At the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year, doctoral students attended an open discussion meeting with Dean Barber in which students could ask questions about any aspect of the doctoral program. The meeting quickly shifted to concerns that students had about life at Derner.
At the beginning of the 2017-2018 academic year, doctoral students attended an open discussion meeting with Dean Barber in which students could ask questions about any aspect of the doctoral program. The meeting quickly shifted to concerns that students had about life at Derner. Some students were upset by the departure of a respected faculty member and wanted to know if there were plans to hire more faculty of color. Other students spoke of desiring more resources in the face of financial challenges. Others wanted more open discussions about race and privilege in the classroom and described experiences of feeling shut down by professors and other students.
“I left kind of dissatisfied by the conversation,” Essosinam Ward, a current second year said. “There was tension and even some arguments that had happened.” Several other students interviewed for this article felt similarly.
For members of the 2022 cohort (the now second-year cohort), who had, at that point, only been at Derner for two weeks, the meeting revealed how social and cultural turmoil in our broader culture was playing out at the school. In a cohort process group, students expressed their concerns about inclusivity at Derner as well as their desire to learn how to address race, socioeconomic, and cultural differences in clinical work. The class decided that participating in a racial equity training program in which students could learn more about how to approach these issues might be a good place to start.
A group of students including Ward, Sophie Cassell, and Marina Weiss set to work drafting a proposal for the training and Weiss interviewed potential trainers. Ward said that the group was initially anxious about how the administration would respond: “Are they going to be supportive of us doing this? Is there money to do this?” she recalled the group thinking. “One of the main things was clinical training: how could we get training that was going to be clinically useful in working with people of color and working in diverse communities? There was a sense of ‘we have some of that’ in terms of the curriculum but there was a sense that something deeper was needed, and more.”
When Dean Muran saw the proposal, he said that he and Dean Barber were impressed; and he remembered thinking, “This is timely.” Muran acknowledged that the school had been struggling with how to address race and privilege on campus and how to make the curriculum more inclusive. “We’ve been agonizing over this, really,” Muran said. According to Muran, the training fit into a broader, ongoing initiative at the school which has involved hiring faculty from diverse backgrounds and incorporating topics of diversity and individual differences into each course. “I saw [the racial equity training] as something that would really help the whole community.”
The program occurred over two consecutive Thursdays last spring, with nearly all of the 2022 cohort attending. It was co-led by Rachael Ibrahim, MSW, a racial equity facilitator and grassroots organizer and Mayowa Obasaju Alero, Ph.D., a clinical and community psychologist who has been leading anti-oppression workshops for ten years. A core team of students including Ward, Cassell, Weiss, Firouz Ardalan, and Naa-Adjeley Ama Kuma helped to prepare for and facilitate the training.
The program was unique in that the primary mode of training was through storytelling. In order to facilitate that, Ibrahim and Obasaju Alero worked to create an interactive, nonhierarchical space so the voices of those who are often excluded are given more space. A classroom at the Varick Street campus was transformed with music and posters that framed the stories of people of color and named and described policies and laws in the U.S. that perpetuated oppression. A table of stress-relieving toys, Play-Doh, and art supplies were offered to help create an environment of catharsis and curiosity.
“We [were] able to share our stories authentically with each other,” Ward said. “It’s actually through our experiences and our stories that we learn. It’s not something that’s outside of us, but something that we are experiencing, whether we have a privileged racial identity or if we are a person of color. We have experiences that we can learn from.”
After developing a shared language on how to talk about race, students got down to the important work of learning about the historical roots of oppression in our broader society as well as in the field of psychology. Students shared stories of recognizing oppression in the institutions and organizations they are a part of, including Derner. They shared stories of how they’ve recognized implicit biases in their own work and stories of how they’ve avoided speaking about race or cultural differ-ences with patients. Together, students were able to sit with the deep discomfort, pain, and trauma that structuralized oppression and racial inequity has caused in their lives and in their work.
“I didn’t expect it to have such an impact on me because I can talk about my experiences in a sort of detached way,” said Naa-Adjeley Ama Kuma. “But there was something about being in that space, and I think it had a lot to do with what we learned—the history, and more focus on context, and thinking about unconscious processes.”
“I think it was also important knowing that people sitting around me were listening,” Kuma continued. “They weren’t judging. There was no interruption or trying to explain why I’m feeling this way.”
In a post-training survey designed by Marina Weiss and other members of the core team, which was presented at APA’s Division 39 conference this spring, the majority of students who participated found the training to be impactful in raising awareness about personal identity and that it helped increase their awareness of the identities and experiences of others. Students also answered open-ended questions about their experiences in the training. In general, students reported that the experiential, self-reflective approach of this training helped them feel that they could engage with the realities of racial dynamics at a deeper level which would serve them well in their clinical training.
“It’s allowed me to go into the therapy room with a broader perspective and to take more time to consider someone’s daily lived experiences,” Killian Folse said. “We tend to learn about people by lumping them into groups instead of just listening to the person and what’s affecting them on an individual level.”
“I think that we’re able to talk more frankly about issues of racism,” Ward said. “Now that we can talk about it more, we can potentially do more together too.”
The training had an impact on the administration as well. The current first-year cohort recently attended a diversity workshop, led by Perry Greene, Ph.D., vice president of diversity and inclusion at Adelphi. And, going forward, all first-year cohorts will attend a workshop as part of matriculation week.
Faculty members are also being encouraged to explore and contend with issues of race, gender, and culture through a separate continuing education program. Muran said that the impetus for this initiative stemmed from complaints from students that were voiced both privately and at town hall events in recent years. The program includes structured discussions with Craig Polite, Ph.D., a senior consulting psychoanalyst, in which faculty members share their own experiences of identity and difference both in their personal lives and in their teaching. Muran says these discussions will continue regularly in future years to keep the conversation going.
“We recognize that we need to take this seriously if we want this place to be an institution that truly promotes diversity, something that has been so important to the Derner legacy,” Muran said.
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