This past weekend we were in Montreal for an Expressive Therapies training. Oddly, it quickly became evident the presentation would largely ignore the experiences of persons of color, First Nations people, and those with disabilities. At about the time Jennie and I were becoming concerned about the direction the training was taking, a woman further back in the audience asked about places of intersection between Narrative ideas and Cognitive Behavioral approaches to the Expressive therapies, and about liberatory practices. Her questions were never really answered, leaving me to wonder whether the approaches might be incomparable.
As we left the conference room for lunch, we connected with the Narrative therapist, who suggested we walk a few blocks to an outstanding Indian restaurant. The ensuing discussion was rich, and the meal delicious. Indeed, we eventually found ourselves considering whether to linger over our conversation rather than returning to the training.
It turned out our companion works with kids who are served by a unique program that integrates animal therapy, farm experiences, the expressive therapies, and Narrative approaches. Many of the children are First Nations, and the Native community is actively engaged in their care. The program is innovative and successful, artful and liberatory.
Inevitable our luncheon conversation turned to the work of Michael White and the role of Indigenous ideas and practices in the formulation of his work. There was a good deal of head scratching regarding recent attempts to erase those Indigenous influences from the history of Narrative practice. After all, Michael was quite open about them. It seemed fitting to be having this conversation in Montreal, home to many Indigenous people.
Walking in Montreal makes explicit the challenges First Nations and Inuit people face from marginalization, violence, poverty and alcoholism. They are often found drinking, or passed out, in parks and on city benches. Indigenous people who are living under the influence of such forces are simultaneously invisible and emblematic; their suffering is routine, everyday, and their failings are generalized to all Native people.
The frustrations confronting people with disabilities are also evident. Most of the Metro stops are inaccessible, and have been the focus of recent protests by disability activists. I was not using my scooter, so I could take the escalators down the first two or three stories into the underground. There, however, I was confronted with a flight of stairs, the Polio survivor’s great nemesis. Had I taken the scooter I would not have been able to access the subway at all. Even the restaurant could have been problematic as a number of booths were functionally inaccessible.
Eventually, now rather tardy, we headed back to the training site. As the afternoon wore on a few people attempted to engage the presenter, a renown practitioner and theorist, in conversations about ethnicity and disability, largely without success. A couple of times the presenter skirted questions by pleading a lack of knowledge. This was particularly upsetting as the expressive therapies are powerful tools for addressing these very issues.
By day’s end we were left with questions of our own: What values do psychotherapeutic theories and practices embrace when they fail to acknowledge or address questions of power, ethnicity, and disability? How are questions of difference erased by disciplines such as Psychology (the presenter was a psychologist) and the expressive therapies, and what is gained by said erasure? What might the presentation say about the beliefs and agendas of the training’s sponsors?
Oddly, this was the second weekend in a row we had left a professional gathering asking similar questions. The previous weekend we had attended an Expressive Therapies conference sponsored by Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, an event that generally seemed to ignore questions of race, power, and disability. We realized later that in our own poster session we inadvertently downplayed our work with disability, genocide, violence against women, and other social issues.
Walking through Montreal after the conference (much as we had in Cambridge) we were struck by the contradictions of the day and the city. On reflection we realized the issues raised or ignored during the training, and the struggles of everyday people on the streets, are not unique to Montreal or Cambridge but are endemic to our culture. Ignoring them will not make them go away, nor will it help us become more competent and compassionate healers.