How can teachers embody and pass on values of social justice in a country built on colonization, hierarchy, white supremacy, and the oppression of other cultures? This is the question a five-person Social Justice Pedagogy Committee in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program has been asking: how to decolonize their program’s curriculum. For this episode we talk with two members of this team, Cathy Lounsbury and Syntia Santos Dietz, about the insights they have gained from starting this process, why engaging in these kinds of dialogues is so important, and how others might undertake similar work.
To learn more about the work of the Social Justice Pedagogy Committee, you can watch their full presentation at the Association for Humanistic Counselling.
Learn more about Antioch New England’s Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling by following this link.
Recorded June 29, 2021 via Riverside.fm. Released July 7, 2021.
The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.
This episode was hosted by Jasper Nighthawk and edited by Lauren Instenes. Special thanks for this episode goes to Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland for their contributions.
[00:00:05] Jasper Nighthawk: Welcome and thank you for joining us. You are listening to The Seed Field Podcast, presented to you by Antioch University.
[00:00:20] Jasper: With every episode of The Seed Field Podcast, we celebrate and share stories of those who embody the spirit of our founder, Horace Mann, as they win victories for humanity. I’m Jasper Nighthawk and I’m your host. Today, we’re going to be talking about decolonizing our education system and, specifically, the work of remaking the curriculum that students follow as they work towards their degrees so that students encounter ideas of social justice and anti-racism and become agents of change in their communities.
For this conversation, we’re joined by two prominent educators in the field of clinical mental health counseling. We’re lucky to have Cathy Lounsbury with us. She’s the chair of the programs in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch New England and has over 25 years of experience as a clinical mental health counselor herself. She’s also the founder of Antioch’s Institute on Wellness. Welcome to The Seed Field Podcast, Cathy.
[00:01:20] Cathy Lounsbury: Thank you, Jasper. I’m really happy to be here.
[00:01:23] Jasper: We’re really happy to have you. We’re also happy and excited to be joined by Dr. Syntia Santos Dietz. Syntia is an associate professor in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program and she is the program’s incoming associate chair. Before coming to the United States, Syntia served as a professor and program coordinator in her home country of Honduras. She came to the US as a Fulbright scholar and eventually completed her PhD in counseling and counselor education from North Carolina State University. Welcome to The Seed Field Podcast, Syntia.
[00:01:57] Dr. Syntia Santos Dietz: Thank you so much. Thank you for having us.
[00:02:00] Jasper: It’s so great. Well, I’m really excited to talk with you in part because you two, along with three of your colleagues, Dr. Devona Stalnaker-Shofner, Dr. Amy Morrison, and Dr. Deb Smith, recently gave a presentation at the meeting of the American Association of Humanistic Counseling and it was called “A Social Justice Pedagogy Committee.”
I’m really excited to talk with you about your work in setting up this committee and what other people can learn about decolonizing curriculum and creating change inside programs that they might be teaching in or studying in.
Before we jump into talking about decolonization, I think it’s really important that we’re clear about where we are coming from. Full disclosure, I am a White cis man. I use he/him pronouns and I was born and grew up here in this country, the United States. Can I ask what perspective you each bring to this conversation?
[00:02:57] Cathy: Thank you so much for starting with that, Jasper. I think that’s so important for myself. This is Cathy and I use she/her pronouns and I am a White cisgender woman who has been a counselor educator for 28 years now and has been a counselor for 28 years. I was thinking about this earlier as well. It’s interesting to think about our own racial identities because, for me, my grandparents came here from Italy and I actually thought I was Italian until I learned that I was White. I think that’s a really important part of my identity and understanding the perspective where I come from.
[00:03:45] Dr. Santos Dietz: Great. In my case, this is Syntia, I am born and raised in Honduras, so I am Honduran. That’s what I have been my entire life. When I came to the United States, I realized that here, I am a Latina. [chuckles] I’m embracing that identity as well of being an immigrant and a Latina in the United States and how does that look like. I am still very close to my international experience.
I have been an international student, an international faculty. I have done a lot of work with Honduras. I continue to do that. That’s part of who I am and it’s very important of my identity as well of how I see the United States and what’s happening here in this country as well that now is my country as well. It has been a very interesting journey of my life. Now, I’m settled here. I am a cisgender woman and married. I have a tiny, little baby, a toddler. Definitely, this is my home. I’m making my life here as well.
[00:04:48] Jasper: That’s so wonderful. Thank you both for sharing that with me and with our listeners. It is always so interesting to me to think of what we bring with us. Cathy, you saying you’ve been working in clinical mental health counseling for 28 years. That’s another part of your identity that you carry with you is this deep knowledge, but also, you’re very steeped in the history of your field.
Syntia, it’s great to have you here. I know we’re going to talk a little bit more about the importance when you guys were putting together this committee of having people of color, people of different backgrounds, and also people who, in the US, really fall under the category of being White on your committee.
Before we jump totally into that conversation about decolonizing and your important work there, I wanted to back up just a little bit and talk about our society’s history of colonization and really what that word means and why we would want to get away from that. I don’t know which of you wants to jump on this first, but how do you understand our society’s history and our present of colonization?
[00:06:01] Cathy: It’s such a great place to start and such a huge question, right? I think as I understand it from my perspective, colonialism is the structure through which one group of people subordinates and exploits another, and then justifies the subordination, exploitation, and really attempts at erasure of the culture by claiming to be the intrinsically superior group.
The history of colonialism as related to this land that we now call the United States is really one of brutal subjugation of Indigenous people, enslavement of African peoples, and carving out these racial categories as a way to justify White supremacy, asserting that there’s a legal and a religious obligation to take over the land and culture of Indigenous peoples and appropriating the land and resources for their own use. That’s a really– [laughs]
[00:07:09] Jasper: That’s such a great– I love that. As a pocket definition, I feel like that really sums it up. What I take away from that is subjugation and hierarchy are very key concepts and then with all of the overlays of race in the US. Did you have something to add to that, Syntia?
[00:07:27] Dr. Santos Dietz: Oh definitely. Thank you for that. I think that sets the stage of what the conversation is going to be right now, but I do want to add that colonialism is not only something that happens in the United States alone. That’s something that has been happening throughout history around the world. That includes my country as well. I have my own view of what that looks like and how my own country has been dealing with that and dealing with the consequences of that.
In my case, I think I see my history or the history of Honduras as the people that has been colonized by others. That includes Spain and Europe and the United States too one way or another. I have a lot of stories about that, Jasper, [chuckles] but I think the important thing is to be very aware that this is a worldwide thing and that, right now, the United States have, of course, a very big position in it, a very big role in what’s happening in how colonialism is developed and what does that look like in current age, so that’s very important.
[00:08:35] Jasper: I’m so glad you bring up the United States, in particular, its history of colonialism, especially in the Americas. I think a lot of people when they think about colonialism, they think that it was this thing that happened in the 19th century and that, largely, the British Empire really fell apart after World War II. These various empires like the age of empires went away.
I think the history of a country like Honduras really shows us that it took on a different form, but there’ve been exploitation and subjugation and hierarchy are not things that have fully gone away. How do you see colonization and these big ideas that we can talk about in big strokes? How do you see that impacting this field that you’re a part of, clinical mental health counseling?
[00:09:25] Dr. Santos Dietz: Oh wow. [chuckles] I think that is impacting everything that we do, everything that is around us, and especially the systems that have been historically connected to White supremacy like more obviously. That means the system of higher education, health, everything that is connected to that power or that positionality of have a say in people’s lives. It’s very, very ingrained in White supremacy and capitalism. It’s really important for us to sit down and really, really talk about it and reflect upon how does that look like for us and for everybody, wherever you are, [chuckles] wherever everybody is, and what does that mean?
We have done that work and that’s probably the beginning of our work sitting down and say, “What’s happening and where are we at this and where are the blind spots that we have that we are not seeing. Starting from the literature that we have, the information that we have. Where are we getting that information from? Who is the target?” We have also calling ourselves in the mistakes of, how are we teaching our classes? How are we looking for resources? How are we trying to engage the learners in the experience of being with us in the classroom? I hope that answered a little bit of the question.
[00:10:48] Jasper: Yes, I think that that totally does. I actually feel like I should back up a little bit and ask, what are the component parts of clinical mental health counseling for our listeners who may not have encountered it or maybe more familiar with clinical therapy?
[00:11:04] Cathy: Yes, I think backing up to that and even backing up to the theories upon which clinical mental health counseling is based. I think that’s such an important place to start like when Syntia was talking about us really trying to step outside. It’s like stepping outside the fishbowl that you’re swimming in and really trying to look at what is our field, and recognizing that much of the field of counseling is really based upon these ideas of human development and human thriving that are very Eurocentric created by White cisgender men.
I’ve been in the field for a long time as I said. The textbooks that I used when I was getting my master’s degree that started with these same White men are still the textbooks that are used in our field today as if before these men, nobody ever healed from anything like that. This is the way they heal. This real erasure of any healing, any practices that took place prior to these White men.
I think that’s a really important place to look at what our field is based upon and where we are currently. Syntia mentioned a lot of the systems that are still in place that do not recognize the impact of racial trauma, in our diagnoses of trauma that use certain books like the DSM to diagnose. We know that the DSM, that diagnoses are often racially-based, and so really, we’ve had to try to deconstruct the field in which we’re so immersed, the field to which we identify.
[00:13:01] Jasper: Yes.
[00:13:03] Cathy: It’s been a challenge.
[00:13:04] Jasper: That makes so much sense that it would be challenging, but also that you’re starting to question some of these foundational pieces. When you are undertaking this big project of trying to decolonize your teaching curriculum and also trying to find a way to practice clinical mental health counseling in a way that is less on the basis of these systems, you guys went ahead and started this committee, where five of you came together. I’m curious how you came to that decision, how you gathered that group, and how you’ve gone about doing that work.
[00:13:40] Dr. Santos Dietz: Oh gosh, we have so much to say. I don’t know. [chuckles] Cathy can add to this as well, but I think that’s pretty much the most important part for me of this work has been the way that we started just because it was a passion for all of us. It was a need. We put it on the table in terms of– Actually, Cathy, our chair, put it on the table as something that needed to be done and put a call for who is interested in doing this work and who wants to do work on it. The five of us say, “Yes, we’re there.” [chuckles] It was really, really interesting. I am fairly new in the program. I’m starting my third year.
I hadn’t actually had as much time to get to know everybody and get to see who they were, so even the very beginning was the process of getting to know each other and talking about who we are. In my case, coming from that experience of being an immigrant, being a BIPOC person, being your name it, Spanish speaker, born and raised in Honduras, all the layers and putting those on the table and say, “This is who I am. This is my interpretation of what we’re doing. This is what I would love to see happening in this group.”How do you take that in?
I think we all came from a place of very passionate about this work, very genuine of who we were, and very transparent about what we wanted to accomplish. I think that was the key to really become a team of colleagues and friends that would have spent a lot of time together working on this.
[00:15:17] Jasper: That’s so beautiful. It seems like a very important first step is being a team and establishing that respect so that you could do that work. Do you have anything to add, Cathy?
[00:15:28] Cathy: Yes, I think part of coming together and– and I thank you, Syntia, for mentioning that my support helped. I actually feel like the faculty and students have called for this. I think we recognize that inaction and silence is a privilege that we have. Coming to Antioch University, looking at the roots of social justice and what other leaders in the past have done in order to promote change really creates the sense of accountability.
When I became chair in July, that accountability really laid heavy on me. I think I just needed to create the space and support and step aside and all of that to be able to have those who really wanted a space to engage in this work to come forward and do so. It’s been such an incredibly rewarding and I’ve learned so much through this experience.
[00:16:36] Jasper: Yes. Well, I want to talk about those things that you’re changing. In your presentation, Syntia, you talked about this idea of a curriculum map. Actually, writing out all of the steps that a student might go through from even maybe before they’re admitted to the program all the way through to when they graduate and go out and hopefully become professionals in the field.
My understanding is that you want to encourage them to develop this social justice competency at every step along that way. This is a contrast to an older model where there might’ve been like one sociocultural diversity class. You get it there and then that doesn’t bleed over into the rest of the curriculum at all. Why is it important that we make sure that it’s present throughout the entire curriculum?
[00:17:29] Dr. Santos Dietz: Well, I think two things. One is just human development in general and how people develop and how people grow and how people learn. It’s very important for us as educators to meet each student where they are and have different opportunities and different ways of giving the information, giving different experiences to help them learn in the way that they learn the best so that they are getting the information not just one way, one professor, one course, but from different voices, from different experiences, from different perspectives throughout the program.
That developmental piece has been very important for us and we are still working. This is a work in progress by the way. We are making mistakes. We are reorganizing. We are considering everything that is happening, but the key point is this is the base and the foundation, the developmental process, and the development of our students. Then from that also the map of, how do we do that and where are we? All the questions of who we are, what are we doing, what can be done better, where do we want to go have been key elements of direction for us throughout.
[00:18:44] Jasper: Yes, that seems like such an important insight that the way that we as human beings learn is not necessarily through doing something once and then we have it forever, but through repetition and through repeated engagement. That said, I wanted to ask Cathy. Do you feel like there’s a formula to this work where you could just copy and paste and stick some social justice curriculum at every step and that will work for every program in every case?
[00:19:15] Cathy: I think that is probably the toughest part of this, and particularly in the culture of White supremacy, right? We want to know the answers. We want to have the one right answer. There’s the roadmap. If we just follow this roadmap and we check these boxes, then I can feel better about being the good person that I perceive myself to be, right? Really stepping aside from that and sitting in the discomfort of not knowing and not having that map has been a really important part of the process.
There isn’t a roadmap. I think there’s a lot of really good work that’s being done. Part of what we’re trying to do is to look at each course individually. We’re accredited by CACREP as are many clinical mental health counseling programs. Our curriculum is prescribed by them. This is the body of knowledge that people need in order to become counselors, right? That has been passed on almost like this. We’re going to hand you this body of knowledge.
Really looking at that and by course, looking at whose voice determines that, but then as Syntia noted, also looking developmentally from the very first time that a student connects with us, so the admissions process, right through to commencement, internship, and all of that, how are we looking at the way that people develop their own sense of identity and their own sense of competence with regard to social justice advocacy?
[00:20:58] Jasper: I love these terms that you, Cathy, specifically have been using of sitting in that discomfort or having this uncertainty about where the work might lead. I like that you bring up that these can be uncomfortable from a culturally hegemonic or even White supremacist background, that you’re not saying that you know exactly where the work should go but that you know that the work needs to be done even if it’s uncomfortable and that everybody needs to engage in it specifically. I guess another question about doing this work is, how do you judge whether or not you’ve been successful?
[00:21:36] Dr. Santos Dietz: That’s very interesting. [laughs] That’s a lot of questions. I’m going to let Cathy finish that up. Before, I’d really do want to add how important it is to even look at our own resistance and our own biases even from the perspective of the people who is doing the work, but having different perspectives in the group has been amazingly important. Having BIPOC and White faculty in the discussions have been– I cannot even tell you how important that has been in encouraging one another to really be genuine and really sharing who we are has been important.
Whatever step that we’re taking has already included different voices. That’s really important. Connected to the question that you asked before in terms of things that are prescriptive and CACREP-accredited and all these steps and all these lines of work and that has been– Well, I had been here four years now, but it is still very different from the way that I was born and raised.
It’s very interesting to see it from that perspective and looking from the outside in and seeing how can we change something that is so ingrained in how we do things? From that end, I do think that that evaluation piece in the process is also important to starting to measure what are we doing, and how are we making an impact if we are making an impact in anybody and whom?
We are trying to be very aware of– Obviously, our students are the center of what we do and we want to gather information about, how are they growing? Apart from that, I am also very interested in knowing, how are we changing as faculty and as a department and what can we accomplish in today’s work? Cathy can continue to talk about measures and all that, I think. [laughs]
[00:23:31] Jasper: No, I love that. Thank you so much, Syntia, for jumping in. I feel like you answered three questions all at once there. I feel like those are beautiful measures of success. Do you have anything to add, Cathy?
[00:23:45] Cathy: I think it’s important for us to recognize too that, oftentimes, we think about the measures as quantitative measures like the real measures that that’s the way that we measure everything. I think it’s important that we do both absolutely and that we’re continuing to seek feedback and we do surveys and so that’s a part of our plan. The accountability piece, I think this is where I really try to pay close attention with the accountability piece.
It is written into our program review. Looking at both the curriculum map, the faculty surveys, the student surveys are all a part of these institutional processes and all related to the work that we’re doing, so really institutionalizing it, which I think also helps with the sustainability of the effort. This isn’t a one-time, we’re going to—re-work this curriculum. We’re going to add some new readings and then we can sit back and feel really good about ourselves as counselor educators.
We’re writing this ongoing process of seeking feedback and input and evaluation into what we do. This is what we do. I think that’s a really important part. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but a really important part of the whole process too is, how do we create the space for ongoing reflection and evaluation?
[00:25:15] Dr. Santos Dietz: I think Cathy brought up something very, very important, which is that balance between being who we are in our knowledge in this work and being more radical. To be able to be successful if we are honest with ourselves, you also have to follow the rules. Unfortunately, we have to have those boundaries and look at those things very carefully.
One of my experience in the classroom is that every time– I need to document this, but every time that I do something that is really different and that is giving the students flexibility to be themselves and do their things, they panic. I think, in general– and I’m probably going to be doing a very terrible overgeneralization, but in my experience, American students are very afraid to be free, to be expressive, to be more creative, to be themselves in that way.
They’d really want one, two, three, A, B, C, and this is what we’re going to give you because the whole education system here is like that. They will give you all those prescriptions and all those rules and regulations to do things. Again, my point was we need to collect the narratives of what is happening, talk to the students, talk to our colleagues. I would love to have a story to tell as we go through this project and this program to be able to– for this work to be part of who we are and not just one more thing to be doing.
[00:26:58] Jasper: I love the way you put that, of bringing this work into ourselves and having it be transformative there. Cathy, you said that word “ongoing,” where it’s not something that has an end. It reminded me of this quote that I had never seen before, but you brought up in your presentation where it’s from the theorists Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, who say decolonization is not an “end.” End is in quotes. Decolonization is not an “end.” It is an elsewhere. It’s taking you somewhere else. Cathy, why did you want to highlight that quote?
[00:27:36] Cathy: I think it really resonated with me. I want to also be clear with the article from which that came talked about decolonization not being a metaphor. We tend to talk about decolonizing our syllabus and using it in a way that does not necessarily represent what their vision of decolonization or what decolonization is really, the repatriation of land to the Indigenous peoples. However, the counseling field, the counseling profession exists within the context of colonialism, right? To even think about what would exist were it not for colonialism is just a real challenge to do so.
I think with that quote that it’s an elsewhere means that we can’t just take steps to make revisions to what already is, to make revisions upon a profession, upon pedagogical approaches, upon a mental health system that is built upon a culture of White supremacy, that we really have to step aside and be able to allow other voices, allow other healing approaches, and really allow for that to happen. I think that’s why that resonated with me so much is because as a counselor and as a counselor educator, it’s so important for me to approach this with a lot of humility and recognition that I don’t have the answers. That’s really important.
[00:29:38] Jasper: That’s so important and, yes, thank you for expanding on that. I think that we’re running towards the end of our time here and wrapping this up. I think that it’s a good place to ask a question that in the context of the idea that this is a bigger project may actually be a little bit opposite from what you’re saying there, which is we like to close our show with some actionable advice that people who are listening to it can carry into their days and little and big things that can maybe add up to a life that has led a little bit better and that is really helping to make the world a better place.
Maybe I could jump in with you, Syntia. What would you recommend people do today? If they’re interested in this work of decolonizing their workplaces, their curriculum, their lives, what is at least a place where they could start?
[00:30:33] Dr. Santos Dietz: Wow, yes, that’s a very interesting question. Thank you, Jasper. I do want to say before I answer that decolonizing anything, it means much more than just checking a box. It is really important to take the time to reflect on, what does it mean for you and what it is that you need to do that? When we talk about steps, I want the audience to know that there is always something that you can do, always. No matter how small you think what you’re doing is, is going to impact somebody, is going to make a difference somewhere.
That’s where we have to go. I think the fear of making mistakes, the fears and the resistance of not knowing and doing something different that is against the norm is real. We really need to start by combating that and trying to find your own space, your own voice, your own way of doing things. Find where you have your own privilege. Find your voice. Use it to do the greater good. No matter how small that thing you think it is, it’s going to make a change in yourself and it’s going to make a change on the people around you.
[00:31:48] Jasper: Thank you so much for sharing that, Syntia. I love your emphasis that even these small steps can lead to transformative change. Starting with that self-reflection, which it seems like you and the rest of the people on this committee really did of getting to know each other, really thinking where you were coming from. That just seems so useful. I want to turn it over to you, Cathy. Do you have anything you could add to what Syntia said, advice that our listeners might take into their days and lives?
[00:32:15] Cathy: Syntia, you said it so beautifully. I don’t know that I can add anything to that. Really, I think I can just continue to emphasize is that not doing anything, whether it’s based upon fear, whether it’s based upon discomfort, not making any changes is being complicit in the culture. It might be scary. It might create some discomfort and there’s a place for everybody. There’s something that everybody can do. It might be creating a safe space for dialogue. It might be reflecting upon our own identity. Whatever it might be, find your place for it. Find your space for it because there’s nothing more important.
[00:33:07] Dr. Santos Dietz: I do want to add before we finish also that I know that there are a lot of people out there that are far more advanced on things and doing things in terms of social justice and advocacy. We have a lot of our students that are way light-years on doing this work and in the trenches and really doing it.
When I said you can do anything and you can definitely do small things and start with small steps, you can also do big things. I think depending on where you are in the journey, you can look for other things. The most important thing is not to stay still. There is a lot of work to do. There is space for everybody to do something. You can find that space and that voice and use your own privilege and your own positionality to do something.
[00:33:55] Jasper: Well, I think that is just a beautiful place to end this. Thank you both so much for coming and being here with us today.
[00:34:02] Dr. Santos Dietz: Thank you for having us.
[00:34:03] Cathy: Thank you, Jasper.
[00:34:15] Jasper: If you’re interested in the Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, we’ll post the link to more information in our show notes. We post these show notes on our website, theseedfield.org, where you’ll also find full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more. The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes. A special thanks to Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland.
[00:34:47] Jasper: Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. We hope to see you next time. Don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause, and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been The Seed Field Podcast.
[00:35:26] Jasper: All right, I think that’s a wrap. I’m going to hit the– [laughs]
[00:35:30] Cathy: We made it through a power outage. We made it through buzzing.
[00:35:32] Dr. Santos Dietz: I’m so sorry.
[00:35:33] Jasper: Oh, my.