Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Social Justice is a Mosaic Where Each Tile Has a Place

I just got back from a week-long vacation to Yellowstone National Park, courtesy of my best friend's family who had an untimely "spot" for one more. My stepfather/father of 30 years passed this March, and one of my fondest childhood memories is of visiting the park with him. This was an opportunity for me personally to work on some grieving issues by revisiting this sacred place.

Female Elk relaxing on the limestone hot spring terraces of Mammoth

We stayed in the town of West Yellowstone; one of the gateways to the park on the East-most boundary of Montana/Wyoming. One might not guess that the population of this town is a mere six-hundred, what with the masses of people who flock here, particularly in July during the peak season of tourism, and pack the restaurants and shops. With every room in 22 hotels, and every slot in multiple RV parks full, this place was decidedly non-diverse, visually speaking. People came from all over the country and world. In the parking lot of one of two grocery stores we counted 12 different state license plates. But it was still a very "white" place to be. Maybe that's something not everyone would notice. It certainly depends on your point of reference. And for all intents and purposes, I'm pretty darn white. But, you see, I am a non-gender conforming (genderqueer) lesbian-identified, body art covered person often seen sporting a mohawk, and in rural towns filled with gun racks in pickup trucks and faces that are very similar, I simply don't feel safe. I cannot imagine what life can be like for people who don't have the white privilege that I have, and yet being a minority in so many other ways (religiously, gender, sexuality, disability, socioeconomic status) I am constantly living on alert that I must be keenly aware of my personal safety and my family's personal safety.

This brings me to what has been mulling around in my head the past week and a half. The experiences that I had in this small town really reminded me that no matter how much we espouse our own contributions to social justice issues, we must always be mindful of our own experiences and that even the most well-intentioned of us have biases. There is a tremendous amount of power to be had in owning up to our biases and turning them into weapons of social alertness that govern our personal conduction. This is how we change the world, or at the very least our home environments to start. This, of course, directly translates into our work with our clients.

So, a magical thing seems to happen wherever I may be. Now, I know I'm an odd looking bird, and I'm terribly okay with that. But while I certainly get a lot of negative looks and comments from some (not to mention aforementioned safety issues) I am more often than not gifted with the interactions of complete strangers who seem to intuit that I have a gentle and loving soul. This may not always be comfortable when, say, I'm using a public restroom, but it sure does open up a myriad of amazing human connections and thus anecdotes! Back to my own preconceived notions. I'm wandering around the streets of West Yellowstone, entering each store I encounter, generally keeping to myself save an occasional smile, as I feel I am being watched. Every store is packed with tourists. No less than 3 people during this walkabout ask me, quite out of the blue, "Where are you from, and what is it you do?" Several extremely interesting conversation ensue, each of which challenge my preconceived notions of the people living and working in this town, some of whom are actually from out of town on summer jobs as it turns out. One includes a self-proclaimed "gypsy wanderer" who is certain my presence is calling her back to Seattle where she once visited and longed to move to but wasn't sure the spirit had called her yet, while two other people begged for information on how to order the "Chick-Fil-A-Holes" t-shirt I had on. (For those who don't know, the fast food chain Chick-Fil-A was under fire for donating money to anti-gay organizations.)
My shirt (not my pecks)

Near the end of my walk through town, and the end of my stay at the park, I finally made it into a precarious looking wood shack nestled between a taco bus and a cafe. It had furs, pelts and skins hanging from the outside. I am not a terribly big fan of the fur industry, I will say. As an issue of social justice, and as a general rule, I dislike the fashion industry use of furs and what has happened to various animals because of that industry. But I admit to using and wearing leather. I was achingly curious to know what was inside this literal shack beyond the mounds of pelts and skins outside its door. Inside it was small and dark and smelled of new leather. Furs of elk, bison, bear, weasel, rabbit (a very specific kind that I cannot now recall) and some more obscure animals were stacked on shelves. Gorgeous gloves, mittens, boots, pillows and hats had been very skillfully crafted and for sale. There behind the pine counter nailed together in simple carpentry was a white male in his fifties with the eyes of a child. A strange mix of sadness and beauty filled me as I ran my fingers through all the furs. I might have been angered by this but I wanted to know more.

I told the man, who had been silent the entire time, that I found these pieces to be quite beautiful and unique. He stood beside a pile of obsidian stones he had clearly found himself. With a light stutter, he asked if there was anything I was looking for. I found myself asking for a pair of the gloves in adult sizes, to my surprise. They reminded me of Isotoners, but with wrist cuffs made of the softest, whitest tufts of rabbit. He disappointingly stated he had to make more.
"You made all this?"
"Wow. They're gorgeous."
And again, the question: "Where are you from? What do you do?"
I told him I was from Seattle, and that I was a mental health counselor for a Northwest tribal community. I often omit the Art Therapist part at first, because it always begs the "what is that?" question, and I wasn't sure I was in the mood to try and explain that. He then asked me the strangest thing. It was the strangest thing for someone to ask at the beginning of a conversation, but made entirely too much sense by the end of it.
"Do Native Americans have the same problems as every one else? The same psychological stuff?"
I admit to being take aback, to being confused and curious. And I was very careful, I thought, with how I answered it. "I think that all human beings experience unique psychological stressors that create very similar human responses. I think the people I serve experience the same types of mental wellness issues anyone else does, but because of very different reasons." He asked me what I meant, and I spoke a little about historical trauma and why some of the social issues that are prevalent in ANY community with historical trauma are pervasive. Naturally, I moved toward post traumatic stress disorder, sensing something in his eyes, and that's when he hit me with it.

