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painting that says trust being held by hands with paint
Photo courtesy of Chelsea and Owen Karcher.

Therapist as Ally: Social Justice In & Out of the Therapy Room

By Amanda Hart, MA Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Transpersonal Art Therapy ‘19

Photos courtesy of Chelsea and Owen Karcher

chelsea and owen

Alumni Chelsea Karcher, MA, LPC-IT, with her partner Owen Karcher, MA, LPC, run The Center for Community Healing in Madison, Wisconsin. Both graduated from Naropa’s Transpersonal Counseling Psychology: Art Therapy program in 2013, and they frame their work through a strong social justice lens. Emphasis with clients, as well as in their consulting work, is placed on understanding the oppression and injustice experienced by their clients both within their personal lives, as well as societally. A large portion of this centers around their ever-developing awareness of personal bias, internalized oppression, areas of privilege, and worldview. As Chelsea explains, “In order to better society and community at large, this internal work is mandatory. When working with clients from any marginalized background, knowing our own (as therapists and individuals) implicit biases and how they are being brought into the relationship has to be worked into awareness.”

Naropa’s Art Therapy program standards require burgeoning therapists to take courses outlining a social justice and multicultural approach. To be a therapist no longer means sitting across from another person without an understanding of their larger social context and the implications of this, nor does it allow for the ignorance of their privilege as therapist. It grows more and more important to shed light on the role of therapist as an ally and agent of social change, with the expectation that integrity be held around personal blind spots and areas of ignorance. Owen and Chelsea hold this understanding central to their practice, welcoming clients who come to them in need of recovery from painful therapeutic experiences. “Mental health professionals have an ethical responsibility to conduct an examination of their own cultural identity, development, and unaddressed unconscious material in order to serve clients more thoroughly. Without this examination, a therapist may continue to operate without a conscious integration of suppressed aspects of self, relating to their cultural identity in a way that adversely affects the client and perpetuates harm. The harm to the client can manifest by inaccurate mirroring of their experiences, continuing to devalue their experiences of marginalization and oppression, or perpetuating preexisting power dynamics in relation to societal privilege.”

door of chelsea and owens office and inside view of couchIn order to maintain an inclusive space, Owen and Chelsea have created an outline of commitments for themselves in regards to personal and social responsibility as art therapists and allies. The first of these is the need to continually examine their worldviews and socially constructed ideals as therapists. Second, is to have consistent reflection on how that sense of identity and self carries over into the implicit hierarchy of the therapeutic relationship. Third, is an acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of the human experience. Fourth, is to move beyond the walls of the therapy room and out into the community in order to improve the state of the world.

Growing from these principles is their online training course, ‘The Transgender Advocacy Blueprint,’ for service providers seeking the knowledge and skills necessary to confidently and respectfully work with transgender people. Chelsea and Owen have offered LGBTQ inclusivity and anti-racism training to groups of social workers, educators, healthcare providers, state and county employees, parents, and nonprofits locally and nationally. They have also provided psychotherapy and support services for more than two hundred transgender individuals in the Midwest, many of whom travel several hours to see them due to lack of quality services in their own areas. The couple explain, “Clinicians are shaped by the culture that surrounds them. If therapists are part of the dominant group in society, they may operate from a place of stereotypes or assumptions defined by the cultural norm. Most therapists lack formal education and direct experience in developing the justice-oriented, respectful practices transgender and gender-nonconforming people really need. The standard trend of providing ‘good enough’ care, well-intentioned but ill-informed, is harmful and reinforces the sense of mistrust and avoidance that keeps transgender people from seeking the treatment and support they need.”

For those of us working in the field, and for those of us seeking license to do so, it is important to remember the innate privilege of our profession and the immense responsibilities that come with this. The Center for Community Healing is making training and knowledge around these issues more accessible, in hopes of making quality, compassionate, and understanding care more accessible to all clients. purple naropa seal to end article

This interview was rewritten for Naropa Magazine. Find the original interviews with Chelsea and Owen Karcher online at Naropa’s Pilot Light Blog:

"Naropa Alumni Bring Social Justice Framework to Therapeutic Relationship”
“Art Therapy & Social Activism”