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The Radical Therapist Network in conversation with Race & Health by Jumanah


Jumanah: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you came to set up the Radical Therapist Network (RTN)?


Sage: I personally identify as a trans non-binary person. I'm queer, working class and disabled. I have mixed heritage and I’m racialised as White.


I set up RTN by accident, to be really honest. I never anticipated that it would grow to be what it is. It unfolded in response to the mishandling of the pandemic and government neglect, essentially. I felt a really deep despair, hurt and anger in response to the government but also what they encouraged in terms of an individualised, capitalist mentality. For me, it really highlighted the practice of eugenics and neglect on a systematic level.

At the time, I was working as a lecturer, and also working in community with other therapists, and watching the disparity in responses. I couldn’t unsee how therapists with substantial privilege were not acknowledging the weight of injustice on specific marginalised groups, or using their assets to create change. I would say that most training institutions are white, middle class institutions, so that's definitely reflected in the demographic of qualified therapists out there. I felt really heartbroken by watching the lack of care from therapists who worked with marginalised clients, whilst also sharing community with other marginalised people and watching the harm unfold.


I just really felt impacted by systematic injustice and an imbalance of power that was actively oppressing Black people, people of colour, immigrants, working class people, trans people, sex workers, the GRT [Gypsy, Roma. Traveller] community, elders and disabled people. I was feeling a real sense of hopelessness. I think that drove me to pull people in, so I put out a call on social media. It was essentially a call to action to therapists to use their power to make systemic change in response to the pandemic, but also more widely in response to injustice within the UK and globally. I think twenty or thirty people met together, and we just kept meeting. RTN kind of grew from that place.


Jumanah: It was almost a strategy for resistance, it sounds like?


Sage: I would say, yeah.


Jumanah: It's really inspiring for me to hear that because I shared a lot of that sense of powerlessness in the face of the pandemic. I was wondering how it is for you, being somebody who has an understanding of intersectionality, training in spaces that are often reproducing oppressive dynamics?


Sage: What I'm learning to understand is that the system will do everything in its power to disempower us, but it's people that make systems. That's always been something that has instilled hope in me as a practice: that individuals together are a community, and that we have just as much power together as any system does. That's something that I always try to hold in mind when I'm working.


When I was training [as a therapist] it felt very different, I didn't have the privilege of being exposed to people who looked like me or shared my lived experience. The teaching was apolitical, which often left me feeling like something about me is wrong, ‘I don't belong here’. I didn't know that that's what I was feeling in my body. I think I still feel in my body the shame in relation to the trauma of surviving inequality and the physiological impacts it had, and it has disabled me, quite literally.


I pushed through my training to survive it. As a working-class person, I was surrounded by lots of people who were economically privileged, and could train and not have to work at the same time, and weren't experiencing the same level of stress and anxiety that I was feeling, but I blamed myself for that. I think at one point I had three jobs and I was at uni full-time. I was trying to support my family in London at the same time, not just financially but also emotionally and practically.


Jumanah: It sounds like a huge responsibility.


Sage: Yeah, I don't think I had realised that until after I'd qualified. That was when I was introduced to concepts like intersectionality and intersectional feminism, which gave me a framework to understand what was happening. Now I would say that I'm really starting to feel the oppression of being a student again. I'm currently training to become a clinical supervisor, and all of the training staff are White and cis. The staff and my peers are lovely, however, I'm the only out queer person, trans person and disabled student. There is only myself and one other person who aren't White or White British, and I really noticed that I just don't feel safe in those spaces. I know that I also hold an incredible amount of privilege in relation to my proximity to whiteness.

I think the violence of training, of being trained, is that of the privileging of White comfort. I'm experiencing quite a lot of ableism in my training at the moment because it's expected that it will be face to face. I asked the trainers if they would consider, in light of the spike in Covid-19 cases and deaths, whether they would go back to being online to make it accessible for everyone, including me as a disabled person. The collective response from the group was that they would prefer to meet face to face. I was really struck by, and really felt it in my body, the violence of White comfort over the safety of the group, and the safety of the marginalised people within the group. I think that speaks so much to what we're seeing at the moment within universities and within training.


Jumanah: It's really interesting to hear you say that returning to being a student has re-exposed you to some of these negotiations around power and privilege. Since I started my training, I have been quite taken aback by how the training space within psychotherapy doesn't seem to reflect a lot of the values that the theories we are studying seem to uphold or promote. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about some of the links between the practice of therapy and dynamics of structural power, and we could go on, perhaps, to how we work with anti-oppressive practices.


Sage: Absolutely. While I was lecturing, I was in this really strange place of experiencing violence [perpetrated] by people around me in terms of the university, whilst also witnessing students and trainees experiencing similar violence in slightly different ways. Eventually that led me to completely burning out and needing to leave. I think there's also something about who's not in the room and why, and who can't get into the room in the first place. At what point does the harm of training to be a therapist become detrimental to your own health and actually not worth continuing?


