The Story of Community Counseling

December 15th, 2021

Over the last year, we have started beta groups for a new model of mutual aid counseling, called Community Counseling that has engaged dozens in weekly small group counseling practice and training. In November, I went to Boston to lead a two-day workshop to start a new Community Counseling beta group with the Ayni institute. We have learned a lot, and are still “frontloading” the program–designing and developing a prototype, and writing a handbook for participants. The following excerpt is from this handbook-in-progress:

The story of Community Counseling begins with a group of community organizers and therapists with deep experience in social movements. Community organizing can take many forms, but in general it refers to the craft of bringing people together to create positive change that protects communities and provides for unmet needs, seeking to end oppression and injustice. Community organizing is a complex craft that teaches people to create new collective structures in the places they live and work. The civil rights movement, the campaign for women’s suffrage, and the struggle for LGBTQ rights are examples of movements in the United States that used community organizing to create lasting changes in society and that have positively impacted the lives of millions.

The core group that came together to found Community Counseling was made up of organizers from diverse social movements. These include the Occupy movement, the student climate movement, the labor movement, and the U.S. immigrant rights movement, among others. Most of us were trained in the best practices of community organizing traditions that have been passed down through decades of struggle. Our collective experience of social movements has been a powerful one: We have created new movements and organizations in which many people have learned to organize, went through transformative campaigns, and together achieved significant victories that advanced positive change in our society.

However, despite these successes, certain problems kept recurring that undermined our efforts, problems we couldn’t find solutions to within existing organizing traditions: Why were so many strong leaders burning out and leaving our communities? Why were so many people suffering from emotional and mental health problems–and feeling that they did not have adequate support in dealing with them? Why was there so much interpersonal conflict that couldn’t be resolved, leading to fractures and lasting damage in our movements?

Facing these problems, we asked: What would be needed to sustain our communities over the long term?

In search of answers to these questions, we began searching outside our organizing traditions, to learn new approaches to fostering personal growth, emotional wellness, and healthy interpersonal relationships. Many in our core group explored psychotherapy, at first as clients, then (in some cases) later training to become therapists ourselves. Many of us connected with spiritual traditions that taught contemplative prayer, meditation, and mindfulness practices. Some participated in recovery fellowships such as 12 Step and Reevaluation Counseling.

From this wide-ranging exploration, some key insights emerged. First, we realized that the recurring problems in our movements represented unmet emotional and relational needs. We recognized that we came to our communities and our collective work carrying unhealed traumas from the past that often impacted our well being in the present, and contributed to conflicts in our relationships. And the work of organizing itself, often stressful, and even traumatizing at times, easily exacerbated these problems.

Secondly, we saw that, despite our positive intentions and sincere efforts to care for ourselves and each other, these unmet needs had overwhelmed our personal and collective resources. And now, although as individuals we were finding valuable support and healing in therapy, and in the spiritual traditions and recovery fellowships we’d been exploring, our movement communities still needed more. Many in our communities faced financial, time, and other barriers to accessing these resources. Moreover, we saw that this approach of going outside our communities to find support as individuals would always be too individualized, too compartmentalized, to fully meet the collective needs of our movements. We saw that what we truly needed was to bring these powerful new tools and perspectives home, to create new forms of mutual support that were integrated into the fabric of our communities, into our relationships, with common language and shared practices readily accessible to all.

A third key insight was that working in this way represented a form of mutual aid, and so we would need to support this work by embracing a culture of mutual aid. There are many ways in which psychotherapy and spiritual traditions within our dominant culture have been commodified. The modern practice of psychotherapy is based on a “medical model” that operates within a market system for healthcare, which is in conflict with a culture of mutual aid. Although there are benefits to this model, we realized that we needed to form a very distinct and different culture to meet the needs of our community. We needed to make sure we were not replicating the cultures of professionalism, market exchange, consumerism, the medical establishment, and other cultures that would undermine the mutual aid approach.

The philosophy of mutual aid has been explored by many intellectual traditions, and has been practiced throughout human history, known by a variety of names. Mutual aid is rooted in the value of meeting needs through the voluntary, loving exchange of equal participants–it is decentralized, non-hierarchical, and non-profit. Reciprocity, gift economy and solidarity economy are other terms commonly used to describe this kind of exchange. 12 Step recovery programs are a prime example of mutual aid, and these programs have served as an essential model for the development of Community Counseling.

Mutual aid is essential to Community Counseling, not only because its values and principles align with our vision, but because mutual aid practices enable this work to scale far beyond any professionalized, market-based approach. Because we live in a society so dominated by the market, Community Counseling might have to embrace some level of monetary exchange and paid staff in order to be sustainable over a long period of time. Overall, however, we need to understand and embody the culture of mutual aid both for the actual effectiveness of the community in providing support and helping people heal, and also to be able to expand exponentially, independent of the market and the state. The culture of mutual aid is resilient in changing circumstances; it can exist even amid the adversity and uncertainty created by pandemics, economic crashes, and natural disasters. In fact, these are all environments in which mutual aid can flourish, and during such moments we often see the emergence of new mutual aid spaces.

Finally, our most exciting discovery was that all of this would be possible. Our explorations of psychotherapy, spiritual traditions, and recovery fellowships revealed a wealth of accessible wisdom and straightforward techniques that can be learned by anyone, and practiced within many different communities, without financial resources or outside experts. And so, with this discovery, our vision expanded. The exceptional accessibility of these tools, coupled with the growth potential of mutual aid, meant that they could be shared widely, benefitting many communities. Thus, they could play an essential, missing role within the wider movement ecology, supporting our collective effort to address the crises of our time.

Guided by this vision, we started Community Counseling as an effort to provide a well-developed process for personal growth and relationship building that systematizes effective therapy and mindfulness practices into a program that can be easily integrated into existing organizations and social movements. Community Counseling is designed for maximum accessibility: Like 12 Step, Community Counseling is a not for profit, mutual aid network, run by volunteers at very low cost. Community Counseling’s philosophy and practices are easy to understand and compatible with diverse cultural traditions.

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