He is a Vietnam veteran with a PTSD diagnosis. He began to barrage me with questions about why, how, when; "How come I feel this way? I've been in therapy for years."

"I am a therapist" must be tattooed on my forehead. And you know what? That's okay. The Universe put me in this man's path for a reason this day, so let me tell you why and how this relates to our topics of Social Justice.

I didn't want to "play therapist" to a stranger, but then all of our clients are strangers at first. I didn't want to wear that clinical hat, but I didn't want to discount him either. We were two people, just him and me, in a shack, surrounded by animal furs, and my friend idly running her hand through them as we talked. This man with the boy eyes then told me that he was mad at his therapist. He was mad because he was told that "Vietnam is in the past. You can't change it. You can only move forward." Sounded like something someone might say in a well-intentioned way, but it wounded him deeply, for Vietnam still lived in his head, in the present, and was absolutely not in the past. He continued through the end of the conversation with fat tears dancing on his eyelids.
"I disagree," I told him.
"How so?"
"Well," I thought a moment, "I think we can change the past. Maybe not the events, but our relationship to them. I'm an art therapist and I try and find ways to build new associations."
"Art therapist? Tell me more?" He's now looking around at his skins and I think I'm understanding this better now.
"Well, the short answer is that sometimes I help people work through their trauma with art. Sometimes you don't have the words. Well, the art can give us the words. And if we can retell the stories through pictures, sometimes we can change the ending. Sometimes we can take our power back." The tears were bigger now, almost falling, just not quite.
"People come in here and they judge me. They judge me for what I do. Me and my dog, we hunt these animals and I make all these things myself. And if I didn't have this, I'd be in big trouble. I wouldn't be here any more."
The man was aching to be validated. He had found his art therapy through sewing these skins and furs. And he was often placed in the face of rejection for doing so. The same rejection he likely felt by his home country when he came back from Vietnam. Any difficulty that still lingered in me from being in the room with the skins melted away.
I addressed him by his name and shook his hand. "I think what you do here is beautiful. Don't stop. If it helps you, don't stop." Again, he reiterated, "If I didn't have this, I'd be in trouble. Thank you so much for coming in here and talking to me." And then I left.

Everything we do is tied into the greater interconnectivity of things. You never know when you're going to be called to do good, even when you're in the process of doing it. I walked into that shack with a preconceived curiosity and slight disgust and left with an entirely different perspective. I don't know exactly what affect our encounter had for him. I know it certainly taught me something.

It brings me back to the biases we have and the judgement we make before gathering all the facts. This is why stereotypes, discrimination, bigotry, all those yucky things, are so insidious. The truth is usually something we cannot even begin to fathom. I'd like to ask you to think about a time when you allowed your isms and biases get in the way of learning something that could have rather contributed to the greater good, or to your own personal growth.

I'm not asking that you wear fur. Maybe, just once in a while, check the label to see who made it.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Awww, Does Someone Need an Inside-Outside Mask Directive?

For those who attended the Social Justice Caucus, you might remember a thread of conversation about the SJC identity. Who is the SJC and what is our goal/mission statement? Who are we at the core, and what do we wish to show and do for AATA, the counseling community and the communities we serve?

This would be a great opportunity for us to come together and begin a dialogue about what Social Justice means to each of us. In doing so, we find commonalities that will guide our scope and shape our actions.

So we ask: Where does Social Justice start, and when is it reaching past the scope of its intent? Or does it ever? Is it highly personalized or supremely focused? Who feels comfortable engaging in social justice activity without endangering their own identity(s)? Are there any issues of social importance that some feel should wear certain faces? If so, does that make that particular issue exclusionary and thereby negate the whole point, or does it strengthen the work we do?

These are important questions, and I'm sure there's a thousand more. We welcome any and all thoughts for an honest discussion on what will be some very powerful issues. But I also think that one thing I can safely say is that our roles in Social Justice are going to be highly personalized. They will be based on experience and belief, values and cultural affiliations. And we would do well to honor and respect all of the opinions and truths of everyone.

The pebble in the pond and the ripple effect comes to mind. Small changes begin great reward. The awareness of our own frailties and beautiful imperfections can help inform our experience in setting change in motion.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: CH. 3-The Caucus-Race and a Long Tale

"At last the Dodo said, 'Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'

An incredible thing happened at the AATA business meeting at this year's convention, and Lonni Ann Fredman was there to witness it. This is her story, her account, taken from our correspondence.

Rewind button please!

During the caucus meeting, for those who may or may not have been there, there were some strong concerns that had been resurrected regarding a call to action for an SJ oriented Plenary at the conferences going forward. This motion had been established in years past, long before SJC appeared. To make a long story short, the issue would be raised again at this year's business meeting, and this is what transpired. Hold onto your safety rails, it's a pretty fantastic thing!

