Group psychologists as social justice advocates and agents of change

A systems perspective explores how group psychologists within an organizational system may serve as advocates for individuals of marginalized groups in society

By Eric C. Chen, PhD

The concept of social justice represents a societal vision that there should be an equal distribution of resources, and that all members of society deserve access to a safe and secure environment (Ali, Liu, Mahmood, & Arguello, 2008). Such perspectives seek to achieve structural transformation at a systemic level rather than limiting psychological interventions at the individual level. The feelings of powerlessness and marginalization associated with discrimination in society will replicate in the “social microcosm” (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005) of the counseling group (Chen, Kakkad, & Balzano, 2008). We as mental health professionals in general, and as group psychologists in particular, are in a unique position to advocate for social justice. Group therapy, given its inherent therapeutic value of instillation of hope, universality and imparting of information, provides a potent milieu for effecting social change. In addition, the organizational system (e.g., school, university, hospital) as a social microcosm suggests that members behave in a manner that mirrors our society. Individuals bring unique social and cultural values, beliefs, and expectations to the organization. Power imbalances that exist in the larger society are reflected in the organizational dynamics as well.

A systems perspective is useful in exploring the various ways in which we as group psychologists within an organizational system may serve as advocates for individuals of marginalized groups in our society, particularly when clients’ presenting concerns result from current oppressive conditions in the organizational or social systems. Central to this systems perspective are questions such as: How do we shape the organization’s culture (e.g., attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors)? How do we create favorable conditions (e.g., structures, dynamics, decision-making, distribution of power) and remove problematic ones within organizational culture in order for the organization to be more receptive to social justice and empowerment activities? How do we give voice to those voiceless members within the organization?

There are excellent examples of social justice advocacy efforts in our profession. Most recently, Joe Miles, one of the Diversity Committee members, and his colleagues, under the leadership of Brent Mallinckrodt as training director, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Counseling Psychology program, were recognized with the Innovation in Graduate Education Award from the APA Board of Educational Affairs for their novel curriculum emphasizing social justice and community empowerment. One component of their scientist-practitioner-advocate training model involves doctoral students developing awareness about social justice in group work as well as learning how to co-facilitate intergroup dialogues around racial and cultural issues. It is evident that the time has come for our professional roles as group psychologists and trainees to help our clients find their own voice and advocate for them beyond the therapy hour. I am delighted that at the 2012 APA annual meeting we will have an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with Joe Miles about the University of Tennessee scientist-practitioner-advocate training model and, more specifically, its implications for the training and practice of group psychologists.


  • Ali, S. R., Liu, W. M., Mahmood, A., & Arguello, J. (2008). Social justice and applied psychology: Practical ideas for training the next generation of psychologists. Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology, 1, 1-13.

  • Chen, E. C., Kakkad, D., & Balzano, J. (2008). Multicultural competence and evidence-based practice in group therapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 64, 1261–1278. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20533

  • Yalom, I., & Leszcz, M. (2005). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy (5th ed.). New York: Basic Books.