Making Social Justice "Stick"

By Lisa Rene Reynolds, PhD, Razan Masri, and Palmer Skudneski

Social justice is a term that is frequently heard in marriage and family therapy (MFT) training programs. However, there is evidence that suggests that even when social justice is taught and discussed in the learning environment, it doesn’t end up in practice later (Bell, 2007; Almeida et al., 2008; Nixon et al., 2010) How can we make the experience of learning about the importance of creating a social justice “lens” more personal and meaningful for MFT students?

Bell (2007) described the rationale for including social justice in the classroom as, “Providing a framework for questioning and understanding our practices… and to develop a sense of agency and the capacity to interrupt and change oppressive patterns and behaviors in themselves and in the institutions and communities of which [we] are a part” (p. 2). Are MFT students so focused on learning MFT skills, getting hours, and mastering the art of doing therapy, that including social justice efforts in their practice are not at the forefront? Likewise, students are several years away from the possibility of having their own private practices where they will have more control over what to incorporate in those spaces. Or, maybe, academia can do a better job of providing social justice training and tangible opportunities to experience the inclusion of it in more personal and relevant ways.

We are familiar with many training programs that do a thorough job of introducing students to the nuances of power that exist in the communities we serve. However, where do students take those meaningful messages after graduation? For many students, and especially for those who come from privileged backgrounds, many themes of social justice may be simply unknown. The following are our ideas for making social justice “stick” for students training to be MFTs, with personal experiences from the three authors following each one:

1. Consider training programs with smaller class sizes or ones that follow a cohort-model so that the intimate setting affords sharing of students’ own personal experiences with power, oppression, and general unjust treatment of people. This affords the opportunity for students to engage in transformative discussion.

Palmer: More intimate connection between individuals when exploring others’ experiences with social injustice can help us to humanize issues that we may otherwise keep at an arms distance. I believe people are more likely to look past the oppression of 1,000 people if they don’t know any of them, but if they have had a chance to personally connect with and hear from just one of the 1,000 people, they are far more likely to stand alongside them.

Razan: When contemplating issues of social justice, my thoughts often gravitate toward the ongoing tragedy in Palestine and what feels like indifference in parts of the world to the suffering and loss of human lives. It’s striking how catastrophic events in Western countries seem to receive global support and condolences. At the same time, as an individual of Syrian descent, I can’t help but perceive this as the dehumanization of Middle Eastern lives by some aspects within Western media. It’s in these instances that the intrinsic worth of human beings often seems to be disregarded. In smaller class settings, I’ve had the opportunity to share my experiences of social injustice with my classmates, who have responded with remarkable kindness and support. In turn, I’ve had the privilege of learning about their experiences regarding similar aspects of power, privilege, and oppression. These insights have not only enriched my understanding but also significantly broadened my perspective as a clinician, profoundly influencing my therapeutic approach. By engaging in these dialogues and sharing our stories, we open the door to exploring effective solutions and strategies for positive change.

Lisa Rene: Smaller settings seem to just work really well for more intimate discussions. Students know each other’s names, and there is enough time in group discussions for everyone to share.

2. Consider the use of reflecting teams in practicum or internship settings to help offer a variety of impressions and points of view, each coming from a different lens of personal experience. Similar to number 1 above, this, too, allows students to engage in transformative discussion.

Palmer: An important aspect of clinical work is acknowledging the presence of perspectivism and being open to the idea that your perspective only reflects the inputs you have had into your life. We must remain hungry in the pursuit of understanding other individuals’ points of view. In work that touches on many of the complex aspects of an individual person or family system, we should actively seek input, perspective, and ideas from our peers who are not bound by the same perspective constraints we may be.

Razan: During a therapy session with a client, it’s common to become absorbed in our thought patterns and unintentionally uphold our ideologies. Sharing cases with a reflecting team can illuminate aspects that may have escaped our awareness. Welcoming diverse perspectives into the room can introduce solutions that might not have crossed our minds. This, in turn, not only enhances the therapeutic experience but also strengthens the therapeutic alliance.

Lisa Rene: Reflecting teams really highlight how another person can see an interaction between clients in a very different way than another one might. These are great opportunities for enlightenment, especially for students who have lived and worked in homogeneous communities.

3. Teach socio-cultural attunement strategies.

Palmer: While I do not think it is essential or productive for every clinician to try and understand the deep complexities of all cultures and backgrounds, it is valuable to be able to put aside any discomfort or judgment towards a client’s values or background and dive into why they feel that unease. It is important to be willing to go inwards and understand where those judgmental thoughts come from. It may be as simple as being uninformed on a lifestyle or culture, or it may be a deeply rooted cultural judgment that carries more baggage. Either way, clinicians ideally would work to understand their role in these disconnects. Being able to jump into the unknown with a client who has a different background than you is a skill that takes time, however it is a cornerstone of the therapeutic alliance. There are a few ways to train that muscle, including micro-affirmations, narrative expansion, connecting the client with resources that empower them in their own social context, and conveying an ethical stance theme of opposing discrimination and promotion of social justice. Outside of the office, a clinician can incorporate informed advocacy and ongoing cultural humility, as well as challenge their own internalized stereotypes.

Razan: Becoming socially attuned begins with acknowledging our subconscious responses to specific individuals, concepts, or customs. As a second-year MSMFT student, I’ve actively undertaken extensive self-reflective work as a therapist to address my inherent biases, ensuring they don’t inadvertently influence my interactions with clients in the therapy room. This process of cultivating cultural humility enables clinicians to exhibit a respectful curiosity about diverse racial and cultural experiences and also gain a more profound understanding of the systemic issues faced by these communities.

