Cultural Competence and Advocacy

Cultural Competence and Advocacy


Infusing Cultural Competence and Advocacy Into Strength-Based




strength-based counseling represents a welcome shift from prevailing deficit perspectives.

However, the literature often treats enhancing strengths as an acultural concept, minimiz-

ing or ignoring the essential role of culture informing and defining strengths. Integrating

cultural competence and advocacy into strength-based practice is examined as an antidote

to ethnocentric practice.

Strength-based counseling perspectives are attracting increasing notice in the professional literature, representing a paradigm shift from the deficit or medi- cal model prevalent in many settings today (Galassi & Akos, 2004; Harley, 2009; Peterson, 2006). This seemingly nascent movement appears to have the earmarks associated with new models of research and practice (e.g., lack of a coherent theoretical framework, the recent emergence of useful models, and a relative scarcity of empirical outcome research; Harris, Thoreson, & Lopez, 2007; E. J. Smith, 2006).

While the advent of sti:ength-based counseling in its current form was relatively recent, it has deep and varied historical roots in both coimseling and coimseHng psychology, particularly through the prevention, resuience, humanistic, career development, positive psychology, educational, and social work perspectives (Albee, 1984; Galassi & Akos, 2007; Peterson, 2006; SeUgman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

In fact, the initial impulse behind counseling work—the vocational guidance movement—expressed the core strength-based notion that individuals grow from building on their assets. In addition, an emerging body of research appears to indicate that the “best predictors of children’s functional outcome into adulthood lay not in the relief of their symptoms but rather in an understanding, appreciation, and nurtur-

Tim Grothaus, Garrett McAuliffe, and Laurie Craigen, Counseling and Human Services, Old Do- minion University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Tim Grothaus, Counseling and Human Services, Old Dominion University, 110 Education Building, Norfolk, VA 23529 (e-mail:

© 20Ï2 by the American Counseling Association. Atl rights reserved.

Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING • April 2012 • Volume 51 5 1



anee of their strengths and assets” (Goldstein & Brooks, 2006, p. xüi). The time appears ripe to reclaim the counseling field’s roots in strengtb-based practice (McAuliffe & Erikson, 1999).


Culture, regarded as encompassing a constellation of factors (e.g., gender, ability status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, spirituality), is an essential factor in forming behaviors, attitudes, strengths, beliefs, and values (Delpit, 1995; Harris, Thoreson, & Lopez, 2007; Lindsey, Roberts, & Campbelljones, 2005). Despite the pervasive influence of culture, it is not uncommon for the strength-based counseling literature to either treat strength as if it were an acultural concept or consider the topic solely from the perspective of the dominant culture (Leong & Paul, 2003; Ungar, 2005).

The shortsightedness of this approach is evident when one considers that characteristics seen as strengths in one culture may be experienced as deficits in another culture or situation (E. J. Smith, 2006). For instance, main- stream culture may emphasize individualism, materialism, and competition as strengths, yet those in collectivistic cultures may view these “assets” as sources of problems (Harley, 2009; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). One important aspect of culture—race or ethnicity—can illustrate additional reasons for concern.

The vast majority (approximately 87%) of counselors in the United States represent the dominant European American culture (Bemak, 2005).

In addition, graduate counseling preparation programs are regarded as inadequate in their infusion of multicultural competence training in both course content and field experiences (Sue & Sue, 2003). To add to the concern, research findings suggest that European Americans are both less knowledgeable about multicultural issues and less multiculturally aware than persons of color (Yeh & Aurora, 2003).

As counselors work to promote human growth, they must recognize that such development is “inextricably embedded in family, neighbor- hood, school, community, society, and culture and cannot be considered in isolation from these contexts” (Walsh, Galassi, Murphy, & Park-Taylor, 2002, p. 686). With the paucity of literature addressing strengths and optimal functioning in diverse, nondominant cultures (Sue & Constan- tine, 2003), practitioners and researchers need to be careful to avoid the trap of ethnocentric monoculturalism that has thus far influenced our standards and conceptualizations of strengths (Whalen et al., 2004).

Culturally sensitive strength-based counseling can help empower cli- ents from diverse groups to overcome the dominant culture’s negative views of their cultural characteristics and instead to embrace and em- ploy these cultural attributes (Harley, 2009). The purpose of this article is to explore the infusion of cultural competence and advocacy into strength-based practice as a means of enhancing efficacy and ethical practice in counseling.

5 2 Joumal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING • April 2012 • Volume 51



Mulficultural covmseHng competence has been defined as “the extent to which counselors possess appropriate levels of self-awareness, knowledge, and skiUs in working with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds” (Constanfine, Hage, Kindaichi, & Bryant, 2007, p. 24; see also Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992). Each of these three competency domains wiU be briefly addressed.


As Ponterotto, Utsey, and Pedersen (2006) note, “The first step for counselors… is to work through their own ethnocentrism” (p. 151). Couriselors are challenged to know their own cultures, acknowledge their unearned privilege statuses, and examine the biases present in their worldview and in the discourse of their counseling theories. Western counseling theories and approaches such as strength-based coimseüng may prove useful, but coimselors need to recognize that the theories, the coimselors who utilize them, and their clients are always “in culture” (McAuliffe, Grothaus, Pare, & Wininger, 2008).

Through mulficul- tural self-awareness, counselors can discover their own guiding religious and/ or spiritual, ethnic, social class, gender, ability, and sexual orientafion perspec- fives, to name some examples, so that they do not impose them on clients. Such cultural self-awareness can also introduce counselors to the strengths of their own cultures, which can then be a model for their work with clients.

Counselors also need to assess their preferred communicafion styles for the effects they have on clients (T. B. Smith, Richards, Granley, & Obiakor, 2004). For enhancement of counselors’ cultural self awareness, it appears that the most effecfive awareness- buüding acfivifies involve experienüal leaining, including immersion experiences within the community and acfive engagement with culturally diverse people (Endicott, Bock, & Narvaez, 2003; Ponterotto et al., 2006).


Enhancing mulficultural knowledge requires acfive leaming about diverse worldviews (Ponterotto et al., 2006). To educate themselves, in addifion to personal engagement with diverse peoples and communifies, counselors can parficipate in cultural events, read widely, view diverse Internet and media presentafions, and consult with cultural informants, that is, “people who provide insight about an indigenous group . . . usually, cultural informants are bi-cultural, meaning they can maneuver fluently both in mainstream American culture and in their own indigenous culture” (Day-Vines, Patton, & Bay tops, 2003, p. 49). Counselors’ cultural knowledge needs to include an understanding of the strengths that clients derive from their various cultural group memberships, as well as considerafion of the clients’ sociopolifical history and context, including their personal experiences of discrimination

Cultural Competence

Cultural Competence