Bringing Advocacy Counseling to Life: The History, Issues, and Human Dramas of Social Justice Work in Counseling. (Practice & Theory)

Article excerpt

During her term as president of the American Counseling Association for 1999, Loretta Bradley selected the topic "Advocacy: A Voice for Our Clients and Communities" as her presidential theme. Explaining her choice of this theme, Bradley and Lewis (2000) stated that advocacy is an important aspect of every counselor's role:

   Regardless of the particular setting in which he or she works, each
   counselor is confronted again and again with issues that cannot be resolved
   simply through change within the individual. All too often, negative
   aspects of the environment impinge on a client's well-being, intensifying
   personal problems or creating obstacles to growth. When such situations
   arise, effective counselors speak up! We think of advocacy as the act of
   speaking up or taking action to make environmental changes on behalf of our
   clients. (p. 3)

Bradley's presidential theme reflects a growing movement to expand the practice of counseling from its traditional focus on the intrapsychic concerns of clients to a broader focus on the many extrapsychic forces that adversely affect the emotional and physical well-being of people. This movement is commonly known as the "advocacy counseling," "social action," and "social justice" approaches to counseling and psychotherapy.

According to Lee (1998a), counselors work as advocates when they plead on behalf of a client or some social cause. Advocacy work is considered a form of social action for two reasons. First, counselor advocates do their work in the social contexts in which client problems occur. Second, counselor advocates take action to eliminate or reduce social problems such as poverty, unequal access to opportunity, and various forms of prejudice, which adversely affect clients (Lee, 1998a). Similarly, a social justice approach to counseling and psychotherapy refers to using all of the methods of counseling and psychology to confront injustice and inequality in society (Jackson, 2000; Mays, 2000; Strickland, 2000).

Collectively, advocacy counseling, social action, and social justice work involve "helping clients challenge institutional and social barriers that impede academic, career, or personal-social development" (Lee, 1998a, pp. 8-9). In all three approaches, it is understood that mental health professionals will leave the comfort of their offices and complete their work in other settings such as a client's home or school, recreational and community centers, churches, local agencies, and even the offices and meeting places of policy makers such as school board members, legislators, and government administrators. The provision of direct services to clients is complemented by indirect forms of helping that involve influencing the people and institutions that affect clients' lives (Kiselica, 1995, 1999c, 2000).

The purposes of advocacy counseling, social action, and social justice interventions are to increase a client's sense of personal power and to foster sociopolitical changes that reflect greater responsiveness to the client's personal needs (Lewis, Lewis, Daniels, & D'Andrea, 1998; Toporek, 2000). Because advocacy counseling, social action, and social justice approaches to counseling have the same purposes, we use the expression "advocacy counseling" throughout the remainder of this article to refer to all three approaches.

Advocacy counseling has taken many forms, has a long history, and cuts across the disciplines of counseling, psychology, social work, sociology, and religion. Advocacy counseling has targeted domestic issues, such as the sociopolitical hardships experienced by African American (see Sander, 2000) and Native American (see Herring, 2000) populations in the United States, and international problems, such as abusive child labor throughout the world (see Lee, 1998b).

Because advocacy work is so crucial to promoting the well-being of people in the U.S. and abroad, Earl Ginter, the editor of the Journal of Counseling & Development, invited us to write an article highlighting and illustrating the history, principles, and human experiences that are at the heart of advocacy counseling. …