Counselling for Social Change: Transforming through Activism

Vikki Reynolds, Ph.D., RCC (Photo: Trevor Jensen)

Vikki Reynolds, Ph.D., RCC (Photo: Trevor Jensen)

Vikki Reynolds, M.A. ’99, Ph.D., RCC, is a graduate of Adler University’s Counselling Psychology program in Vancouver. She is a social justice activist and a clinical supervisor, consultant, and instructor specializing in team development, resisting burnout, and helping organizations enact their ethics for social justice. At Adler, she has taught coursework on the sociocultural structures and structural violence and oppression that contribute to mental unwellness. Her published work addresses trauma, resistance, substance misuse, justice-doing, homelessness, ethics, and supervision, and is available at

I have been heavily involved in activist communities for more than 30 years. This life of activism has educated me about my locations of privilege, and informed my work to transform society in socially just ways. We are out to change the world—as activists, communities, and therapists.

I work as a clinical supervisor for teams working with people on the margins of society: people who are suffering, homeless, struggling with substance misuse, transgender, gender-variant and queer, victims of sexual violence and torture, and Indigenous survivors of residential schools and colonialism. I have supervised addictions and mental health therapists, rape crisis workers, trauma therapists working with survivors of torture, and housing workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which is the poorest-off reserve part of Canada.

In my supervision work, I’m always asking myself these reflexive questions: How can we be of use and fully alive? How can we sustain ourselves collectively and resist burnout across time? How can we enact commitments to social interest and social justice in work alongside people struggling in a context of injustice: colonization, genocide, poverty, racism, homelessness, trans and queer phobia, a rape culture?

For me, the response has been staying fully alive in our ethics. If we work in ways that transgress our ethics and our commitments to social interest, we will burn out. But if we can enact our collective ethics, sustainability—and our own transformation—becomes possible.

Vicarious trauma is based on the medical model and the idea that our clients’ pain hurts us. I don’t think this is fair or accurate. My clients don’t hurt me. They inspire, question, critique, inform, and transform me. Oppression and structures of inequity that make it hard to serve people and meet their needs are the things that burn me out. I am “other” than I was for having done this work, for having engaged in relationships and walked alongside people whose experiences are so vastly beyond my own. This has been a gift in my life. It has not burned me out. It has changed me, awakened me to spirituality in a way. It’s made the world richer, harder, and larger for me.

My partner and I met while volunteering in Africa in the 1980s. I had earned a university degree, which was a struggle financially, and I experienced myself as a working class woman who had suffered from men’s violence. But being in Botswana was an education for me.

It made me aware of my locations of privilege, not disadvantage. I’m a white settler Canadian, we had heterosexual privilege—which helped us immigrate—a Western passport, and white-skinned privilege. And despite struggling with money in Canada, we had money privilege in Botswana. Awakening to these multiple domains of privilege was humbling and hard, but totally worth it. It was required for me to be an ally and address my privilege accountably. The journey has helped me better respond and support the people I work alongside.

As an activist-informed therapist, I have found more and more affinities with Alfred Adler’s teachings and life work across time. Alfred Adler was a radical, meaning he took issues on at their roots. His thinking, theorizing, and practice shook the foundations of what was passing for “best practice” in his time.

His idea that problems are interpersonal and not intrapsychic is truly revolutionary. Problems do not happen to people in their brains, but in the real world, where power is wielded and abused. While Freud talked of “penis envy” as an intra-psychic problem of all women—basically constructing women as mentally ill—Alfred had other ideas.

Alfred saw that young girls did not necessarily want a penis. What they wanted was access to the power their brothers had access to: getting an education, having a voice. He wrote about “masculine protest,” which made way more sense to me as a woman. I didn’t want to have a body like my brother’s. I wanted to get my hands on the wheel. So I see some threads between Alfred’s iconoclastic work and the culture of accountable men that feed my hope today in my work against rape culture.

A few years ago, in the Downtown Eastside, I came across Adler University students doing social justice practicums. I was impressed. In my work addressing homelessness, I became involved in co-writing an article with another Adler practicum student. Where I supervise at Peak House, a live-in program for youth of all genders struggling with substance misuse and exploitation, our therapy team is composed of Adler graduates. The school has taken the position that to be a competent practitioner, you have to have this kind of experience as a student. That is walking the talk. An academic institution that’s willing to transform education—that’s pretty Adlerian.

Alfred Adler talks about domains of life: your life tasks, your sites of belonging—meaning “who are your people?” Adlerian training means we see the bigger structures. We move from private pain to public issue, as we have an ethical obligation to work to transform the social contexts that cause and promote suffering. We are not neutral or objective about sexualized violence, child abuse, or torture. We’re against it. An Adlerian orientation to our work resources us to be agents of social change. As an activist-informed therapist, I believe a socially just world is a mentally well world.

This post was originally published in the summer 2015 issue of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, the annual magazine for alumni and friends of Adler University