I hadn’t seen my cousin Earl in 30 years, but I knew right away that he was a straight-shooter like the rest of my family. “No offense,” he told me as I visited with him and his wife, Brenda, at a Smitty’s Restaurant near his home in Alberta, Canada. “But I think your whole profession, psychologists or whatever, is kind of BS. They don’t have a hot clue how most of us live or what’s important to us, and nobody I know has ever been helped by talking to those people.”
“Oh, no offense taken,” I responded, grinning broadly. “But let me just say this about that. Screw you!” I laughed, he laughed, and Brenda slapped his arm, grumbling good-naturedly that he was being rude. After a little more back and forth between me and Earl, I told him that I wasn’t a bit surprised at what he said though, because in almost 20 years as a school counselor, I have made similar observations myself.
Earl and I were both raised quite poor in a small town, with fathers who worked labor jobs, mothers who kept house. After Earl’s parents split up and his mom moved him west, he eventually became a master mechanic, repairing everything from Harleys to the giant excavation machines used in the oil fields. I had left home for university, raised kids in Winnipeg as a single mother, and eventually earned a masters degree in counseling. Through coursework and politicizing experiences, I developed an awareness of the politics of dominance and difference, but in a way, my cousin and I still speak the same language. And I am the first to admit the class-related problems in counseling psychology.
Support for the effectiveness of therapy in general is spotty, with research often focusing on the merits of particular techniques or approaches (cognitive-behavioral therapy, narrative therapy, and so on), rather than on discerning effective practices and identifying ineffective ones. Although there has been some acknowledgement in past decades of the importance to psychology of race/ ethnicity and culture, there is still a shocking lack of published research and theory to guide effective therapy with diverse populations. And social class awareness in counselor training programs? Not so much.
Certainly, in my own university training, I often felt that what was being taught jarred with my experiences and was disconnected from the needs of the kinds of people I came from. When I started working as a counselor in a First Nations community with high rates of poverty, I realized with a shock that, if I wanted to be relevant at all, I would have to reinvent the wheel. What I had been taught about how to listen to people, how to respond to people, and how to think about their lives and needs had to go right out the window. That made for a really steep learning curve, but I do feel that I now have a somewhat sensible understanding of how to provide therapeutic help to folks who are poor or working class, and those who hold various cultural memberships and identities.
Working class perspective is the backbone of my work as a counselor. I focus on developing a relationship of openness and respect, where clients can trust, not only that I will not tell others their private things, but also that I myself can understand them—can get them and have accurate empathy for their situation. I try to hear them and talk to them as a normal working class person would, not in a language censored by and for the middle class ear.
With more laughter, and several more cups of coffee, this is what I explained to my cousin at Smitty’s that day. And because Earl, in true working class fashion, had started out with a forthright statement of his opinion, and I, instead of taking offence, had used humor while also hearing out and affirming his criticisms, we were able to have an authentic dialogue regarding “my whole profession or whatever.”
The conversation became part of a happy reconciliation between me, a class straddler, far from home, in a talking profession dominated by worldviews very different from my own, and my cousin, a man who works with his hands and knows what he knows.