Courtland, you have a long history in counselling and counsellor education. Can you give us a compact picture of your path to your present position?
After I graduated from college I found myself teaching primary school in New York City. Since I was one of only a few male teachers in the school, the female teachers would send their problematic boys to me in the hope that interacting with a male teacher would be helpful. The school’s guidance counsellor noticed that I had a gift for connecting with these students and suggested that I might make a good school counsellor. She convinced me to enrol on a counselling graduate programme and pursue my master’s degree.
On completing this I was admitted to the PhD counselling programme at Michigan State University where I participated in a programme funded by the US National Institute of Mental Health to prepare doctoral-level professionals to work with ethnic minority client groups in urban settings. My post-doctoral career has consisted of faculty positions in counsellor training programmes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, the University of Maryland, and now the University of Malta.
Does school counselling and adolescent development still have a significant part in your professional activities and interests?
I continue to be interested in youth and their interactions with problematic and/or chaotic environments, be they home, community or school environments. I have a keen interest in furthering research about resiliency and self-efficacy. In particular, I am interested in the factors that appear to contribute to adolescent males’ success in challenging educational environments. For example, in many parts of the world the school environment is often heavily feminised, with the majority of the educators being women. Given this, male youth are often at a psychosocial disadvantage compared with their female peers. They often lack role models and mentors for gauging educational success. I am interested in the factors that help boys and male youth succeed academically. I am also keen on further examining how the factors associated with poverty and violence that characterise many home, community and school environments (particularly in urban areas) impact on male resiliency and self-efficacy.
Your training, writing and ambassadorial activities embrace, among other issues, multicultural counselling, social justice, global literacy, school counselling and counselling African American males. Where is your main focus today?
My main focus today is on the concept of global literacy, which grows out of my passion for multicultural counselling and social justice issues. Global literacy extends over the major domains of human diversity. It consists of the basic information that a person needs to know in order to successfully navigate life in the technologically sophisticated, globally interconnected world of the 21st century – a world in which people from diverse cultural backgrounds interact in ways that were inconceivable in previous centuries. A globally literate person exhibits ongoing cultural curiosity. He or she is open to engaging in new cultural experiences whenever possible. He or she embraces and celebrates cultural difference as opposed to fearing the fundamental distinctions in worldviews that underlie human diversity. A globally literate individual approaches diverse lifestyles from a position that transcends tolerance and promotes mutual respect and understanding. Embracing a globally literate lifestyle also involves a commitment to social justice and social responsibility.
Within this context, the process by which one develops multicultural counselling competency is indeed challenging because it entails first developing global literacy. Successfully completing a multicultural counselling course is not an endpoint in one’s development as a culturally competent counsellor. The major challenge is to live one’s life in a manner that reflects a commitment to continually expanding one’s cultural comfort zone, including knowledge of and active interaction with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. It also means that one is constantly aware of how events, both past and current, impact on people’s wellbeing. Global literacy cannot be learned in a classroom; it is the attempt to become a lifelong student of cultural diversity and a true citizen of the world.
The terms multicultural counselling and diversity can be used in different ways. I think your publications (most recently the fourth edition of Multicultural Issues in Counselling: New Approaches to Diversity, published in 2012) address issues of race, gender, sexuality, age, disability and economic disadvantage. Do these neatly interrelate or are there any tensions?
This is an interesting question. I think that all aspects of human identity interrelate in a state of constant tension. I have begun to reconcile this idea with the concept of intersectionality – the complex of reciprocal attachments and sometimes polarising conflicts that confront individuals as they seek to navigate among the racial/ethnic, gender, class-based and other dimensions of their personality. Given this concept, it is important to understand that at all times we are experiencing the world through a lens that consists of multiple consciousness.
What intersectionality has made me realise is that the fifth edition of Multicultural Issues in Counselling: New Approaches to Diversity will need to include a synthesis chapter(s) that addresses how issues of race, gender, sexuality, age, disability and economic disadvantage etc intersect in healthy psychosocial development.
Have you found in your association with the UK (as a Fellow of BACP among other things) that what is true for African American people is very similar for British African Caribbean people in terms of experiences of racism and social justice?