There's also a really interesting process for therapists in particular about this binary idea of being ‘good’, [the idea that] I'm training to be a therapist because I am a ‘good person’, and if I am being told that I am racist, homophobic, transphobic or ableist, [that] would mean that I'm a ‘bad person’, and I'm not a bad person therefore you're wrong, and I'm going to enact White fragility as a practice of dominance to supress you. [It comes back to] European colonialism and race in the Enlightenment period. White Europeans being ‘good’, I think, is definitely a key thread in therapy training and practice, and I do think it's a feature in the oppression of marginalised clients and therapists, in particular the practice of cultural Whiteness that prioritises individualism and White comfort.


Jumanah: I was actually reading this book The Dynamics of Power in Counselling and Psychotherapy (2002) this morning, it's really helping to clarify things for me. She's talking about ways of understanding power as a thing that exists in all kinds of relationships and that can be not just a negative, domination kind of power but also a power-with, which links to this feminist idea of power in the collective and an intra-psychic power. One of the most common responses I get from people when I say that I'm training to become a therapist is, ‘Doesn't therapy individualise people's problems? Is it basically propping up neoliberalism?’ It's such an interesting response because often they're activists who have practices like no self-care, no boundaries with their work and activism.


This book in particular has helped me to kind of unpick some of the ways in which, yes, certainly the training courses and the structure within which therapy is operating can be oppressive, and that there are ways in which we can, as individuals and as members of society with particular structural positions, have power over people, but there are also so many ways in which we can use power as a kind of force for bringing people together and creating a space for resistance.


Sage: One of the key things about therapy is relationships, forging and building trust and safety within relationships. Whether that's between two individuals or a group is down to the preference of the people that we're working with. There is something, I don't know if I can capture it in words, incredibly beautiful about working in community and centring a collective approach. I think there is something really capitalist and individualistic – I think it's almost a form of White saviourism – [about saying] ‘I'm going to be the person that fixes the problems’. We have so many skills between us, and we have so much to offer in our lived experience that can be shared. That healing happens in relationship with one another, not by ourselves, and I think that is one of the beauties of therapy, in whichever way is helpful to frame it for an individual.


Psychoanalytic, psychodynamic psychotherapy does have really racist roots, and I do think it is really important that students understand that history first and the development of therapy outside of a European context. There's something about, how is therapy used to go back to ways of knowing and being in community that [can] promote healing and togetherness? It's through togetherness that we can fight oppression and heal.

Jumanah: Can you tell me about the work that RTN is doing?


Sage: We offer a number of support spaces; we have a BIPOC support group, [a] trans support group, and we're also setting up a student support group, as well as learning spaces. We have a peer supervision group that centres anti-oppressive practices. As part of that space, there’s a culture and literature group. We also hold semi-regular events that are publicly accessible for other therapists outside of the network. It's about holding two things together: how can we heal at the same time as fighting injustice, and how can we do that in ourselves and invite it in our clients?


Last year, in response to the murder of George Floyd, me and my colleague Kim Loliya held two spaces, one group for BIPOC and one group for White people. The BIPOC space, which was led by Kim, was very much about having space to grieve, away from White people. More recently, we're starting to develop more embodied and experiential learning spaces. I'm co facilitating with my colleague, Lucia Sarmiento, a group for White ethnic minority people, so that we are able to process our own intergenerational trauma in relation to having been colonised whilst also making sense and processing that so that we can be more active in [addressing] our own complicity in upholding white supremacist culture and practice, and really just being with nuance around that. We've also got a somatic abolitionist group for BIPOC and white folk. The BIPOC space is led by my colleague Anthea Benjamin.


All of our work is very much centred around: let's unlearn together, let's learn together, and let's then put that into practice. And I think that's really why ‘praxis’ is a key term for me because it's not just about consuming information [that] lives in our heads, it's about how we embody that and then take it out into the world in our everyday lives, and in the room with our clients.


Jumanah: Would you like to see this kind of work incorporated into [therapy] training programmes?


Sage: I noticed that I have different responses to that question. There is one radical response I'm having that says that we need to dismantle the very systems that oppress us, and transform them into something new for ourselves that centres those who are most oppressed by those systems. On the other hand, I think that that takes time, and there is something anti-capitalist about taking our time and working sustainably to build those spaces for each other, and for ourselves.


So in some ways, yes, I do think that we can incorporate anti-oppressive practice into the work that we do. But it's not something supplementary that can be added onto a curriculum that is already oppressive; it has to be something that's unpacked from the very beginning, and alongside people who have that lived experience and expertise. If a programme has predominantly White and cis staff, then they're never going to be able to decolonise the curriculum. I think saying that is a form of violence within itself. But I do think that there is potential for liberation if it's led by Black people and people of colour, by trans people, by queer people, by the working class and poor.


