Pat B. Allen on Social Justice and Art Therapy

The next American Art Therapy Association conference will be held July 6-10 in Baltimore MD. In case you haven't been watching the news, and I can understand if that has become a heart breaking task for many, the subject of the other and privilege has been in the forefront of national social issues. Without saying those exact words; "other" and "privilege", most of us know the subtext in the media of what really drives the heat and passion of this debate. And why is it even a debate at all?

Pat B. Allen, beloved colleague and teacher in field as well as fore-mother of the social justice and art therapy caucus, has gifted the blog with some powerful words of thought stemming from this year's AATA conference in Minneapolis, bits of the current climate in our country, if not the world, and from the powerful work of Lonni Ann Fredman this year at the conference:

 Art Therapy, Privilege, and Social Justice

Everyone is familiar with the air travel axiom: put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help others. Similar advice can be offered to many in the helping professions, not least of all, art therapists. Yes, the work you do with others is important, that’s a given. But you, intrinsically, before anything you do or accomplish, are important, worthy of being heard and seen in your truth, irrespective of your ‘privilege’. At the recent AATA conference in Minneapolis, Lonni Ann Fredman, current chair of the Social Justice Caucus, held the space for a workshop where both our need to be seen as well as our need to gain skills in simple listening, the basis of all social justice work, were ably met. As we made art together, I found my own awareness rising and falling. What does it mean to do good in the world? Can I help others if my own needs are unmet? For a while maybe; but not in the long run.
I want to raise some delicate questions: do you have your own art practice in place? Do you have a group of trusted peers and colleagues with whom to share the joy and stress of your work? Do you have a supportive and encouraging mentor? Do you take care of your basic needs for healthy food, adequate rest, time in nature and with family and friends? Do you ask for help when you need it? If just reading this list makes you feel even remotely guilty, stop right here. It’s time to consider your priorities.
I am proposing an exploration of the intersectionality of self-esteem that may be more or less unconscious among art therapists. As Gina Crosely-Corcoran writes in a blog entitled: “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person”  on
“The concept of Intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others. There are many different types of privilege, not just skin color privilege that impact the way people can move through the world or are discriminated against. These are all things you are born into, not things you earned, that afford you opportunities others may not have.”
On the surface of it, every art therapist is a person of privilege. Mea culpa. If you have managed to graduate college, attain a master’s degree, fork over hundreds to attend an AATA conference, and afford art materials -- all things you have earned -- you also have the scaffolding beneath you that supports the ability to make those choices, i.e., a privileged life. Yet, you can feel downright oppressed. You may have crushing school debt, a job that sucks your life while it is supposed to be making the world a better place. You may have discovered that the demands of having a family while doing work that is emotionally draining leaves you feeling tapped out and ineffective in the multiple arenas of your life.
This suffering arises directly from our privileged choices, freely made. Or maybe not so freely made.  The current trend to get others to ‘see their privilege’ seems a bit misguided. Much of what we do is driven by underlying needs to be seen, valued, acknowledged and held in esteem. If our foundational sense of worth is shaky --and we all get shaky -- we seek ways to gain a sense of worth externally.
Lonni Ann held out a way to encourage and support one another that I hope will become a trend at the conference and in our professional sphere in general: let’s see one another with soft eyes, let’s listen to one another with open hearts, let’s make time to make art together without judgment or agenda for the simple act of appreciation of all that we are and all that we aspire to become. Speak your truth; ask for help; know that you are amazing, imperfect and irreplaceable.

Pat B. Allen, Ph.D., ATR, HLM lives in Ojai, CA