant identified as Canadian. Four participants identified as transracial adoptees.

Data Collection
Data collection occurred between June and July 2020. Semi-structured interviews lasted an average of 90 minutes. Participants responded to the following questions: (a) What are your experiences regarding how Asian Americans have historically supported, or are currently supporting, the Black Lives Matter movement? (b) Which contexts or situations have influenced your desire to support the Black Lives Matter movement? and (c) Which contributing factors influenced your development toward a social justice–oriented mindset? Follow-up questions developed organically. Participants provided consent for the interview to be recorded and were informed they could end the recording or the interview at any time. Only the audio file of the interview was saved, and the file was not uploaded to any cloud-based servers so as to promote participant confidentiality. Litam transcribed all interviews. Following the interview, participants completed two 15-minute member-check meetings—first to confirm the accuracy of researchers’ themes, and second to reflect on the final grounded theory.

Throughout the interview, Litam restated the major points after each response. Clarification was obtained through follow-up questions when participants described new concepts that had not been described by previous participants. Litam did not move onto the next question until each of the major points described by the participant were accurately identified and reflected. At the end of the interview, Litam summarized the conversation and restated the major points to confirm understanding of the participants’ statements. Follow-up questions, member checks, restatements, analytic memo writing, and constant comparative method were used to analyze the data.

Data Analysis
The data collection and analysis process reflected a concurrent process and a recursive process, which informed one another and led to the development of an emerging grounded theory (Charmaz, 2017). Throughout the data analysis process, concurrent analytic techniques of induction, deduction, and verification were used to develop an emergent theory (Charmaz, 2014). Litam immersed herself in the raw data by transcribing, reading, and listening to the audio transcripts. Transcription was completed within 24 hours of the interview, and member checks with participants to confirm themes were completed within 72 hours of the interview. New data were compared to existing data following the completion of each transcribed interview. Initial codes and analytic memos were used throughout the process to create an audit trail. Data were closely examined for disconfirming evidence, and two external auditors were used throughout the data analysis process to understand how our assumptions could influence the coding and findings.

Two external auditors were used between open and focused coding to confirm emergent findings, discuss the accuracy of emerging themes, and triangulate across perspectives (Saldaña, 2021). Both external auditors identified as members of the AAPI community and endorsed a strong commitment to AAPI concerns, research, and mental health. The second external auditor also carried in-depth training in qualitative methodologies. Data were coded with labels that categorized, summarized, or accounted for each piece of data (Charmaz, 2014; Saldaña, 2021) and analytic memos were used to help scrutinize the data (Miles et al., 2020). Each participant confirmed the accuracy of themes and reported feeling energized by the theory, a phenomenon known as catalytic validity (Guba & Lincoln, 1989).

We engaged in reflective commentary throughout the interview and data analysis process by using bracketing and ongoing evaluation. Peer scrutiny was employed by inviting three AAPI colleagues who were familiar with the phenomenon to offer feedback and fresh perspectives on the findings as they continued to emerge and become saturated. The first colleague identifies as a transnational Chinese woman and is an associate professor. The second colleague identifies as a Chinese woman who specializes in counseling AAPI communities. The third colleague identifies as a Filipino, Chinese, and Malaysian man and works as a counselor educator. Interviews were conducted until saturation occurred and fresh data no longer sparked new theoretical insights or properties of the generated grounded theory, its categories, or its concepts.

Researcher Reflexivity
A researcher’s social location, biases, theoretical lens, and epistemological beliefs must be established to increase the trustworthiness of results (Saldaña, 2021). Litam identifies as a foreign-born Filipina and Chinese American woman. She is a counselor educator, an assistant professor, and a licensed professional clinical counselor and a supervisor. She conducts research on topics related to human sexuality, human trafficking, trauma, race, diversity, and AAPI issues. Litam has overcome her own internalized colonial mentality as a Filipina American woman and endorses a strong commitment toward issues of social justice and racial equity. She is dedicated to engaging in work that dismantles the forces of White supremacy that oppress all racialized groups.

Chan is a queer person of color and a second-generation Asian American of Filipino, Chinese, and Malaysian heritage. As an assistant professor, he invests primarily in scholarship on intersectionality, social justice, activism, multiculturalism, career development, and communication of culture and socialization in couple, family, and group modalities. He actively works toward racial coalitions that interrogate structures of White supremacy and organizes intentional community initiatives for solidarity. Many of his perspectives, especially toward the inquiry at hand, attend to social structures and histories that underpin ideologies of White supremacy.

Grounded theory requires standards of quality and trustworthiness, including credibility, originality, resonance, and usefulness (Charmaz, 2014; Creswell & Poth, 2018). To promote trustworthiness, constant comparison was employed by using open codes, a codebook, and data to inform, analyze, and compare new data sources (Charmaz, 2014). Any new data were consistently checked and compared to the emerging theory. Member checks were completed twice by connecting with participants over Zoom for approximately 15 minutes each. We also used peer scrutiny with three AAPI colleagues and two AAPI external auditors to challenge assumptions and biases, triangulate findings, and engage in dialogue about clusters of meaning and themes as they emerged. These strategies were used to ensure the theory was data-driven rather than reflective of our own beliefs, values, and assumptions (Hays & Singh, 2012). Analytic memos were written after each round of coding, which elaborated emotions, thoughts, and personal reactions to the data. This information strengthened the tracking of the data and our influence as we shared the audit trail with both external auditors. Thus, multiple measures of trustworthiness were used to account for positionality that could influence the data and theory development.


We sought to examine the following research question: What is the process that mobilizes Asian American activists to pursue thick solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020? The results of the grounded theory analysis describe the process through which causal conditions, contextual factors, and intervening conditions affect actions and foster pathways to consequences following the core category of the phenomena of interest (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Grounded Theory Outlining AAPI Process of Mobilizing in Thick Solidarity With BLM in 2020


Causal Conditions
Based on perspectives from participants, two causal conditions led participants to mobilize toward solidarity for BLM in 2020.

George Floyd’s Murder
Exposure to George Floyd’s murder through social media and news outlets was the first causal condition. For each of the participants, this event represented the “breaking point,” “threshold,” “spark,” or “tipping point” that illuminated the need to “act,” “pursue justice,” “make change,” and “fight back.” As stated by Gemma, a Filipina woman in her mid-30s:

When George Floyd died . . . I just refused to be silent about what happened to him. I just kept thinking, well, what the hell have I been doing that it didn’t impact enough change [so] that this man could have lived? This man died because we have not done enough. He died calling out for his mom. What I could not handle was if I had been born with a particular fear, and I died that way. This man was born and lived knowing that he could be murdered by the police. And that’s how he died. I refuse that. And I am personally responsible that the narrative has not changed in this country. I am responsible and I hold my communities responsible. We have not done enough so that man could have lived.

Experiences of COVID-19–Related Anti-Asian Discrimination
The second causal condition was identified as experiences of COVID-19–related anti-Asian discrimination. This condition was characterized by witnessing or experiencing broad anti-Asian discrimination and exposure to “Trump’s Anti-Chinese,” “xenophobic,” and “racist messages.” Participants described how anti-Asian rhetoric touted by political leaders and experiences of anti-Asian discrimination served as “tinder” that “incited,” “enraged,” and “irritated” AAPIs in ways that “primed” them to act.

For each of the participants, witnessing and/or experiencing COVID-19–related racism was an event that led to action. Each of the 25 participants stated that exposure to anti-Asian discrimination cultivated empathy for Black Americans and illuminated how their shared experiences of racial discrimination “opened their eyes,” “woke them up,” or “pulled off the blindfold” of their racialized identity as Asian Americans. Yuri, a Chinese and Vietnamese woman in her early 30s, explained:

We have this fresh memory of discrimination in the back of our heads, and you know, it reaches a boiling point. You have the intersection of your own experiences and somebody else’s experiences and you start to connect the dots that we are not so different. And we are not so safe. We have more in common with Black lives than we do with White ones.

These sentiments were echoed by Hunter, a Korean man in his early 50s:

The pandemic created this anti-Asian reality. It really brought attention to the average Asian American [about] how much anti-Asian sentiment is still out there. You know, we all live in our little bubbles in life. And we don’t really see what’s going on. But I think, you know, seeing all these news stories about anti-Asian violence, whether we are members of the older generation reading our ethnic papers or just, you know, a member of the younger generation watching television, we see this stuff on the news and it has kind of served as the kindling to the fire to act and do more.

Evelyn, a Filipina woman in her early 40s, also described how exposure to anti-Asian rhetoric touted by political leaders primed her to act:

This particular president [Trump] is stoking the flames [and] it’s re-energizing a particular base of people who are emboldened to say and do things that are hate-centered, that are violent, that are wrong. And I think that it also touched on a particular powerlessness that Asian Americans have felt. And when you couple that within a global pandemic you are hyper aware of your mortality. You could die from this virus that’s going around, [and] we are all wearing masks. You couldn’t get more on edge, you know? We were primed to act. We were ready.

Josie, a multiracial woman in her mid-30s, explained:

Yes, we’re being harassed. We’re being called names. We’re experiencing another wave of xenophobia and racism, being told to go back to our countries, being told that we are not welcome here. I believe that Asians are saying, “Okay, yeah, we’re being threatened, but we’re not being held to the ground and choked out to the point that we’re being killed on TV.” I believe it’s awakened a lot of levels of pain and solidarity because you can’t imagine it. People can’t imagine that the world is this bad until someone’s last breaths are on TV. I think it mobilized people to become more involved because injustice does not have a place among any minority group. Injustice resonates with the Brown community, the Latinx community, the Asian community, and I believe it empowered us to move toward human empathy. Asians are realizing that if we don’t stand together, we stand alone, and nothing in this world will change.

Contextual Factors
Contextual factors were the individual traits and characteristics that affected the actions taken by participants to pursue mobilization in solidarity with BLM. Participants described three contextual factors: (a) alignment with personal and community values, (b) awareness and knowledge, and (c) perspectives of oppression.

Alignment With Personal and Community Values
The first contextual factor was defined as alignment with personal and community values. Notions of values alignment were identified in interviews when participants described how supporting the BLM movement was not a choice; rather, “protesting,” “supporting,” “fighting,” and “engaging in human rights activism” represented “values,” “moral imperatives,” and “needs.” Each of the participants described how mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the Black community reflected the direct consequence of one’s own set of values. Hunter shared the following: “Regardless of how it benefits the Asian American community, for me, it’s my sense of value. This is my own value system. I don’t feel comfortable having groups that are continuing to be oppressed.”

For some participants, notions of values alignment and the need to act had been socialized and were shared by their families of origin. José, a Filipino man in his early 30s, indicated:

I needed to act, there was no other choice. My parents taught me years ago how this whole [BLM] movement creates an obligation to speak up when injustice occurs. Our [Filipino] history has led us to learn that we always have been stronger when we all unite together because there is so much divisiveness in our society.

Evelyn described how values alignment represented a moral imperative:

For about 17 years, I have been an activist. I have always known at a very deep, personal, soul level, that issues of race are the knife on the throat of this country. This country has not resolved or has even come close to reconciling its history. And I don’t think that it [supporting BLM] was something that I decided. It wasn’t a neuron movement. It wasn’t a shift; it wasn’t something that physiologically or intellectually or cognitively shifted. It was like something else just shed, like a skin was pulled off me. It was just so plainly obvious that it was more than overdue for people to say something. We needed to act. There was no other option. It was just this plain, visceral refusal to be silent.

Participants described how alignment with personal and community values emerged because other Asian countries have been historically oppressed. Specifically, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and the Philippines were identified as countries that “silenced Asian voices” in ways that amplified participants’ desire to underscore their values in the United States. Byron, a Vietnamese and Chinese man in his late 30s, identified the following perspective on contextual factors:

I think it’s very important for us, as Asian Americans or even Asians across the world, to really be vocal on this [BLM movement]. Because, dude, America is a crazy place. It’s a beautiful country, but at the same time, the system is kind of jacked, right? And, you know, my parents being from Vietnam and really trying to get away from communists and stuff, I see what the Hong Kong people are going through right now. That to me is like a sign. Like, their battle is different from ours, but it’s still the same. We need to fight for what’s right.

Awareness and Knowledge
The second contextual factor was identified as awareness of one’s identity as a person of color and knowledge of how all communities of color are affected by systemic racism and White supremacy. Participants described how learning about Asian American history and the impact of racial triangulation, how AAPI liberation is directly tied to Black liberation, and the weaponization of the model minority myth were critical factors that contributed to their BLM activism. Rufio, a Filipino man in his late 20s, recalled the following memory:

Peter Liang, I think, was the first person that got convicted of anything. I clearly remember a street. On one side of it were Black protesters and on the other side were Asian American protesters. One side was saying, “Peter was innocent!” and the other side was like, “He deserves more of a sentence!” African American and Asian American protesters were pointing at each other when really they should have been looking outside [of] the situation and being like, the people in power set this game up so we didn’t look at them. They were making us look at each other, but we shouldn’t be looking at each other. We should be looking at them.

Participants identified the importance of achieving multiracial unity and described how the fates of communities of color are inextricably linked. Jay, a non-binary Filipinx person in their early 20s, asserted the following about multiracial unity:

When we center the most vulnerable or the most marginalized, then we are able to lift up everyone. And I think that’s why a lot of people are focusing on the term BIPOC and [are] like, trying to center Black people and Indigenous people, because Black people have been enslaved and Indigenous people [have] had so many atrocities committed to them on stolen land. Ultimately, we are all in this together and what we do for one affects us all.

Similarly, Dante, a transracially adopted Taiwanese man in his mid-20s, observed the political implications surrounding race relations in the United States:

Honestly, I think that four years of the Trump presidency is probably a big mobilizing factor. His policy towards China has been just straight-up racist on his best days and, you know, far worse on his bad days. And so one of the concerns that I had is like, he has no problem locking up kids and immigrants in detention centers. At what point is that going to start being directed at Asian people? If we don’t fight for other people of color, who’s going to fight for us when it is our turn?

Jubilee, a Chinese woman in her early 30s, described the recent AAPI support of BLM and emphasized the importance of cultivating awareness and knowledge with her community and family of origin:

I feel like this is the first time I’ve seen such solidarity from Asians to the Black community. It happened back in the 60s during the civil rights movement so like, we are not the first, but like, in my generation and in my lifetime, this is the first time I am seeing that from us as an Asian community. There are finally conversations coming up about anti-Blackness in Asian communities, you know? It has also allowed me and my brother to bring up these conversations and issues with our friends and parents. For the first time in our lives, we are having conversations about anti-Blackness and systemic racism, and they are not brushing it off. They [my friends and parents] actually take a pause and listen, and this was the first time seeing them do that. And that’s pretty cool. There’s still a long way to go, but there is definitely some change happening. I see it and I feel it around me.

Perspectives of Oppression
Participants conceptualized their experiences from two distinct perspectives of oppression that uniquely influenced the strategies used to mobilize in thick solidarity toward the BLM movement: (a) as a member of the AAPI community or (b) as a member of a greater community of minoritized groups. Participants who limited their perspective of oppression to the AAPI community tended to center Asian voices in support of the BLM movement (i.e., “Yellow Peril for BLM”). Participants in the first category tended to limit their focus to how supporting the BLM movement would benefit the Asian community. Byron explained how supporting the BLM movement better positions the greater Asian American community to engage in advocacy:

I think us mobilizing together and supporting the Black Lives movement would really help us out as a community. Not only as just Chinese, Vietnamese, and Filipino and all that, but literally, as one Asian community. I think we are learning from the Black Lives movement. Not only are we participating with them, but it’s almost like training wheels for our community to be like, we need to be louder about certain rights that we want or certain things that we want to talk about. The United States has created the perfect platform for us to express that, and we have not utilized that.

