Embodying Justice – Exploration of a Seminar

By Matthew LeRoy and Batsirai Bvunzawabaya

I was five or six years old. My father’s coworkers from the Middle East were staying at our home. When they arrived, they gave me a music box. My parents encouraged my questions about the gift, and their home country. I was filled with curiosity. At this time, my mother finished preparing dinner. It was a meal these men could not eat due to religious reasons. I, not understanding this reasoning, questioned them. My assumption was they felt the food was bad. My mother told me to stop harassing them. I could tell she was angry, that I had embarrassed her. The joy of receiving the gift was gone, and as I looked at the men’s faces, I saw sadness.

What is learned in this experience? Is the child’s curiosity, especially about differences minimized? Is it enhanced? How does he understand power and privilege in his life? How does he learn to engage with those who eat different foods, or have different cultural practices? What earlier event occurred to his mother that influenced her reaction? How does all of this make the visiting men feel? Are they sad because he was chastised? Or are they sad because they feel their host ignored their basic needs? What happens with the different types of shame and guilt that permeate this vignette? How does this experience impact the child’s ability to work across difference or to be an agent of social change?

Answering these questions is challenging. The authors discovered this as we co-facilitated a seminar on social justice with doctoral-level interns at a university counseling center. The internship is a competitive American Psychological Association (APA) accredited internship that focuses on educating trainees on social justice and how it intersects with the role of psychologists. Interns are frequently passionate about social justice issues, and often they come with a variety of didactic experiences that relate to diversity education.

The seminar discussed in this piece is part of an ongoing series of three seminars. These seminars are designed by the training director to enhance the education of the doctoral interns and focus extensively on experiences surrounding culture. The seminars meet for an entire training year. The first seminar in this series focuses on discussing different social identities, and involves extensive personal exploration. The second seminar is the social justice seminar that will be discussed at length in this article. The final seminar is a multicultural case group that focuses on individual therapeutic work with clients. We believe understanding the context of this seminar will help orient the reader. As it relates to the social justice seminar, we attempted to have the seminar embody social justice principles instead of emphasizing a didactic model. One part of this embodiment was continual reflection on our process and how this may be impacting the seminar and the interns.


Our first experience in embodying social justice was our realization that in our preparation we found ourselves labeling other’s thoughts, as either really social justice, or not. This phenomenon occurred despite our shared belief that social justice is largely about giving voice to all perspectives and providing for greater equality and rights in society. We wondered

By Loavesofbread (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Picture of protestors in Ferguson Missouri in by Loavesofbread (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

if individuals were pulling from different definitions of social justice. We also wondered if social justice was a vacuous term. Vacuous in that there is an assumed definition for the speaker, but that the words have space for projection from the listener.

We found this experience of labeling views as just or not, as an example of the way binaries can arise when discussing social justice. Lewis Aron and Karen Starr have discussed the frequency of binaries in Western society in their book A Psychotherapy for the People: Toward A Progressive Psychoanalysis (2013). As it relates to social activism, participants are either active in creating social change or passive in accepting it. For us, this raises the difficult and common question: if activism is about action, as the word itself would connote, or if activism, particularly in a psychoanalytic framework, is about a way of thinking and digesting information?

While this answer may be debated, we believe the answer is – both. Social justice requires a way of thinking, such as being aware of historical oppression, and current inequities, and it requires some form of action. Despite this realization we are aware of our own hesitancies in engaging with larger systems. We have found that there are many colleagues who have social justice values but hesitate to be active for systemic change. How could this contradiction be so?

We believe, Steven Botticelli (2004) provides the answer while he discusses the way the relational turn in psychoanalysis has arisen at the same time of increased helplessness in terms of political opportunities. Botticelli states

As the sense of what it is possible to achieve in the outside world constricts, one solution is to expand the options available in existing structures. I argue that relational psychoanalysis represents an implementation of this strategy. In an era of political pessimism, relational psychoanalysis represents an attempt to provide for our patients – and ourselves – an experience of a world that no longer seems attainable outside the consulting room (p 639).

