Program to focus on social justice, human rights

By Catherine Robertson Souter
November 1st, 2017

After spending nearly a decade fighting for a change in how psychologists work with the Department of Defense around torture techniques, Stephen Soldz, Ph.D., a professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis (BGSP), decided to put everything he learned to use in teaching others how to work for social justice.

Between 2006 and 2015, Soldz, also a 2016-17 fellow-in-residence at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, led a successful campaign to uncover how psychologists were involved in DoD human rights abuses and to change American Psychological Association policy around the ethics of using psychological techniques in advising on the practice of torture.

The work was eye-opening in many ways and led Soldz to develop a new two-year Social Justice and Human Rights master’s degree program at BGSP.

The school plans to begin coursework in January … provided they can find enough students ready to enroll in a brand new, somewhat unique degree program. Soldz spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about his new endeavor and what sets it apart.

Q:  To start off, tell us why this program and why now?  

A:  The idea for the program started before the November election, but the timing was fortuitous in that sense. In the psychoanalytic world, at conferences and such, ideas around social justice have been what has excited people. That’s what a lot of panels are on and what people are talking about.

Personally, I am a clinical psychologist and a psychoanalyst. I am kind of rare in psychoanalyst world since I am a researcher in addition to having a small practice.

Then came the involvement in the torture issue and a decade of activism around that. In my work with social justice and human rights groups, it often felt there was neglect in the personal factor. The human rights people did amazing legal work. They were great at filing lawsuits and doing investigative work but at the same time, we had been losing the battle for public attitudes.

Since Obama was first elected, there has been a linear increase for support of torture. This has been shown in a number of polls. It is a complex phenomenon and it is disturbing and I felt that human rights groups were not dealing with it well enough.

I have also done years of program evaluation with non-profit organizations and I have seen how individual and group dynamics can hinder making progress on issues or it can help.

So, we got interested in combining these (things). I think of it sometimes as community psychoanalysis, somewhat akin to community psychology.

Q:  Who is the program for?

 A:  The program is for people who are interested in careers in the non-profit sector or in governmental policy or in social justice aspects of corporations. We have a rigorous curriculum on social analysis and on an appropriate range of research methods and on social change strategies for non-profits and for grass roots organizations.

What is unique about it is the psychoanalytic aspect of the program which is trying to deal with the personal, group and organizational psychodynamics and how they play into all of this.

While students won’t become clinicians, they will get an understanding of how group and organizational dynamics work or how splitting works, how projection can work and what you might do about it in an organization where you are trying to get something done. And, rather than just getting mad, to realize that this is not an uncommon organizational phenomena and look at how to deal with this and not let it get in the way of the work we are doing.

We think that is a unique niche that no one else is really dealing with.

Q:  Are you modeling this after a similar program or building from scratch?

A:  There are other social justice programs out there, some in schools of divinity, for instance, but not a huge number.

The psychodynamic focus is unique. There is also a year-long research sequence which will cover a range of research skills from more traditional methods that might be taught in psychology to things like document research and how to read and make sense of official government documents. (They are not transparent. I remember when Wikileaks started getting leaked documents and they were frustrated that people were not using them but it is hard. If you try to interpret them on your own you get nonsense).

Q:  From where do the faculty come?

A:  We have very interdisciplinary faculty and a lot of support from a lot of people from the broader psychoanalytic community and people involved in various types of social justice. In fact, I kind of had to fight people off. People were like, why didn’t you invite me to be on the faculty? It’s really exciting.

Most are both scholars and also have very practical experience. I was really looking for a mixture. We have people from public health, from law, from sociology, from psychology and psychoanalysis of course, and a large advisory board that we also can draw upon.

Now, we need students. We have a large contribution from the Meyer Foundation for up to 50 percent of tuition for students in the first year of the program. We have had other financial contributions which really speaks to the interest the program has generated.

Q:  Now that you are ready to go, how does one find students?

A:  We are reaching out to faculty and social science-related areas. We would like a mixture of people coming out of college and people working in non-profit agencies who want to get further education. We just sent out a letter to 3,000 program directors at universities and also to directors of non-profit organizations, housing advocacies, labor unions, religious organizations. We are putting ads online in various places. We are making it up as we go along.

Q:  Any prerequisites?

A: That will be flexible at this point. We are looking for people who are both smart and dedicated to doing something in social change, people with leadership capacity.

The program is designed to be practical. There is a rigorous theoretical part but it is designed to help people be employable too. As one who has been around social justice and non-profit worlds for a long time, I thought about what would make me interested in hiring someone.

There is a year-long internship and there will be a master’s project rather than a thesis; something practical, designing a program, video, Web site; something they can show to potential employers.

We don’t want to make them psychoanalytic scholars. We want them to have a more practical understanding of when things are going wrong at your agency, what might you pay attention to.

Q:  And if you don’t get enough of a commitment?
A: If not in January, we will start in the fall. People who have started programs in other universities say we are pretty optimistic.

Q:  What is the biggest hurdle in getting the word out?

A:  I think that the biggest concern is about jobs. Is this practical? That is why I want to make it clear that when we designed it that was very much in mind. I don’t think we want to have a master’s program; that is a luxury. The world is tough these days and people want to know there is employment after. It is designed with that in mind. These graduates will make unique contributions in a number of ways to agencies and organizations. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *