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Counselors as Social Justice Advocates

22 May
Counselors SJ Advocates

By Laura Pignato

Laura Pignato, MS, is a third-year doctoral student (PhD in Counselor Education & Supervision) at William & Mary.

Why is social justice important in counseling?

Counselors are trained to understand the importance of addressing and preventing trauma symptomology, as well as the impact traumatic events can have on the well-being of individuals and communities. Moreover, if counselors are to practice culturally responsive, trauma-informed care with the attention such needed practice deserves, then counselors must also address the historical and sociocultural contextual factors that maintain social inequity and generational trauma, marginalization of the most vulnerable individuals, and continued disenfranchisement of communities and diverse groups, both nationally and internationally.

Mental health inequities have become increasingly apparent, as illustrated by the deleterious effects of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism on individual mental and physical health outcomes, impeded access to culturally responsive mental health services that address the above inequity, and disproportionate rates of trauma symptoms reported by culturally diverse groups and underserved communities. Furthermore, systemic oppression and related generational trauma deteriorates potential for optimal growth in both individuals and communities, which affects the ability to create sustained change for an improved quality of living.

Counselors, as helping professionals and agents of social change with an understanding of life span issues and intercultural communication skills needed in an evolving pluralistic society, have a professional role and ability to address mental health disparities rooted in oppression and societal inequities. In addition, counselors are in a unique position to advocate for sustained change within communities by dismantling barriers that impede individuals’ optimal growth and community resilience. Counselors can provide necessary connections within the community, access to resources, and cultivation of resistance strategies aligned with diverse client needs and local values by acting as collaborative allies and practicing social justice counseling as the norm.

What is social justice in the counseling profession?

Social justice counseling has been referenced as the “fifth force” in counseling (Ratts, 2009).1 Such a worldview requires counselors to act as change agents through collaborative efforts in a multilevel framework and active engagement with the local community to achieve a more just world. Moreover, counseling professionals have defined social justice in counseling as both an ongoing process and goal actualized through culturally appropriate advocacy strategies that extend the social justice worldview into everyday practices. These practices must strive to enable empowerment on intrapersonal, interpersonal, and institutional levels based on a historical and contextualized understanding of current issues affecting individuals within the surrounding community.2 3

Furthermore, a social justice orientation implies counselors need to embody the mandated multicultural and social justice counseling competencies through reflexivity and liberatory practices.4 Importantly, counselors embodying a liberation or “humanization” mindset recognize the inherent strengths within all individuals and communities, and engage in a participatory democratic process with clients that affirms an individual’s power and agency while struggling for personal and collective freedom limited by the dominant status quo.5 6

What are the current social justice and advocacy standards for counselors?

Since the late 1970s, when counseling professionals first called for action and implementation of a social justice education program within counselor education, social justice advocates and leaders in the counseling profession have taken substantial strides to integrate a social justice worldview into the counseling field and governing ethical standards.

For example, the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics indicates counselors have an ethical obligation to dismantle potential barriers and obstacles that inhibit a client’s positive development and potential for growth.7 Similarly, the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) defines advocacy as a necessary component in the Ethical Standards for School Counselors.8 In these standards, ASCA emphasizes school counselors’ role as collaborators with and for students in achieving educational equity by dismantling perceived barriers to access and opportunities.

Additionally, social justice and advocacy processes are described in the accreditation standards set forth by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). CACREP noted all accredited programs and individuals working within or graduating from these counseling programs have the responsibility for engaging and modeling “advocacy processes needed to address institutional and social barriers that [impede] access, equity, and success for clients.”9

These standards echo similar sentiments for the need to understand how power and privilege influence the counselor and client in their everyday lives and the therapeutic relationship. Counselors, supervisors, and counselor educators need to engage in strategies that identify and dismantle barriers, prejudice, and processes that maintain systemic oppression. These standards recognize the need for education and understanding of a multicultural perspective and knowledge of pluralistic characteristics within and among diverse groups, as well as the importance of social justice counseling and advocacy as a norm infused throughout programs, rather than regulated into a single class.

How do social justice and advocacy relate to counseling competencies?

Beyond adhering to the above ethical and accreditation standards in relation to social justice and advocacy by demonstrating foundational knowledge and infusing social justice principles throughout counseling programs, counselors must be social justice advocates within and beyond the office through an active commitment to personal awareness, lifelong learning, and assessing their counseling competencies.

Current counseling competencies imperative to social justice counseling include the multicultural and social justice counseling competencies4 and the recently updated ACA advocacy competencies.10 Counselors are encouraged to build an ever-evolving “toolbox” or resources that reflect social justice and advocacy counseling competencies and continuous exploration for understanding and incorporating more emancipatory and culturally responsive systemic frameworks into research, training, and clinical practice.

Resources Toolbox for the Social Justice Advocate11

We Put Social Justice at the Heart of Counseling

If you are an aspiring counselor with a strong passion for social justice, explore William & Mary’s Online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Counseling. Whether you want to pursue, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Military and Veterans Counseling or School Counseling, this program is designed to prepare culturally responsive social justice advocates ready to serve any population with empathy and professionalism.

  1. 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. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
  2. Adams, M., Bell, L. A., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (2007). Teaching for diversity and social justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
  3. Ratts, M. J., Toporek, R. L., & Lewis, J. A. (2010). ACA Advocacy Competencies: A social justice framework for counselors. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
  4. Retrieved on May 6, 2019, from
  5. Goodman, R. D., & Gorski, P. (2014). Decolonizing "multicultural" counseling through social justice / edited by Rachael D. Goodman, Paul C. Gorski. (International and cultural psychology series).
  6. Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed / Paulo Freire; translated by Myra Bergman Ramos; with an introduction by Donald Macedo. (30th-anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum.
  7. American Counseling Association. (2014). ACA code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.
  8. Retrieved on May 6, 2019, from
  9. Retrieved on May 6, 2019, from
  10. Retrieved on May 6, 2019, from
  11. Retrieved on May 6, 2019, from