The theme of social justice was present in the IAEVG conference in Gothenburg, Sweden in many ways. To me, seeing guidance and counselling from the perspective of social justice is how the profession should always be seen, so I was happy to notice it was also a cross-cutting theme at the conference.
Social justice is certainly something many guidance counsellors find important and interesting. To give two examples from the conference, the keynote session opening the event was dedicated to the theme of immigrants and their integration to the society, and the session with the term “social justice” in the title, where professors Tristam Hooley, Ronald Sultana, and Rie Thomsen talked about their new book Career Guidance for Social Justice – Contesting Neoliberalism was booked-up (I was devastated not to fit in!).
Having immigrants in the spotlight at the opening session was clearly a statement from the organisers, Swedish Association of Guidance Counsellors. Immigration is in the focus of Swedish politics right now, the far-right forces gaining more and more influence in the society. Of course, this is not the case only in Sweden, but in many other countries, too. In Sweden, however, they had parliamentary elections just recently, where the said topic seemed to get the majority of attention, so the opening session of the conference was clearly a comment on that. And the message was, that immigrants have the right to have a voice and get support. They have a right to become part of the society and live their lives free of racism and discrimination.
The message was supported by both research and individual experience from Sweden. Guidance counsellor and comedian Zinat Pirzadeh, who is Iranian-born but has lived in Sweden for a long time, talked about her own experiences living between different cultures and having to face racism in her everyday life in Sweden. Professor Andreas Fejes from Linköping University presented his research on migration, learning, and social inclusion, and professor Mats Trondman from Linnaeus University told about counselling immigrant youth.
The stories of Pirzadeh and the ones Fejes shared of the participants of his study, young adult migrants participating Swedish courses, were good examples of how we, as guidance counsellors, cannot separate individuals from the culture(s) and society. The heroes of those stories were motivated and determined, but the uncertainty and struggles caused by the outside world made their situations very complicated. It is surprising how much we talk about meeting the individual and different aspects of it, when our work is actually about issues between the individual and society, never just the individual.
Even when we do talk about society, to me it seems rare that guidance counsellors take part of the debates about policies and tendencies in the society on a larger level. For example, I was surprised how little we talked about the political aspects of guidance and counselling during my studies, and I haven’t really seen a lot of that kind of discussion ever since. That is why it felt refreshing to see how the organisers of the conference took a stand to defend the rights of immigrants. Also refreshing was the session by Hooley, Sultana and Thomsen, and the obvious popularity of it at the conference.
Hooley talked about the matter also at his last session on Thursday, with the title “Using career guidance to address the ‘changing world of work’ and technological panic”. He wanted to appease the ongoing panic caused by the technological development and made a point we all should reflect on: what is our position as guidance counsellors in all of this? Are we supporting the system that favors certain privileged groups by helping people to follow the rules made by those few winners, or are we empowering people to be active and make a difference to their own and other people’s advantage? Hooley claimed, that the society going certain direction without people being able to do anything about it is a myth, which is quite useful for some. We need to be aware of who those “some” are, who are winning and who are losing in this game, and actually do something about it.
The conference actually offered one tool to figure out what the position of the counsellee might be in the society: I am referring to the session about capability approach. It is a concept introduced by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, and at the conference it was viewed from several perspectives by a group of professionals from different countries. The symposium was led by Dr Peter Robertson from Edinburgh Napier University. The capability approach is about supporting people in what they have a reason to value. The goal is that everyone can live a life they find meaningful. To achieve that, it is essential to evaluate the capability to find one’s path and the resources there are to strive towards it.
I find the capability approach very useful, but at the same time there are some things I don’t either agree on or simply understand. It seems to me, that the approach separates the individual from the society and culture. The ideal is, that the barriers are removed and the individual can achieve the life she wanted. But, can we really separate barriers from our surroundings, culture, social structures etc.? I don’t believe so. What we want is greatly influenced by what is expected of us and what is valued around us. We don’t have some kind of a true wish in our soul that we can unfold. How we see ourselves and our hopes comes from the society.
Having said that, the capability approach can also work well, and research has shown that, too. Even when not being entirely convinced, one can get inspiration from it to work for social justice.
In conclusion on social justice and guidance, I am convinced that we should focus more on the cultural level and society in counselling. I also believe, us guidance/career counsellors have a political role which we should be better aware of. This is something that already happens, for sure, but it must become even more visible part of the practice and profession.
I hope to get back to the topic soon again, once I have read the new book by Hooley, Sultana, and Thomsen. In the meantime, I would love to hear what you think about social justice and guidance!