We believe this argument is central to understanding many of our collective hesitancy in engaging in activism. Due to political gridlock and increased polarization, many of us feel helpless to make lasting contributions. To counter these feelings we attempt to create more democratic and egalitarian relationships with our clients. We believe this increased focus on having democratic and egalitarian relationships  may increase concern over different political opinions in the therapeutic dyad. Therefore we feel helpless, and concerned our clients (or important others) will have a reaction to our politics. Currently, these experiences are exacerbated by the ease of finding out political involvement with the rise of the internet. In the past for a client to know a therapist’s views on social issues they would have to serendipitously cross paths, or be involved in similar work. In the current age, discovering potential involvement can be done quickly and easily through a search on the internet. The client may not even be trying to discover a therapist’s politics, but instead stumble upon them!

One potential solution to the binary that can be created is to think of activism as constructive, context dependent, and ultimately focused on dialectics (Hoffman, 1998; Miller, 2013). Concretely, one needs to hear different perspectives before creative and more just solutions can be reached. Of course, this is not to state that compromise is inevitably the answer. Despite the need to not dichotomize social justice, we also need to choose how we will embody justice. When discussing the differing views of drive theory and relational theory Aron and Starr (2013) discuss how both theories have strengths, how both will continue in coexistence, and how a therapist must make a choice about which theory to practice. Meaning, they cannot be integrated. The same is true of our experience when thinking of justice. One must reflect and think about one’s involvement, but if one wants to become a change agent, he or she must do some form of action. For some this action can be small, but for others we hope this action will involve a larger scale interaction with the world.

We hope this concept of binaries and dialectics can orient the reader to the following example of how a training seminar attempts to encourage dialogue around social justice. In our attempts to honor the complexity inherent in social justice work we will highlight three important ways of learning that occurred. They are personal exploration, definition and deconstruction of terms, and engaging with enactments.

Personal Exploration

recite-15i4l8eThe first day of the seminar was spent largely orienting the five interns to the topics that would be covered. At the end we requested the interns to engage in self-exploration together. We asked them to share a time in their life they were aware they had power. The vignette that began this article is an example of this exploration.

With the relational turn in psychoanalysis, the history of the therapist takes on a different meaning. Instead of exploring the dynamics in hopes of eradicating problematic countertransference, the therapist attempts to understand and treat the client and themselves as equal subjects, both of whom have parts of themselves that can be unknown to them. With this in mind we believe it is important for therapists to explore the messages they have received about power and cultural differences. For example, the opening vignette has implicit messages about discussing cultural differences and managing the shame and guilt of an individual in a privileged position (both mother, and child). It is also a complicated vignette, particularly if one thinks about how the mother may be influenced by patriarchal assumptions of how women should be an excellent host to guests. We found that the intersection of multiple identities mattered a great deal in the vignettes that were discussed. In our example above, complexity is added when one becomes aware the host family is white, and lack financial resources.

The discussion about personal experiences with power creates the atmosphere for therapists in training to explore their own historical relationships. It is an endeavor to examine particular parts of therapist experiences that “threaten essential features of their sense of self,” (Orange, Atwood & Stolorow, 1997 p. 36). These features in the American context usually include the fact they are good individuals who do not oppress others (Sue, 2010). Benefitting from oppression can threaten this sense of self, and arouse feelings of guilt. With this threatened sense of self, discussions of societal power are often dissociated from the therapist life history (Bodnar, 2004). One of the interns even raised the idea that psychologists in particular struggle with acknowledging the ways they can be oppressive to others due to their choice to participate in a field that is largely about helping others have more fulfilling lives.

After having completed this exercise, we felt deep reverence and moved by the risks the participants took with us. It was a powerful exercise that we believe sets up exploration of those parts that threaten the goodness of the self. Being present in the room we were aware of the profound guilt that pervaded. Even though we believe acknowledging privilege is crucial, there was a part of us that felt the guilt and wanted to escape it. We believe this is because with such powerful feelings of guilt we are unsure of what we can do with this guilt. Will guilt paralyze us? Will it propel us toward systemic action and change? Will we rush towards systemic change without fully understanding what we are facing, simply because we feel uncomfortable? Again, these questions are challenging ones, and ones that were not completely addressed within the seminar. However, the affect state itself was important to honor and with this foundation we moved on to defining social justice.

Definition and Deconstruction


One goal we had for the seminar was that it be enjoyable and thought provoking. We found this combination of reflection and enjoyment in our conversations with one another. Specifically, we would challenge one another to examine our cultural assumptions. We wanted this experience of being safely challenged to translate to the seminar as much as possible. Therefore, we decided to create an activity that would be playful, reflective and informative.

We were also attempting to solve our own curiosity about why the definition of social justice felt so ambiguous, but we both felt we really understood the meaning of justice. We wanted to define frequent terms, and to actively engage with the concepts on emotional levels. Finally, we felt sitting in a room and providing definitions to discuss felt boring, condescending and against our goal of sharing power. Erich Fromm explained the need to actually live ideas by discussing how knowing ideas do not change individuals’ minds, “but ideas do have an effect on man if the idea is lived by the one who teaches it: if it is personified by the teacher, if the idea appears in the flesh” (2000 p. 14). Therefore, we decided to personify social justice by asking the trainees as a group to define frequently used terms related to social justice.

Once a term was defined, we would further unpack words used in the definition that felt similarly vacuous. The goal was to explain these complicated concepts in simpler language and to avoid additional jargon. For the reader who is reading this recite-1g3oqq6and thinks this exercise was easy, think again! One does not realize how problematic professional jargon is until one asks a roomful of people to explain phenomenon without using even more jargon. Even one of the facilitators in explaining how privilege works used the term doxa (stuff everybody knows; as defined by Blank, 2012) to provide clarity. Certainly not the simplest word to use!

As we began with deconstructing the term social justice we found ourselves discussing how social justice is contingent on a system. To ensure we understood what was meant by systemic we moved on to unpack this term. The interns defined systemic as an operating force, and described systemic knowledge, as “this is what we do.” This phrase began a discussion of the status quo of a system or what is considered “normal”. Once we began discussing normalcy, we realized we needed to discuss pathology, something very familiar to psychologists. The interns in exploring pathology described how rights of a pathologized group could be violated, because pathology excuses someone from the rights of the “normal.” In other words, once someone becomes pathologized they are labeled as a deviant or an other.

We believe this is a space where we collectively struggled. As psychologists we are trained on how to diagnose and treat mental illness. In doing so we are partially involved in enforcing pathology, particularly in a stigmatized society. However, doesn’t understanding of illness allow us to assist people? Is there a way to treat individuals without pathologizing them? Or is all that one can do ensure that pathology is not based on cultural practices? On the other hand isn’t pathological behavior, simply practices that fall outside of what is considered normal in a certain culture at a certain time? How do we advocate for justice, when in many ways we are involved in creating and continuing the system? Once again, the answers to these questions are elusive.

In conclusion, we believe the process of deconstructing terms accomplishes several goals. First, it manages to leave the participant reflecting on the complexity of the terms defined, particularly if there is debate about the words meaning. Second, deconstructing the terms inherently places the participant in a creative position where they are learning about the word’s meaning, as well as their own biases. Finally, it serves to challenge the participants to engage with the ideas actively, a way we believe Fromm would appreciate.


Enactments are the final area to explore. An enactment is the recreation of a past event from the client or the therapist’s life quotescover-JPG-48involving the acting out of a difficult affect state (Maroda, 2010). This interaction is saturated in mutuality where both participants have involvement and play a part that is reciprocal (Aron, 1991). To use this idea in our group context, we will examine patterns that occurred in our group meetings over time.

