Printer Friendly

Implementing a community intervention to promote social justice and advocacy: analysis of a town hall meeting on race, justice, and peace.

A diverse team of counselor educators used a phenomenological qualitative research method to analyze a social justice group intervention--a town hall meeting among a group of students, educators, and mental health professionals that focused on race, justice, and peace. Participants described forms of oppression in their personal and professional lives and strategies to combat them.


Much has been written about the problems related to and caused by racism and other forms of oppression in contemporary society. From a humanistic perspective, racism and other forms of systemic oppression deny individuals in marginalized and devalued groups the same dignity, freedom, and opportunities granted to persons in dominant groups in society. Problems related to these social injustices have typically been studied from a discipline-specific stance. This includes studies that highlighted the "gap" in educational achievement between White and Black students (Rampey, Dion, & Donahue, 2009) and racial-ethnic disparities in health outcomes (Geronimus, Hicken, Keene, & Bound, 2006), to name a few.

These problems are certainly worthy of attention and remedial action. However, such perspectives represent a reductionist way of conceptualizing the larger problem of racism and oppression in contemporary society. Rather than examining the effects of racism on specific educational and health outcomes or other related phenomena, this form of social pathology requires more holistic and proactive analyses and actions to eradicate such injustices.

In 2001, participants in the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR; n.d.) gathered in Durban, South Africa, to discuss approaches to address racism and related social injustices. From that international conference came the suggestion to have all the participants advocate for the development and implementation of community-based meetings to address the complex problem of racism and related forms of intolerance in more holistic ways in the local areas where they lived.

The participants at this international conference unanimously approved this recommendation. The goal of such meetings would be to give large groups of individuals the opportunity to openly discuss the impact of racism and other social injustices as well as to identify ways to effectively address such injustices in local communities around the world. Such an approach was partly modeled on reconciliation efforts in postapartheid South Africa.

The success of such gatherings relies on those persons who experience oppression to generate solutions. This philosophy is consistent with the humanistic tenets asserting that people possess the abilities to improve their own lives and, with the right conditions, will do so. The use of this sort of community-based meeting approach in addressing racism and other forms of social injustice also reflects the belief in individuals' ability to behave ethically and pursue justice in unique and holistic ways. Such an approach is also consistent with another humanistic principle that is grounded in "a belief in the importance of practices that promote tolerance and diversity and upholds human rights" (Cain, 2001, as cited in Scholl, 2008, p. 5).

The United Nations WCAR (n.d.) final report highlighted the link between racism and mental health, as did a report from the American Psychological Association's (APA; n.d.) delegates at the conference. Furthermore, the American Counseling Association's Advocacy Competencies assert that in the face of systemic factors that negatively affect clients, counselors should provide social and political advocacy (Lewis, Arnold, House, & Toporek, 2002).

Those in the mental health fields have a role in serving their clients through systemic advocacy that addresses oppression. Following the recommendations of WCAR, mental health professionals with the National Institute of Multicultural Competence (NIMC) organized and implemented a series of town hall meetings to discuss the complex problems of and solutions for racism and other forms of oppression. To date, 14 such meetings have been held in various geographic regions throughout the United States. Each meeting was structured around the following four basic questions, which came from recommendations made by delegates attending the WCAR:

1. What are some specific ways that complex problems of racism and other forms of cultural oppression are manifested in the participants' local communities?

2. What is the psychosocial impact of these problems on persons in the communities where the town hall meetings were held?

3. What programs/services/interventions are currently in operation to address the adverse impact that racism and related injustices have on the town hall meeting participants' communities?

4. What roles would the town hall participants like to see psychologists/ counselors embrace in striving to ameliorate the complex problems of racism and cultural oppression in the future?

The following section describes the research method that we used to assess the impact of the first town hall meeting that was implemented in this ongoing national project. As described in more detail, we used a phenomenological qualitative research approach to analyze the responses made by persons attending the first town hall meeting. By using this research method, we gained an in-depth and rich understanding of the participants' experiences of and responses to racism and other forms of oppression in their communities and workplaces (Morrow, Rakhsha, & Castaneda, 2001).



The persons who attended the first town hall meeting were individuals who had attended a national multicultural conference held in early 2008 at Columbia University in New York City. Those individuals included academics from the fields of counselor education and counseling psychology, numerous mental health practitioners, and counseling and psychology graduate students. The group numbered approximately 50 individuals who represented a wide range of ages, races, and ethnicities. The facilitators of the town hall meeting were five counselor educators (including the fifth author) who possessed extensive training, knowledge, skills, and experience in group facilitation, social justice work, and cultural competency training.


Procedures for the town hall meetings were approved by the institutional research review board that was housed in the university where two of the meeting facilitators were employed. Participants at the initial town hall meeting used for this study were informed of this event through the national multicultural conference marketing materials as well as the conference program that was distributed to all the persons attending this professional development meeting at Columbia University. Hence, all of the participants at the town hall meeting were self-selected with interest in the topic.

This and subsequent town hall meetings followed a similar informed consent protocol. At the beginning of the meeting, all in attendance were informed of the intent to videotape the session for later transcription and research analysis. Participants also received written copies of and were also read a statement of their rights. They were then given the opportunity to ask questions about the research component of the project to clarify the topic and to ensure that their participation indicated voluntary consent.

Town Hall Meeting Format

The meeting was approximately 120 minutes in duration. Following introduction of the facilitators and securing the participants' informed consent (15 minutes), the group spent 60 minutes discussing (a) specific ways that racism and other forms of cultural oppression were manifested in their local communities and (b) the psychosocial impact of those problems on the participants and other members of their communities. The next 30 minutes involved asking the participants to describe (a) the types of programs and services available in their communities that were currently addressing these problems and (b) the specific roles and services they would like to see counselors, psychologists, and other mental health professionals play in the future to ameliorate the complex problem of racism and related injustices.

During the final 15 minutes of the town hall meeting, the facilitators summarized the overall discussion. At the conclusion of the event, the facilitators asked all the persons in attendance to reflect on the discussion and consider one thing they would be willing to do in the next 30 days to help eradicate some of the racism and related forms of injustice that continued to occur in their local communities. To prevent the participants from feeling overwhelmed with such a request, the facilitators emphasized that they were asking the participants to make a "concrete commitment to do 5% more on one thing in the next 30 days" and not feel that they were being asked to do "100% more on 10 new things." Finally, the participants were asked to write down the concrete action strategies they were committed to implement in the next 30 days. The facilitators asked if anyone was willing to share his or her "5% more" and another 10 minutes were devoted to allowing those participants willing to share their action plans publicly to do so.

Analysis of the Participants' Comments

This study applied qualitative research methods to reveal the lived experiences related to various forms of racism and related injustices that were expressed by the persons attending this town hall meeting. Use of qualitative methods has been recommended as a means of examining issues of power and privilege and in giving voice to communities and individuals experiencing oppression (Morrow et al., 2001). Using qualitative research methods in this way also provides a holistic approach to understanding a phenomenon. It was hoped that participants' involvement in a public discussion of racism and related forms of social injustice would give voice to their experiences, which in turn would lead to inspiration and action for change (Shorter-Gooden, 2002).

The research team consisted of five counselor educators--the authors of this article--all with professional and research experience in social justice counseling and advocacy. Variation in the composition of this research team was reflected in the gender (three women, two men), age (range from 35 to 63 years), racial identity (European American and African American), and residential locations (Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, and West in the United States) of the investigators.

Assumptions from which we initiated the analysis of the transcription of the town hall meeting included the following beliefs: (a) Oppression has a negative impact on the mental health of persons in the United States, (b) social justice advocacy is needed to eliminate oppression, (c) individuals can create systemic change, and (d) mental health professionals can play an important role in eliminating injustices in society.

The data analysis process followed recommendations by Morrissette (1999). A graduate student transcribed the town hall meeting verbatim. We then individually reviewed a copy of the transcript, highlighting core ideas and significant words or phrases reflected in the town hall participants' commentary. During that initial review process, each of us noted repeated thematic material.

Following individual review and assessment of the transcript, we met multiple times via an online computer-based conferencing system to discuss thematic findings. During these meetings, we worked to reach consensus in assigning thematic names to numerous words, phrases, paragraphs, or transcript pages. We repeatedly reviewed the data until no new codes or themes emerged and we achieved consensus on the coding. We repeated the process until redundancy of thematic material emerged, with limited participant checking applied in an effort to clarify certain content. Throughout the analysis process, an auditor checked for researcher biases and verified thematic selection. The final thematic codes were referred to as first-order themes.

We held additional meetings to group similar first-order themes beneath overarching second-order themes. Second-order themes were more abstract and less reflective of actual participant language (Morrow et al., 2001). Those second-order grouped themes were assigned a definition by consensus, to encourage consistency in terminology. The auditor then reviewed all second-order themes and offered feedback.

Throughout the data analysis process, multiple procedures ensured the trustworthiness of findings. For instance, we achieved confirmability by working collectively to bracket, or set aside, team members' personal assumptions or biases as they related to material reviewed. We established credibility by developing researcher reflexivity using field notes and participant quotations to provide a rich description of the town hall participants' experiences.

In addition, recognizing the subjective influence of researchers on the process of data gathering and analysis, we applied method triangulation. This included the use of multiple researchers, an auditor, and some participant checking (Fassinger, 2005; Morrow, 2005). We achieved dependability by attending to the audit trail. This included keeping a detailed account of procedures, methods, and reflections to describe the research process (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).


The transcript generated from the videotape of the town hall meeting contained approximately 1,200 lines of comments made by the participants in this event. We initially identified over 400 first-order themes from the participants' comments. Some comments were classified under more than one theme, with some of the themes encompassing more than one fine of recorded comments. We made an effort to keep thematic names closely tied to the actual comments made by the participants.

We classified approximately 400 first-order themes beneath 13 broader second-order themes. To make sense of and better organize such a large amount of data, we identified three broad thematic categories under which all of the second- and first-order themes could be logically grouped. These three major categories were named (a) experiences of oppression, (b) institutions' role in oppression, and (c) responding to oppression. A complete list of first- and second-order themes as well as the three major thematic categories that we generated can be found in Table 1. The following sections of this article describe the three major thematic categories generated in this study.

Experiences of Oppression

As noted in Table 1, the first major category, Experiences of Oppression, contained four second-order themes that reflected participants' expressions of frustration, anger, and fear regarding the ways that racism and related forms of social injustice adversely affected their lives as well as the lives of persons in their communities. An example of one of the comments made by a town hall meeting participant that was classified in the Experiences of Oppression category is provided below:
   It is a very wealthy area, very expensive stores, and I am crossing
   the street, minding nay own business, talking on my cell phone, and
   this woman goes, "nigger, go to another city." ... and it took me a
   couple seconds to figure out what had happened and l turned around
   and by that time she had walked by and I thought to myself, "I have
   nowhere to report this." ... I feel like there is that aspect that
   is missing that we need to talk about, these things that happen to
   us as a type of violence.

Institutions' Role in Oppression

The second major category generated from the participants' comments was referred to as Institutions' Role in Oppression. This major category contains one second-order theme that describes ways that systemic change efforts in organizations and institutions are hindered by institutional dynamics in general and persons in power maintaining the organization's or institution's status quo in particular. The following is one example of the types of comments categorized under this theme.
   I got a call from my supervisor who at first was really gung-ho
   [about the multicultural training] and she said, "You did request
   to have your schedule changed, you didn't just do that on your own,
   right?" And I said, "Oh absolutely, no I requested it in advance."
   And the individual told me, "I just want to make sure that so and
   so, which is our administrator, remains in charge." And I said [to
   myself], "Where did that come from? Wow." But you see, I didn't ask
   where did it come from because I didn't have the courage because I
   didn't want to have an uncomfortable moment and have a dialogue....
   It was almost like, was she afraid that if I gained certain
   knowledge that I would just come back and start a revolution?

