Printer Friendly

Operationalizing social justice counseling: paradigm to practice.

Social justice counseling, like all humanistic models, recognizes the dignity of each human being, affirms the right of all people to choose and work toward their own goals, and asserts the importance of service to community. The social justice paradigm brings a special emphasis on the role of the environment.


Throughout its long history, the humanistic movement has provided a welcoming home for new theoretical models in the counseling field. The social justice counseling paradigm is one of those models, fitting comfortably within a network of approaches characterized by a set of core values: recognizing the dignity of all human beings, affirming the right of each individual to choose and work toward his or her own goals, and asserting the importance of service to the community.

As is true of all humanistic approaches, social justice counseling focuses on clients' strengths, rather than their deficits, and emphasizes the importance of healthy human development. What, then, makes social justice counseling unique? Social justice counselors respect the humanistic notion that people hold responsibility for their destiny, "having within themselves the answers to improving their own lives and the quality of life of all human beings" (Association for Humanistic Counseling, n.d., What Makes Us Humanistic Counselors? section, para. 1). Social justice counselors believe, however, that living a good life is not just a personal responsibility but is a right that must be actively protected.

Society often places unfair constraints on individuals, creating barriers to their development and preventing them from achieving their goals. When counselors begin to view the opportunity for a good life as a basic human right, the nature of their work takes a radically different turn. Their attention broadens from a focus on the individual to a focus on the environment, and they begin to see environmental change as a professional responsibility. Thus, the social justice counseling paradigm "uses social advocacy and activism as a means to address inequitable social, political, and economic conditions that impede the academic, career, and personal/social development of individuals, families, and communities" (Ratts, 2009, p. 160).

Social justice counseling has a strong theoretical base but, more important, it is eminently practical. When real-life counselors work with real-life clients and students, they will always find instances when the solution to a client's concerns lies outside his or her personal power.

It ... occurs when career or employment counselors become aware of inequitable hiring practices; when rehabilitation counselors note the obstacles their clients face in trying to obtain their rights to equal treatment; when school counselors try to stop unfair and inhumane educational practices; when agency counselors dealing with specific populations try to offset the community's tendency to marginalize particular groups of people. It happens whenever a counselor's attempt to help his or her clients find their own strength is counterbalanced by environmental forces that weaken or stifle growth. (Lewis, Lewis, Daniels, & D'Andrea, 2011, p. 207)

Despite the strong rationale for social action, counselors sometimes find the idea of addressing inequitable conditions on behalf of their clients somewhat daunting. Their nervousness usually comes from an assumption that social advocacy is completely separate from the work that they do on a one-to-one or small-group basis with their clients. They fear that working toward environmental change would be another add-on, among many, to their already busy schedule. In fact, however, counseling and social justice advocacy are closely related, to the degree that counselors can readily create "a seamless connection between what they do in the counseling office and what they do in the Capitol Building" (Lewis, Toporek, & Ratts, 2010, p. 241).

Operationalizing social justice counseling in this way requires (a) a comprehensive and clearly structured approach to professional practice and (b) a skill set that goes beyond the traditional definitions of direct-service counseling. The Community Counseling Model (Lewis et al., 2011) provides an exemplar of comprehensiveness, while the American Counseling Association (ACA) Advocacy Competencies (Lewis, Arnold, House, & Toporek, 2002) offer a skill set that underlies environmental intervention at all levels. Together, these two approaches can facilitate the counselor's success in carrying out social justice counseling.


The Community Counseling Model helps to operationalize the social justice paradigm by providing guidelines for a comprehensive approach to counseling. The model is defined as follows:

Community counseling is a comprehensive helping framework that is grounded in multicultural competence and oriented toward social justice. Because human behavior is powerfully affected by context, community counselors use strategies that facilitate the healthy development both of their clients and of the communities that nourish them. (Lewis et al., 2011, p. 9)

When counselors help to build strong and healthy communities, they help their clients as well. Table 1 shows how the community counselor's work is structured.

