David Weaver, President of the BACP talks to founder of BME Voices, Helen George about how ‘Black Lives Need to Matter’ in the counselling and psychotherapy profession.
Helen George: As a Black man first and foremost and also as President of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), how has the recent death of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests all over the world, including the UK, impacted on you both personally and professionally?
David Weaver: It’s impacted me personally and professionally, but foremost, personally. When you see George Floyd and his life being drained away, it’s not like watching TV; for me, it’s like it’s happening in the same room. I can’t watch it. It’s had a profound psychological impact on me as a human being and as a Black man to the point that, when I’m driving on the streets of London or anywhere in the UK, I actually notice higher levels of anxiety within me when I see police. That is because, even now, in the aftermath of George Floyd, the stop-and-search rates of Black men have gone up. I mean, you would think that this would have reduced, that there would be a decision, ‘Let’s do this thing differently’. If you look at the statistics, up and down the country, Black men and Black women are still being unfairly and disproportionately stopped and searched and are still being subject to the kind of police restraint that leaves Black people concerned about their safety.
So, on a personal level, it’s impacted me. It’s also impacted me as a member of the Black community. This is all happening at the same time as COVID-19 in regard to the disproportionate impact it is having on our communities, and that’s where it links to the professional part of me. You would hope that, with this level of disproportionality and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, organisations would really be looking at changing the narrative, and not just talking about it, but actually doing stuff that really makes changes.
Despite progress being made in some quarters, l don’t think that organisations, on the whole, have gone far enough. It is an important opportunity now to start doing things differently. I always have to be optimistic and always have to hope. As President of BACP, I think that it leads me to say what I’ve always said – being the Black President, or Black leader of any institution, for me, is symbolic – yes, an important symbolism; but importantly, it’s only as good as what you do in the role. Organisations shouldn’t use that as an excuse to either point to those individual Black people as evidence of what they are doing or to do nothing. There’s an opportunity there and what that says to me is that I have a responsibility to work with others in the profession, Black and white, who are committed to changing things, and I’m committed, over the period that I have left as President, to work to fast forward, accelerate and demonstrate that things can be done and things can change by working with people. You can’t do it on your own, you have to work collaboratively. So, the short answer to the question, after that long answer, is that yes, it has had an impact, it should have an impact, and we should use all use whatever power or influence we have on a personal and a professional front to try to make the kind of changes that are necessary because we have that opportunity now.
Helen George: Lots of organisations have come out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, issuing statements about standing against racism. Where does BACP stand in this and what are they going to do to support their Black members and the Black community?
David Weaver: BACP, like many other organisations, published a statement which expressed its complete solidarity in standing against racism. The organisation has also made clear its commitment to putting in place strategies and initiatives that moves the issues and agenda forward. And critically, there is a commitment to engaging and listening to its Black, Asian and minority ethnic members and wider Black communities. That’s very good and the statement is sound; but I know that people will be looking for meaningful actions that follow these sentiments. We know that we need to look very carefully at our approach going forward and that we cannot simply replicate past ways of doing things. Conversations are already taking place within BACP about firming up a strategy that looks at how it incorporates members into that vision of equality and equity. And I know that the chair, Natalie Bailey and chief executive Hadyn Williams are giving these issues serious and prioritised attention.
Moving forward, it will be important that we talk not only about equality and equity but also about anti-discrimination and anti-racism, because if we are opposed to it, and we’re saying that on the label, that leads to a different type of proactive and pre-emptive action to make a difference in terms of race equality.
I think, as a membership organisation, BACP will have to look at how it works with Black members, specifically. My mailbox and that of the chair, Natalie Bailey, who is a Black woman, have just been full of messages from Black members who are voicing their concerns, their hopes, their aspirations. As I said, the death of George Floyd had an impact on me personally, and it’s having an impact on Black therapists within the membership.
I believe BACP has a duty of care and some of the trauma that our Black members are facing as a result of this will need different types of support. I will be putting in place specific things myself to support the Black community. This needs to happen, and I am pleased that BACP will ensure that race equality is addressed in specific terms when talking about social justice. Because we have to speak about the causes – the reasons why people need therapy in the first place, and mental health issues are often as a result of racism. If we’re not addressing racism and BACP and counsellors are not acting as advocates and doing this within the social justice context, then the same as usual will continue. We’ve got to be addressing this when we’re talking about the needs of Black communities and we’ve got to identify and define those issues around racism that are leading to those people coming into our therapy rooms.
Helen George: So, this leads on to the next question perfectly, is it time for BACP to resurrect the old race equality subcommittee or create a new race and equality expert reference group to help put the mental health needs of Black people on the agenda?
David Weaver: For me, it’s not simply about the structure, it’s about what is done. I wasn’t around when the subcommittee was in place. I think it’s a good idea to have something that deals with the specificity of race. Should it be a race equality sub-committee? I don’t know. But should there be something that deals with equalities in the round and, within that, some specificity around race. These matters are currently being explored within the organisation and I know that there will be publicity around this in due course.
In terms of my own role within this, you reminded me, Helen, that I stated clearly in an edition of Therapy Today that I would be placing ‘race as a centre-piece’ of my role as President. This is absolutely essential – especially given the current and future context. You know better than I do that COVID-19 is hitting clients, it’s hitting our communities and 2-4 years down the line, the trauma that’s going surface will be severe and it’s going to be huge. Unless the counselling profession is geared up to address the mental health needs of Black people, it will be catastrophic. As a profession, we need to give this priority. So yes, we need specificity around how those issues are dealt with, but in terms of the actual structure, that is up for debate.
Helen George: Black people are now demanding Black therapists, to the point of individuals and services creating GoFundMe pages to raise money themselves to fund the therapy sessions. Do you think that the lack of meaningful race, ethnicity and cultural diversity training within the profession has contributed to this demand?
David Weaver: Yes, I think it’s a big part of it. You speak to most people, and even white people, especially now. A lot of white people are doing some soul searching and saying ‘Why am I the way that I am?’ ‘Why is it that now I’m hearing – even more so now – about Black people wanting culturally appropriate interventions or indeed Black therapists?’ and ‘What does that mean about what I have learned?’ It’s terrible, when you think about the needs of Black communities and Black individuals and the training interventions. Black therapists have been saying this for a while and there are many examples of Black trainees trying to bring who they are and what they know into the classroom and are negatively impacted as a result of doing that. There has to be a complete look again at training.
The fact that the profession has been aware of this for many years and has not done anything significantly to address this has contributed to that demand and need for more Black therapists. If you look at the statistics within the profession, it’s dismal and it needs to improve. We need to look at the barriers to entry, such as cost, finance and criteria. When I when I go into Black communities, in the churches where they worship, the estates, the barber shops and hairdressers, there are people there who fit the criteria. They are doing this work already. In fact, we could learn from them and should be bringing them into the profession.
When I started out in social work in the mid 80s, that was the result of a big call from the social work profession for Black social workers. Not because they just wanted Black social workers but because some of the issues, including transracial adoption and fostering and disproportionate numbers of Black children and young people being placed in local authority care. What they realised was that there was a need to have much more anti-racist learning within social work training, so they made a specific call out to get more Black social workers and Black people into the profession by creating subsidies and bursaries.
The counselling profession needs to do the same. That’s how we will bring more Black therapists in and that’s how we will get a transition of knowledge from Black therapists to white therapists, because it should be about choice. Black people shouldn’t always have to have Black therapists. Black people need to have good therapists, but there needs to be a choice. White people in the profession need to be properly educated through their learning to understand what some of those issues might be, and also to understand when it is more appropriate that a Black client might need a Black therapist.
Helen George: Acknowledging that, for certain presenting issues a white therapist or any other of a different ethnicity, may be more experienced and other times, a Black therapist may be more useful.
David Weaver: Yes, that’s right, because if you’re a Black therapist that doesn’t mean that you know everything either. Because you’re a Black therapist, it doesn’t mean on an individual level that you’re going to be more suitable. You still need the knowledge, experience and the skills and ability to do what is required and, in certain circumstances, another therapist who happens to be white might be able to do so. But I think there are some situations where it would be a genuine occupational qualification for the counsellor to be Black and have the knowledge, experience and the skills to be able to relate to this particular Black client or the presenting issue.
Helen George: So, just to go back to training, do you now think that race, ethnicity and diversity need to be made mandatory on all counselling and psychotherapy courses?
David Weaver: Absolutely and this is now urgent. There should be a call now, given what is happening. The danger is that we have this moment and people are soul-searching, rightfully so, but then the moment passes and the ability for these things to be realised diminishes. We all know what we know and we can only do so much soul-searching. I think the principle is that it needs to be mandatory and if there are some challenges in making that happen, let’s work through them. But the principle now needs to be that race, ethnicity and cultural diversity training has to be part of it. It is a mainstream issue that we can no longer see as an add-on. It’s mainstream, it’s integral, it’s embedded within society and future generations need to have an awareness, because race culture and diversity are part and parcel of many of the problems that society is facing.
Helen George: Does that mean that the tide is finally turning for the counselling and psychotherapy profession?
David Weaver: It depends on what we do with it now and it depends on the quality of the leadership. If the leadership carries on doing what they have always done, however best their intentions are, then we’re not going to seize the moment. But I think that there’s big potential, more than ever now, for the tide to turn. You have to admit that, with everything that’s been happening in regard to COVID-19 and the implications of that, the George Floyd murder and the narrative around race and the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of learning is happening and we’re beginning to understand about microaggressions, structural racism and the impact of that psychologically on the day-to-day and minute-by-minute experiences of people in society, including Black professionals. If the counselling and psychotherapy profession seizes the opportunity, it’s going to be good for the whole profession – not just for Black people, but for everyone in the profession. If we can’t do it now, then we might as well give up.
Helen George: One final question, you are coming to the end of your term as BACP President?
David Weaver: Yes, I have just over two years left.
Helen George: What would you want your legacy to be?
David Weaver: I don’t get to choose my replacement. We have an excellent Black chair and it’s important in the next round of Vice-President recruitments that I ensure that we get some representation. It’s for the profession to understand and I’m going to be part of that. I’ll be pushing and pushing and pushing. There are people, Black and white, that I can collaborate with on this pushing to ensure that the right thing is done. We don’t want to be just one Black face here and another one there. It’s got to be about how the profession moves forward, becoming truly anti-racist by breaking down that dissonance between the profession and ordinary people. There is a dissonance between the profession and Black people, and also with ordinary people. But in terms of BACP and my legacy, it’s around being able to engage more collaboratively with Black people, the members out there in society and putting race properly on the agenda and that the organisation does the right thing in making sure that, where it can, it brings Black people into key positions within the organisation and within the profession. That’s what I’ll seek to influence.
My first term was rightly around supporting the organisation to consolidate itself as well as just working with the membership. There’s a lot done that people don’t see and the President’s role is much more of an influencing one. It’s external facing, ensuring that the strategy takes shape in a meaningful way out there, working alongside the vice presidents and others. It’s always a challenge doing that, because BACP is a professional body and it’s about the membership. The point for me is that we’ve also got to be thinking about people who should be members and aren’t. For example, there should be more Black members. To do this, we need to generate a realisation that you can become a counsellor or a psychotherapist if you’re Black, especially when you’re going through school and you’re thinking about your next steps in life. The best-placed people to help do that are going to be some of the Black members who are already practising, so we’ve got to find ways of actually engaging with the profession to do that. For me as a Black President, it’s about working with those excellent staff and members within BACP to highlight the issues that Black communities are facing so that everyone can have access to high quality, relevant and culturally appropriate therapy. We keep saying that counselling changes lives and we now have an opportunity to show clearly that Black Lives do matter and are part of this equation.
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