Conversely, participants who endorsed a wider perspective that recognized Asian Americans as members of one oppressed minoritized group centered the Black community and amplified Black voices. Participants in the second category were more likely to recognize how mobilizing in thick solidarity with the BLM movement would benefit the larger constellation of communities of color. June, a Korean, non-binary, transracially adopted person in their late 20s, highlighted this connection across social movements:

So many Asian people don’t want to post about anti-Asian oppression alongside Black Lives Matter. They are like, “Oh I don’t want to take away from the Black Lives Matter movement by posting about the racism that I experienced or by posting about immigration.” But I kind of see them as being connected because we all face the same oppressor. We are all dealing with White supremacy, so we need to realize all of our movements are interconnected. We need to be in solidarity with each other.

Mia, a Korean woman in her early 30s, similarly explained this relationship:

Just like how we wonder, How is discrimination affecting the greater Asian community?, I think you have to extend that exercise to, How is it affecting the Black community? Where is it [discrimination] starting from? Whose lives are affected? Instead of just being like, “These are the discrimination experiences I face in my life,” it becomes a bigger conversation about what our greater community of minorities faces.

Intervening Conditions
Intervening conditions represent the broad and general factors that influence strategies based upon action or inaction and may include time, space, culture, history, emotions, and institutions. In this study, Asian American participants described four intervening conditions that either facilitated or created barriers to mobilizing toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement. Intervening conditions were described as having a bidirectional nature with the contextual conditions and action strategies used by participants.

Affective Responses
Participants described how feelings of “fear,” “anger,” “helplessness,” “empathy,” and “compassion” intersected with George Floyd’s murder, experiences of COVID-19–related anti-Asian discrimination, alignment with personal and community values, awareness and knowledge, and perspectives of oppression. Nearly every participant identified how they had “struggled” with, “overcome,” or “witnessed” how Asian Americans become paralyzed by fears of “taking up space,” “being too privileged,” or “not sharing the same intensity of oppression as Black Americans.” June described how some AAPIs become too overwhelmed by their privilege to engage in activism:

I so often hear them [AAPIs] say, “I want to help, but I can’t do anything. I can’t, I can’t. I don’t feel it’s in my place because I’m not Black. I feel like my voice doesn’t matter in this situation because I don’t suffer in the way that they [Black Americans] do.” I’ve seen so many excuses about how their voices are too privileged to matter, and it’s not true.

Annie, a Vietnamese woman in her early 30s, explained how fear can limit action:

They [AAPIs] fear that if they stand with the Black community, they will be ousted, attacked, treated differently, and looked down upon. I’ve seen a lot of fears that family would disown them if they become more vocal about Black Lives Matter because the older generation is very stuck in their own mindset of teaching the younger generations, you know, “You keep your head down, you go to school, you make a life for yourself, you don’t make waves, because it will only ruin your life.” I’ve seen a lot of people say that they can’t be as vocal because they are only one person.

Intergenerational Conflict
Participants identified intergenerational conflict as the second intervening condition that influenced Asian American action or inaction. Each participant described how Asian Americans and Asian immigrants (especially older individuals) lacked social justice–oriented language and stressed the importance of assimilation, and how those influences affected the shifting realities between first-generation Asian Americans and subsequent generations in their support of the BLM movement. Conversely, Asian Americans who were willing to engage in discussions about racial discrimination and cultivate cross-racial relationships were more likely to mobilize toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement. Participants also described how older Asian Americans and Asian immigrants struggled to grasp the “cultural nuances” that contextualize the history of systemic oppression and police brutality on Black and Brown individuals in America. The cultural barriers for many older Asian immigrants were described by Lin, a transracially adopted Korean woman in her early 30s:

The social justice language that we use when it comes to Black Lives Matter is difficult enough for a White person who is unfamiliar with this terminology. [It’s hard] to try and communicate that across generational lines, especially because a lot of us don’t have the strength in language skills to be able to translate. From what I’ve observed in my parents, they’ve kind of just kept their head down. They stressed assimilation very strongly for their children. It’s that old-school, “don’t rock the boat” mentality. Don’t give them a reason to look at us. Don’t give them a reason to hate us, you know? Don’t do anything to jeopardize this freedom that they worked so hard to achieve [and] that we’re so lucky to have.

Participants also described how first-generation Asian American and Asian immigrants were more likely to be “encapsulated,” “avoid other racial groups,” and “keep to themselves” in ways that prevented the cultivation of meaningful cross-racial relationships and kept them from challenging historical anti-Black sentiments. The importance of connecting with other communities of color to foster empathy and challenge historical anti-Blackness among Asian Americans and Asian immigrants was described by Ira, a multiracial woman in her early 70s:

I think that when older Asians are exposed in even a small way to the African American community, they can understand. But many Asian people stay within people of their own color, and they stay within their own ethnicity and they stay within their own groups. If you stay in your own community and you never see an African American person except [for] what you see on TV, it’s hard to see the similarities and realize that we are not so different.

To complement this notion, Jenny, a multiracial woman in her early 40s, discussed this perspective:

I feel like it’s really common for Asian immigrants not to connect with these situations [of discrimination] that are happening to them, either in individual instances or in bigger systems. They’re not tying them back to racism. I think that for so long, you know, immigrants were just trying to survive. First-generation folks were just trying to keep their head down, stay out of trouble, and survive, and they couldn’t get distracted by thinking about what else was happening around them.

Conditioning of “Privileges” Afforded by White Supremacy
The third intervening condition was coded when participants described how being Asian American represented “conditional,” “unsafe,” and “hyphenated” identities and when proximity to Whiteness elicited confusion about their role in activism. For some participants, the conditioning of “privileges” afforded by White supremacy contributed to action. As described by Evelyn, Whiteness elucidated a system of different racialized experiences:

I begin to wonder how powerful is Whiteness, you know? If I’m not the one being killed in the street, but I’m also experiencing racism, where do I fit into all of this? You begin to question how Asian Americans have been inserted into this narrative. And for me, you begin to wonder like, am I a pawn in this? What is my level of responsibility here? Is there a shared oppression? Yes. Are we all tethered the same way? No.

Participants who struggled to overcome the conditioning of privileges afforded by White supremacy were more likely to vacillate between action and inaction. Monica, a transracially adopted Korean woman in her early 30s, stated the following:

I do feel like for Asians, you’re in this really interesting space. I do actually think I have a lot of privilege. And with that, potentially, some responsibility as a person that essentially has a long-standing visa or passport into Whiteness. I know the language. I know how White people think and act. I feel like I can talk to White people about racism in a way that other people don’t necessarily have access to. But also, I experience racism and I’m also really tired.

Organized Communities
The presence of social media groups; local, regional, national, and international groups; participants’ own Asian American communities; and other communities with shared group identities (e.g., the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] community) were identified by participants as the fourth intervening condition. When organized communities were present, they either hindered or fostered mobilization. Participants who had communities that hindered mobilization described how their families and Asian American communities socialized them “not to rock the boat,” raised them to “keep their head down,” and discouraged “making waves.” Participants who lacked the presence of organized communities described feeling “burned out,” “alone,” and “unsupported.” As reported by Andi, a non-binary Korean person in their late 20s:

I have been fighting alone for years and it’s exhausting. I carry on because our activism is important, but it would be so nice to be able to meet up with other groups, share our experiences, and fill our validation cups, you know? It’s like, there is only so much I can do alone, and I don’t have the support I need to really keep going.

Participants described how communities fostered mobilization by providing the language, structure, resources, validation, and space necessary to begin talking about race and understanding the plight of other communities of color. Communities that fostered mobilization were most frequently described as college and university settings. Jackie, a Chinese and Japanese student in her mid-20s, described how her Asian American community on the university campus fosters action:

I just didn’t want to be by myself and protest alone. It feels good to learn more about why we are doing this and why it is important. Now, I felt like I have learned why it was so important that we as a group are able to rally behind the Black Lives Matter movement. I think community plays a huge part in supporting the BLM movement. It’s not just enough for us as individuals to be moving forward, it’s important that we have an Asian community presence in this battle.

The fostering role of communities in promoting thick solidarity was further described by Trichelle, a Chamorro woman in her late 50s:

I think the college and university experience has helped facilitate an understanding about race, generally, and experiences as Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, secondarily. They facilitated an ability to see the connections, both the differences and the similarities of how racism has impacted AAPI communities but also how it is linked to the experiences of Black folks. The ability to have the language and to have some kind of infrastructure is critical to mobilize. Mobilization does not happen in the absence of some kind of organizational infrastructure.

To understand this larger process of action, participants in this study described non-action, performative action, or action toward thick solidarity. Participants additionally described how contextual factors, causal conditions, and intervening conditions interacted to influence the type of actions that occurred.

Non-action occurred when Asian American individuals were unable to challenge collectivistic notions of “not rocking the boat,” “not making waves,” and “not causing trouble.” Non-action was also more likely to occur when Asian Americans became overwhelmed by the economic and social privilege afforded to them because of their proximity to Whiteness. Upon considering the distinctness of Black oppression, participants described recognition of how Asian Americans may feel “unable,” “unsupported,” “guilty,” or “ineffective” to engage in action because of burnout; lack of community, validation, support, or resources; or feelings of “privilege guilt.” Participants also described how non-action may occur in older generations and Asian immigrants who may have internalized model minority traits, emphasized the importance of assimilation, remained encapsulated within the Asian American community, or lacked an understanding of systemic racism and social justice language.

Performative or Unhelpful Action
Performative or unhelpful action occurred when Asian American individuals either felt compelled to act to avoid being perceived as anti-Black or because supporting the BLM movement was “trending.” Unhelpful action occurred when Asian American individuals centered their issues in ways that disenfranchised Black issues or centered AAPI voices over Black voices (i.e., Asians4BlackLives). June described an example of how Asian American individuals may engage in performative action: “They’ll say one or two things online, and they’ll be like, ‛Oh, I did my part. I posted #BlackLivesMatter. Look at my profile picture. Look at my Instagram. Look, I posted a couple links for donations.’”

They also explained how centering AAPI voices constituted unhelpful action:

When someone posts “Yellow Peril Stands for Black Lives,” you’re actually overshadowing Black Lives Matter. Taking our title, our movement, and placing it in front of BLM says, “Hey, we’re here. We’re standing with you. Look at us.” That’s not acting in solidarity. It becomes one group saying, “I AM HERE. Here’s my voice for your voice.” We need to make our voices strong for theirs. We are the chorus and they are the lead singers.

Action Toward Thick Solidarity
Action toward thick solidarity occurred when Asian American individuals were able to support the BLM movement without centering AAPI issues or focusing on their own racial trauma histories. Demonstrating a willingness to learn how to be an ally and cultivating cultural humility were effective strategies in transcending action from performative or unhelpful to action toward thick solidarity. Sari, a Chinese and Lebanese woman in her early 30s, described the process of acting toward solidarity and the importance of communities that foster mobilization:

Solidarity to me is not a noun. It is a process that you continue to refine and reflect on and add or subtract things to, and it has a lot to do with your perspective and your approach. And I think a lot of solidarity with others comes from a genuine dedication to building your own community. I think a really important piece of solidarity is that introspection and community building with your own ingroup.

José explained how acting toward thick solidarity requires Asian Americans to follow the lead of Black activists. He tells the following story of how he explained allyship to a friend:

Remember two summers ago when you asked me to help you fix your deck, and I never knew how to work with power tools? The weekend before, I went on the internet and learned basic skills like how to hold a tool and how to be safe. And then when I went to your house, I wore a hard hat. I had everything ready, and I followed your lead and your leadership. That’s how you become an ally. You educate yourself. And when you go to situations you don’t center yourself. You follow the person who has the most experience.

Phenomenon, Consequences, and Core Category
Participants in the study described the process of feeling “primed” to act because of the combined causal conditions of George Floyd’s murder and experiences of COVID-19–related anti-Asian discrimination. Participants were able to mobilize because of the contextual factors of alignment with personal and community values, awareness and knowledge, and perspectives of oppression. The phenomenon of Asian American activists mobilizing in thick solidarity with the BLM movement were influenced by intervening conditions, which included affective responses, intergenerational conflict, conditioning of “privileges” afforded by White supremacy, and organized communities. Each of these conditions and factors interacted to influence non-action, performative or unhelpful action, and action toward thick solidarity.

Participants identified the consequences of pursuing thick solidarity with the Black community as resulting in pathways that facilitate three domains: (a) to promote intraracial and interracial healing, (b) to commit to personal and community values as well as human rights initiatives, and (c) to restructure policies and redistribute power. Within this study, “achieving a collective oppressed identity” occurred most frequently in participant narratives, experiences, and practices and was identified as absolutely critical for mobilization to occur. The core category of achieving a collective oppressed identity arose as a result of George Floyd’s murder, because of experiences of COVID-19–related anti-Asian discrimination, and in the light of awareness and knowledge.


A grounded theory analysis with 25 diverse individuals outlined an emergent process describing how contributing factors mobilized Asian American activists toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement in June and July 2020. Understanding and abstracting this theoretical process is important to embolden other Asian American individuals to engage in collective social action. Components of the emergent process are consistent with the CIIM (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000) and supplement additional studies that explored AAPI support for the BLM movement (Lee et al., 2020; Merseth, 2018; Yoo et al., 2021). Specifically, the theoretical process that emerged from this study illuminates new findings that indicate how achieving a collective oppressed identity and contextualizing the historical relationship between the Asian American and Black communities are critical to empowering AAPI communities to form racial coalitions (Chang, 2020; J. Ho, 2021). For many participants, understanding this history and becoming more racially conscious propelled their motivations for achieving solidarity and dismantling the forces of White supremacy that oppress all racialized groups. This finding reveals numerous perspectives that value historical context and knowledge as a central factor for AAPI activism, especially in tandem with other communities of color (Museus, 2021; Nicholson et al., 2020).

Participants in the study identified how George Floyd’s murder and their experiences of anti-Asian discrimination resulted in an achieved collective oppressed identity that contributed to their mobilization toward thick solidarity with the BLM movement. This finding is consistent with extant research that hypothesized how ingroup discrimination may cultivate increased empathy, positive attitudes, and a collective sense of greater community (Craig & Richeson, 2012; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). The ways that causal conditions identified in this study led to a collective oppressed identity may further be explained through the lens of the CIIM model (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000), which posits that experiences of racial discrimination can engender positive attitudes and feelings of closeness to other racial minorities. The findings of the study additionally complement earlier studies on AAPI support for BLM that identified race-based linked fate beliefs among Asian Americans as a predictor of BLM support (Merseth, 2018), and an ethnography that identified the importance of organized educational communities for Southeast Asian Americans engaging in activism (Lee et al., 2020). Another possibility may be that participants in the study achieved a dual identity. As explained by Gaertner and colleagues (1994), dual identity occurs when individuals perceive themselves as members of different ethnic or racial groups “playing on the same team” (p. 227)—in this case, to dismantle the forces of White supremacy that continue to oppress all communities of color. The findings from the present study further elaborate on processes that may outline how anti-Asian discrimination can create the impetus for mobilizing in thick solidarity with the Black community (Anand & Hsu, 2020; Li & Nicholson, 2021; R. Liu & Shange, 2018; W. Liu, 2018).