"Whereas there has been limited representation of social justice and multicultural issues at the national conference, the American Art Therapy Association Board recommends that the conference committee considers including at least one plenary session on diversity and social justice issues each conference." The vote was nearly unanimous, with one or two people voting "no" out of a room of perhaps a hundred or so.

Barbara and Sanveet were very eloquent in presenting the resolution, with Savneet including how the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association have long had Social Justice components and it's time AATA did, too. Then long-time respected AATA people Randy Vick, Michael Franklin, and Lynn Kapitan (the Art Therapy Journal editor) added strong supporting statements plus a board member stood up and asked why it was even necessary to say "considers"--her comment might have been after the time to amend had passed. I believe Jordan Potash, who has been very active with social justice issues, shared that a similar proposal had been presented in 2005 or 2007 and rejected then and so noted that we've come a long way. Lynn noted that in the past she might have thought such a proposal would interfere with the program committee's mission but no more, it is absolutely necessary that we have such presentations. Randy and Michael spoke of a film that was shown during this conference that wouldn't have been shown if there had been a stronger social justice/diversity filter (I think it had to do with a retirement village or program that was very expensive). After the vote [...] I expressed my hope that many people will submit social justice and diversity proposals to next year's conference and also that art therapists in San Antonio can bring local people to present with them so the conference can have a grassroots presence and reflect work happening in the local communities via the voices of the people carrying it out/participating in it."

And so there you have it; progress. It's a beautiful thing. I do think the Dodo was right.

We Welcome You With Open Arms

Welcome to the newly energized social justice art therapy blog! I am your host, Sara S. Giba, MA, LMHCA, MHP, coming to you live (depending on when you read this) from Seattle, WA, home of the 44th Annual AATA Conference. And what a conference it was! But before I tell you some splendid news that came out of that conference (see following post), let me introduce myself and my new friend Lonni Ann Fredman.

Now, many of you may remember that if it hadn't been for Lonni Ann (see post #1), perhaps the Social Justice Caucus might not exist right now. And though it had a rocky start, we are hoping that together, as a community, we can become a force of change.

Lonni Ann was asked by Janis Timm-Bottos and I was asked by Pat Allen some months ago if we would be interested in taking over the “chairing” duties of the caucus. Lonni Ann and I have debated the term “chair” for this group, simply because it runs the risk of denoting a sense of hierarchy in a way, which we feel is antithetical to social justice. For now, I think I’ll continue to use air quotes. ;) Let’s move past the digression. 

Lonni Ann and I had a tele-meeting with Criag Siegel, the outgoing liaison to the SJC, exchanged months of e-mails and finally met over a lovely breakfast during the conference. As I said, we have some great news! But let’s get back to those introductions, shall we?

Lonni Ann Fredman, MA, LPAT, ATR-BC, is a graduate of the UNM archetypal art therapy program and has been working for sixteen years at a non-profit agency serving families at risk in the metropolitan Albuquerque area and beyond. Lonni Ann has presented at several AATA conferences on utilizing the archetypal art therapy process with children and their parents as well as co-facilitated with Janis Timm-Bottos a couple of AATA presentations on community open art studio-related topics. Lonni Ann is also interested in connections between archetypal art therapy and David Bohm’s dialogue process. Over the last several years Lonni Ann has co-facilitated workshops at the annual New Mexico Counseling Association conferences on incorporating art into the dialogue process as well as more recently brought art media to some of the monthly dialogue meetings hosted by the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice. Lonni Ann has displayed her prize-winning Painted Found Wood Art Forms locally and nationally.

Sara S. Giba, MA, LMHCA, MHP, is a California native who has been living in WA state for 25 years, the latter 15 in Seattle. The book Strange Angels by Kathe Koja was the driving force behind her desire to become an art therapist. She has earned an AA in Liberal Arts (Spokane Falls Community College), a BA in Creative Writing, a BA in Psychology (both from University of WA) and an MA in Psychology with a specialization in Art Therapy (Antioch University). Sara has a strong background in performance poetry that includes multimedia work, and she uses short films and poetic videos to convey issues of social justice using Youtube as a forum. She’s recently filmed a documentary on using art therapy for identity work with transgender identified clients and presented in Sacramento's AATA conference regarding the same population. She works for a Native American community in Northwestern Washington. She has an MHP specialization in Developmental Disabilities for her work with this population for 8 ½ years. Her counseling affinities are Jungian, Transpersonal, Mindfulness and Rogerian, to name a few, the latter of which she describes as a “sensibility rather than a theoretical orientation. You either have it or you don’t.”

Now that you’re up to speed on Lonni Ann and myself, please fast forward to the next blog post for twice aforementioned exciting news. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Tumbleweeds, they be blowin'...

Good afternoon, all.

The blog is now under new administration. An announcement post will be made in the next couple of days that will include a series of important and exciting articles of news, bits of info and dollops of daisies. Please stay tuned, and get ready for the tumbleweeds to travel on their merry ways.