Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy Diversity Column

Multicultural competence and social justice advocacy in group psychology and group psychotherapy

Group psychologists should expand their professional activities and roles to include social justice and advocacy work to best serve culturally diverse clientele.
By Eric C. Chen, PhD

The recognition of advocacy and social justice in the fields of psychology has gained momentum over the past decade. The ethical standards of the American Psychological Association [APA] (2002) and the APA’s Guidelines on Multicultural Education, Training, Practice, and Organizational Change for Psychologists (2003), for instance, have called for psychologists to assume their responsibility as agents of change in promoting social justice. If social justice represents a vision of society such that there is an equal distribution of resources and all members of society are ensured to function in a safe and secure environment (Bell, 1997), a similar vision may be actualized within organizations (e.g., schools, colleges, and hospitals). After all, the organizational context, which consists of norms, processes, and structures, directly and indirectly shapes the direction and emphasis of policies as well as the roles and responsibilities of mental health and educational professionals. As such group psychologists as change agents seek to achieve structural transformation at a systemic level rather than limiting psychological interventions at the individual level.

Constantine and Sue (2005) posit that multicultural competence and social justice are inextricably linked through their shared purpose of removing institutional, systemic, and social oppression, thus ensuring equity for all individuals. In the context of group psychology, multicultural competence and social justice are equally important dimensions of our work with culturally diverse populations. As group psychologists we thus are called to expand our professional activities and roles to include social justice and advocacy work in order to best serve our culturally diverse clientele. We can bring to light issues on which we have personal or professional experience mainly through our work, such as immigration, homelessness, inner city education, and mental illness.

Against the backdrop of the current public debate about access to educational and health services for undocumented immigrants, for example, we as group psychologists could give voice to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States according to the Pew Hispanic Center (Passel, 2005). In June 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum provided undocumented immigrant youth with easier access to higher education through temporary working permits and social security cards. This program will likely increase the number of undocumented students planning to seek higher education as well as the visibility of those students who already attend college.

Following the outcomes of the 2012 elections in the United States, various bipartisan immigration reform proposals are circulating in the congress to provide a path for undocumented immigrant youth to legalize their status in our society. As a result of these likely legislation changes in the future, undocumented students will become more visible on college campuses since the legality of their presence is no longer disputed. Group psychologists working in university counseling center settings need to develop their multicultural competence, on one hand, and to serve as social justice advocates, on the other, in order to effectively address the unique issues faced by undocumented college students.

The social justice efforts of group psychologists could include facilitating a counseling group as a supportive environment for undocumented immigrant students to address developmental, situational, and academic concerns (Steen, Bauman, & Smith, 2007). Group counseling provides a potent milieu for promoting lasting social change, mainly due to its therapeutic power of instillation of hope, universality, and imparting of information (Yalom & Lesczc, 2005). A counseling group is helpful also because it focuses on education and psychological exploration of undocumented immigrant students’ shared experience. Members in this small group validate their own resilience, which they have demonstrated in continuously overcoming educational, psychological, and social barriers against a challenging, if not harsh, political backdrop (Ellis & Chen, in press). They also receive consultation and share resources regarding their legal, educational, and career options.

As social justice advocates, group psychologists can also facilitate consciousness-raising in a number of ways. Through presentations or workshops and group discussion that follows, for instance, those present learn about what could be done at the individual and systemic levels to reach out to undocumented immigrant students on campus. Other efforts may include forming partnerships and alliances with other student or faculty groups as well.

So, I would like to invite you to reflect on the following questions in your current roles and functions as group psychologists or trainees. For which marginalized populations in our society can I serve as a social justice advocate? How do I address my own multicultural competencies in working with this population? What roadblocks exist in my own social justice efforts as a group psychologist in this role? And how do I overcome these roadblocks?

In conclusion, we, as members of our society and of the psychology profession, have an important role to play, individually and collectively, in setting social justice and empowerment initiatives in motion within our organizational system. We as individuals work with and influence our colleagues and together we develop intertwined and collective consciousness. In so doing, we start building communities in our own social and professional groups. Gradually in our organizational system community power is built and extends beyond individuals who share the same commitment to a just and equitable society, and “in and through community lies the salvation of the world” (Peck, 1987, p. 17).


American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060-1073. doi: 10.1037//0003- 066X.57.12.1060

American Psychological Association. (2003). Guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice, and organizational change for psychologists. American Psychologist, 58, 377-402. doi: 10.1037/0003- 066X.58.5.377

Bell, L. A. (1997). Theoretical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice: A source book (pp. 3-15). New York: Routledge.

Constantine, M. G., & Sue, D. W. (Eds.). (2006). Addressing racism: Facilitating cultural competence in mental health and educational settings. New York: John Wiley.

Ellis, L. M., & Chen, E. C. (in press). Negotiating identity development among undocumented immigrant college students: A grounded theory study. Journal of Counseling Psychology.

Passel, J. S. (2005). Estimates of the size and characteristics of the undocumented population. Pew Hispanic Center. Retrieved February 10, 2013, from http://pewhispanic. org/files/reports/44.pdf.

Peck, M. S. (1987). The different drum: Community making and peace. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Steen, S., Bauman, S., & Smith, J. (2007). Professional school counselors and the practice of group work. Professional School Counseling, 11, 72-80.

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


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