Implications From the Study
The findings from this study can be used by mental health professionals and counselor educators to engage in meaningful racial dialogues and foster interracial coalitions. Specifically, professional counselors can employ this grounded theory to help Asian Americans heal from their own racial and intergenerational trauma by supporting other communities of color. The process of action outlined in our study illuminates the importance of promoting awareness and knowledge about the history of Black and AAPI oppression (Chang, 2020; J. Ho, 2021), connecting AAPI individuals to supportive communities (C. D. Chan & Litam, 2021; Yi et al., 2020), and providing helpful resources (e.g., Letters for Black Lives) and strategies (e.g., exposure and connection with other communities of color) to navigate cultural barriers (Arora & Stout, 2019).

Mental health professionals and social justice advocates can apply these findings to promote engagement in community organizing efforts of AAPI communities with the BLM movement, denounce anti-Blackness, and uphold culpability in supporting the Black community. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, AAPI individuals may experience greater rates of racial discrimination and anti-Asian rhetoric in ways that negatively impact their well-being (C. D. Chan & Litam, 2021; Jeung & Nham, 2020; Litam, 2020; Litam & Oh, 2020, 2021; Litam et al., 2021). Mental health professionals can validate these experiences of oppression and help clients redirect affective experiences in ways that promote awareness and knowledge (David et al., 2019; Museus, 2021), challenge proximity to Whiteness (Poon et al., 2016; Yi et al., 2020), and cultivate meaningful action in racial solidarity movements (Chang, 2020; Litam, 2021; Yoo et al., 2021). Helping Asian American individuals find communities that foster action toward thick solidarity with BLM and exploring how affective experiences influence accountability may be helpful in garnering support. For example, mental health professionals can explore whether limited perspectives of oppression and assimilation strategies may result in inaction or performative action, especially in directly challenging Whiteness (Chang, 2020; Yoon et al., 2016) or intentionally taking accountability for harboring anti-Black sentiments (Museus, 2021). This consideration is especially crucial as AAPIs build long-term solidarity as a proactive approach to Black solidarity rather than a temporary measure. Finally, mental health professionals may encourage AAPI individuals to expand their perspectives to include dual identities as AAPI people and as members of a greater group of oppressed minoritized individuals to foster racial coalitions.

First, participants self-selected into the study with a strong working knowledge of their activist and AAPI identities. Readers must therefore be judicious about transferring these findings to AAPI individuals whose activist and/or racial identities may not be fully developed. Second, participants represented a small sample of a larger Asian American community that endorses varying views about activism, anti-Blackness, and other human rights issues. Notably, the sample only included one person with Pacific Islander heritage. Although the importance of thick solidarity continues to gain traction, readers must caution themselves against interpreting these perspectives as a monolithic viewpoint held by all AAPI individuals.

Recommendations for Future Research
The limitations of the study yield additional opportunities to build upon empirical research that illuminates racial coalitions, particularly among communities of color. With the findings of this study, it would be helpful to elucidate critical developmental points that shift AAPI communities into racial consciousness of White supremacy. This developmental point may be complex, given different histories of regions within the United States, migration histories, acculturation rates, and racial socialization within families. Similarly, White supremacy seeks to homogenize AAPI communities as a single racial group solely characterized by educational and economic success (Museus, 2021).

Built upon the premise of this study, it behooves researchers to address how anti-Blackness persists within AAPI communities (Yi et al., 2020; Yoo et al., 2021). Because only one participant had Pacific Islander heritage in the current study, researchers can further explore how Pacific Islanders may (a) endorse anti-Blackness, (b) experience the nexus of racism and colonialism, and (c) shape their commitments to solidarity with Black communities. Based on the themes underpinning the process toward thick solidarity in the study, it may be beneficial for researchers to consider the institutional conditions of their neighborhoods, communities, schools, and workplaces in promoting racial coalitions. Given that the study’s findings emphasized the importance of awareness and knowledge, it would be helpful to engage in qualitative research that further explores how educators in the P–16 system (i.e., preschool to college) map their curriculum of Asian history to include knowledge of racial coalitions, White supremacy, imperialism, and colonialism. Further research may also examine how counselor educators address the complex and racialized experiences of Asian American and Black communities within graduate coursework. Additionally, it is imperative to expand on research that illuminates Black organizers, activists, and communities in racial solidarity movements and Black-Asian racial coalitions.


The results of a grounded theory with diverse Asian American voices illuminated how causal conditions, contextual factors, intervening conditions, actions, and outcomes mobilized Asian Americans toward solidarity with the BLM movement in 2020. Understanding these conditions are of paramount importance to overcoming anti-Black notions embedded within AAPI ethnic subgroups and challenging systemic forms of racial oppression that impact all communities of color.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.


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Stacey Diane Arañez Litam, PhD, NCC, CCMHC, LPCC-S, is an assistant professor at Cleveland State University. Christian D. Chan, PhD, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Correspondence may be addressed to Stacey Litam, 2121 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115, s.litam@csuohio.edu.

Opportunities and Challenges of Multicultural and International Online Education

Szu-Yu Chen, Dareen Basma, Jennie Ju, Kok-Mun Ng


Distance counselor education has expanded educational opportunities for diverse groups of students. To effectively train and support global students in counseling programs, the authors explore some unique challenges and opportunities that counselor educators may encounter when integrating technology in the multicultural counseling curriculum. The authors discuss pedagogical strategies that can enhance distance learners’ multicultural and social justice counseling competencies. Through an intersectional, social construction pedagogy, counselor educators can decolonize traditional multicultural counseling curricula and foster an international distance learning environment. Additional innovative approaches and resources, such as online multiculturally oriented student services, online student-centered multiculturally based organizations and workshops, and office hours for mentoring online international students and supporting distance learners’ needs, are described.


Keywords: distance counselor education, multicultural, international, online education, social justice


The growth in distance learning has led to an integration of technology in the curriculum over the past two decades (Allen et al., 2016). Counselor educators now can deliver distance learning courses internationally via videoconference systems, such as two-way audio and video software programs, for students to attend classes either synchronously or asynchronously (Snow et al., 2018), and many programs are moving toward distance education (Benshoff & Gibbons, 2011; Reicherzer et al., 2009). This shift in educational platforms allows both domestic and international students to receive counselor education and training remotely without having to commute or leave their home countries. For example, the counselor education program at the institution of the first three authors currently has over 300 students from the five most populous continents in various stages of counselor preparation. Distance education has expanded educational opportunities, targeted underserved groups of students, and given space for the formation of a more globally diverse student body (Columbaro, 2009; Gillies, 2008).


With the dramatic increase of diversity and attention to racism and other forms of human oppression in the United States, by the early 2000s, the issues of multiculturalism and social justice had come to the center of the counseling profession (Arredondo, 1999) and were recognized as two sides of the same coin (Ratts, 2011). As a result, multicultural education in the profession has been aimed at enhancing students’ awareness of cultural diversity and social justice in counseling relationships and implementation of advocacy competencies as they grapple with power, privilege, and oppression at the individual and systemic levels (Ratts et al., 2015). More recently, the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC; Ratts et al., 2015) has integrated a social justice and advocacy component into the framework of multicultural counseling competencies developed in 1992 by Sue, Arredondo, and McDavis, and highlighted the intersection of identities and the role power, privilege, and oppression play in the counseling relationship. The American Counseling Association (ACA; 2014) has also asserted that “counselor educators actively infuse multicultural/diversity competency in their training and supervision practices. They actively train students to gain awareness, knowledge, and skills in the competencies of multicultural practice” (F.11.c). Yet there seems to be a lack of attention in the literature to how online training programs can address global students’ multicultural and social justice counseling competencies given their non-traditional modes of learning delivery. With the emphasis on the helping relationship in the counseling profession, instructors who teach online face additional challenges because of a lack of in-person contact with students and may feel skeptical about the effectiveness of creating a safe and interactive space virtually, especially in relation to addressing challenging and complex topics (Hall et al., 2010).


It is worth noting that many counselor educators have not received formal pedagogical education and training on integrating technology into their curriculum and developing effective online courses (Cicco, 2012). This impacts educators’ feelings of discomfort or lack of preparedness when developing and delivering an online international multicultural counseling course, as well as facilitating discussions about multicultural issues and developing global students’ multicultural and social justice counseling training and competencies through an online medium. Consequently, when considering the development of an online multicultural counseling course, educators have to not only grapple with the complexity of designing a nuanced curriculum, but also negotiate delivery of a curriculum on an evolving learning platform in which international students who do not reside in the United States are integrated into the learning experience. As such, there are several opportunities and challenges to consider when facilitating multicultural and social justice counseling training on an online platform.


To effectively retain and support global students with diverse backgrounds and learning styles in distance counseling programs, herein we explore challenges and opportunities that counselor educators encounter when integrating technology in the multicultural and social justice counseling curriculum. Specifically, we want to discuss pedagogical strategies that we have found valuable to enhancing global learners’ multicultural and social justice counseling competencies. With the movement toward internationalizing the counseling profession, we believe that counselor educators can decolonize the traditional multicultural counseling curriculum and promote global students’ multicultural and social justice advocacy competencies through an intersectional and social construction online pedagogy and further cultivate an inclusive global learning environment. Additionally, we want to share innovative approaches counselor educators can use to support global students’ needs and enhance student retention in online counseling programs.


Internationalization of Multicultural Counseling Education in the Virtual Classroom


In international distance education, each student may differ in experiences of culture, cultural identities, and developmental level of multicultural counseling and social justice competencies. To address the increase in a globally diverse student body, the counseling profession is transforming from a Western-based to a global-based practice (Lorelle et al., 2012). Historically, textbooks and journal articles in the United States regarding diversity are typically monoculture in nature, focusing primarily on social identities such as race, ethnicity, gender, and social class that are commonly found in U.S.-based diversity discourse (Case, 2017). Students who live abroad may find these materials and foci disconnected from their contexts and not applicable to their practice. Consequently, these students can become less engaged in the learning experience.


The movement toward internationalizing the counseling profession over the past two decades has highlighted the need to extend multicultural competencies in ways that are relevant to mental health services beyond U.S. borders. Relatedly, Harley and Stansbury (2011) asserted that the multicultural movement needs to take place at two levels. On the first level, it requires our diligence to recognize, learn about, and appreciate the cultural diversity that exists on U.S. soil. The second level requires us to develop a global perspective that recognizes other cultures and sociopolitical forces that impact the lived experiences of people in other countries. Other scholars (e.g., Bhat & McMahon, 2016; Knight, 2004; Ng et al., 2012) also acknowledge these two dimensions in efforts to internationalize the counseling profession and emphasize the need to address the underdevelopment of cross-national multicultural competencies.


To date, systematic discourse related to international students’ learning experiences and perspectives in online training programs remains limited. To respond to this shift in distance counselor education, we propose adding a third dimension—the internationalization of counselor education—to the two levels of multicultural education proposed by Harley and Stansbury (2011). This third multicultural dimension requires a conceptualization of cultures and ways of being into a counseling curriculum that maintains a global and international perspective. Thus, learning is comprised of training activities and programs designed to prepare students to provide culturally responsive counseling services and advocacy that are simultaneously informed by both a local and global perspective.


Counselor educators are aware of the enormity of some of the challenges associated with the movement toward internationalizing counselor education. There have been encouraging but limited developments by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), ACA, and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES) toward this cause. For example, to advance global mental health training and services, NBCC trains and collaborates with international counseling organizations to promote counselor professionalism as they develop their training requirements to the needs of their specific populations. ACA and ACES offer international counseling students and faculty interest networks in which counselors and counselor educators have space to facilitate discussions about challenges and solutions when providing global counseling services and preparing culturally responsive training curricula for students. However, the effect of these advocacies on internationalizing counselor education has not been widely evaluated yet. It appears that the counseling profession recognizes the benefits of this endeavor but is sorting out opportunities as well as resources necessary for implementation. We view contributing to the dialogue on internationalizing multicultural counseling training through an intersectional and social construction online pedagogy as a privilege.


Intersectional and Social Construction Online Pedagogy

An area of dissonance for international counseling students involves differences in cultural worldview. Marsella and Pederson (2004) posited that “Western psychology is rooted in an ideology of individualism, rationality, and empiricism that has little resonance in many of the more than 5,000 cultures found in today’s world” (p. 414). Ng and Smith’s study (2009) highlighted that international students, particularly those from non-Western nations, may struggle with integrating Eurocentric theories and concepts into the world they know. Their findings indicated that international trainees tend to experience more difficulties in areas related to clinical training and worldview conflicts in understanding mental health treatment compared to their domestic peers. International students can find that materials learned in Western-based counselor education have little relevance and applicability to the local demographics in which they work (Ng et al., 2012).


Ng and colleagues (2012) indicated that the goals of internationalizing counseling preparation curricula are to better equip students with required knowledge, awareness, skills, beliefs, and attitudes and to train students to become social change agents who actively resolve global mental health issues and inequalities. Herein lies the opportunity for counselor educators to intentionally search for appropriate pedagogies and to critically present readings and other media that help inculcate a multicultural perspective (Goodman et al., 2015) that is relevant to local contexts while appreciating a global perspective of lived experience and civilization. Social constructionism demands that we take a critical stance toward ways of understanding the world (Burr, 2015). It emphasizes the need to acknowledge the context and extent of subjectivity infused into what we know and invites us to critically examine the knowledge we have gained based on the culture and society surrounding the time period in which we exist. This lens helps us recognize that our knowledge is rooted in historical and cultural relativity and is socially created (Young & Collin, 2004). We need to be mindful that the knowledge created in the classroom has a social, cultural, and political impact on society. Thus, to internationalize distance counselor education, we consider it crucial for academics to recognize the social construction of the knowledge they carry and communicate in the virtual classroom setting, including the construction of their teaching methods for delivering knowledge (hooks, 1994).


Over 30 years ago, Crenshaw (1989) and hooks (1984) postulated that individuals hold a set of multiple and simultaneous identities. Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionality to describe individuals’ complex identities as opposed to categorical generalizations. Traditionally, multicultural courses tend to focus on one aspect of social identity and related oppressions separately from other social identities. The intersecting complexities among social identities and structural oppressions and privileges are often neglected. Collins (2000) provided a pedagogic conceptual framework to include both advantaged and disadvantaged identities. Although the intersectionality theory has been integrated within multiple disciplines, such as women’s studies, sociology, psychology, and law, instructors often do not incorporate intersectionality into diversity courses (Dill, 2009). Scholars, therefore, have called for an intersectional approach to transform higher education (Berger & Guidroz, 2009) and move beyond single-axis models.


To move beyond the individual and monocultural level, Case (2017) proposed that educators and students can address issues of culture, diversity, and advocacy in a diverse classroom through an intersectional pedagogy. Case emphasized an effective intersectional pedagogy that includes the following main tenets: Instructors (a) conceptualize intersectionality as a complex analysis of privileged and oppressed social identities; (b) teach intersectionality across a wide range of institutional oppression; (c) aim to explore invisible intersections; (d) include aspects of privilege and analyze power when teaching about intersectionality theory; (e) encourage students reflection about their own intersecting identities; (f) reflect the impact of educators’ social identities, biases, and assumptions on the learning community; (g) promote social action; (h) value the voice of marginalized students; and (i) infuse intersectional studies across the curriculum.


We believe that using an intersectional perspective that couples with a social construction perspective in multicultural education curriculum development can be valuable in the context of distance international counselor education, particularly in multicultural and international online education that contains a globally diverse student body. By implementing an intersectional and social construction pedagogical design in multicultural and social justice online counseling courses, instructors focus on examinations of social locations concerning privilege and oppression (Cole, 2009) and avoid overemphasizing any single characteristic of individual identities (Dill & Zambrana, 2009). This approach also provides instructors and worldwide students with a critical framework for analyzing structural power and oppression, examining the complexity of identities, and discussing action plans for empowerment and advocacy (Dill & Zambrana, 2009; Rios et al., 2017). Chan et al. (2018) also supported embodying an intersectional framework in developing multicultural and social justice courses within the counselor education curriculum. Counselor educators who teach beyond multicultural counseling knowledge and skills can enhance students’ critical thinking, case conceptualization skills (Chan et al., 2018), and cultural empathy (Davis, 2014) toward marginalized groups. Moreover, students are likely to see beyond the prescriptive counseling approach that addresses a limited set of cultural values (Chan et al., 2018). This perspective also can engage students in analyzing issues of privilege, power, and global oppression, and systematically reflecting on their own experiences.


Wise and Case (2013) noted that intersectional pedagogy is an inclusive approach that helps students reduce resistance when engaging in examining privileged and oppressed identities. This approach validates worldwide students’ various experiences and includes exploration of invisible interactions when discussing personal privilege. Considering that issues related to multiculturalism can evoke various emotions in the classroom, such as frustration, shame, guilt, and defensiveness, intersectional pedagogy provides an outlet to engage all students in this learning process (Banks et al., 2013; Wise & Case, 2013). Creating a safe space for learners in virtual classrooms to bravely experience and address these challenges requires thoughtful learning strategies. Accordingly, we illustrate intersectional and social construction pedagogy and strategies that counselor educators can consider integrating into online curricula to facilitate and assess global students’ multicultural and social justice counseling competencies, as well as provide supports for students in a diverse online learning environment.


Internationalizing an Online Multicultural Counseling Course

The master’s counseling program at the first three authors’ institution offers online or residential format options. The online counseling program provides domestic students and international students who live abroad opportunities to receive counselor education and training. Given the high ratio of international students and students with diverse backgrounds at the authors’ institutions, we believe that structuring the virtual multicultural counseling course from a global perspective and grounding it in a socially constructed, intersectional framework can facilitate student understanding and appreciation of multiculturalism, diversity, and social justice. Additionally, a successful integration of technology entails careful consideration of course content, the instructor’s role in the teaching and learning process, and students’ access to and comfort with the technology (Zhu et al., 2011). The following is an example of how an online master’s-level multicultural counseling course is delivered through an intersectional and social construction pedagogy that includes an international perspective, and how global students’ multicultural and social justice counseling competencies are assessed.


Our online multicultural counseling course focuses on creating a critical space where students can actively and transparently deconstruct their socially constructed knowledge, beliefs, and biases about differences and others. Rather than focusing on attending to specific cultural groups, which historically has been the norm for multicultural counseling classes, we focus on internationalizing the counseling profession and emphasize the need to address cross-national multicultural competencies. This course aims to develop students’ consciousness about the system of oppression that significantly impacts both dominant and marginalized groups’ well-being. Thus, the intersectional and MSJCC frameworks are used to structure our online multicultural counseling course in that knowledge, awareness, skills, and advocacy are at the core of each of the assignments, readings, and synchronized and asynchronized discussions.


Readings assigned for the class include both a clinical counseling textbook that attends to assessment, counseling, and diagnosis from a multicultural lens, and supplementary readings from the fields of multicultural and social justice education. Instructors use a learning management system to facilitate asynchronized online discussion board activities and readings and provide written, audio, or video feedback on students’ assignments. In addition to asynchronized learning, instructors and students meet in an interactive synchronized virtual classroom weekly for 1.5 hours over an 11-week course. Research shows that online models can be effective, with synchronous online programs being the most promising (Siemens et al., 2015). Students also have opportunities to do live multicultural role-plays in which instructors provide immediate feedback.


Instructors can face unique challenges in teaching and discussing some sensitive and controversial issues with students, which is an inherent part of multicultural and social justice advocacy training. It is recommended that educators foster positive relationships with students and establish a safe and trusting learning environment to engage students in constructive conversations and self-reflection (Brooks et al., 2017). Yet teaching a multicultural counseling class in a virtual setting can add additional barriers to fostering a safe learning environment. For example, in a virtual classroom, instructors are only able to see a student’s face amidst many other digital faces. As a result, some of the challenges of teaching this course virtually include effectively noting students’ nonverbal communications, sensing their emotive responses or reactions to the discussion content, and attending to topics that students may be having a difficult time speaking about in front of a large group. Moreover, many videoconferencing platforms allow students to engage in both private and public conversations with other students via chat boxes. Consequently, establishing virtual classroom ground rules is essential. Examples of ground rules and strategies that ensure a safe and respectful online learning environment may include: (a) turning on the camera to allow instructors and classmates to observe others’ nonverbal communication and address immediacy, (b) using headphones to respect classmates’ sharing, (c) turning off the private chat setting to avoid side conversations among students, and (d) providing options for students to share their thoughts and feelings in the chat box. It also is important to facilitate a discussion with students about ways to share their airtime with classmates in a virtual classroom and provide their classmates with understanding and support by observing virtual verbal and nonverbal communication.


To assess global students’ cross-national multicultural and social justice counseling competencies, we developed three major assignments and assessments for this class. Virtual classroom discussion is an essential assessment. To socially construct students’ knowledge of power, privilege, and oppression and reflect students’ learning experience, students are encouraged to actively share their reactions to the learning materials and how these materials are related to personal experience and counseling implications in their countries. Students’ level of participation and self- and other-awareness can be assessed in breakout rooms as well as in a large discussion group. However, considering students may have various ways to engage with the materials, instructors encourage students who struggle with verbally participating in the virtual classroom to collaboratively identify alternative concrete methods to evidence participation with instructors, such as reflective journals.


The second assignment is a group presentation that attends to manifestations of oppression within systems. The purpose of this assignment is to increase global students’ knowledge and understanding of how racism and oppression are produced and reproduced across generations, institutions, and countries. Although oppression impacts all institutions, this project encourages student groups to focus on dynamics in eight mutually reinforcing areas: housing, education, immigration, the labor market, the criminal justice system, the media, politics, and health care. Students are also asked to create a vignette based on the presented topic and facilitate role-plays. This experiential activity facilitates students’ understanding of intersecting identities in the counseling relationship and enhances cross-national cultural empathy by attending to clients’ experience. This assignment increases global students’ awareness of the complexity of mental health issues and transgenerational trauma that can ensue as a result of systematic oppression. It also challenges unconscious biases and beliefs that students may have around marginalized populations being impacted by these systems in their countries.


The last major assignment, the resistance project, is a quarter-long individual project and targets an increase in awareness of self. For counselors, awareness of self in the context of culture is one of the more challenging parts of our work and is a process that is ongoing and constant. This assignment focuses on attending to both conscious and unconscious biases to groups of people. Initially, students are asked to identify three specific cultural groups to which they identify resistance in their countries. Students can express significant struggles around this part of the assignment indicating feelings of guilt, shame, judgment of self, denial of bias, and confusion around their biases. Normalizing and validating these feelings is crucial in fostering a space for critical reflection, as well as providing non-judgmental feedback regarding their initial explorations. The next part of our resistance project asks students to select one of the three identified groups to explore in greater detail throughout the quarter. Students are asked to begin looking for numerous academic sources, social media sources, and immersion experiences that they can engage in throughout the quarter that would encourage them to very directly examine their biases. Significant levels of discomfort appear here among students, particularly regarding individual and group experiences they have engaged in. Students are asked to reflect on and lean into that discomfort in order to better understand it. In addition, they are asked to critically examine their internal process and connect their reactions back to their identified resistance.


Supporting Globally Diverse Students Outside of the Virtual Classroom


As counselor education focuses on further developing multicultural online pedagogy, there is a need to evaluate programmatic effectiveness in demonstrating sensitivity to the concerns of globally diverse student populations. Just as it is critical for instructors to attend to creating culturally relevant curricula, program administrators need an understanding of the challenges that characterize distance students from global communities and be intentional about addressing some of those challenges. This section discusses ways that institutions can walk the walk in their application of the principles espoused in curricular pedagogy by creating an environment in which worldwide students feel welcomed and supported.


According to the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP; 2016), approximately 32% of students enrolled in counseling programs are from racially diverse heritages. Kung (2017) reported that “in the 2015–2016 academic year, over 1 million international students were reported as studying at U.S. colleges and universities” (p. 479). Currently, there are no official statistics on the number of students enrolled in distance counselor education programs by race, ethnicity, or country of residence. Although specific data is lacking, the statistics above provide an indication of the potentially significant presence of an international student population in distance learning programs. It is critical to examine the criteria for determining a university’s effectiveness in supporting worldwide students outside the virtual classroom. “Exemplary institutions” in recruiting and retaining minority students of color have the characteristic of being successful in increasing enrollment of minority students of color and retaining students through to graduation (Rogers & Molina, 2006). While an institution’s effectiveness in providing needed support does not necessarily equate to its ability to retain students and achieve high graduation rates, one can surmise that some unsupported individuals will choose to drop out. Although there are numerous ways that an institution can provide a sustainable environment for global students outside of the virtual classroom, we will focus on six key approaches, namely technology, field experience, multiculturally oriented student support services, mentorship, student-centered multiculturally based organizations, and multiculturally based events and workshops.



In an online education format, access to reliable technology is imperative to students’ success in the program. Level of access to proper computing devices or to the internet by various social identity groups can create a digital divide, which disadvantages one group over another (Bolt & Crawford, 2000; Clark & Gorski, 2001). International students from developing and underdeveloped nations experience frequent disruption when accessing virtual class meetings and course contents because of political causes or technological deficiency in their regions. For example, a student from the Central African Republic is sometimes unable to log in to class meetings when she is unable to turn on generators in a remote village for fear that this could alert guerilla gangs and prompt additional warfare. A student in Peru who does her internship in rural areas is unable to submit her assignments on time because of a lack of internet access. Students in Beijing experience tight internet firewalls preventing them from accessing sites such as Google, Gmail, and YouTube; this problem intensifies during the week of the governmental National People’s Congress annual meetings. Therefore, Clark and Gorski (2001) urged educators to critically analyze the use of the internet as an educational medium and examine ways technology “serves to further identify social, cultural, educational ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’” in educational settings (p. 39).


As a partial solution to the problem of Chinese students’ difficulty in accessing web-based course content, our institution has purchased a VPN with a reliable server based in Hong Kong. Given that there are approximately 30-plus China-based students in matriculation at our institution each year, this becomes an institutional business decision. Additionally, academic advisors encourage Chinese students to approach their instructors at the beginning of each term to discuss a plan for accessing course material and timely submission of assignments. Instructors and administrators also have a responsibility to be proactive in collaborating with these students in finding alternatives by inquiring and learning about students’ potential challenges regarding technology. Educators need to discuss a plan to accommodate students’ needs within reason.


Field Experience

Issues with cultural worldviews and contextual differences become prominent during students’ process of searching for practicum opportunities and experiences of participating in clinical training in their home countries. Specifically, students and educators have encountered these obstacles in three aspects. First, the philosophical understanding of the purpose of internship and supervision of interns are different. Next, the integration of Eurocentric theories and implications with their clients’ cases might not be applicable. Last, there is a lack of regulatory infrastructure to guide and oversee the helping profession. A case example is students in China, where many native organizations expect to benefit financially from placement of interns. They do not seem to consider that student interns are capable of counseling clients under proper supervision. Thus, many mental health agencies do not permit trainees to provide counseling before graduation. Supervision is considered more of a business arrangement than a supervisory and mentoring relationship.


The first three authors’ institution offers an online practicum course each academic term for students residing and doing an internship overseas. This strategy aims to provide a weekly forum where students receive additional support in applying counseling concepts and approaches to their cultural context. This also serves as a supportive distance environment in which instructors and students collaboratively conceptualize and explore treatment approaches that are culturally and contextually relevant to their client populations. The second purpose for the dedicated practicum course is to navigate students’ dual legal and ethical milieus. A lack of regulatory oversight for the counseling profession in China and other countries has created legal and ethical challenges for intern placements. This reality has added confusion and inconsistencies in what is permissible based on U.S. regulatory and accreditation boards, as well as common practices in students’ home countries.


Multiculturally Oriented Student Support Services

Student services offices in institutions generally provide a wide range of services. To meet distance learners’ needs, it is necessary to implement some student services via an online format. First, institutions provide tutoring services to help improve the English writing skills of speakers of other languages. Students from immigrant and refugee communities as well as some international students fall into this category. Students from non–English-speaking countries enrolled in counseling and related disciplines tend to experience challenges related to English proficiency (Ng, 2006). As such, one-on-one tutoring is available at our institution for students who struggle with editing and American Psychological Association (APA) style writing. This service is critical because many foreign countries do not utilize APA format, and therefore international students do not have familiarity with this style of writing.


Second, tutors at the first three authors’ institution are doctoral students from the psychology department who have opportunities to provide services for students from marginalized communities. Through collaboration between the office of student services and the counseling department, this strategy serves as an excellent service learning experience in working with individuals from globally diverse communities. With an intentional design, the writing skills tutoring service complements classroom pedagogy on multiculturalism by presenting experience with real-world problems, providing opportunities for students to grapple with their beliefs and biases and involve action-oriented solutions.



Mentorship is a substantive resource for supporting worldwide students from diverse communities. Rogers and Molina’s (2006) study found that nine of the 11 psychology programs and departments that were successful at recruiting and retaining students of color had established mentoring programs. In general, ethnic minority students tend to prefer and report more satisfaction with mentors who share a similar racial background (Chan et al., 2015). Figueroa and Rodriguez (2015) posited that mentoring is social justice work that “is a racially and culturally mediated experience instead of a race-neutral, objective interaction” (p. 23). It is an unfortunate reality of counselor education that there exists a significant underrepresentation of minority faculty. The disparity is prominent among Hispanic/Latinx demographics, where student enrollment (8.5%) is almost double the number of faculty (4.7%) from Hispanic/Latinx heritage among CACREP-accredited programs (CACREP, 2016). Black student enrollment is 18.3% and only 12.7% of the total faculty members in CACREP-accredited programs are Black. Chan and colleagues (2015) suggested that in the absence of same-race mentors, the presence of cross-cultural support in the form of multiculturally sensitive mentoring can be beneficial and even critical to the success of international students from diverse ethnic backgrounds.


To support the unique needs of international students in the residential and online cohort, the first author designed weekly office hours for online international students to provide advising and mentorship. The virtual office hours aim to provide a space where students and their peers can not only share challenges, struggles, and concerns about their learning experiences in the program, but also support each other. Additionally, the third author and a colleague have served as international and distance directors of clinical training, which can provide specific mentorship regarding practicum experiences for international students.


Student-Centered Multiculturally Based Organizations

The presence of student-centered organizations is another effective way to provide a sense of belonging and an environment that facilitates peer support among those with shared interests on campus (Rogers & Molina, 2006). Some culturally and social justice–based organizations active at the first three authors’ institution serve this purpose well. One of the university-wide organizations, Diaspora, serves students, staff, and faculty in the community who are interested in learning about and advocating for mental health issues relevant to the Black diaspora. Members of Diaspora aim to raise the community’s awareness of psychosocial and environmental factors that impact the Black community’s well-being. Another organization at our institution, the Latinx Task Force, was formed with a Unity grant award from our university president’s office for faculty, students, and staff to join forces across programs to implement projects that serve the Latinx/Hispanic community on and off campus (Latinx Task Force, n.d.). Furthermore, the Latinx Task Force initiated a Spanish clinician course that introduces students to essential clinical vocabulary, clinical skills, and cultural considerations required to work with Spanish-speaking clients. The Latinx Task Force also conducts a mentorship series that brings Latinx professionals in the field to offer career mentoring support to students.


Multiculturally Based Events and Workshops

Delivery of multicultural education and inclusion of diverse students should not be limited to the virtual classroom. Institutions can be intentional in hosting events and workshops that complement and reinforce classroom pedagogy on multiculturalism while actively supporting individuals from various communities. In recent years, the first three authors’ institution has hosted a rich array of workshops with topics such as “LGBT Psychology,” “Asian Americans and Suicide,” and “Risk and Resiliency Among Newcomer Immigrant Adolescents.” In addition, a “Women of Color Leaders in Psychology” event celebrates the contributions of women of color in psychology and social justice. When the workshops occur in our physical venue, they are often made accessible via videoconferencing platforms and are recorded for later viewing at a convenient time or by those in a different time zone.


Multicultural counseling education and support of the globally diverse student population are ongoing, interrelated endeavors that extend beyond the virtual classroom walls. Intentionality in hosting extracurricular events and creating a supportive environment are ways an institution makes multicultural pedagogical concepts come alive for students. They also are a way of sustaining worldwide students to graduate with a strong foundation from which to launch their counseling careers.


Discussion and Future Direction for Research


The multicultural counseling course in counselor education programs is one of the critical spaces where global students actively engage with the core components of the MSJCC. Given the complexity of teaching this course in a distance learning format, it is crucial for educators to thoroughly think through the varying foundational components, including structure, content, pedagogy, and the various challenges that can arise in virtual classrooms.


We have used our experiences in integrating technology into the multicultural counseling curriculum to discuss online pedagogical framework and virtual course development while exploring unique opportunities, challenges, and solutions. Given the movement of internationalizing the counseling profession, we postulate that multicultural counseling distance education must extend beyond U.S. borders, class meetings, and the curriculum. It is critical that counselor educators provide multicultural and social justice counseling training through systemic modeling by internationalizing the curriculum and training environment and collaborating with training programs and institutions to advocate for, attend to, and support the needs of globally diverse students in distance education.


Currently, the literature on training and online delivery of international multicultural counseling education remains limited. To explore the best online pedagogy for internationalizing multicultural counseling education, more research is needed. As such, future research could focus on examining the outcome of incorporating intersectional and social construction approaches in online counseling curricula, including global students’ multicultural and social justice counseling competencies in their home countries. Future studies also might investigate different course structures and online pedagogy to understand the best methods for multicultural distance counselor education. There is a need to explore counselor educators’ experiences of conducting online multicultural counseling education with globally diverse student populations and their perspectives on receiving multicultural counseling distance education. Supports needed for global students in the online environment may differ from traditional students. Therefore, research on how the academic support of counseling programs and institutions impacts global students’ counseling practice and retention in distance counselor education can be valuable.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.



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Szu-Yu Chen, PhD, NCC, LPC, RPT, is an assistant professor at Palo Alto University. Dareen Basma, PhD, LPC-MHSP, is a core faculty member at Palo Alto University. Jennie Ju, PhD, LPC, is a core faculty member at Palo Alto University. Kok-Mun Ng, PhD, NCC, ACS, LPC, is a professor at Oregon State University. Correspondence can be mailed to Szu-Yu Chen, 1791 Arastradero Drive, Palo Alto, CA 94304, dchen@paloaltou.edu.

Integrating Social Justice Advocacy Into Mental Health Counseling in Rural, Impoverished American Communities

Loni Crumb, Natoya Haskins, Shanita Brown


This phenomenological study explored the experiences of 15 professional counselors who work with clients living in impoverished communities in rural America. Researchers used individual semi-structured interviews to gather data and identified four themes that represented the counselors’ experiences using the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies as the conceptual framework to identify the incorporation of social justice and advocacy-oriented counseling practices. The themes representing the counselors’ experiences were: (1) appreciating clients’ worldviews and life experiences, (2) counseling relationships influencing service delivery, (3) engaging in individual and systems advocacy, and (4) utilizing professional support. The counselors’ experiences convey the need to alter traditional counseling session delivery formats, practices, and roles to account for clients’ life experiences and contextual factors that influence mental health care in rural, impoverished communities. Approaches that counselors use to engage in social justice advocacy with and on behalf of rural, impoverished clients are discussed.

Keywords: rural, impoverished communities, advocacy, social justice, multicultural


Approximately 41.3 million Americans live in poverty (Semega, Fontenot, & Kollar, 2017) and consistently face multiple chronic stressors (e.g., food and housing insecurities, social isolation, inability to access adequate physical and mental health care) that impact their quality of life (Fifield & Oliver, 2016; Hill, Cantrell, Edwards, & Dalton, 2016). Nevertheless, the scope of mental health concerns of individuals and families residing in persistently poor, rural communities remains under-researched and overlooked by the public, scholars, and policymakers (Tickamyer, Sherman, & Warlick, 2017). Furthermore, advocacy efforts that foster social and economic justice and support the mental health of persons living in rural poverty warrant further advancement.

Scarce availability of mental health care services, ineffective modes of treatment and interventions, and mistrust of mental health care professionals contribute to the low utilization of mental health care services among persons living in rural poverty (Fifield & Oliver, 2016; Imig, 2014). Consequently, there are few evidence-supported culturally relevant mental health interventions tailored to address the specific needs of people living in rural poverty, particularly with a focus on social justice advocacy (Bradley, Werth, Hastings, & Pierce, 2012; Imig, 2014). Counselors practicing in rural, impoverished areas must be prepared to address systems of oppression, discrimination, marginalized statuses, and the impact these factors have on counseling services and clients’ well-being (Grimes, Haskins, & Paisley, 2013; Ratts, Singh, Nassar-McMillan, Butler, & McCullough, 2016). Moreover, according to the 2016 Code of Ethics from the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics from the American Counseling Association, counselors are expected to take actions to prevent harm and help eradicate the social structures and processes that reproduce mental health disparities in vulnerable communities (ACA, 2014; NBCC, 2016). In recognition of this expectation, the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCCs) were developed to guide mental health counselors toward practicing culturally responsive counseling and incorporating social justice advocacy initiatives into the process (Ratts, Singh, Nassar-McMillan, Butler, & McCullough, 2015). Thus, the MSJCCs’ framework undergirds our examination of counselors’ experiences and clinical practices that support the mental health and well-being of clients living in poverty in rural America.


Understanding Rural Poverty and Mental Health Care

When discussing literature pertaining to rural poverty, it is important to first define relevant terms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA; 2017) defines poverty as having an income below the federally determined poverty threshold. For example, the 2017 poverty threshold for an individual under 65 years of age was $12,752, and the poverty threshold was $16,895 for a household with two adults under age 65, with one child under 18 years of age (USDA, 2017). Persistently poor areas are defined as communities in which 20% or more of the population has lived below the poverty threshold over the last 30 years with low populations (fewer than 2,500 people; USDA, 2017). The majority of persistently poor communities are located in rural Southern regions of the United States (USDA, 2017). Rural communities that experience persistent poverty have had little diversification of employment, are underserved by mental health care providers, and lack affordable housing and economic development (Tickamyer et al., 2017). For the purposes of this study, the definitions described above were used to define and understand rurality and poverty.


Mental Health Care in Rural, Impoverished America

An abundance of literature exists that identifies concerns related to mental health care for people who live in rural poverty (Reed & Smith, 2014; Tickamyer et al., 2017). For example, Snell-Rood and colleagues (2017) conducted a qualitative study that explored the sociocultural factors that influence treatment-seeking behavior among rural, low-income women. Participants reported that the quality of counseling in their rural settings was unsatisfactory because of counselors recommending coping strategies that were “inconsistent” with daily routines and beliefs (Snell-Rood et al., 2017). Alang (2015) conducted a quantitative study that investigated the sociodemographic disparities of unmet health care needs and found that men in rural areas were more likely to forgo mental health treatment because of gender stereotypes. Specifically, Alang found that men were encouraged to ignore mental health concerns and avoid help-seeking behaviors. Furthermore, children living in rural poverty have fewer protective resources and less access to services that can address their needs and are subsequently exposed to increased violence, hunger, and poor health (Curtin, Schweitzer, Tuxbury, & D’Aoust, 2016).

Adults and children living in rural poverty often have lower mental health literacy (i.e., the ability to recognize a mental health concern when it arises and how to cope with one when it occurs; Rural Health Information Hub, 2017). For example, researchers (Pillay, Gibson, Lu, & Fulton, 2018) examined the experiences of the rural Appalachian clients who utilized mental health services and found that clients were ambivalent about diagnoses and suspicious when providers suggested psychotropic medications to support treatment. Likewise, Haynes et al. (2017) conducted focus group interviews that included persons living with a mental illness, health care providers, and clergy living in rural, impoverished communities in the Southern United States, and reported a general lack of awareness about mental illness. The researchers suggested that individuals have less knowledge of what mental illness looks like, how to recognize it, and how to identify warning signs of crises in Southern rural, impoverished communities (Haynes et al., 2017). As a result of less mental health literacy, people in rural low-income communities may delay seeking counseling treatment until symptoms have intensified and face a greater likelihood of hospitalization related to mental health challenges (Neese, Abraham, & Buckwalter, 1999; Stewart, Jameson, & Curtin, 2015).


Counselor Competence and Poverty Beliefs

Researchers have indicated that mental health professionals practicing in rural, economically deprived areas are not properly trained to address the multiple needs of this population (Bradley et al., 2012; Fifield & Oliver, 2016; Grimes, Haskins, Bergin, & Tribble, 2015). Fifield and Oliver (2016) surveyed 107 rural clinicians, exploring their perceived training-related needs and the pros and cons of rural counseling practice. The researchers found that many counselors did not receive adequate training to work with the population they served, and the counselors did not feel properly prepared to address the host of issues that may arise in their rural practice.

Moreover, mental health professionals continue to hold negative poverty beliefs and social class biases (Bray & Schommer-Aikins, 2015; Grimes et al., 2015; Smith, Li, Dykema, Hamlet, & Shellman, 2013) that negatively impact the quality of services provided. Researchers have shown that some counselors are less willing to work with clients of lower socioeconomic statuses because of communication barriers, having less knowledge of and exposure to the poverty culture, and possessing negative stereotypes about poor, rural populations (e.g., uneducated, dirty, violent, lazy; Bray & Schommer-Aikins, 2015; Smith et al., 2013). Consequently, clients from lower socioeconomic statuses receive more serious mental health diagnoses or are often misdiagnosed, which may be attributed to the professional’s negative biases, as well as lack of adequate multicultural training (Clark, Moe, & Hays, 2017).


Multicultural Counseling Competence

Increased training in multicultural counseling competence has a significant impact on counselors’ poverty beliefs (Clark et al., 2017; Toporek & Pope-Davis, 2005). In a quantitative study examining the relationship between multicultural counseling competence and poverty beliefs using a sample of 251 counselors, Clark et al. (2017) identified that higher levels of multicultural competence and training decreased poverty biases and helped counselors to understand the structural causes of poverty. Similarly, Bray and Schommer-Aikins’ (2015) survey of 513 school counselors found that counselors with training through multicultural courses recognized the external factors that contribute to poverty; however, the study did not focus on effective interventions that counselors utilized with this population.

Although these studies identified that multicultural knowledge and awareness increased counselors’ understanding of the culture of poverty, more research is necessary to explore how this information is applied to provide counseling professionals with evidence-based illustrations of social justice advocacy in practice (Ratts & Greenleaf, 2018). Accordingly, the purpose of this study was to (1) develop an understanding of the experiences of mental health counselors who work in rural, persistently poor communities and (2) identify ways that counselors incorporate social justice advocacy into counseling using the lens of the MSJCCs. The research question guiding this study was: What are the lived experiences of mental health counselors working in rural, persistently poor communities?


Conceptual Framework

The MSJCCs, a revision of the Multicultural Counseling Competencies (Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992), offer a framework to incorporate culturally responsive counseling and social justice advocacy initiatives into counseling practices, research, and curricula (Ratts et al., 2015). Established in a socioecological framework, the MSJCCs help counselors examine personal biases, skills, and the dynamics of marginalized and privileged identities in relation to multiculturalism and social justice counseling competence and advocacy. Additionally, the MSJCCs assist counselors in acknowledging clients’ intersecting identities, which bestow various aspects of power, privilege, and oppression that may impact their growth and development.

The developmental domains of the MSJCCs—(a) counselor self-awareness, (b) client worldview,
(c) counseling relationship, and (d) counseling and advocacy interventions—help counselors understand social inequalities that are perpetuated by institutional oppression in order to better serve historically marginalized clients (Ratts et al., 2015). Likewise, aspirational competencies espoused in the MSJCCs—namely (a) attitudes and beliefs, (b) knowledge, (c) skills, and (d) action—serve as objectives for multicultural, social justice competence and advocacy interventions (Ratts et al., 2015, 2016). Although the MSJCCs have been identified as goals for all counselors, limited research exists that illuminates the MSJCCs as a framework for understanding social justice applications within rural, high-poverty areas. Therefore, in considering the four distinct developmental domains and aspirational competencies, the authors utilized the MSJCCs as a basis to understand counselors’ experiences in rural, high-poverty communities. For the purposes of this study, social justice advocacy is understood as interventions and skills that counselors utilize to address inequitable social, political, or economic conditions that impede the personal and social development of individuals, families, and communities (Lewis, Ratts, Paladino,
& Toporek, 2011).



University institutional review board approval was granted for this study. We used a descriptive phenomenological qualitative research design, which is suitable for scholars to examine the lived experiences of individuals within their sociocultural context (Creswell & Creswell, 2018; Giorgi, 2009). In descriptive phenomenological studies, researchers use participants’ responses to describe common experiences that capture the “intentionality” (perception, thought, memory, imagination, and emotion) related to the phenomenon under study (Giorgi, 2009). Furthermore, using qualitative research methods allows researchers to provide an in-depth exploration of lived experiences and helps multiculturally competent counselor–researchers highlight gaps in counseling literature and inequities in counseling practices in order to advocate for systemic changes in the counseling profession (Hays & Singh, 2012; Ratts et al., 2015).


Role of the Researchers

We recognize the possibility of bias in empirical research and acknowledge our social locations, identities, and professional experiences in relation to the current research study. All three authors identify as African American women from low socioeconomic backgrounds. We identify as counselor–advocate–scholars (Ratts & Greenleaf, 2018) and incorporate advocacy for underserved populations into our counseling practices, research, supervision, and teaching (Ratts et al., 2015). We bracketed personal thoughts and feelings and discussed biases that may possibly influence the data throughout the study. For example, the frequent criminalization of poverty was a difficult finding to discuss with the participants and we met to express our thoughts regarding this finding. A graduate research assistant (middle class, European American female) was selected to assist in data collection and analysis to increase objectivity in the research process, as she was less familiar with underserved populations, but trained extensively in qualitative research techniques. We acknowledge that we used the developmental domains and aspirational competencies espoused in the MSJCCs to conceptualize this research study, analyze the data, and present the findings and implications to foster positive changes in mental health care for people living in rural, poor communities. Furthermore, it is our view that the data did not emerge independently, but that as researchers we used a rigorous process such as the use of thick descriptions to analyze and identify nuances and commonalities in the data while also accounting for our assumptions and biases (Hays & Singh, 2012; Lincoln & Guba, 1986). Our position as counselor–advocate–scholars helps to bring expertise to our scholarship and practices (Hays & Singh, 2012; Ratts & Greenleaf, 2018).



Fifteen participants (N = 15; 13 women, two men) were selected for the study using purposeful criterion sampling (Patton, 2014). Participants’ ages ranged from 28 to 67 years (M = 40). Twelve participants identified as European American and three as African American. Twelve participants were licensed professional counselors and three were licensed professional counselor associates. Two participants had doctoral degrees in counseling. Participants practiced counseling in various settings such as private practices, colleges, secondary schools, and community counseling centers. Participants also had additional credentials: three were licensed professional counselor supervisors, seven were licensed clinical addiction specialists, one was a certified clinical trauma professional, and one was a registered play therapist. Years of work experience as a professional counselor ranged from 2 to 20 (M = 6.7).


Data Collection and Analysis

Recruitment solicitation flyers were distributed to various mental health agencies located in rural counties designated as persistently poor (USDA, 2017) in one state in the Southeastern United States. The mental health agencies were identified by searching public information websites for counseling and psychological support resources within these counties. Potential participants completed a telephone eligibility screening and a demographic questionnaire. The demographic questionnaire included questions asking potential participants to identify a pseudonym, their age, ethnicity, employment status and location, and professional credentials. Participants who met inclusion criteria (i.e., licensed mental health clinicians currently employed in persistently poor rural locales) were selected to participate in the study. There is no required sample size for phenomenological studies; rather, authors (Creswell & Creswell, 2018; Hays & Singh, 2012) recommended researchers consider the purpose of the research and depth of the data. We continued to recruit participants until saturation was achieved by seeing a recurrence in the data (Creswell & Creswell, 2018; Hays & Singh, 2012). After completing Interview 15, we did not identify novel data and agreed that a sufficient amount of data was collected to provide a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon under investigation.

The researcher is the key instrument for data collection in qualitative research (Creswell & Creswell, 2018). A graduate assistant and the first author collected all study data by the use of qualitative interviews using an open-ended, semi-structured interview protocol (Hays & Singh, 2012). Each participant completed individual, one-phase, open-ended, semi-structured, face-to-face or live video interviews, lasting approximately 60–90 minutes. We audio-recorded all interviews, and they were transcribed by a professional transcription service.

The 12 interview questions that guided the study were framed by the MSJCCs’ constructs in extant literature related to the experiences of mental health counselors and clients in rural, poor communities (Bradley et al., 2012; Clark et al., 2017; Grimes et al., 2015; Grimes et al., 2013; Kim & Cardemil, 2012) and specific multicultural and social justice counseling constructs espoused in the MSJCCs (Ratts et al., 2015; Ratts et al., 2016). Six questions focused on understanding the participants’ knowledge of rural, poor communities and their experiences. Examples of these questions were: “Can you tell me the influence that persistent poverty has on the services you provide in a rural setting? What personal and client factors or experiences are influential to your work?” and “What is needed for you to competently provide counseling services to this population, if anything?” An additional six questions, also informed by the MSJCCs, sought to further explore the participant’s beliefs, skills, and actions related to multicultural competence, social justice advocacy, and counseling, such as “Can you share with me your definition and understanding of social justice advocacy in counseling? Can you share ways (if any) you incorporate social justice advocacy into your work as a counselor in a rural, economically deprived area?” and “Please share any perceived barriers to engaging in social justice advocacy and counseling in rural, economically deprived areas.”

Analysis of the data was informed by Giorgi’s (2009) and Giorgi, Giorgi, and Morley’s (2017) process for descriptive phenomenological data analysis. Specifically, we adhered to five steps in the data analysis process. First, we assumed a phenomenological attitude, in which we bracketed suppositions that could potentially influence the data and research process, such as our frustrations with perpetual deficit ideology in research related to marginalized populations. Second, after each interview was completed, we individually read each transcript to get a sense of the whole experience (i.e., native descriptions) and wrote brief notes in the margins to pinpoint any significant descriptive statements and expressions (Hays & Singh, 2012). For instance, we notated participants describing specific counseling practices that they believed were related to social justice advocacy as significant descriptive statements. We sent participants a copy of their transcript for member checking. Third, we re-read transcripts to demarcate data into multiple meaning units by clustering the invariant descriptions of participants’ experiences.

Initially, we also used a priori codes based on the MSJCCs to begin to identify units of meaning. For example, codes such as systems, advocacy, self-awareness, community, and collaboration helped us to infuse the MSJCCs’ framework and focus the findings toward understanding social justice experiences. As an example, the recognition and appreciation of a client’s ability to ascertain needed resources despite having less access and the participants’ willingness to assist in resource allocation were two invariant descriptions of experiences. The analysis process yielded 46 initial units of meaning. Participants’ quotes and definitions related to meaning units were contained in a research notebook to manage data and establish consensus coding (Hays & Singh, 2012). We held multiple meetings to discuss if and how these meaning units related to the developmental domains of the MSJCCs. For example, we discussed how one meaning unit, idiosyncrasies in the support system, closely related to the MSJCCs’ client worldview domain and reached a consensus in understanding that the participants’ ability to recognize that their clients had often strained their natural support systems exemplified that the counselor possessed knowledge of how their clients’ economic status and limited support systems shaped their attitudes and engagement in mental health treatment. In our fourth step, we reviewed the data to transform the meaning units into sensitive descriptive expressions that highlighted the psychological meaning of participants’ descriptions. We used free imaginative variation to determine the essence of the phenomenal structures of the participants’ experiences (Giorgi, 2009; Giorgi et al., 2017). We discussed any differences in understanding participants’ invariant experiences. For example, we discussed if the participants’ recognition of their need for a professional consultation to address underdeveloped counseling skills and biases related to the MSJCCs’ counselor self-awareness domain. Finally, we negotiated the interconnections and essential meanings of the meaning units, coalesced the data, and identified four essential structures that represented the descriptions of participants’ experiences and assigned them a descriptive thematic label.


Strategies for Trustworthiness

It is vital that researchers establish criteria for trustworthiness in qualitative research studies (Morrow, 2005). We demonstrated credibility through the use of bracketing, triangulation of the data sources, member checking, and peer debriefing (Morrow, 2005). Participants were provided with a copy of their transcriptions and case displays to review for member checking. We employed triangulation of data by crosschecking data (Hays & Singh, 2012) with the existing empirical studies related to rural poverty and mental health counseling. Data collection and analysis occurred concurrently in order to triangulate findings (Hays & Singh, 2012).



Using an MSJCCs lens, we identified four themes that represented the experiences of counselors who work with clients in rural poverty: (1) appreciating clients’ worldviews and life experiences, (2) counseling relationships influencing service delivery, (3) engaging in individual and systems advocacy, and (4) utilizing professional support. The findings are explicated using participants’ quotes to illustrate the meaning of each theme.


Appreciating Clients’ Worldviews and Life Experiences

Participants in the study described how they developed an appreciation for their clients’ worldviews and life experiences, even if they were different from their own. For example, Jade shared how she gained insight into and showed an appreciation for her clients’ worldviews by “showing empathy, being curious, and asking questions about what it was like for them in certain situations.” Jade expressed that seeking to understand clients’ worldviews was vital when working with African Americans living in rural poverty because she did not have the same experiences. Shelly also conveyed an appreciation for her clients’ worldviews and experiences and the impact on her clinical skills, sharing that she acquired a “different perspective” in her approach by gaining knowledge of her clients’ family structures and listening to their history.

Nine participants described that working in rural, impoverished communities entailed understanding the impact that limited resources have on providing adequate mental health services and recognizing the idiosyncrasies in clients’ support systems. Three participants described how their clients had often “burned” or “exhausted” their natural support system (i.e., personal relationships with other people that enhance the quality of one’s life), which made it difficult for participants to identify persons who would be supportive of their clients in the mental health treatment process. Addie described her counseling experiences in rural, poor communities, stating, “People have so little to fall back on, if they’re chronically mentally ill or they have a family member who is, they’re just out of resources, and they’ve maybe even burned their natural supports.” Addie further elaborated on her experiences, explaining that family members would often not return her phone calls after a client was admitted for inpatient mental health treatment.

Five participants expressed the importance of considering how low mental health literacy and mental illness stigma influenced clients’ knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs toward mental health treatment. Lola explained that she observed low mental health literacy in rural, poor communities: “There is a very low level of understanding with regard to symptoms associated with mental illness.” Lola discussed the prevalence of stigma toward clients with diagnosed mental health disorders as well as toward clients that had not been formally diagnosed because of the limited understanding of mental illness. Likewise Julian, a school-based counselor, expressed the impact of low mental health literacy in rural, high-poverty communities. Julian shared that the majority of her youth clientele were being raised by their grandparents, who had less knowledge of mental health symptoms and treatment; therefore, grandparents were often hesitant to seek mental health treatment services for their grandchildren.

Many (n = 11) of the participants indicated that in understanding the clients’ experiences and worldviews they were able to see how clients managed to be resourceful and resilient when faced with hardships. In illustration, Lola stated, “They are some of the most resourceful and resilient people that I’ve ever met; they have a knack for finding ways to achieve what needs to happen despite not having the typical resources . . . that’s very admirable.” Sue and Brenda expressed similar sentiments, also describing their clients as “resourceful.” In essence, participants explicated their attitudes and dispositions (e.g., recognizing and appreciating clients’ resourcefulness, possessing curiosity, learning about family structure and support systems) in working with clients in rural, impoverished communities. In accordance with the MSJCCs, participants expressed the importance of recognizing how the worldviews and life experiences of their marginalized clients are influenced by the context of rural poverty, such as how low mental health literacy and stigma impact the utilization of mental health treatment for this population.


Counseling Relationships Influencing Service Delivery

Participants (n = 10) described the importance of having a strong counseling relationship when working with marginalized individuals and families living in rural poverty. This solid relationship motivated participants to alter the mode of service delivery or intentionally focus more on client-centered services. Reflecting on her experiences providing home-based counseling services, Sue expressed the importance of building trust and empowerment in counseling relationships, especially when clients were involved with professionals from other agencies (e.g., probation officers) who also visited their homes. Sue described how she reinforced trust and empowerment by telling her clients, “This is about you and I’m walking alongside this path with you, I’m not going to make decisions for you.” Sue expressed that reinforcing empowerment was an essential part of counseling in rural, poor communities because clients often felt as if their power has been taken away.

Other participants shared that many of their clients came to counseling sessions without their basic needs met (e.g., food, housing, and safety) and that a solid counseling relationship allowed for more trust and openness. In return, participants expressed that clients were more willing to express their need for basic necessities without feeling ashamed, and that they often altered their services to assist clients in ascertaining immediate resources. For example, Heather noted that the poverty level was so low in her community that many of her youth clients’ basic needs were not being met and they would ask her to stop and purchase them meals. Heather disclosed that she often responded by stating, “Okay, we’re going to have to change where we’re providing therapy today, or maybe how therapy’s going to look today” to accommodate their needs. Similarly, Sadie shared, “It’s hard to see your clients going without things that you would consider basic.” Sadie described circumstances in which she arranged for food to be dropped off to the school and picked up by her clients.

Che and eight other participants acknowledged that having strong counseling relationships with clients living in rural poverty increased their willingness to extend their services beyond traditional counseling roles and settings. The participants described various cases in which they assisted clients in securing food or housing, or navigating Medicaid and other entities. For example, Che shared that she attended a mental health disability hearing with her client in which she was allowed to speak on the behalf of a client who experienced severe social anxiety. Additional participants described ways they broadened their roles to include consulting and case management and provided examples of ways they altered counseling sessions (e.g., including children because clients had no childcare) or offered incentives for attendance (e.g., bus passes and toiletries) to support clients’ continuity in treatment as well as using these as a means to help meet clients’ imminent needs. Overall, participants conveyed that their counseling relationships allowed for trust and flexibility that enabled them to use ancillary skills and knowledge when working in rural, persistently poor communities, such as skills in crisis management or intentionally building resource networks with medical professionals, churches, social service providers, law enforcement, and community organizations to help meet clients’ basic needs.


Engaging in Individual and Systems Advocacy

All participants reported engaging in various individual and systems advocacy interventions when working in rural, impoverished communities. Participants shared that engaging in advocacy was necessary, ranging from their initial sessions with their clients until termination and follow-up. George shared that he started advocacy initiatives in the initial assessment by “not jumping to assumptions” and spending more time observing clients and exploring their history. He stated that he acknowledged if clients were already taking steps toward positive change to encourage self-advocacy. George explained, “I think the most direct thing that I can do is to empower people to recognize their strengths and their rights.” Similarly, Jade shared, “I use motivational interviewing with clients to help them become better advocates for themselves.” Other participants expressed that promoting self-advocacy was vital for this specific population because of the high probability that a client would not return to counseling because of barriers related to transportation, finances, and stigma. Seven participants shared that it is important to have personal knowledge of systems that affect the client in order to inform advocacy interventions. Renee mentioned, “With all the Medicaid changes . . . I’ve got to take every client into a financial conversation. . . . So keeping myself educated . . . I can be a voice of support to them and have an understanding if they come to me.”

Additionally, participants reported various situations in which they engaged in advocacy interventions outside of the office setting. Two participants shared that they engaged in advocacy with and on behalf of clients to help them navigate the criminal justice system. For example, Jade advocated on behalf of a teenage client to law enforcement officials to request the removal of her client’s ankle monitor, which she believed was not necessary. Heather shared that she wrote letters to the courts on behalf of her clients.

Participants also discussed their involvement with helping clients sustain housing. Che shared, “I’ve spoken up for my clients against landlords who were trying to railroad several of my clients with their rent, and one in particular was trying to charge my client double the rent.” Similarly, Jade shared, “I was able to advocate to my supervisors to get funds to help pay the past bills so [clients] could move into a new location and not lose housing.”

Four participants conducted trainings in schools and within the community to inform others of culturally responsive practices with people living in rural poverty. Sadie shared that she provided educational workshops to school counselors, administrators, and teachers to help them understand the life experiences of individuals and families living in rural poverty. Sadie explained that she educated her colleagues on the effects of generational poverty and helped them to explore ways they could use various educational strategies for clients in these circumstances. Overall, counselors recognized clients’ needs and engaged in an array of advocacy interventions individually with clients, as well as in the community to support clients’ continuation in treatment, link clients to services, or help clients allocate resources in rural, poor communities.


Utilizing Professional Support

Some participants (n = 6) were the only mental health providers in the communities in which they worked. Thus, they spoke of instances of feeling frustrated because of the lack of resources for clients, role overload, and inability to connect with other counselors. Participants expressed that support from other professionals in the behavioral health field was helpful to alleviate frustrations. With this awareness, participants shared that conversations, consultations, and formalized supervision sessions were useful to explore their biases and feelings of hopelessness, to address compassion fatigue, and to learn new clinical interventions. For example, Blaze shared that formalized supervision was beneficial to increase his knowledge and improve his attitude about working in rural, impoverished communities. He stated, “The people who have supervised me understand that I’m coming from a different area and this is all kind of a learning curve. They’ve been good about helping me acclimate to the area.” Similarly, eight participants shared that ongoing supervision was helpful to abate adopting negative stereotypes and to address de-sensitization to clients’ needs, particularly when seeing clients who perpetually faced hardships. Lola discussed the benefits of having a professional support system among her colleagues to manage the demands of counseling in rural poverty. She stated, “We support each other personally when professional issues begin to impact our personal lives.” Furthermore, Lola described that ongoing supervision was “very helpful and necessary” as it provided her the opportunity to “check in” with herself and assess how she was managing the demands of her work.

Seven participants shared that receiving professional support reinforced ongoing self-awareness. For example, Sadie stated, “I think [it’s important] being willing to recognize that I’m not perfect . . . being willing to say here’s a place where I need to improve.” Sadie also expressed that it was important for her to seek supervision or personal mental health services to not allow her personal frustrations to “bleed over” into her client sessions. Likewise, Jade explained that supervision and taking continuing education credits regarding cultural differences were optimal to her success. In alignment with the constructs in the MSJCCs, the participants acknowledged the importance of engaging in critical self-reflection to take an inventory of their skills, beliefs, and attitudes (Ratts et al., 2016) that impact the services they provided to marginalized clients living in rural poverty. Overall, seeking ongoing supervision and engaging in professional development activities were necessary to prevent adopting stereotypes and to continue advocacy efforts.

Using participants’ voices and the lens of the MSJCCs, we illuminated the essence of providing mental health counseling in rural, persistently poor communities. The participants described the importance of showing an appreciation for clients’ worldviews and life experiences and how their counseling services encompassed varied approaches to service delivery and non-traditional counseling methods to engage rural, impoverished clients in the treatment process. Participants frequently engaged in individual and systems advocacy with and on behalf of their clients and described how having professional support was necessary to provide culturally responsive mental health counseling in rural, persistently poor communities. The findings serve as the basis for the following discussion.



This study explored the experiences of mental health counselors working in rural, impoverished communities and identified ways counselors incorporated social justice advocacy using the lens of the MSJCCs to identify advocacy skills and interventions. We found that counselors who work with clients in rural poverty appreciate their clients’ worldviews and life experiences, value their counseling relationships, alter service delivery formats, engage in advocacy, and seek ongoing professional support and development opportunities. Specifically, the first theme captured how counselors in the study expressed an appreciation for their clients’ worldviews and life experiences, as described in the MSJCCs’ client worldview domain. Counselors recognized that various contextual factors, such as family structure, nuances in the natural support systems, less access to resources, as well as how race and social class status shaped their clients’ worldviews, influenced their utilization of mental health treatment. This finding lends support to previous literature associated with examining how economic disadvantages and rurality influence mental health care services and literacy (Deen & Bridges, 2011; Kim & Cardemil, 2012). Consistent with the MSJCCs’ (Ratts et al., 2015) client worldview domain, the counselors explored and appreciated clients’ history and life experiences, and acknowledged the clients’ “resourcefulness” as a strength.

Furthermore, counselors in the study expressed a willingness to engage in their clients’ personal communities, which aligns with the suggestion in the client worldview domain that counselors should immerse themselves in the communities in which they work to learn from and about their clients (Ratts et al., 2015). The findings from the study correspond to previous research that examines how counselors with increased exposure to individuals living in poverty have enhanced multicultural competence and are able to critically examine systemic or structural factors that contribute to the underutilization of mental health services in high-poverty communities (Clark et al., 2017).

The second theme, counseling relationships influencing service delivery, reflected the MSJCCs’ counseling relationship domain. Participants recognized that their clients’ ability to engage in the traditional therapeutic process was often thwarted because many of their clients’ basic needs were not met. As implied in the counseling relationship domain, counselors are advised to utilize culturally competent assessment and analytical and cross-cultural communication skills that allow them to effectively determine clients’ needs and employ collaborative, action-oriented strategies to strengthen the counseling relationship (Ratts et al., 2015).

Reflective of this domain, counselors in the study often altered service delivery formats and assumed alternative roles to meet clients’ needs. The current findings offer support for research that advances increasing flexibility in counseling roles and culturally competent assessments when working in marginalized communities (Fifield & Oliver, 2016).

Another distinctive finding of this study was encompassed in the third theme, which captured the MSJCCs’ counseling and advocacy interventions domain, and illuminated the participants’ use of strategies to promote continuation of services (e.g., home-based counseling, group formats with the inclusion of childcare, and distributing incentives) as well as advocacy interventions to address clients’ imminent needs. Expanding previous research that illuminated the role of self-advocacy (Singh, Meng, & Hansen, 2013), the participants expressed the importance of engaging in intrapersonal, interpersonal, and institutional advocacy interventions with and on behalf of clients, such as assisting clients in securing or maintaining housing, acquiring supportive educational resources in school settings, rebuilding familial relationships, and preventing the criminalization of poverty. Although these findings are similar to previous researchers’ perspectives that suggest that counseling in rural poverty requires counselors to engage in various advocacy roles (Kim & Cardemil, 2012; Reed & Smith, 2014), this study answers the call to provide practical examples of incorporating social justice advocacy into counseling with historically marginalized populations (Ratts & Greenleaf, 2018).

The final theme identified in our study involved the participants’ use of professional support networks and seeking professional development opportunities to address areas of professional incompetence. Accordingly, this theme aligns with aspects in the MSJCCs’ self-awareness domain. As articulated in this domain, multiculturally competent counselors are expected to have an awareness of their social group statuses, power, privilege, and oppression, as well as acknowledge how their biases, attitudes, strengths, and limitations may influence clients’ well-being (Ratts et al., 2015). The counselors in our study engaged in both informal and formal action-oriented strategies, such as consultations and ongoing supervision with other mental health professionals, that helped them examine prejudicial beliefs, prevent the development of additional biases, and explore other areas of vulnerability and skills deficiencies as designated in the MSJCCs’ counselor self-awareness domain. This finding supports past research (Bowen & Caron, 2016; Reed & Smith, 2014) that indicated that because of the limited resources and remoteness in rural, impoverished areas, professional support is vital to assuage frustrations because of consistently seeing poor, rural clients navigate difficult life circumstances. However, this finding expands current understanding by focusing on the counselors’ ability to identify their own limitations and readily seek out additional supports.


Implications for Counseling Practice, Advocacy, and Training

Foremost, in order to offer culturally competent mental health counseling, it is important for counselors to appreciate their clients’ worldviews and life experiences and understand the unique oppressions that clients from rural, impoverished communities experience. For example, participants acknowledged that various contextual factors, such as family structure, mental illness stigma, and nuances in the natural support systems, shaped their clients’ worldviews and influenced their utilization of mental health treatment. Viewing clients’ concerns from a socioecological lens may strengthen the counselor–client relationship (Ratts et al., 2016) and decrease stigma related to mental health treatment (Stewart et al., 2015).

Counselors also must be flexible and recognize that altering the format of session delivery is often necessary to engage with clients in rural poverty. Individuals living in rural poverty face immense financial barriers that impede the utilization of mental health treatment (e.g., transportation issues), and there is a general lack of awareness about mental illness in rural, poor communities (Haynes et al., 2017). Thus, counseling in rural poverty should extend beyond office-bound interventions to include community-based interventions (Ratts & Greenleaf, 2018) and account for barriers that influence treatment utilization. For instance, the findings indicated that participants had a greater appreciation for clients’ worldviews and expanded their roles to include consulting, advocacy, and case management when they became more engaged in their clients’ personal environment and community.

Furthermore, counselors in this study collaborated with and on behalf of clients in advocacy efforts in various areas such as housing, criminal justice, social services, and school systems. Engaging in individual- and systems-level advocacy interventions (Ratts et al., 2016) when working in rural, impoverished communities is vital to promote equity and positive systemic changes (Reed & Smith, 2014). Given these findings, counselors should become comfortable with professionals in these areas as well as going into the respective environments. Thus, it warrants counselors to network with community partners, schools, faith communities, and law enforcement entities to establish relationships to enhance support networks. In addition, writing letters to federal and state legislators regarding national issues such as Medicaid funding is critical to address policies that benefit rural, impoverished communities.

Finally, multicultural and social justice competence is a developmental process, and professional counselors as well as counselors-in-training need opportunities for ongoing self-reflection to examine their personal assumptions and biases and enhance their skills when working with rural, impoverished communities. Clinical supervision grounded in a social justice framework can help counselors and supervisors process their biases and assumptions, develop a social justice lens of understanding clients from rural poverty, and cultivate advocacy skills (Smith et al., 2013). The MSJCCs should be facilitated throughout counseling program curricula versus one foundation course in multicultural counseling and development. Some possibilities for incorporating the MSJCCs into student learning across all courses include experiential activities, group work, and role-plays that cover topics such as worldviews, intersecting identities, power, privilege, and social class. For example, audiovisual materials found on the Rural Health Information Hub website (www.ruralhealthinfo.org) can help students visualize the experiences of rural and impoverished communities. Additionally, encouraging or requiring counselors-in-training to engage in rural, economically disadvantaged communities for their practicum and internship experiences can be incorporated into the clinical sequence in counselor preparation programs


Recommendations for Future Research

There are several pathways to advance research pertaining to mental health counseling and social justice advocacy in rural poverty. Rural, impoverished areas continue to experience low mental health literacy, which perpetuates stigma. Thus, investigations about stigma in rural poverty can provide insights into the underutilization of mental health treatment in rural communities. Research of various designs regarding the lived experiences of poor women, men, and children in rural communities can inform culturally responsive counseling practices. For example, empirical studies about the experiences of grandparents raising grandchildren in rural poverty can offer unique perspectives for ways to enhance mental health literacy and increase utilization of mental health services. Additional studies are also needed to explore social justice advocacy interventions that are necessary to test the efficacy of the MSJCCs.

Finally, a primary limitation of this study was that the participants had varied professional license levels, areas of specialization, years of professional experience, and provided counseling services to diverse clientele in various settings. The data in the current study did not allow us to assess if variances in the noted areas had a differential impact on the participants’ counseling experiences in rural poverty. Consequently, additional qualitative studies that allow researchers to examine these differences more pointedly are needed to fully understand the experiences of counselors from varied backgrounds and experience levels. Furthermore, readers should exercise caution when generalizing the experiences of the 15 participants in this sample to other counselors working in rural, impoverished communities. The experiences of participants in this sample may not capture the experiences of all counselors working in these communities; however, readers can make decisions regarding the degree to which the findings of the study are applicable to the settings in which they live and work (Hays & Singh, 2012).



Poverty significantly impacts the mental health of children and adults living in rural communities, resulting in having limited access to resources and services that can promote healthy development and well-being. Therefore, mental health counselors working in rural, poor communities must often incorporate social justice advocacy within the context of clients’ experiences of oppression in their counseling practices to provide culturally responsive services. The MSJCCs provided a lens to explore the knowledge, skills, beliefs, and overall practices of 15 professional counselors working in rural, impoverished communities. By examining the experiences of these counselors, we identified how counseling professionals working in rural, impoverished communities acknowledged and appreciated their clients’ worldviews and life experiences, created strong therapeutic alliances, altered counseling service delivery, engaged in advocacy, and sought professional support to sustain their ability to provide culturally responsive counseling services. Multiculturally competent counselors should continually explore ways to amend their current practices to address the various sociocultural barriers that impede the mental health and well-being of rural, poor children and adults. It is our hope that counselors will utilize the findings from this study to further the discourse on rural poverty and create positive change in these communities.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.



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Loni Crumb is an assistant professor at East Carolina University. Natoya Haskins is an associate professor at the College of William and Mary. Shanita Brown is an instructor at East Carolina University. Correspondence can be addressed to Loni Crumb, 213B Ragsdale Hall, Mail Stop: 121, Greenville, NC 27858, crumbL15@ecu.edu.

Using the Multiphase Model of Psychotherapy, School Counseling, Human Rights, and Social Justice to Support Haitian Immigrant Students

 M. Ann Shillingford, Seungbin Oh, Amanda DiLorenzo

Natural disasters over the past few decades have necessitated mass migration of Haitian immigrants to the United States. Haitians residing in the United States have experienced significant cultural and social challenges. Recent political deportation mandates have increased the systemic challenges that Haitian students and their families are currently facing in the United States. These systemic barriers have fostered an increase in stressors affecting the mental wellness of Haitian students and their families. This article introduces school counselors to the culturally focused, multiphase model of psychotherapy, counseling, human rights, and social justice as a framework to assist Haitian students and their families.

Keywords: Haiti, immigrant, school counseling, human rights, social justice

There has been a growing trend in the counseling profession to provide culturally relevant services to all clients. In fact, most recently, Ratts, Singh, Nassar-McMillan, Butler, and McCullough (2016) proposed the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies to support the evolving need for multiculturally competent counselors to support today’s diverse populations and their varying mental health needs. One diverse group that has caught the attention of counseling professionals is the Haitian population. A long history of political unrest, coupled with grievous damage from natural disasters over the past few decades, has snowballed the migration of Haitian families into the United States. With mass migrations come challenges with cultural identity, social and academic obstacles, and psychological impairment. This article highlights the role of school counselors as social justice advocates and introduces the multiphase model of psychotherapy, school counseling, human rights, and social justice as a framework for offering services to Haitian students and their families. The authors present literature underlining the experiences of the Haitian population both within the context of their home country and also as immigrants in the United States.

Effects of Natural Disasters on Haitian Migration

Over the past few decades, the small nation of Haiti has suffered tremendously from natural disasters. In January 2010, a major 7.1-magnitude earthquake shook the island’s core, killing close to 300,000 men, women, and children. An equal number of individuals were injured and at least 1.5 million were displaced. Among the damage and destruction were almost 4,000 schools (CNN, 2017). Six years later, Hurricane Matthew swept through the south side of the island, killing over 900 citizens and leaving severe devastation in its tracks (BBC News, 2016). A year after that, Haiti, already crippled economically by previous natural disasters, was hit by Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm. Cook (2017) reported that homes, bridges, and housing already weakened by previous disasters were destroyed. Not only were homes destroyed, but the country’s ability to rebuild also was diminished.

Each natural disaster in Haiti has meant a struggle for regrowth. Between 2015 and 2016, it was reported that the economic growth in Haiti was down to a staggering 2% (U.S. Department of State, 2018). Damage from natural disasters, drought conditions, governmental unrest, and a significant decrease in the country’s currency were identified as contributors to the financial stagnation (U.S. Department of State, 2018). Migration trends portrayed a parallel between decreased stability in Haiti and increased migration to the United States and other more secure territories. In fact, over the years, the United States has been the recipient of thousands of immigrants seeking security and a better future for their families. Stepick and Stepick (2002) reported that in the 20th century, the number of Haitian immigrants to the United States reached an all-time high. By 2010, there were approximately 587,000 Haitians living in the United States, and that number rose to almost 700,000 by 2015 (Migration Policy Institute, 2017). The distribution of Haitian immigrants varies from state to state, with Florida having the largest population (46%), followed by New York (25%), New Jersey (8%), Massachusetts (7%), Georgia (2%), and Maryland (2%). These numbers may continue to rise as the outlook for the island of Haiti remains bleak.

Prior to the January 2010 earthquake, Haitian migration to the United States was considered high due to unemployment, low socioeconomic stability, poverty, violence, and political instability on the island (Cone, Buxton, Lee, & Mahotiere, 2014). Presently, Haiti is considered the economically poorest country in the Western hemisphere (Coupeau, 2008; Mendelson-Forman, 2006). Haiti also has been notorious for its high number of orphans, with at least 380,000 before the earthquake and a significantly increased number of displaced and homeless children after the earthquake (Little, 2010). Concern exists for the well-being of Haiti’s survivors of natural disasters, particularly the children. According to Potocky (1996), in the past years many Haitian children and their families who fled Haiti due to hardships and entered the United States as refugees often suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Potocky, 1996).

The U.S. Department of State (2018) estimated that Haiti has received nearly $5.1 billion in aid from the United States since the earthquake. Assistance offered included increasing the number of officers on the police force to increase security, increasing basic health care through development of new clinics, construction of a mega power plant to provide electricity, and support for farmers to increase crop development. Even so, Haitians continue to struggle and have sought immigration support from the United States. Reports have suggested that as many as 55,000 Haitians applied and have been granted visas to the United States since the earthquake, and as many as 500 orphaned children have been allowed travel documents for adoption by U.S. families (Zissis, 2010).

To support Haiti over the past decade, U.S. Homeland Security has offered Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to large numbers of Haitians affected by the debilitating conditions caused by natural disasters as well as political unrest. TPS is offered to individuals from foreign countries where it may be unsafe or where resources are inadequate to support the citizens. TPS may be granted to individuals who are already in the United States or those still in their native country. TPS allows recipients to remain in the United States and secure travel and employment authorization (U.S. Department of State, 2018). As such, TPS has been granted to an estimated 60,000 Haitian citizens following the destruction from the 2010 earthquake. Outside of Haitians who have entered the United States through the TPS program, it has been reported that at least 40,000 more Haitians have entered the United States seeking refuge following Hurricane Matthew (Fifield, 2016). It appears that with each natural disaster the number of Haitian immigrants in the United States has increased.

Impact of Migration on Haitian Students and Families

Migration to a new country may come with difficulties for families, particularly children. Haitian children experience multiple layers of challenges in the American educational system and society at large. To better support Haitian students, counselors need to understand the impact of these hardships on various aspects of Haitian students’ lives and needs. The following sections provide a review on the complications facing these students and their unique needs.

Research suggests that traumatic events affect the physiological, psychological, and social welfare of immigrant students (Bean, Derluyn, Eurelings-Bontekoe, Broekaert, & Spinhoven, 2006). Haitian families may experience household stress due to separation of family members between the United States and their homeland (Desrosiers & St. Fleurose, 2002). Additional stressors include cultural misunderstanding and isolation in the school setting (Chhuon, Hudley, Brenner, & Macias, 2010); differences in educational policies, pedagogical practices, and teaching styles; and overall differences in school culture and climate (Cone et al., 2014). These challenges, particularly in the school setting, may be problematic for Haitian students and parents trying to acculturate to the American system.

Haitian students experience significant social difficulties. In a study exploring stressors experienced by immigrants to the United States, Haitian parents and children reported the highest number of stressors among immigrants from the Caribbean islands (Levitt, Lane, & Levitt, 2009). In addition, it has been reported that Haitian immigrants have a 20–30% higher chance of living in poverty-stricken conditions in the United States than people who are White (Hernandez, Denton, & Mcartney 2009). Douyon, Marcelin, Jean-Gilles, and Page (2005) indicated that students in highly populated Haitian communities—such as the Miami-Dade, Florida, area—may be surviving in not only poor health conditions, but also hostile territories where education appears to be futile and a life of crime is more appealing. Those social problems may add stress to the Haitian household, which may compound existing economic problems (Chierici, 2004). Indeed, migration disrupts the familial and social networks as well as the behavioral norms and cultural values of new immigrants. It places responsibility on counselors and other educators to meet the needs of these students academically, socially, and culturally (Asner-Self & Marotta, 2005). Thus, it is imperative for schools to help provide both supportive relationships to foster resiliency and additional resources for Haitian immigrant students.

Social and Cultural Needs

Haitian students face potential cultural difficulties, such as language barriers, cultural identity, and acculturation, particularly in the school setting. Haitian students and their families may primarily speak Haitian Creole, yet few interpreters are available to assist with standardized test explanations (Kretsedemas, 2005), student code of conduct reviews, and other pertinent information that may affect students’ academic functioning. In comparison to Spanish, which is taught in American schools, Haitian Creole is spoken only within the Haitian culture (Phelps & Johnson, 2004). Although Haitian Creole is based on the French language, it has syntactical influences from West African languages. It should be noted that it is not a dialect of French, but is its own independent language (Solano-Flores & Li, 2006).

Along with sensitivity to language barriers, Haitian students may encounter challenges in developing their cultural identity. As reported by Doucet (2005), Haitian students who may be struggling between their own cultural identity and the American culture might encounter school-related problems such as suspensions, truancy, academic failure, and eventual school dropout. Cone and colleagues (2014) reported the results of a qualitative study and emphasized the difficulty in identity formation that Haitian students experience in the United States. Identity formation was influenced by three factors: differences in pedagogical approaches to teaching between Haiti and the United States; differences in disciplinary approaches between teacher groups; and pressure from peers to become Americanized. To counter the stigma associated with being and looking different, Cone and colleagues noted that Haitian students may accede to their peers and hide any indication of their Haitian heritage. Consequently, these practices may foster added stress within the family network and community at large. Struggles with cultural identity formation can cause Haitian students to feel anxiety, confusion, fear, helplessness, and homesickness (Bachay, 1998), which may ultimately lead to increased risk of PTSD.

To further compound psychological distress experienced by Haitian families living in the United States, in November 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump declared an end to TPS for Haiti and several other countries (Park, 2018). This means that at least 60,000 Haitians currently residing legally in the United States through TPS can be deported by January 2019 (Daugherty, 2018). Additionally, deportation holds on Haitian citizens activated following the 2010 earthquake are being released, increasing the number of Haitians being deported. Deportation is destructive to family units, especially children. Children are affected by the knowledge of deportation of individuals within their community, even when that individual is unrelated to them. When a family member is deported, the rest of the family, including children, may suffer from poverty, reduced access to food and health care, and limited educational opportunities (Wiley, 2013). Thus, the already fragile academic, social, and cultural experiences of some Haitian students and families currently residing in the United States might be further aggravated by political mandates and changing policies. Therefore, culturally relevant support is warranted from those who serve this population, including school counselors and other stakeholders.

School Counselors’ Role in Supporting the Haitian Students

According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA; 2012) National Model, professional school counselors are to develop a comprehensive school counseling program that addresses the social, personal, academic, and career needs of students. Several approaches have been introduced to provide school counselors a pathway to supporting immigrant students, including parenting workshops for Jamaican parents (Morrison, Smith, Bryan, & Steele, 2016); community outreach programs on college preparation for first-generation Latinx students, families, and friends (Tello & Lonn, 2017); and a comprehensive, multilevel system of support that includes school–family–community partnerships for adolescent immigrants (Suárez-Orozco, Onaga, & de Lardemelle, 2010). A thorough search of the literature, particularly school counseling literature, yielded a dearth of information on working with Haitian students and their families. In light of the numerous challenges that this population faces, the scarcity of research support is disappointing. Therefore, the authors provide a guideline for school counselors to support their Haitian clients by using the Multiphase Model of Psychotherapy, Counseling, Human Rights, and Social Justice (MPM; Chung & Bemak, 2012). The MPM was developed by counselor educators as a culturally responsive intervention to support individuals from marginalized groups. The MPM is psychoeducational in nature and consists of “affective, behavioral, and cognitive interventions and prevention strategies that are rooted in cultural foundations and relate to social and community process and change” (Chung & Bemak, 2012, p. 2).

Multiphase Model of Psychotherapy, Counseling, Human Rights, and Social Justice (MPM)

The MPM was developed by Chung and Bemak (2012), who expertly recognized the need for a culturally sensitive approach to supporting refugees globally. Chung and Bemak indicated that an effective counselor is one who understands the importance of refugees’ historical, sociopolitical, cultural, and psychological context when dealing with displacement, loss, and trauma. The MPM was constructed as a trauma-based model that integrates humanistic trauma therapy, exposure therapy, stress inoculation approach, and cognitive behavior therapy, and is framed by the multicultural counseling competencies (Arredondo et al. 1996). According to Chung and Bemak, the MPM includes five phases: (a) mental health education; (b) group, family, and individual psychotherapy; (c) cultural empowerment; (d) indigenous healing; and (e) social justice and human rights. Each phase can be used independently of the other and can be adjusted based on the needs of the client. The following section expands on the five phases and incorporates practical interventions for school counselors.

Phase One: Mental Health Education

Mental health education focuses on defining the counseling process for the client. Haitian immigrant students might not have had exposure to counseling in the past; therefore, it is important for school counselors to thoroughly explain what counseling is about, what the expectations are, and the expected outcomes of counseling. Chung and Bemak (2012) also noted the importance of discussing the meaning of confidentiality in both the context of the U.S. counseling community and in the client’s native community. Confidentiality is an ethical consideration supported by ASCA as an obligation for school counselors (ASCA, 2014). Lazovsky (2008) remarked on the fact that laws and regulations regarding confidentiality may differ internationally, so it is important for the counselor to explain the meaning and objectives of using confidentiality as it relates to family and school. During this phase, school counselors should pay close attention to the experiences of marginalization and trauma that these students and their families may have faced and the psychological distress related to potential deportation. Mistrust of Americans may be an essential part of the Haitian family’s survival mechanism (Stepick, Stepick, & Kretsedemas, 2018); therefore, school counselors should be cautious in this phase to be culturally sensitive to the fears and anxiety that the student and family may be experiencing.

Phase Two: Group, Family, and Individual Psychotherapy

The second phase is focused on providing culturally relevant counseling techniques and strategies. To do so, the school counselor needs to understand the contextual background of the student. What have their experiences been either while in Haiti or within the United States? How has that student and the family been affected by natural disasters and sociopolitical experiences? Based on this information, the school counselor needs to decide on the most appropriate culturally relevant interventions for the student. Surveys and questionnaires are an ideal format for gathering information about the experiences of Haitian students and their families (Ekstrom, Elmore, Schafer, Trotter, & Webster, 2004). However, school counselors should be mindful of language barriers and provide surveys that have been translated in both English and Haitian Creole. Additionally, individual and group counseling sessions need to be adapted to meet the cultural needs of the Haitian student. For instance, singing, dancing, and spiritual guidance are an integral part of the Haitian culture (Marcus, 2010). School counselors should consider the collectivist cultures of the Haitian population, which may influence their decision to engage the students in small groups as opposed to individual counseling. By utilizing culturally relevant counseling approaches, school counselors might find small group expressive techniques to be beneficial for developing trust, while assessing the psychological needs of the student.

Phase Three: Cultural Empowerment

Cultural empowerment extends support for client needs beyond the counseling setting to community resources. This phase incorporates collaborating with multiple agencies. Examples of such agencies include housing services, social services, and health services. The school counselor can choose to develop a team approach with the school’s social worker and other school stakeholders and serve as the facilitator of services. The objective during this phase is to serve as an advocate and guide for the student and their family to reduce their levels of stress and anxiety as well as meet their basic needs. In fact, Chung and Bemak (2012) surmised that cultural empowerment goes beyond in-office counseling to the greater community, with helpers rallying for services and resources to meet the families’ basic needs. Finally, cultural empowerment may mean providing adequate interpretation services for students and families (Kretsedemas, 2005) so that all stakeholders fully understand each other and the processes that are at work. In fact, school counselors and educators have a civic obligation to provide interpretive services to students and parents with limited English proficiency (Office for Civil Rights, 2015).

Phase Four: Indigenous Healing

From the American viewpoint, counseling, therapy, medicine, and health care are considered important aspects of holistic healing. However, within the Haitian culture, indigenous healing has been noted as a longstanding cultural practice. It is not uncommon for individuals from the Haitian population to seek help from spiritual healers, herbal specialists, and midwives rather than more formalized Westernized therapy. In fact, many Haitians hold extreme faith in natural healing and may be hesitant to pursue counseling in the context of the United States. Furthermore, Haitian individuals often believe that illness is caused by supernatural forces (Nicolas, DeSilva, Grey, & Gonzalez-Eastep, 2006); therefore, it is not unusual for families to pursue help from family healers, spiritual healers, or folk medicine in seeking the supernatural cause of illnesses. Nicolas and colleagues (2006) noted that common beliefs may attribute illnesses to evil spirits, a poor relationship with God, or offending the Lwa, a deity associated with the voodoo religion. Although not all Haitians hold these indigenous views, there may be a general mistrust of mental health services. Counselors working with Haitian clients should be cautious to embrace culturally sensitive practices that combine Westernized practices with indigenous healing. Seeking consultation from a Haitian spiritual healer might be a first step in formulating an effective counseling approach. Nicolas and colleagues (2006) suggested seeking these healers through Haitian community centers and through communication with family members of the clients. Counselors should avoid assumptions and initiate conversations with Haitian clients to understand their beliefs and practices.

Phase Five: Social Justice and Human Rights

The final phase of the multiphase model focuses on counselors advocating for the rights of their clients. Haitian immigrants in the United States experience political discrimination. For example, recent threats of deportation and the termination of TPS protection can be discriminatory. At this phase, it is vital that counselors examine their own worldviews, community relations, and the role of politics and political policies in counseling, as well as the impact of social injustices (e.g., discrimination, oppression, racism) on the well-being of their clients (Chung & Bemak, 2012). Griffin and Steen (2011) mentioned nine steps that school counselors can employ as social justice advocates: develop cultural competence; use data to support work, particularly educational inequalities; gain allies, recognizing that the work cannot be done alone; speak up at school, at town hall meetings, and at board meetings, and write to state legislators; educate and empower parents and families; stay politically engaged and know what is happening in the current political environment; be bold and confident in beliefs; be persistent, understanding that systemic barriers may stand in the way of progress; and conduct research to demonstrate the needs for justice, equity, equality, and fairness. School counselors are inundated with multiple roles and as such may not have the time and/or resources to cover all nine steps mentioned. However, knowledge of these practical strategies may be helpful in their ethical decision making and development of a culturally sensitive, comprehensive school counseling program. Essentially, school counselors should be leading agents of change, seeking to provide culturally relevant services to their immigrant students.


Haitian children face various systemic challenges adjusting to the U.S. educational system and society. Given their unique challenges and needs, Haitian children require specialized, culturally responsive school counseling programs. To provide such programs, school counselors need practical strategies on how to provide culturally appropriate interventions that address the multiple systemic challenges to Haitian students’ well-being. However, school counselors may find it difficult to find such information given the dearth of school counseling literature concerning Haitian students. Therefore, this article provides practical guidelines using the MPM that may strengthen school counselors’ approach to providing culturally responsive services to Haitian students and their families.

Using the MPM, school counselors will be in a better position to explore the benefits of counseling with their Haitian families. The model encourages school counselors to assess the unique needs of the children and families within a cultural context. Moreover, by using this model, school counselors are encouraged to actively engage in collaborative partnerships with multiple agencies and professionals to meet the practical needs of Haitian families. Lastly, school counselors need to work beyond the structure of the office setting and integrate social justice advocacy work for systemic changes to maximize therapeutic changes for Haitian students and their families. The authors hope that this guideline will help school counselors to better understand the multiple layers of challenges for Haitian students, as well as how to provide culturally relevant support.

Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interest or funding contributions for the development of this manuscript.



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  1. M. Ann Shillingford is an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. Seungbin Oh, NCC, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Central Florida. Amanda DiLorenzo is a doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. Correspondence can be addressed to M. Ann Shillingford, P.O. Box 161250, Orlando, FL 32816, Dr-S@ucf.edu.