Interview with Our Conference Presenters Kimberly Ewing, PhD & Bridget Rivera, PsyD

by Jen Bissell, LICSW

Jen:  What can conference attendees anticipate learning and hearing about at the conference?

presentersKim & Bridget: Participants will gain a deeper understanding of their worldview, which is informed and shaped by the identity dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, religion, spirituality, and social class. After attendees gain deeper awareness and insight into these dimensions, we will cover how to hold on to that experience and facilitate group therapy from an authentic cultural competence perspective.

Jen:  I imagine discussions about race and culture can be intense. When conversations get difficult, in your experience, what helps people stay present, open, and continuing in their dialogue?

Kim & Bridget: Yes, certainly these can be difficult discussions, particularly in today’s society. We are not used to discussing cultural issues, especially with people who might have different experiences or opinions. Also, due to political and current events, we are primed to become anxious or defensive when these topics arise. We spend a great deal of time preparing participants before we start these conversations by having them express those concerns, as well as possible solutions. Things do get difficult and we take our role as facilitators seriously.  We see our role as maintaining a safe space for participants, through gauging how the conversation is going, and encouraging processing when the dialogue is more challenging.

Jen:  How do you engage people to enter into these conversations?

Kim & Bridget:  Before we engage people in these conversations we work hard to create a safe space in order to enter into a dialogue. One reason these conversations feel risky is because of the identities we bring into the room, our worldview, and what we have been taught regarding these conversations. Due to this we dedicate a good part of our work to addressing these exact issues.

Jen:  How did this come to be the focus of your work?

Kim: Talking about inequality and what we now call social justice started when I was a child. I am the African American daughter of two educators who valued speaking up for yourself and being the best you can be. I grew up in the racially and economically segregated city of St. Louis, MO, which is less than 30 minutes from Ferguson, MO. Initially I attended an all-Black,  working/lower middle class neighborhood school, but was later moved to a school further away in a predominantly White, working class neighborhood. I happened to be in graduate school while the department’s faculty struggled as race and gender issues emerged over hiring a new faculty member. At the same time, the program launched its first ever course on “cross cultural counseling.” It didn’t go that well. Taken together, these experiences stayed with me. When I became the Training Director for the Loyola Counseling Center’s training programs, I knew it was crucial to incorporate this kind of professional development for our staff and then for the trainees. The focus had to include who we are as cultural beings doing this work.

Bridget: I was born and raised in the UK with a working class background. My family immigrated to the US when I was 16. I quickly learned specifically that issues of social class and ethnicity have powerful implications for one’s destiny. I was drawn to studying these issues in graduate school and was fortunate enough to be trained at the California School of Professional Psychology where cultural competence was a focus. After graduation, I thoroughly enjoyed integrating these issues into supervision, and from there it grew to become a focus of my work.

Jen:  Who and what influenced you? Who were your mentors?

Kim:  Lots of people have influenced me!  I have been very fortunate in that respect. But I’d have to credit Dr. Linda James Myers, a clinical psychologist in the Clinical Psychology and Black Studies departments when I was in graduate school. The two courses I took with her, the discussions our class had, along with readings, were life changing. We grappled with concepts of spirituality, healing, and mental health; along with the impact of oppression on both the psyche of the oppressed and also that of the oppressors. Working with Dr. James Myers introduced me to the powerful concept of world view as the shaper of what we see and don’t see, what we value, how we see ourselves in relation to our environment, and what we see as possible or impossible, real and not real. What I learned in her classes gave meaning to the things I’d noticed and gravitated towards all my life, but didn’t fully grasp in importance or connection. I’ve based my clinical and training work, as well as my personal values system, on things I learned in Dr. James Myers’ courses.

Bridget:  I had some wonderful instructors in graduate school, including Dr. Donald Viglione, Dr. Don Eulert, and Dr. Neil Ribner. I have also been influenced by Dr. Dana Richards work, which focuses on integrating cultural factors into psychological assessment, a focus of my clinical work. Beyond those academic influences, I’d be remiss to not identify my late father as a strong influence in this area. After emigrating from the UK to Southern California, I watched him make friends with immigrants from Mexico, and offer them support and guidance to become citizens. These powerful interactions, laden with challenges in language and differences in culture, were probably more influential than my formal training.

Jen:  Has there been a parallel process that you have noticed when events become more publicly strained?  How has your work been impacted during the course of the unrest across the nation this last year (i.e. Ferguson)?

Kim & Bridget:  Yes, our clients (and the public in general) seem to be more psychically impacted by issues of race, ethnicity, gender, social class, sexual identity, religion, and spirituality, given the cultural-related and political conflict in the nation. But if our clients are not be aware of how their presenting concerns are shaped or even triggered by cultural identity, they may not share this with their counselor. They may fear having those beliefs dismissed or being judged psychologically dysfunctional, especially if they think the counselor holds different identity dimensions. When we are willing to invite this exploration with our clients, helping them integrate their presenting issue with how they experience their identities, exploring world view, values, and power or powerlessness; we help them heal at even deeper levels.

In terms of how our work has been affected by current events, our experience is that therapists want further training and discussions on this topic, but typically don’t know how to engage in these conversations. And because it’s ‘scary,’ they don’t seek out opportunities. We call our work authentic cultural competence because we have found that through creating an honest, shared container, we may shed light on our own identities, sociopolitical power, worldviews, and values, as they impact what we experience and how we experience others.

This process helps psychotherapists’ openness, empathy, and perspective, which is needed for true learning to occur. Once we have tapped into that space inside oursevles, we develop deeper awareness and appreciation for our sensitivities and blind spots. As a result, we can engage our clients from a more integrated and authentic place, and can facilitate a similar exploration for them as they participate in this work.

Jen:  What has been the most surprising thing that you have discovered leading people in conversations about culture, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender, etc?

Bridget:  What has been surprising for me is once participants get going addressing this stuff, how open, honest, genuine, and willing people are to share their own experiences. You’d think that after I keep doing this that wouldn’t be surprising, but I am always genuinely thankful, appreciative, and moved by what I hear people share, and what they take away from the conversations.

Kim:  I would agree with Bridget on this.  People are ready to do this. They don’t always come in knowing it, or even realizing what they’ve signed up for, but once we engage them in the process, they make critical connections between each other and inside themselves that will change the work they do with their clients. That is immensely rewarding for me.

Jen:  What do you hope we take away from this conference weekend?

Kim & Bridget:  We really hope that participants take away an exper ience; and, a process or roadmap. Regarding one’s experience, we hope participants see themselves as multidimensional, culturally-based people whose work is not immune from personal biases and judgments, and that this is natural and normal. It’s our goal for clinicians to be more fully aware of their own identities, how these identities interact with one another, and how much psychic space these identities take up our own sense of self. The process or map we want to share is how to become better and better at identifying personal biases and judgments, how biases and judgments are affecting the work; and what ways we need to stretch, expand, and risk going beyond our borders to become increasingly more effective, authentic, culturally competent group facilitators.