BHT therapists and staff gathered in San Francisco in May to learn from each other about the many kinds of diversity represented by our clients and communities. The objective was to build rapport while developing personal awareness, increasing our understanding of how our differences may influence our relationships, learning how to hold those differences and communicate with curiosity and empathy, and improving our clinical skills in order to support the diverse clients and communities we serve.
BHT founder Manami Yamamoto explained her desire to focus on process rather than results. “We believe that the basic foundation of feeling safe to share our experiences is the most important thing in learning about diversity and cultivating mutual understanding,” she said. “We appreciate small steps,” she added, explaining that it can be stressful for people to talk about their personal experiences of difference, especially in a roomful of people from more privileged backgrounds. Small steps are also helpful for those more privileged listeners. It’s easier to focus on the speakers’ pain and learn from their stories when we are subtly, rather than directly, confronted with our own privilege.
After an introductory talk about diversity competency, therapists and staff members shared their knowledge and experiences of a wide range of specific cultures and identities, including Asian, Latino, African American, and White, as well as LGBTQ, elders, immigrants, and people with disabilities.
Guest speaker George Kitahara Kich, PhD, the Chair of Integrative Counseling Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, gave a fascinating presentation of his research on interracial relationships and the complicated identities of the children of those relationships. More specifically, he discussed the experiences of people of mixed race with Japanese heritage, and the ways that racial and ethnic differences have been valued and devalued throughout history. George continues to share his expertise in helping BHT to develop its diversity program.
BHT board member Theresa Calderon shared her experience working with clients of lower socioeconomic status, specifically immigrants. She highlighted the importance of family, especially in Latino communities, and the necessity of creating authentic connection in order to provide effective mental health support.
The presentations were generally interactive and inclusive. The introductory talk, for example, made use of the “Identity and Diversity Wheel,” by asking us to pair up and discuss how we viewed the relative importance of different parts of our identity — age, gender, national origin, mental/physical ability, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation — highlighting how we each assign different values to these different aspects of ourselves. Therapists John Hanig and Barbara Devaney both employed expressive arts techniques in their talks — John with a poetry exercise, and Barbara with a large pile of art postcards from which we selected images that evoked ideas and experiences of white privilege.
Having attended many diversity trainings as a student and as a therapist, I appreciated BHT’s unique approach. While the goal is always to raise awareness, BHT’s intention is to do so in a less confrontational way, with more focus on process.
Throughout the presentations I felt that we participants were not being talked at, but rather, talked with —modeling the way we aim to communicate with our clients. This may have been the first diversity training I’ve attended in which criticism, defensiveness, and polarized thinking stayed outside the door, while inside the room we maintained a tone of warmth, respect, and empathic connection. This tone helped to create a sense of comfort and safety, which allowed the participants to take those “small steps” toward mutual understanding and personal and professional growth.