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Address Diversity Issues with a Social Location Essay

To help would-be therapists understand the diverse backgrounds and needs of their future clients, this professor has students take a closer look inward.

Educator

Naveen Jonathan, PhD, LMFT

Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program, Chapman University

PhD and MS in Marital & Family Therapy, BS in Counseling Psychology

In today’s diverse society, students pursuing a license in marriage and family therapy must gain an understanding of the importance of individual differences. Individual identities (the way people self-identify) are determined by social location (the groups to which people belong in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic class, culture, country of origin, race, religion, ability, age, education, and so on). These factors will naturally differ between therapists and their clients, as well as from client to client.

For this reason, licensed marital and family therapist (LMFT) Naveen Jonathan, PhD, teaches a master’s level course at Chapman University called Diversity Issues in Therapy, which helps build an awareness of others’ individual identities—first, by helping students take a look at their own social location.

“In family therapy, the client’s personal experiences affect the way he or she sees the world,” says Jonathan. Social location is a lens through which the therapist can understand the client’s world and, further, the response a client may be having to input that the therapist offers.

Challenge: A need for a wider perspective

Jonathan’s students are likely to interact with a number of clients from an entirely different social location. And before beginning to understand the social location of others, says Jonathan, it is essential for students to look inward.

“In any profession that involves service to others, it is absolutely essential to have that knowledge of yourself and how you interact with others from different walks of life,” Jonathan says. When the service provider understands her own context, it is much easier to develop a strategy to help clients from different social locations. This is possible only when the provider can see how those clients differ from herself, without resorting to stereotypes.

Innovation: Gaining a deeper understanding of self

To open the door to self- and other-awareness, Jonathan requires that each student generate a Social Location Statement—a paper in which the student reflects on his or her own identity. This exercise gives Jonathan’s students a chance to define the characteristics of individual identity for themselves, so that they can then begin to understand the way others “locate” themselves in society.

Context

Course: MFT 618 Diversity Issues in Therapy
Frequency: 2.5-hour meetings, 2 times per week (in summer)
Class size: 12–25
Course description: Prerequisite, marriage and family therapy major. A study of multicultural counseling emphasizing understanding and respect for the diversity of all human beings, particularly with regard to matters of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. The course analyzes the cultural context of family, behavior, psychopathology, assessment, and attitudes towards counseling. Utilization of mental health services by California-specific ethnic/culture-specific groups are addressed. Critical analysis is given to ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, ableism, and heterosexism in society and traditional culture-bound assessment and treatment approaches. The course objective is to produce culturally competent marriage and family therapists who are aware of their own social location and how that impacts their work with clients.
In his words: “We want to train students to be able to work across the board with a variety of families, couples, and individuals. We live in a diverse world, so it is important to be able to work with clients who are marginalized, or [who] don’t fit societally defined majority norms. The course is an exploration of diverse groups and their expectations, values, and beliefs, and how they impact mental health and therapy. The course also explores the diversity of therapist identities and therapeutic approaches. We teach students to recognize and honor the fact that they are diverse individuals themselves—and embrace their own diversity in their work as mental health therapists.”

MFT 618 Diversity Issues in Therapy

See materials

Lesson: The Social Location Statement

Within the course, Jonathan’s students write a 4–5 page paper formulating their own social location. “In [the discipline of marriage and family therapy], social location provides a context for people to express themselves and how they see themselves fitting in society,” Jonathan explains. “[This includes] their experiences, their influences, and the identities that they hold, all of which make up who they are as individuals.” Location characteristics might also include the types of educational or financial opportunities the individual has had access to.

Here, Jonathan shares the different components covered in the students’ examination of social location, along with tips for making the most of this exercise

First, explain the importance of self-awareness

“I want students to know themselves and what they bring to the table—but also to understand that biases they acquire through their own social location may be helpful in therapy, or [they] may hinder therapy,” Jonathan says. “We all need support from one another. The client’s experience affects the way he or she defines support and the kind of support the client expects.”

Have students consider their own social location

Jonathan asks students to consider their own characteristics in a variety of areas—including race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, and physical ability—and then decide which ones best reflect how they see themselves. Then they turn this information into a social location statement, in which they describe their personal connections to the areas of identification (listed above). Jonathan frequently helps students get started by offering his own social location as a model—something he feels is important for an instructor to be willing to do. Here are the first few sentences:

My name is Naveen Jonathan. I identify as a thirty something, first-generation Indian-American, multilingual, Christian, single, cisgendered male…an only child, born to immigrant parents from India who instilled hard work, humility, a spirit of doing for others, family relationships and faith in God as core guiding principles, which also exist prominently in my life.

Ask them to dig deeper and draw connections

After students create their initial social location statement, Jonathan asks them to divide their areas of identification into 3 different categories:

  • Characteristics that are easy for them to talk about
  • Characteristics that they are ambivalent about
  • Characteristics that they find difficult to discuss

They consider which areas of identification may be beneficial to or problematic for their future career as a marriage and family therapist—and then come up with specific, detailed strategies grounded in research for addressing these factors in their future work.

In Jonathan’s social location, one portion from this section reads as follows:

I spent much time figuring out the fit of these pieces [of my identity] in my life to maintain congruence with myself. Yet I still constantly find myself discerning which identities to give privilege to and which to silence, depending on the contexts, communities, individuals and systems that I interact with.…

I … come from a long line of educators and church workers … who combined education and faith to train individuals to serve those in need. I know my spirit and passion as an educator, supervisor, and Marriage & Family Therapist comes from this same spirit.

Create a safe environment for sharing

While it is not part of the rubric for this lesson, in-class discussion of the student’s own social location is an important part of the experience, says Jonathan. He strives to create a class culture in which students are free (but not required) to share. “The student, in their own time, at their own level of comfort, may choose to disclose, or not disclose, their personal histories,” he says. For example, some choose to disclose certain information only to him, not to the entire class. Hearing divergent views from their peers in class can help widen student perspectives, and then they can begin to try to understand where the divergence might originate.

Have students sit in the client’s seat

Each of Jonathan’s students is required to undergo 16 hours of therapy with a licensed therapist (as is common elsewhere among individuals in training to be therapists). The self-knowledge students gain as a result of The Social Location Statement may inform this therapy, often making it more productive and insightful, Jonathan suggests. Though the social location paper is one of the first requirements of the class, Jonathan encourages students to continue reflecting on the issues it raises over the duration of the course—and beyond.

Outcomes

Jonathan has been teaching for 8 years. He has incorporated The Social Location Statement paper into the course for the past 3 summer sessions. “I’ve taught several different diversity-focused classes, and [I] always have discussed social location,” he says. “I added the paper as an exercise because I needed some way for students to clearly articulate their own social locations, so they can explore this aspect more productively with their peers.”

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