Lisa Rene: Being committed to helping clients look at third-order change, with a much broader range, can help uncover areas of unjust treatment and impact on clients. Therapists can help with advocacy in these areas for clients. There may be ways to help reverse individual and community biases and prejudices in these areas.

4. Have faculty share the specific ways they have committed themselves to social justice endeavors.

Palmer: While being informed on social justice issues is important, many stop there. I believe that if everyone just took small tangible steps beyond awareness on social justice issues, we would see more change than ever before. My wife and I have become a host family for the organization Safe Families for Children. This organization supports families that are in crisis and works hard to keep children out of the foster care system by providing support, resources, and care. With minority populations experiencing a disproportionate amount of reported abuse and less access to resources than white families, bringing support to these populations is very important (Dakil, 2011).

Razan: Hearing about the diverse paths faculty members have embarked on in the marriage and family therapy field to promote social justice issues is incredibly inspiring and fulfilling. As clinicians, we entered this field driven by deep compassion to aid others, and extending our support beyond the therapy room is a natural extension of that calling. It allows us to heal individuals and families on a micro level, effect broader societal change, and contribute to a more just and equitable world.

Lisa Rene: Doing therapy can be very isolating work, with little ability to know what other therapists are doing. I love sharing some of the ways I have personally incorporated social justice into my practices over the years with students. I think it’s helpful for them to hear tangible, real-life ways that therapists can assist social justice efforts.

5. Help students develop a personal and intimate understanding of what social justice means to them.

Palmer: I believe the issue at the heart of social injustice is a lack of understanding and empathy for others. I do not believe everyone needs to prioritize liking everyone, but at a minimum we must show respect for others. I believe to cultivate social justice within yourself, a great place to start is to think about what comes up for you when you imagine yourself embracing someone as they are or wish to be seen. If there is a hesitancy within you that keeps you from embracing that person for who they are, don’t move on from that thought but dig deep into it and work to understand what part of you wants to push it away. If we all lean into what makes us uncomfortable about others, we often realize that it is much more about us than them.

Razan: To me, social justice means equal importance to every life, regardless of race, culture, or ethnicity. It means recognizing that the life of a Palestinian child holds just as much significance as that of a Ukrainian child. It means taking a stand against inhumane atrocities without being swayed by political agendas. The initial step toward achieving social justice is to look beyond our immediate perspective and acknowledge the struggles of individuals whose well-being might not seem directly relevant. Still, because they are human and they matter, we extend our care.

Lisa Rene: I like asking students to share two things—first, what they are most passionate about in our field (e.g., supporting children through divorce, suicide prevention, helping clients with complex trauma), and second, what truly hurts them most (bullying, discrimination, sexual abuse). This is a great “jumping off point” for exploring ways in which students can incorporate social justice into their practice. So, for example, if a student is passionate about suicide prevention efforts, the student can look into which populations are most at risk (youth, the queer community, particular minority groups) and offer services (pro-bono or sliding scale work, workshops, group therapy) specifically aimed at these communities.

 6. Start small.

Palmer: I think the best way to see big change in the world for social justice is to start small. In my clinical work, that means taking an open arms stance to backgrounds and cultures I am not familiar with and not making assumptions about ones I think I am familiar with. I make a point to be curious and create space to explore how one’s differences may have impacted them and influence the way they approach life. In my coaching work with teenagers and young adults who have yet to explore social justice very much, I make a point to help cultivate an open and tolerant mindset to walks of life that differ from their own. I believe creating a culture of openness, curiosity, and empathy in and out of the office will have ripple effects that transcend generations.

Razan: In my clinical setting, I collaborate with the underserved community on the south side of Chicago. Several of my clients are Arabic speakers, and by conducting therapy sessions in their native language, I take my first step towards implementing social justice through my clinical work. This approach establishes a supportive environment where they can express themselves without apprehension of being misunderstood or judged, allowing for a more carefree and open dialogue.

Lisa Rene: Graduate school and mastering the many intricacies of doing therapy can be a daunting task in itself, without adding social justice action pressures. However, even the smallest things can make a difference. Supporting a single marginalized voice in the therapy room can have a ripple effect. Much like a Solution Focused therapist might ask a client, “What is the smallest change you might think would make you feel better?”, likewise, students can think about the little ways they can attend to social justice efforts.


Lisa Rene Reynolds, PhD, LMFT, is an AAMFT Professional member holding the Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor designations, and Core Faculty, The Family Institute at Northwestern University Connecticut and New York State Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.

Razan Masri, MS-MFT Intern, is a Student member of AAMFT at the Family Institute at Northwestern University.

Palmer Skudneski, MS-MFT Intern, is a Student member of AAMFT at the Family Institute at Northwestern University and Teen Life Coach.

Almeida, R. V., Dolan-Del Vecchio, K., & Parker, L. (2008). Transformative family therapy: Just families in a just society. Pearson Education.

Bell, L. A. (2007). Theoretical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams, L. A. Bell, & P. Griffin (Eds). Teaching for diversity and social justice, (2nd ed., pp. 11–14). Routledge.

Dakil, S. R., Cox, M., Lin, H., & Flores, G. (2011). Racial and ethnic disparities in physical abuse reporting and child protective services interventions in the United States. Journal of the National Medical Association, 103(9-10), 926–931.

Nixon, D., Marcelle-Coney, D., Torres-Greggory, M., Huntley, E., Jacques, C., Pasquet, M., & Ravachi, R. (2010). Creating community: Offering a liberation pedagogical model to facilitate diversity conversations in MFT graduate classrooms. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 36(2), 197-211.

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