As Table 1 indicates, the Community Counseling Model calls for counselors to carry out activities aimed at facilitating both human development and community development. In either category, counselors should expect to use focused strategies, which are designed to meet the needs of particular clients or groups, and broad-based strategies, which affect the wider population.

Focused Strategies for Facilitating Human Development

Table 1 shows that focused strategies for facilitating human development include both counseling and outreach.

Counseling. Social justice counselors pay heed to the environment, but they do not turn their back on their traditional role of direct service. In fact, counselors tend to be highly effective social justice advocates because their work with clients makes them painfully aware of environmental factors that should be addressed. Whether this connection between counseling and activism is successful depends in part on how counselors interact with their clients or students.

There needs to be an unbroken line between counseling and advocacy strategies. That line abruptly breaks when a therapeutic approach involves diagnosing deficits and focusing attention solely on intrapsychic phenomena. Counselors can find a sense of wholeness in their work only if the theoretical perspectives that inform their direct counseling are broad enough to encompass a variety of roles. (Lewis et al., 201(], p. 241)

The Community Counseling Model calls for strengths-based and contextual perspectives in assessment and counseling. One way to make this happen is through a structured approach to client conceptualization. Counselors might ask themselves the following questions as a way to focus their own attitudes.

1. How can this client's issues or problems be defined in an empowering way? What strengths and competencies can be identified and encouraged?

2. How has this client been affected by oppression, injustice, or marginalization?

3. What counseling strategies can be used to overcome oppression-based barriers to healthy functioning?

4. What positive environmental resources might be available to this individual?

These questions keep the counselor focused on strengths and on context. The answers open up vistas of environmental intervention and direct counseling services that foster client empowerment.

Outreach. The Community Counseling Model emphasizes outreach to distressed and marginalized clients, a population that includes people experiencing traumatic situations and individuals victimized by the long-term stress of oppression. In either instance, a focus on the client's strengths and context remains vital.

In the case of communitywide trauma, for instance, recipients of crisis services need help that is strengths-based, outreach-oriented, more practical than psychological in nature, diagnosis free, conducted in nontraditional settings, culturally competent, and designed to strengthen existing community support systems (Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2010). For people who have been subjected to long-term marginalization, stigma, and powerlessness, the emphasis on strengths and community support may be even more important. The Community Counseling Model suggests that the primary purpose of outreach services is to increase personal power. This goal can partly be achieved when counselors do the following:

1. End the self-devaluating and internalized oppression that result from external limitations and labeling.

2. Bring marginalized individuals currently excluded from various aspects of school or community life into the mainstream of social interaction.

3. Facilitate efforts to increase the power of the marginalized group to strive for needed social changes.

4. Increase community responsiveness to the needs and rights of marginalized individuals and groups. (Lewis et al., 2011, p. 115)

Broad-Based Strategies for Facilitating Human Development

Broad-based strategies for facilitating human development encompass a variety of developmental and preventive interventions offered to the general population that a counselor might serve. These interventions include health promotion and wellness programs, programs to strengthen families, and life skills training for promoting personal competence. These types of programs enable healthier development and prevent mental or physical health problems that might otherwise arise. It is important to recognize, however, that "wellness cannot flourish in the absence of justice" (Prilleltensky, Dokecki, Frieden, & Wang, 2007, p. 19). For this reason, the Community Counseling Model also stresses educational programs that help to build social justice advocacy skills.

Although these skills are important at all ages, school-based programs have been most successful in creating and delivering structured curricula. Teachers for Social Justice (2004, p. 1) presented a set of criteria for effective social justice curricula that fit well within this quadrant. These educators recommended that social justice curricula be

* Grounded in the lives of students

* Critical, in the sense that students should learn to pose critical questions about society and connect with real-world problems

* Multicultural, antiracist, and projustice focused

* Participatory and experiential

* Hopeful, joyful, kind, and visionary

* Activist, with children coming to see themselves as "truth-tellers" and "change-makers"

* Academically rigorous

* Culturally and linguistically sensitive

These criteria illuminate the connection between strategies for facilitating human development and strategies for facilitating community development.

Focused Strategies for Facilitating Community Development

Regardless of the settings in which they work, all counselors see clients whose lives are negatively affected by environmental barriers that these clients have not been able to overcome. From a social justice helping perspective, the first choice of both counselor and client will always be to reinforce the client's ability to withstand external pressures and to advocate on his or her own behalf. Often, however, action on the part of the counselor is needed, if only to help the client gain access to resources and services that he or she needs and deserves. Especially when a client is injured by multiple oppressions and marginalization, the counselor's advocacy skills may become a key factor in the client's well-being.

These situations ... call out for major social and political changes that community counselors should seek in the long run. Unfortunately, however, these clients cannot wait. They need help in navigating the system so that they can find the best short-term solutions possible. (Lewis et al., 2011, p. 173)

Social justice counselors respond to the immediate needs of their clients and, at the same time, try to bring about changes in the community so that the clients' helping network is stronger and individual crises are averted. It is for this reason that focused strategies for community development encompass both client advocacy and community collaboration. Among the activist counselor's challenges and opportunities are the following:

* Fostering a responsive helping network through involvement in coalition building and community-based planning

* Entering into community collaborations that are led by community members as well as other stakeholders

* Joining coalitions of groups with common interests in community change

These experiences in their own communities often lead counselors in the direction of social/political action on a larger stage.

Broad-Based Strategies for Facilitating Community Development

Counselors are uniquely qualified to carry out social/political action for several reasons. First, "through the very nature of their work, counselors have intimate contacts with the most powerless segments of the population" (Lewis et al., 2011, p. 207). Because of their work with powerless persons, counselors become aware--often before anyone else--of environmental factors that might be damaging to all members of marginalized populations. Second, counselors are effective in carrying out organizing efforts. The skills that helped them to build coalitions among direct-service organizations can be used again to create linkages among broader advocacy groups in the community. Third, counselors have expertise that they can share when helping to build new coalitions or strengthen existing ones. Counselors do not necessarily have to be the leaders of social justice action coalitions. Instead, they can share their interpersonal and communication skills with others, through such activities as the following (Lewis et al., 2011, p. 208):

1. Provision of leadership training

2. Analysis of communication patterns within the group

3. Training in interpersonal skills that can help group members function together as an effective unit

4. Training in communication skills that can increase the group's effectiveness in outreach to new members

5. Development of effective techniques of communication with other individuals and organizations

Clearly, counselors have the kinds of skills and competencies that can reach across all four quadrants of the Community Counseling Model. The ACA Advocacy Competencies help to conceptualize and clarify specific competencies that underlie all aspects of the social justice counseling paradigm.


The ACA Advocacy Competencies (Lewis et al., 2002) were developed by an ACA task force and subsequently approved by the ACA Governing Council. The charge to the task force was to identify the competencies counselors would need to advocate effectively on behalf of their clients and communities.

In response to this charge, the task force members created a model that organized advocacy into two dimensions. The first dimension attends to the involvement of the client or community, asking whether the counselor is primarily carrying out advocacy with the client or on behalf of the client. The second dimension attends to the level of intervention: the individual client or student, the environmental system, or the wider public arena. The interaction of these dimensions is shown graphically in Figure 1.

As Figure 1 indicates, working with the individual client or student is identified as client/student empowerment, while working on behalf of the individual is identified as client/student advocacy. At the school or community level, working with community members is termed community collaboration and working on their behalf is seen as systems advocacy. In the larger public arena, counselors focus on public information efforts when working with others. When working on behalf of a population, their work is deemed social/political advocacy. A conceptualization and list of competencies are provided for each level and dimension.

As readers move through the competency document, they notice that the competencies at all levels are clearly drawn from the same general social justice philosophy. They see a natural progression from the micro- to the macrolevel. The unity of the document across dimensions can be seen clearly through a closer examination of two sets of competencies: (a) the client/student empowerment section, which is closest to what is familiar to humanistic counselors, and (b) the social/political advocacy section, which represents the greatest leap from the traditional helping relationship.


