As I write this blog I am preparing to participate in an art therapist group exhibition on the theme of “Our Art Therapy Identity.” My identity is strongly linked to being part of an immigrant family, which is reflected in the paintings I have chosen to display. In one, a young girl is juxtaposed with a highway sign that has become a symbol for the immigrant community at large: a family running across a highway trying to avoid being hit on their way into the country. That girl is my sister, and her eyes are wide open with early consciousness of our family being portrayed on that highway sign.
The second painting is a still life of cleaning supplies. A few years ago, I volunteered to provide art therapy sessions to a group of immigrant domestic workers in collaboration with the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center and the dA Center for the Arts. This painting was my way of recognizing their dignity and their labor.
As a credentialed art therapist, I continue to work with clients and families whose cultural experiences are similar to my own. Making artwork, including response art, helps me connect with my clients while differentiating and reflecting on my own experiences and cultural identity. My current volunteer work exposes me to a multitude of perspectives on the issue of immigration, which in turn helps define my professional approach.
In my practice, I often turn to our Code of Ethics, Conduct, and Disciplinary Procedures to further define my role and responsibilities. Four of the standards that guide my professional activities are discussed below:
1.1.1 Art therapists shall advance the welfare of all clients, respect the rights of those persons seeking their assistance, and make reasonable efforts to ensure that their services are used appropriately.
As an art therapist working with immigrant clients, it is important to discuss my client’s right to confidentiality in clear terms and initiate discussion of those rights so clients feel safe addressing issues related to immigration. The right to confidentiality includes confidentiality of their citizenship status. It is also necessary to keep up-to-date with laws that pertain to immigrant rights. Those laws vary over time and by state/region, and it is therefore imperative to research current legislation in order to better understand how immigration impacts everyday lives of immigrants. I often reach out to local immigrant rights organizations for timely resources that I can make available to clients to inform them of their legal rights, making sure the material is translated into their native language. As a servicer to professionals I also offer presentations on current legislation and share these resources with them.
1.1.2 Art Therapists will not discriminate against or refuse professional services to individuals or groups based on […] citizenship or immigration status, ability, religion/spirituality, or any other basis.
Discrimination and denial of basic human rights is a reality faced by immigrant communities. My clinical research has focused on gaining a better understanding of discrimination as a mental health issue and a multigenerational mental health issue. It is imperative that art therapists not only cease to perpetuate discriminatory practices, but that we address the negative effects of discrimination on our clients’ well-being and integrity.
1.2.4 Art Therapists shall develop and improve multicultural competence through ongoing education and training. Art therapists shall use practices in accordance with the client’s or group’s […] immigration/citizenship status, ability, religion/spirituality, or any other identity factor.
Art therapy has made advances in providing continuing education on cultural issues. Still, I encourage art therapists to seek educational sources outside of our profession to gain a more comprehensive understanding of issues impacting the immigrant community. I often turn to advocacy organizations, including grassroots movements and activists, as well as artists that touch on socio-cultural issues, and colleagues with their own histories or expertise regarding the immigrant experience.
1.5.6 Art therapists are encouraged, whenever possible, to recognize a responsibility to participate in activities that contribute to a better community and society, including devoting a portion of their professional activity to services for which there is little or no financial return.
As mentioned, volunteer work is a crucial practice for me professionally. This work, in addition to providing a service to those who otherwise may not be able to access it, exemplifies my definition of community and community-based work. It serves to enrich conversations related to cultural issues in the professional and academic arena, can shape new professional approaches and keep us informed.
As our Code of Ethics has recognized, our professional theory and practice cannot be limited to abstract, formulated approaches to be universally applied. Cultural awareness and respect for the rights of community members with whom we are working is fundamental. Workshops and training sessions need to be encouraged, along with actual interaction with the community and community leaders. Such a dual approach serves our profession and is essential for ensuring that our guidelines are implemented in practice.
MFA, ATR-BC, LMFT, Director ATCB