Jumanah: I think one of the things that might be interesting for our readers who are not necessarily therapists but are working on other areas of public health might be to think about how psychotherapy could look within a broader anti-oppressive movement, thinking about, for example, the work that Race & Health does on highlighting the impact of discrimination based on ethnicity on healthcare outcomes. Is there anything you wanted to add about the potential for psychotherapy to contribute to a programme of radical change?

Sage: How do we, firstly, remove this idea that psychotherapy is that thing that you do over there and community is situated over here? How do we build in a way that psychotherapists aren't separate from community? There is something about this power dynamic of ‘I am the therapist, I hold the knowledge. I'm going to charge you money, and I'm going to impart that knowledge and healing on you’.


RTN already maybe offers a sense of a way forward, which is to make therapy accessible financially. Those of us who are marginalised and impacted by injustice are less likely to have assets and funds to then be able to pay to heal from those things that have harmed us. Part of what RTN does is create a ticketing and membership system that takes the money from the most privileged in RTN – namely White, middle class, cis people – to make it more accessible for those who wouldn't otherwise be able to access it. All of our ticketing systems are on a tiered basis. So how do we make it accessible in terms of finances, but also how do we make it accessible in terms of disability and the bodies we're sharing space with, and how can we then apply that to our practice outside of that space.


Jumanah: What you were saying about how we can bring psychotherapy back into the community is something that I'm really interested in. It seems to me that there is a lot of potential within humanistic traditions to move beyond the idea of the therapist as somebody who has a position of authority towards seeing it as somebody in the community who has the set of skills to co-create a healing space with somebody. That's different to a set of skills someone else might have.


For me, I’m dreaming of a big social centre where there is like a nail salon, a hairdressers and barbers, a therapy room, a massage centre, you know? Just different kinds of services, and where we can exchange skills.

Sage: Beautiful. There is something about how we reframe what healing spaces look like, and everything you've described there is about offering care. So how do we dismantle that hierarchy around what therapy is, and what care and healing looks like, because women, especially Black women and women of colour and disabled people, offer care constantly in their everyday lives. How do we learn from those cultural practices of care work that are often, in society, deemed to be unskilled labour, which is the absolute opposite of what it is. It's highly skilled work to take care of another person in their body. That is forged on trust and intimacy, and that is beautiful work. As therapists, we are doing that work in a different way.


How do we legitimise or make sense of how we care for one another in a community context? That might be just sharing space with another body that mirrors your own, and knowing that your body can feel settled for an hour before going back out into the world. There is something so powerful about not having to explain or justify your pain to someone who doesn't understand it, and just share space. And I think part of that is also about sharing joyful spaces. There is something really joyful about taking care of ourselves, and allowing another person to do that with us. So yeah, going to the barbers, going to places of worship that we might feel connected to, going to community events, sharing our grief together, celebrating together, to me that is all therapy, it's just not defined in that way.


Jumanah: Finally, do you have any recommendations for useful resources for radical trainee therapists?

Sage: Yeah, there's so much good, free, accessible content out there. I think, in the first instance, definitely find your community. If you identify in that way, I would definitely become a member of BAATN (Black and Asian Therapy Network); Pink Therapy, the Brown Therapist Network. I would definitely recommend joining the Radical Therapist Network. Find community and find ways of settling your body alongside other people who have that experience.


I would also say that if, for example, you do join RTN, we have a really extensive resource list where we've collated videos from the trainings that we've offered, we've got numerous videos, books, journal articles. I know BAATN has something similar, I think they offer free access through their website. I would really push people to get their local libraries to order stuff in, and encourage university students to invite their libraries and colleges to order in the work so they don't have to pay for it. I also want to big up the Free Black University, who have collated radical texts which are free to access. I think they're starting points, maybe.


Jumanah: Thank you so much. Is there anything else that you wanted to add?


Sage: I like the idea of dreaming into liberation. I think you sharing what you're dreaming into feels really lovely.

We've also set up the QTBIPOC therapy fund, so I just want to plug that very briefly. For me, because [it’s] very much like the seed of what we want to grow into, which is for therapy to be freely accessible to QTIBIPOC and anyone who needs it, essentially, but also to create training that is free and accessible to QTBIPOC. One day, my dream would be to build our own school where training is accessible for everyone, and yet centres those who are marginalised by systemic violence and injustice. That would be my way of starting to dismantle and rebuild therapy trainings.


Jumanah: I can't wait for that to be available! Thank you.


Sage M Stephanou (they/them) is an Art Therapist, Educator and Community Organiser. You can support their work at https://www.patreon.com/SageMStephanou. They are the founder & director of the Radical Therapist Network, www.radicaltherapistnetwork.com.

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