Client/Student Empowerment

According to Lewis et al. (2002, p. 1), in direct interventions with clients and students, the advocacy-oriented counselor is able to do the following:

* Identify the strengths and resources that clients/students bring to the counseling process.

* Identify the social, political, economic, and cultural factors that affect the client/ student.

* Recognize the signs indicating that an individual's behaviors and concerns reflect responses to systemic or internalized oppression.

* At an appropriate developmental level, help the individual identify the external barriers that affect his or her development.

* Train students and clients in self-advocacy skills.

* Help students and clients develop self-advocacy action plans.

* Assist students and clients in carrying out self-advocacy action plans.

Social/Political Advocacy

The conceptualization underlying the social/political advocacy section emphasizes the fact that counselors' experiences with their clients and communities lead to a recognition that the problems they are seeing affect numerous people in the larger arena. This leads social justice counselors toward social/political advocacy.

Lewis et al. (2002, p. 4) outlined the following steps that the advocacyoriented counselor should apply to influence public policy in a large, public arena:

* Distinguish those problems that can best be resolved through social/political action.

* Identify the appropriate mechanisms and avenues for addressing these problems.

* Seek out and join with potential allies.

* Support existing alliances for change.

* With allies, prepare convincing data and rationales for change.

* With allies, lobby legislators and other policy makers.


The social justice counseling and advocacy paradigm fits naturally into the family of humanistic theories but may be unique in its emphasis on environmental factors. Social justice counselors recognize the impact that inequities and oppression can have on their clients and accept the idea that addressing these problems is part of their professional responsibility. Even when counselors embrace this paradigm, they may find it difficult to make adaptations in their day-to-day practice. The Community Counseling Model, which provides an organizational structure, and the ACA Advocacy Competencies, which identify a practical new set of skills, facilitate the operationalization of social justice counseling, from paradigm to practice.


Association for Humanistic Counseling. (n.d.). Humanistic philosophy. Retrieved from

Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2010). Crisis counseling assistance and training program guidance. Retrieved from

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

Lewis, J. A., Lewis, M. D., Daniels, J. A., & D'Andrea, M. J. (2011). Community counseling: A multicultural social justice perspective (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Lewis, J. A., Toporek, R. L., & Ratts, M. J. (2010). Advocacy and social justice: Entering the mainstream of the counseling profession. In M. J. Ratts, R. L. Toporek, & J. A. Lewis (Eds.), ACA advocacy competencies: A social justice framework for counselors (pp. 239-244). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Prilleltensky, L, Dokecki, P., Frieden, G., & Wang, V. O. (2007). Counseling for wellness and justice: Foundations and ethical dilemmas. In E. Aldarondo (Ed.), Advancing social justice through clinical practice (pp. 19-42). New York, NY: Routledge.

Ratts, M. J. (2009). Social justice counseling: Toward the development of a "fifth force" among counseling paradigms. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 48, 160-172.

Teachers for Social Justice. (2004). About teachers for social justice. Retrieved from

Judith A. Lewis, retired, College qf Health and Human Services, Governors State University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Judith A. Lewis, 1700 East 56th Street, #2709, Chicago, 1L 60637 (e-mail:
The Community Counseling Model

Type of        Facilitating Human     Community
Strategy       Development            Development

Focused        Counseling in          Client advocacy
               context Outreach to    Community
               distressed and         collaboration
               marginalized clients

Broad-based    Developmental/         Social/political
               preventive             advocacy for
               interventions          macrolevel change
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:Lewis, Judith A.
Publication:Journal of Humanistic Counseling
Date:Sep 22, 2011
Previous Article:Entering communities: social justice oriented disaster response counseling.
Next Article:Implementing a community intervention to promote social justice and advocacy: analysis of a town hall meeting on race, justice, and peace.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters