In The Classroom

Incorporating Spirituality When Creating Culturally Considerate Programs

Sara Sherman is a Psy.D. student currently completing her final year through Adler University’s Chicago campus. She was one of three winners of the 2016-2017 Student Affairs Essay Contest, which centered on spirituality and social justice. Sherman is also a doctoral clinical psychology resident in Advocate Health Care’s Childhood Trauma Treatment Program.

Social justice was incorporated into all of my classes during my four years at Adler University. However, it is a topic that is hard to understand based on classroom discussion.

It takes real-life experiences advocating for disenfranchised groups to truly comprehend injustice and genuinely experience the fight for equity.

During my first year as an Adler student, I began working as a research assistant for the Institute on Social Exclusion (ISE), which led to many hands-on experiences advocating for social justice.

The most meaningful of my ISE experiences took place last spring in Oregon. An Oregon county’s Native tribe and public health department hired the institute to develop a simulation for their community. Both Native and non-Native leaders wanted to increase inclusion of Native people and non-Native empathy for tribal people.

I had previously worked with tribal individuals in Central America, so I was very excited about the opportunity to be involved in this ISE project. I was fortunate to be invited to spend a week in Oregon to explore this community and interview its Native and non-Native stakeholders. This was one of the most emotionally challenging work weeks I have had in my life.

There were few stakeholders we met who held a neutral stance on the community’s issues. Conversations with Native people were highly emotional and revealed generations worth of trauma history. Discussions with non-Native people were uncomfortable and sometimes angering, due to extreme guardedness or blatant racism. There is an endless number of ways in which the majority culture of our society and its policies directly impede Native peoples’ rights to their spiritual practices. These extend far beyond the scope of this blog post.

However, what I learned during this project was that it is impossible to discuss Native culture without discussing Native spirituality. The most challenging part of the Oregon project was the parallel process that played out between the Native people and non-Native people within both the community and our own working group.

Initially, the Native and non-Native leaders were able to collaborate. Together, they formed the idea for this project and agreed to hire the ISE to produce it. However, a dynamic that was sometimes conflictual, sometimes passive aggressive, quickly began to unfold. Of all the stakeholders we met during the week in Oregon, I initially had the most negative reaction to a particular government official who was the most overtly racist person I have spoken to in my life.

However, when processing my experience afterwards, I started to feel more anger towards the passive-aggressive non-Native people who hid their prejudice behind politically correct language. I thought to myself, at least the blantaly racist people were real. This same anger arose within the working group as non-Native members began to make passive-aggressive attempts to manage aspects of the simulation related to the Native spiritual experience.

These included requesting omission of shocking stories of discrimination and violence under the guise of concerns regarding confidentiality. The development of an “evidence-based” simulation was made a priority, which seemed to be an effort to exclude Native spiritual practices and approaches. Once again, I thought to myself, it would be less frustrating if these non-Native individuals openly expressed feeling uncomfortable portraying the grave injustices that occur in this community. However, it is impossible to address social injustice without facing it.

As the neutral third party, the ISE was responsible for managing the uncomfortable dynamic that unfolded in the working group. This became increasingly challenging as more unfair actions were taken by non-Native group members. The ISE and I had to advocate for social justice while maintaining a neutral stance. This was a meaningful learning experience. I had to learn how to advocate strategically and manage my own emotional reactions in order to preserve the ultimate goal – the simulation, an advocacy tool for the tribe.

It was so important to advocate for the incorporation of spirituality into the tribal simulation because research has shown that use of traditional spiritual practices in treatment of Native people with mental health and substance abuse issues (which the majority of Native people have) is most effective (Friesen et al., 2015). Examples of these spiritual practices include sweat lodges, pow wows, and advisement from elders (National Education Association, 2011). These are some examples of research-based strategies for Native programming. However, they did not satisfy the non-Native members in the working group who continued to push for “evidence.” This lack of acceptance is symbolic of the Native experience.

Native spirituality is technically, the original culture of our land. Yet, it is the culture that is most forgotten in our society. Recurrent genocide, discrimination, and disregard have resulted in Native people not only being excluded from society but moreover, their excluding themselves. Compiled exclusion has resulted in even the most socially just individuals in our society knowing little to nothing about Native culture, let alone spirituality.

I can only recall one occasion during my Adler University education that Native people were referred to as an ethnic group whose culture should be considered, alongside African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. This is why I thought it was important for my essay to reflect on this Oregon project. The topic of social justice and spirituality seemed the perfect opportunity to shed light on a forgotten group who requires so much more advocacy than they currently receive.

My hope is that this reflection will inspire other socially just individuals in the Adler University community to work alongside Native people in sustaining and perhaps, one day, rebuilding, their spiritual culture.