The main pattern was found in the way the seminar became a place for discussion about power dynamics within the seminar, including the role of the facilitators, and the positions of all participants in the larger system at the University. We believe that this atmosphere was created in particular in the seminar due to the design of the seminar having exploratory space around checking in, and as a way to enact and provide concrete experiences with struggles in creating and advancing justice.

Recently, psychoanalysis has discussed enactments that occur around cultural identities, particularly focusing on race (Altman, 2004, 2006, 2010; Layton, 2006, Leary; 2000; Walls, 2004). These discussions place emphasis on how social power becomes enacted in the therapy space. We believe this type of enactment occurred within the seminar causing us to focus both on justice in the broader world, but more importantly on justice within the seminar itself. It raised questions for us about justice, and community. Particularly, what does membership in a community mean, and how is this impacted if one will leave the community? How can facilitation be inclusive of knowledge but provide necessary leadership and perspective? How do facilitators manage their power while encouraging potential dissent? We believe these questions would not have arisen if we did not discuss our own experiences within the room and within the broader agency.

After experiencing this in the seminar we noticed that there is something easier in talking about the ways one is disempowered than the way one is in a position of privilege. All of us struggled to hold onto our privileged positions, instead leaning into the parts of us that felt marginalized or ignored. Is this in part because these marginalized experiences are silenced in society? Is there something about the other side of the binary, of benefitting from institutional oppression that is difficult to speak aloud? We believe this difficulty in speaking of our privileged identities, exemplifies the way positions of privilege can be frequently unaddressed or minimized (Suchet, 2007).

An example of this difficulty that occurred in the seminar was a discussion around how one intern felt unheard in the group. This was replicated in very subtle ways (e.g., not being permitted to complete one’s thoughts) and in more explicit ways (e.g., where the intern expressed that we were scheduled to meet for our seminars but other interns did not agree, which resulted in them being late). As early career professionals, we also struggled to understand whether the interns were engaging in the aforementioned behaviors due to our age and experience or due to different dynamics. This encounter allowed us to explore what was being enacted between the facilitators as well as the interns. It was an enriching experience for us as facilitators to realize how we felt disempowered in some of those enactments without always owning the inherent power that was embedded in our role as facilitators. Eventually we were able to explore some of these feelings with the interns as well each other in our preparatory meetings. Once we named these feelings it seemed we were better able to continue to engage in the seminar.


We believe these three areas (personal exploration, definition and deconstruction of terms, and engaging with enactments) provide examples of how a seminar focusing on social justice overlaps with psychodynamic thinking. We believe that engaging in this manner allows future psychologists to define for themselves what the importance of social justice will be to their individual practice.

Hoffman (2007) discusses how psychological work is embedded within the “whole person” of the provider. For our purposes we think of the whole person as an individual affected by sociocultural positioning, personal history, and temperament. Someone who struggles with public speaking due to temperament reasons, having less social power, or an inhibiting personal history, will have a different perspective on how they will advocate for societal change than someone with a gregarious presentation. Despite this uncertainty, we believe every beginning psychologist benefits from reflecting and choosing how one will work for justice.

We hope this seminar serves to foster critical thinking or we fear we risk devolving into Orwellian double talk that Hoffman (2007) warns about. What would this double talk look like in terms of social justice? We believe it would involve stating we should be aware of systems of power, have knowledge, skills and awareness of difference. It would encourage us to engage with these areas when our clients discuss it. However, it would also involve hasty movement out of our own anxiety to create systemic change, or a paralysis to engage with the broader world to advocate for a more humane society. Both acting and thinking can be defensive. One needs to continually reflect and be curious about their reasons for engaging in change. We believe if engagement emerges out of a sense of guilt, that this is the double talk Hoffman warns about. This engagement is a means to make us comfortable, without truly processing our own need and desire. We hope with seminars like the one we have described psychologists can continue to engage with the greater world while also being aware of their sociocultural positioning within that world.



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