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Humanism, feminism, and multiculturalism: essential elements of social justice in counseling, education, and advocacy.

This article explores the association between and among humanism, feminism, multiculturalism, and social justice in counseling, education, and advocacy. In so doing, it shows how these theoretical forces, individually and collectively, are essential to professional counseling client welfare, education, and the promotion of social justice. The author also outlines suggestions for future integrative work in these areas.


It is important to consider the commonalities among theoretical perspectives in counseling, education, and advocacy that emphasize wellness, shared understanding, and human development from a contextual perspective. Humanism, feminism, multiculturalism, and social justice counseling and advocacy are four such approaches that are increasingly being used in the mental health professions to promote client welfare, student development, and a healthier society. The following sections of this article briefly describe these theoretical forces and their relevance for new directions in counseling, education, and advocacy.


Humanism is at the foundational core of counseling and counseling psychology (Harina & Bemak, 1997). Historically considered the third force in the counseling profession (Ivey, D'Andrea, & Ivey, 2011), early humanists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow rejected the prevailing medical model and its biological determinism as it existed during their times. Today, many humanistic-oriented counselors and educators continue the humanistic tradition, emphasizing principles and practices that focus on healthy human development, human strengths, and an understanding of people in their environmental contexts (Lundin, 1996).

Humanistic counselors and educators use a holistic approach that respects people's inherent dignity, creativity, and ability to reach their own definition of self-actualization (Hansen, 2006; Scholl, 2006). Guided by such humanistic principles, these practitioners strive to understand each individual's unique experience. This includes working to understand how clients make meaning of their life experiences and perceptions of gender, race, ethnicity, and other aspects of their personal identity (Kirschenbaum, 2007; Rogers, 1977, 1980).

Operating from such principles, humanistic counselors endeavor to foster optimal and healthy human development when working with clients whose well-being is often impaired by stressors they encounter in their life. Humanistic counselors recognize that the stressors that undermine clients' health and well-being frequently arise from incompatible interactions between the environmental conditions and reactions that the client encounters in life and his or her sense of self (Raskin & Rogers, 1995). More specifically, Carl Rogers's person-centered theory (Raskin & Rogers, 1995; Rogers, 1980) posits that anxiety and other manifestations of distress arise when people experience environmental conditions that result in feelings of personal marginalization and devaluation that are inconsistent with their own sense of themselves.

Abraham Maslow's humanistic theory includes another perspective relevant for the present discussion. Although Maslow was one of the first to study optimal human behavior, he is best known for his hierarchy of needs theory (Maslow, 1943, 1954, 1968). This theory suggests that people experience stress, which may be manifested as psychological disorders, when they are unable to satisfy progressively more complex human needs. These needs range from basic physiological survival needs to safety, love and belonging, esteem needs, and finally to the need for self-actualization. Frequently, factors that block people's ability to satisfy these human needs are environmentally based (Lundin, 1996). These environmentally based barriers to healthy human development are often more pronounced among people who routinely face marginalization and other forms of injustice.

In their work with clients, humanistic counselors create a therapeutic environment that is characterized by the counselor's genuineness, empathic understanding, and "unconditional positive regard" (Rogers, 1957, p. 96). Together, these three conditions coalesce to provide "the necessary and sufficient conditions" (1957, p. 96) that Rogers hypothesized as key factors in fostering clients' healthy development and healing.

In addition to being used in individual and group counseling settings, humanistic principles have also been applied in educational settings as well as in organizational consultation (Hoffman, 1988) and social justice and peace initiatives. Regarding the latter point, Kirschenbaum (2007) described how Carl Rogers used humanistic principles and practices when working to promote peace in nations stricken by violence. Rogers's work in this area resulted in his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 (Kirschenbaum, 2007).

The impact of the humanistic movement in general and Rogers's contributions in addressing peace and social justice issues in particular have been complemented and extended by advances within the humanistic--existential paradigm as well as other newly developing forces in the mental health professions. Among these complementary forces was the emergence of feminist counseling and therapy models during the 1960s and 1970s.


Feminist counseling and therapy is grounded in an understanding that people develop within a sociopolitical context that privileges men at the expense of women's and men's psychological, social, economic, and political development. In addition, recognizing that the personal is political, a key construct in feminism and feminist counseling, feminist counseling and therapy recognizes that individual and social change are mutually interdependent (Evans, Kincade, Marbley, & Seem, 2005).

Early feminists participated in peer-led consciousness-raising groups to increase their awareness and knowledge of the contextual factors that contribute to women's oppression and to support each other's development and liberation, often through assertiveness and advocacy. In concert with efforts to promote women's political and economic equality, early second-stage feminists advocated for and attained some degree of systemwide change, particularly awareness of and support for survivors of rape and other sexual assaults and for women who sought to leave abusive relationships, often taking their children with them (Evans et al., 2005).

The feminist movement has operated on principles that are compatible with the tradition of humanism, but the movement's origins occurred outside of the academy (Reynolds & Constantine, 2004). Knowing the importance of translating the ideas that characterized the rapidly growing feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, many early feminist counselors adopted and augmented humanistic approaches to counseling, particularly Rogers's person-centered approach, to help stimulate women's mental health, sense of well-being, and personal--political empowerment through new forms of counseling practices (Vasquez, 2003).

Although feminist counselors currently draw from a variety of theoretical orientations when working with clients, these practitioners increasingly recognize the need to attend to cultural and other forms of human diversity in the helping process. In so doing, they continue to direct particular attention to the impact of power in general, power imbalances in relationships in particular, and the effect that larger cultural contexts have on people's development (Comstock et al., 2008; Evans et al., 2005).

One of the power imbalances that feminist counselors are able to address within the counseling context is the power differential that results from common client perceptions that the counselor has more expertise--on the client's life and life circumstances--than the client has. When this perceived power differential is unacknowledged or unaddressed, traditionally trained counselors may unwittingly impose their own theoretical perspectives to define clients' problems, implement helping strategies that reflect the counselor's professional training and preferences rather than clients' preferences, and identify the goals for counseling without collaborating with clients about these important matters (Ivey et al., 2011).

To address power imbalances, feminist counselors strive to form collaborative and nonhierarchical partnerships with their clients. Feminist counselors work to share responsibility with their clients so that both parties collaborate in defining the clients' concerns, discussing the preferred helping strategies to be implemented, and identifying the goals of counseling.

Similar to their humanistic colleagues (Hansen, 2006), feminist counselors differ from other counseling practitioners in their critique of standard diagnostic methods (Chesler, 1972; Evans et al., 2005; Morrow, Hawxhurst, Montes de Vegas, Abouselman, & Castaneda, 2006). Rather than focusing on the manifestation of symptoms as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev.; DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000) to diagnose clients' psychological disorders such as depression or anxiety, feminist counselors view such reactions as normal responses to stressful and oppressive situations and systems (Chesler, 1972; Comstock et al., 2008; Morrow et al., 2006).

Consequently, when individuals come to counseling in distress, feminist counselors strive to facilitate a better understanding of how power dynamics that characterize specific contextual arrangements contribute to their dis-ease. The counselors proceed by helping clients identify their strengths and resources, construct new ways of thinking about their problems, and work to promote justice by addressing oppressive structures and systems (Barbee, 1994; Evans et al., 2005; Morrow et al., 2006).

Feminist educators, including many counselor educators, apply core principles of feminism to teaching and learning. They are particularly conscious of the impact of diversity, oppression, power, and privilege on individuals' learning and development. Grounded in an understanding of the effect that these factors have on people's health and well-being, feminist educators and counselors strive to stimulate student empowerment; respect the multiple sources of knowledge and ways of knowing that different clients bring to counseling (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986); encourage interactive, participatory learning between and among themselves, other students, teachers, and counselors; and promote social action within and beyond the classroom and counseling settings (Evans et al., 2005; hooks, 1994).

Operating from a feminist worldview has also influenced the way counseling researchers engage in scholarly research. Feminist counselors were among the first to embrace qualitative research methodologies (Barbee, 1994; Belenky et al., 1986). These investigative methodologies are consistent with humanistic and feminist principles as well as values shared by many multicultural researchers.

The shared commitment that feminist, humanistic, and multicultural counseling professionals demonstrate by fostering nonhierarchical power positions in counseling is also reflected in feminist research endeavors as investigators operating from this commitment collaborate with key people in the communities where the research is to be conducted as well as the participants in investigative projects. Such collaboration typically includes discussions about the purpose, methods, goals, and use of research findings with those persons most likely to be affected by professional inquiry. This collaborative approach to research is anchored in feminist researchers' commitment to principles of inclusion, equality, shared responsibility, power sharing, respect for different perspectives, and justice. Operating from these principles, feminist researchers strive to foster research participants' sense of empowerment by having them fully engaged as mutually respected equals in the investigative process (Barbee, 1994; Roets & Goedgeluck, 2007).

The evolution of feminism in general and the feminist counseling movement in particular has resulted in these societal and professional forces becoming more expansive in scope and practice during the past 40 years. Early feminist theories and counseling approaches were appropriately critiqued for their neglect of the experiences of people of color and other diverse populations. These critiques resulted in more recent conceptualizations of feminism and feminist counseling that integrate the complexity of multiple identities and the impact of diverse contextually based experiences on people in general and women in particular. This has resulted in new ways of thinking about the ways that feminist perspectives could be implemented in counseling practices to complement the rise of multiculturalism and the multicultural counseling movement in the United States (Evans et al., 2005; Morrow et al., 2006).


At its core, multiculturalism is the appreciation, acceptance, and promotion of multiple ethnic cultures in society. As was the case with feminism, the emergence of multiculturalism in the mid-20th century was in reaction to oppressive and discriminatory sociopolitical forces that had an adverse impact on healthy human development. The multicultural counseling movement, which originated in the later 1960s, represented an effort to increase counselor educators' and practitioners' understanding of and support for the important impact that clients' racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds and worldviews have on their mental health and psychological functioning. As happened with the humanistic and feminist movements, the multicultural counseling movement was, and to some degree continues to be, met with much resistance in the counseling profession.

Such resistance often slowed but did not stop multicultural counseling trailblazers from continuing their efforts to infuse multiculturalism into the core of counseling theories and practices (Ponterotto, Casas, Suzuki, & Alexander, 2010). These past and continuing advocacy efforts have resulted in multiculturalism being identified as the fourth force in the counseling profession (Pedersen, 1991). As such, multicultural counseling is recognized as having an impact similar to that of psychodynamic (first force), cognitive behavioral (second force), and existential--humanistic (third force) counseling theories and practices (Ivey et al., 2011).

Similar to the evolution within humanism and feminism, the definition of multicultural counseling has developed over time (Jackson, 1995; Ponterotto et al., 2010). Although initially directing attention to issues of race and ethnicity, current definitions of multicultural counseling include considerations of the ways that such contextual factors as gender, sexual orientation, ability status, class and socioeconomic status, religious and spiritual identity, and other forms of human diversity influence people's mental health and psychological well-being (D'Andrea & Heckman, 2008; Smith, Foley, & Chaney, 2008).

Ongoing theoretical advances (Ponterotto et al., 2010), dedicated research (D'Andrea & Heckman, 2008, Ponterotto et al., 2010), and continued advocacy efforts (D'Andrea et al., 2001) have resulted in the current integration of multicultural perspectives into all aspects of the counseling profession. This includes the incorporation of issues related to multicultural competence into the American Counseling Association's (ACA; 2005) ACA Code of Ethics, counselor education programs, and counseling and advocacy practices. All of these advances reflect a growing acknowledgment that multiculturalism is essential to effective and ethical counseling.

The adoption of the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development's Multicultural Counseling Competencies (MCC; Arredondo et al., 1996; Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992) and follow-up publications describing the relevance of the MCC for professional practice challenge counselors to do their own work to become culturally competent over the course of their career. The process of becoming a culturally competent counselor is, indeed, a lifelong endeavor that necessitates ongoing work in three areas. This includes working to become more (a) aware of oneself as a cultural being who operates from cultural biases and preferences; (b) knowledgeable about the impact of cultural and environmental factors (i.e., the impact of one's cultural values, worldviews, historical factors, and sociopolitical context) on one's own and other people's development; and (c) effective in working with people from diverse populations at the individual, group, institutional, and societal level. The last aspect of cultural competence refers to the need for counselors to develop a broad range of skills that enable them to implement different roles (e.g., educator, consultant, organizational development specialist, social change agent) to more effectively address the strengths and needs of persons in culturally different populations.

Much like feminist counselors, culturally competent counselors approach their work by implementing a diverse array of theoretical orientations when working to promote healthy human development. They also strive to live up to those cultural competencies that focus on the importance of implementing educational and advocacy services to achieve this goal when working with their clients.


The principal tenets, history, context, view of people, and approach to counseling, education, and advocacy as described in the humanistic, feminist, and multicultural perspectives are remarkably similar. All are steeped in a wellness perspective that respects and appreciates diverse human values, creativity, strengths, and potential. Although they use different terminology, all three emphasize the counselor's self-awareness, awareness of the other, and the critical importance of meeting the client where he or she is psychologically operating.

All three of these perspectives are phenomenological. Consequently, counselors and educators operating from humanistic, feminist, and multicultural perspectives respect people's experiences and the way individuals uniquely construct meaning from their life experiences. Counselors using all three perspectives honor their clients and students by emphasizing an empowerment orientation over a treatment approach to counseling and learning. Thus, although feminist and multicultural perspectives of counseling and education may operate from a more nuanced understanding of power, privilege, and oppression, counselors and educators operating from all three orientations are knowledgeable about the impact that social, political, and economic systems have on human development and work to foster individual and collective empowerment. Counselors who work from these perspectives are challenged to promote their own empowerment as well as their clients' and the marginalized and devalued communities in which many clients are situated. These empowerment efforts are intentionally aimed at nurturing people's innate developmental potential by eradicating oppressive systems and social injustices that restrict people's opportunities and lives.


A close review of the genesis of the fields of counseling and counseling psychology indicates that both were founded on humanist and social justice principles. The historic roots of these professions have been and continue to be appreciably extended through the development and integration of humanism, feminism, and multiculturalism in professional training programs, research endeavors, and clinical practices. The impact of these three forces also illuminates why ethical and effective counseling of any type requires an understanding and awareness of the social conditions that affect people's lives as well as those counseling and advocacy interventions that are intentionally designed to foster environmental-contextual conditions that support people's ability to realize new and untapped dimensions of their human potential.

There is a significant theoretical overlap among the principles and practices that underlie humanism, feminism, multiculturalism, and a renewed commitment to social justice in counseling and advocacy in the mental health professions (Crethar, Rivera, & Nash, 2008). In specifically discussing the complementary nature of feminist, multicultural, and social justice counseling and advocacy, Crethar et al. (2008) explained how all three perspectives direct attention to issues related to equity, access, and empowerment within the context of a just and healthy society.

As such, feminist, multicultural, and social justice counseling and advocacy theories describe the need for counselors and educators to address issues related to privilege, oppression, and justice in their work. The conceptual overlap of these issues is further supported by Fassinger and Gallor's (2006) position that an informed feminist and multicultural perspective is a necessary prerequisite for advocacy and social justice in the work that counselors do.

As just noted, the underlying value that is consistently reflected in feminist, multicultural, and social justice counseling and advocacy theories and practices is a commitment to the fundamental humanistic belief that people's personal, relational, and collective potential is more fully realized within environmental contexts that support their unique development. In the following section, I explore the implications of additional common threads that link humanistic, feminist, multicultural, and social justice helping perspectives in counseling, education, and advocacy.


A renewed commitment to humanistic, feminist, multicultural, and social justice perspectives in counseling and education is noted as being essential for the continued relevance and viability of these professions in the 21st century (D'Andrea et al., 2001). Integration of these perspectives and approaches--conceptually, empirically, and in professional practices--lays the foundation for ethical and effective professional practice with an increasingly diverse national and international clientele. Furthermore, an integrated humanistic, feminist, multicultural, social justice perspective (hereinafter referred to as integrated humanism) has the potential to transform the profession, the work we do as counselors, and society as a whole.

This transformation would necessarily have to begin with an individual and collective recommitment to develop a greater level of self- and other-awareness, knowledge, and skills (Sue et al., 1992)--core components of ethical and effective counseling and educational practices (ACA, 2005). It is also important to deliberately link such awareness, knowledge, and skills to professional endeavors that reflect an integration of humanistic, feminist, multicultural, and social justice counseling and advocacy principles when working at the individual, group, and systems levels.

On an individual level, integrated humanistic counselors strive to apply the best of the principles just listed in individual counseling, consultation, and advocacy interventions with and on behalf of individual clients. At the group level, an integrated humanistic approach to group work offers an opportunity for larger numbers of people to connect with and help others while understanding shared or universal aspects of their experience from a contextual perspective (Morrow et al., 2006; Yalom, 2005).

An integrated humanistic approach also has the potential to promote healthy human systems in communities, families, schools, workplaces, and professional organizations. For example, given the theory (Betz, 2002; Freeman, 1979) and related research findings (Sedlacek, 2004) that describe the positive effect of organizations intentionally designed to promote the development and empowerment of marginalized people, counselors would do well to implement an integrated humanistic approach by using such knowledge to advocate for systemic changes that promote organizational development that will contribute to the realization of people's full human potential, including but not limited to enhanced school and work performance.

Several social justice advocates have also discussed the importance of using aspects of the integrated humanistic concept that is presented in this article to foster system changes in counseling organizations, including ACA and its partner institutions (see D'Andrea et al., 2001, for a historical overview of this issue). The development of comprehensive and inclusive definitions of counseling (Hansen, in press) that explicitly place humanistic, feminist, multicultural, and social justice principles at the core of such definitions and the application of an integrated humanistic approach to accreditation and licensing standards have the potential to transform the profession.

Implementing integrated humanistic concepts as described in this article also supports the development of holistic counselor and teacher preparation programs. These training programs would foster the incorporation of many of the humanistic, feminist, multicultural, and social justice principles discussed in the preceding sections as well as holistic and comprehensive approaches to working with students, alumni, community members, allied professional organizations, and other stakeholders. Such an approach to professional training would include broad-based collaboration with people in multiple constituency groups to determine the goals of such professional training programs as well as the best ways to implement educational experiences that would effectively meet the needs of the people and the communities being served.

At its core, integrated humanism rejects the sort of paternalism and authoritarianism that have been and in some ways continue to be manifested in educational training programs for counselors and teachers, professional accreditation bodies, and licensure standards. Instead, integrated humanism advocates for a greater level of democratic, collaborative, outcomes-based policies and practices in all of these areas. This approach focuses new emphasis on the old saying that "one size does not fit all."

It is also important to note that although the ACA Code of Ethics (ACA, 2005) requires counseling practitioners to become culturally competent and most counseling programs include at least one course on multiculturalism, many well-meaning counselors and counselor educators remain unaware of their own privileged status and the various forms of systemic injustices that continue to have an adverse impact on many people's health and well-being on a daily basis (Comstock et al., 2008; Smith et al., 2008).

Integrated humanism challenges professional counselors, educators, and interested allies to go beyond our comfort zone and to help one another more fully understand the relevance of humanism, feminism, multiculturalism, and social justice for the work we do. It replaces the dogmatism that characterized the early feminist and multicultural movements and that, to some degree, still affects some sectors of the counseling profession. This includes but is certainly not limited to challenging the assertion that a doctoral degree in counselor education and supervision is the only acceptable credential for new faculty members in counselor education programs. In short, integrated humanism calls on all of us to be inclusive, to welcome people from diverse backgrounds who possess perspectives and skills that complement yet do not conflict with the mission of counseling and counselor education, and to return to the interdisciplinary and theoretical diversity perspective that once characterized counseling as a profession.

It should be noted that many well-meaning counselors, in their attempt to be nonjudgmental and to avoid imposing their values on others, strive to be neutral in matters of concern to an integrated humanistic approach to counseling, advocacy, and education. In trying to be "nice" (Bemak & Chung, 2008), they unintentionally help to perpetuate many of the institutional and systemic injustices that negatively affect far too many people throughout the world. Integrated humanism calls on counselors to understand, respect, and act with and for clients to change systems that continue to privilege some at the expense of others.


The ACA Advocacy Competencies (Lewis, Arnold, House, & Toporek, 2002) offer a practical guide to social justice advocacy and education that is consistent with integrated humanism. The ACA Advocacy Competencies outline three levels of social justice advocacy, ranging from the individual client--student level where the counselor works to empower and/or advocate on behalf of clients and students; to the school--community level where counselors use organizational development strategies and collaboration skills to foster positive changes in schools, universities, workplaces, and community agencies and organizations; to systems advocacy efforts in the broader public arena, or macrosystems level, where counselors use large-scale educational, organizational, and lobbying efforts when engaged in social and political advocacy (Lewis et al., 2002; Toporek, Lewis, & Crethar, 2009). The ACA Advocacy Competencies (Lewis et al., 2002), coupled with the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development's MCC (Sue et al., 1992), the American Psychological Association's (2007) Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Girls and Women, and related documents provide counselors with a comprehensive road map, not only for implementing an integrated humanistic approach in counseling settings, but also for effectively implementing a broad range of individual and collective change initiatives that can help build a more just and peaceful world.


The integration of humanistic, feminist, multicultural, and social justice counseling and advocacy perspectives has the potential to further transform the professions of counseling and education. As counselors and educators, each of us can contribute to this transformational process in different ways. For instance, we can begin by reflecting on the ways that an integrated humanistic approach to counseling and education can be infused into our work settings. This will require many of us to break new ground as we advocate for the implementation of this concept in the schools, universities, and community agencies and organizations where we are employed.

We can advocate for positive changes in other aspects of the public arena, or the macrosystems level, of our society by using the ACA Advocacy Competencies as a guide in advancing such changes in institutional and political arenas. When working in such areas, we are encouraged to be mindful that fostering lasting changes at the macrosystems level requires commitment, patience, tenacity, and courage (D'Andrea & Daniels, 2010; Kiselica & Robinson, 2001) and a focused multilevel incremental educational approach to change (Zalaquett, Foley, Tillotson, Dinsmore, & Hof, 2008).

Finally, we can work toward respectful collaboration within and beyond disciplinary boundaries (Palmer, 2004) and within different spheres in our communities by integrating and applying humanistic, feminist, multicultural, and social justice principles in our work as counselors, educators, and social justice advocates. Such work holds the potential to transform ourselves, our profession, and society.


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Peggy Brady-Amoon, Department of Professional Psychology and Family Therapy, Seton Hall University. Portions of this article were presented at the New Jersey Counseling Association Annual Conference, April 2010. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Peggy Brady-Amoon, Department of Professional Psychology and Family Therapy, Seton Hall University, 400 South Orange Avenue, South Orange, NJ 07079 (e-mail:
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Author:Brady-Amoon, Peggy
Publication:Journal of Humanistic Counseling
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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