Yes, the issues for the two groups are amazingly similar. While the cultural context for the two countries may differ, black people in both countries appear to share similar experiences with racism and the struggles around social justice seem to mirror each other. Perhaps one striking difference between the US and the UK is that, since the election of Barack Obama, African Americans seem to possess a greater sense of optimism than British African Caribbeans.
I believe you’ve been involved, like many, in critiquing the DSM-5 (the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and you’ve used the alternative terms ‘diagnosing from the heart’ and ‘existential diagnosis’. Can you say a little about your position?
Actually both of those terms must be credited to my friend and colleague Clemmont Vontress, with whom I have done several presentations on cultural issues associated with the DSM-5. Basically our premise is that the entire DSM series is heavily weighted toward Western cultural realities and reflects biases from that viewpoint. The two terms you mentioned express my belief that any clinical diagnoses must be considered in culturally relativistic terms and that a good counsellor will attempt to understand individuals within their cultural context before placing a culture-bound label on them.
In moving to Europe and to the University of Malta in later life, what have been the major cultural impacts and learnings for you?
The impacts and learnings have been both professional and personal. Professionally, I am learning a new academic culture with a different perspective on counselling and how it should be taught to trainees. Personally, I am adapting to a lifestyle that does not include many of the American cultural realities that have defined who I am (everything from food to American football). However, part of this process has been the excitement of learning and experiencing the multifaceted realities of Maltese culture – which include driving on the other side of the road!
How far do you think global literacy and social justice are being well served at the micro-level by counsellor-led initiatives rather than macro-level political initiatives?
Again, a very interesting question. I think that the counselling profession, where it is well established, is not always seen as a progressive force for social change. This is because it is still perceived to be mainly a psychodynamic, one-on-one process between counsellor and client that often ignores the systemic impact on human behaviour. The social justice paradigm in which counsellors serve as advocates and systemic change agents both with and for their clients is very controversial in many quarters of the profession. However, as the counselling profession expands globally, I think there is certainly a growing awareness that in many societies the profession will only succeed if counsellors understand that their micro-level activities with clients must intersect with macro-level political initiatives.
Where do you see most hope and most concern in relation to oppression and disadvantage, and its internalisation? What good news is there and what are the most stubborn obstacles?
I have had the good fortune to travel to every continent save Antarctica. Throughout my journeys I have seen what the American educator and activist Jonathan Kozol has called ‘savage inequalities’. These inequalities primarily result from economic disadvantage and oppression based on race/ethnicity, gender and religion. The good news, however, is that world bodies such as UNESCO are tackling these inequalities with initiatives such as Education for All (EFA), a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults by 2015. Obviously, this goal will not be met, for many reasons, including stubborn attitudes in many corners of the world about who should receive quality basic education. These attitudes are often entrenched in age-old racial, cultural and religious beliefs and practices that permeate government policy and social practices. Indeed, such policies and practices are often the most stubborn obstacle to social progress.
I am reminded of Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who has become a worldwide symbol of social justice. Her brave defiance of forces that violently sought to keep her from getting an education solely on the basis of her gender should be an inspiration to all counsellors – in particular those counsellors who, along with their clients, are fighting the systemic forces that stifle human development.
What are your plans now in regard to professional developments and personal ambitions?
Professionally, I am committed to helping the Department of Counselling here at the University of Malta develop into a world-class training programme. In addition, I want to help in any way I can in advancing counselling globally as a positive force for human growth and development. In my current role as Past President of IAC (the International Association for Counselling), I am interested in continuing my efforts to build collaborations among national counselling associations and other NGOs to take advantage of the growing interest in counselling worldwide. I think that there are two fronts on which IAC can really make a mark. The first is closing the mental health gap between Western and non-Western cultures. Mental, neurological, and substance use disorders are common in all regions of the world, affecting every community and age group. Yet most of the people affected – 75 per cent in many non-Western countries – do not have access to the treatment they need. Counsellors, therefore, have the potential to assist tens of millions with mental health issues to begin to lead normal lives, even where resources are scarce. The second front is promoting education for all. I want to help IAC continue to promote the added value that counselling can offer to the UNESCO/EFA initiative by collaborating with educators and related professionals to ensure global educational access and equity.
Personally, I want to take more time to engage in my passions: cooking, reading mystery and historical novels, travelling, and cheering on my beloved Washington Redskins – an American football team (even if I now have to do it from afar).