Responding to Oppression

The third major category identified by the research team was called Responding to Oppression, which reflected various ways participants combated oppression. Second-order themes from this category related to (a) specific strategies for creating change, (b) the importance of being connected with supportive others, (c) the value of using non-Western paradigms, (d) gaining strength from historical figures, and (e) participating in the town hall meeting where the facilitators encouraged the participants to increase their awareness of social injustices and take action to address specific injustices in their communities. Specific examples of ways participants combated oppression included the following:

* Stop waiting for permission and just act

* Use counselor education classrooms for healing and collective action

* Engage others in difficult dialogues

* Work in and across coalitions

* Draw healing tactics from other nations

Additional participant comments from the Responding to Oppression category illuminated the ability of individuals and groups to generate solutions at a grassroots level. This included comments by several persons indicating the power of town hall meetings to organize and inspire people for change. Specific comments were made about the way the meeting at Columbia University fueled the participants' desire to return to their communities and increase their social justice advocacy efforts.

Several participants expressed appreciation for the inspiration gleaned from hearing other persons at the town hall meeting describe their experiences in overcoming various injustices. For instance, an older participant from South Africa referenced the liberation of his own country in describing how progress could be achieved by implementing forums like the town hall meeting in local communities across the United States. He explained his thinking about these issues in the following way:
   We were so disempowered by this big gigantic system that said to
   us, on a day-to-day basis ... that "you're worthless." ... A group
   of us ... decided that this has to change. Some of you have seen
   [these] sort of uprisings and I am excited about this process, and
   I think that there is a huge potential because we can't wait for
   somebody else to address our needs. We are going to address them,
   we are going to take it upon ourselves and move forward in this
   process. We can't wait for somebody else to give peace to us, we
   have to demand it.... We have to tell them who we are, we have to
   describe ourselves to them, so they know who we are, so they know
   what we feel, who we are and what we stand for.... I have seen so
   much progress in this collective discussion on race and racism in
   the corners of South Africa in forums like this setting. So I am
   excited about this and I wish this spreads across this country so
   that we can start recognizing the realities of what other people
   are experiencing on a day-to-day basis just because of tone of
   their skin color.

Another participant described how grassroots efforts in her local community resulted in the development of a new mental health care organization:
   We had a consciousness about mental health and we came up against
   the traditional mental health system in [the] county and in that
   system were other Blacks and Latinos, who were part of that system,
   talking against us. We were talking about being Chicanos and what
   it meant to serve our gente, to serve our people based on this
   paradigm. We were talking about a different paradigm of social
   justice ... we didn't bother to get any permission from them. They
   wouldn't give us funding, they didn't, so we started our own
   Chicano mental health agency. We did tortilla sales and tamale
   sales and we organized in the community ... and we just had these
   dialogues in the community, and we organized, and we got money, and
   we funded our own Latino Mental Health Center. And now, and over
   time, that has grown and that ... and then we pulled, got in
   coalition with and collaborated with African Americans [who] have
   their own kind of centers and then later on Asian ... now there are
   institutions and agencies in the community that individual
   students, who have this consciousness and want to work for change,
   can go to. So we need to build these organizations, where there is
   grassroots, you know.


Responses from participants in the town hall meeting suggest that forms of social injustice were manifested in personal, community, and work settings in ways that had profoundly affected them. The participants reported powerful emotions that ranged from anger to hopelessness regarding their experiences with those forms of oppression. They also reported experiencing a sense of excitement and hopefulness when discussing the eradication of those injustices during the town hall meeting.

An overarching impression we had was that participants' personal and work experiences of injustices mirrored forms of systemic oppression perpetuated in society at large. Hence, such findings corroborate the literature describing current inequalities (e.g., Miller & Garran, 2007), indicating that not only mental health clientele, but also professionals providing services to clientele, are profoundly challenged by societal oppression. We also noted the frequency with which many of the participants' comments reflected the view that they were at times unequipped to effectively respond to the racism and other forms of oppression that continue to be manifested in their local communities. Indeed, several participants described a heightened level of cognitive dissonance and "blanking out" when faced with various forms of injustice. That cognitive dissonance was accompanied by increased feelings of self-doubt linked to the struggles of changing the hierarchical systems in which they were situated.

Despite the self-doubt surrounding the ability to respond to oppression, the participants provided numerous examples of coping and responding tactics. Steps participants indicated they took when responding to various forms of oppression they experienced at their workplace and in their local communities included drawing strength and inspiration from historical figures and past successes; initiating change rather than waiting for it to occur; and connecting with others for support, learning, and taking action. Finally, with comments similar to those made by the man from South Africa, multiple participants indicated that the town hall meeting itself provided a positive and supportive environment for discussing their experiences of coping with and overcoming racism and oppression in their communities. Several participants stated that through participation in the meeting, their dignity was affirmed and new ideas and increased motivation to combat injustices were achieved. For those reasons, many individuals acknowledged the town hall meeting as personally and professionally empowering.

As evident in this particular town hall meeting, counselors, psychologists, and other mental health professionals are uniquely positioned to organize and implement similar group interventions in their own communities. Most mental health professionals receive training in group work, with the goal of acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively facilitate large-group interventions. This includes learning to manage group conflict, processing emotional experiences in group settings, clarifying problems, and helping group members generate solutions to specific challenges they face in life. Consequently, mental health professionals can apply such skills to implementation of the town hall format. Considering the powerful outcomes described in this study, we encourage mental health professionals committed to social justice, human development, and individual and collective empowerment to consider implementing such meetings in their own settings.

We also encourage persons who facilitate such meetings to be prepared to address a wide range of participant reactions to racism and other forms of oppression and proposed solutions to those social pathologies. The analysis of the participants' comments from this meeting suggests that some persons are likely to be more ready to implement social justice advocacy strategies than are others. It is also likely that some persons attending similar social justice group interventions may be in need of healing (and reconciliation or mourning) before they are willing and able to take action. Still others may need validation of their feelings regarding their efforts to effectively deal with the kinds of racism and related forms of oppression that are manifested in their communities. Thus, to be effective, social justice group facilitators need to recognize and differentiate individuals' unique statuses regarding their racial identity development as well as accurately assess participants' readiness to promote social justice changes in their workplaces and communities.


Participants' experiences reported from this town hall meeting were selected as being overall representative or thematic experiences reported at that meeting. However, these results are not necessarily indicative of the experiences of participants a t other town hall meetings in other geographic regions. In addition, participants in the present study were employed solely as mental health professionals and educators. It is possible that town hall participants from other professions and backgrounds may report experiences of racism and related injustices that occur in their own communities in distinctly different ways.

Suggestions for future research in this area include analyzing transcriptions from additional town hall meetings in different venues that include persons with diverse educational and employment backgrounds. This would enable future researchers to compare response themes that emerge in social justice group interventions that are held in different locations and among diverse participants. By identifying similarities and differences in participants' reactions to additional town hall meetings, humanistic-oriented counselors and educators committed to social justice advocacy would better understand how experiences of oppression and solutions are similar and/ or vary among diverse persons in different parts of the nation.

In the future, researchers could also focus on the outcomes of similar town hall interventions to determine if or how people changed over time as a result of participation in these community-based interventions. Such future investigations may include individual follow-up interviews with town hall participants and assessments of the types of workplace and community actions that to an extent may have been initiated as a result of persons attending these town hall meetings.


This study indicated that the town hall meeting format used at Columbia University was effective in exploring the impact of racism and other injustices on counselors, allied human service professionals, and other persons living in their communities. The meeting format provided a forum whereby persons shared myriad suggestions for eradicating injustices, thereby acting as a powerful tool for connecting persons interested in learning new ways to promote justice in their workplaces and communities. Finally, and perhaps most important, such a meeting increased member hopefulness regarding the important roles mental health and education professionals can play in promoting peace and justice in society (Freire, 1985). With all of this in mind, we encourage interested counselors and educators to consider the benefits that can be derived from implementing similar social justice group interventions to promote a greater level of peace and justice within their own workplaces and communities.


American Psychological Association, Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs. (n.d.). Psychological causes and consequences of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerances. Retrieved from

Fassinger, R. E. (2005). Paradigms, praxis, problems, and promise: Grounded theory in counseling psychology research. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 156-166. doi:10.1037/00220167.52.2.156

Freire, P. (1985). The politics of education: Culture, power and liberation (D. Macedo, Trans.). South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Geronimus, A. T., Hicken, M., Keene, D., & Bound, J. (2006). "Weathering" and age-patterns of allostatic load scores among Blacks and Whites in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 96, 826-833. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2004.060749

Lewis, J. A., Arnold, M. S., House, R., & Toporek, R. L. (2002). ACA advocacy competencies. Retrieved from

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Miller, J., & Garran, A. M. (2007). The web of institutional racism. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 77, 33-67.

Morrissette, P. J. (1999). Phenomenological data analysis: A proposed model for counsellors. Guidance & Counseling, 15, 2-8.

Morrow, S. L. (2005). Quality and trustworthiness in qualitative research in counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 2, 250-260. doi:10h.1177/0011000006286990

Morrow, S. L., Rakhsha, G., & Castaneda, C. L. (2001). Qualitative research methods for multicultural counseling. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (pp. 575-603). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Rampey, B. D., Dion, G. S., & Donahue, P. L. (2009). NAEP 2008 trends in academic progress in reading and mathematics (NCES 2009-479). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Scholl, M. B. (2008). Preparing manuscripts with central and salient humanistic content. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 47, 3-8.

Shorter-Gooden, K. (2002). Qualitative methods: An essential toot for multicultural psychology: In E. Davis-Russell (Ed.), Handbook of multicultural education, research, intervention, and training (pp. 123-138). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

United Nations. (n.d.). World conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerances. Retrieved from

Scott Schaefle, Counseling Program, University of Colorado Denver; Jennifer Cates, Graduate Counseling Program, Regis University; Krista Malott, Department of Education and Human Services, Villanova University; William Conwill, Harrison Conwill Associates, Gainesville, Florida; Judy Daniels, Department of Kinesiology and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Hawaii. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Scott Schaefle, Counseling Program, University of Colorado Denver, Campus Box 106, PO Box 173364, Denver, CO 80217-3364 (e-mail:
Major Categories, Second-Order Themes, and Number of First-Order
Themes Generated From Town Hall Meeting

                                                          Number of
Major Categories       Second-Order Themes                 Themes

Experiences of         Experiences of oppression             56
oppression             Being unequipped to overcome
                         oppression                          15
                       Effect of understanding
                         oppression on clinical work          4
                       Coping with oppression                47

Institutions' role     Maintenance of
in oppression          status quo by                         29
                       institutions and
                       persons in power

Responding to          Changing the status quo               42
oppression             Developing support networks           37
                       Facilitators challenging and
                         expanding level of awareness        34
                       Use of non-Western paradigms
                         to understand or fight              10
                       History and historical figures        17
                       Call to action                        38
                       Gaining awareness                     11
                       Tactics/strategies for dealing
                         with oppression                    136
COPYRIGHT 2011 American Counseling Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Schaefle, Scott; Cates, Jennifer; Malott, Krista; Conwill, William; Daniels, Judy
Publication:Journal of Humanistic Counseling
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2011
Previous Article:Operationalizing social justice counseling: paradigm to practice.
Next Article:Applications in social justice counselor training: classroom without walls.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |