Open Letter to the AATA- BOD

Open Letter to the AATA BOD

November 1, 2017

Dear AATA President Donna Betts, President-Elect Chris Strang, and BOD:

As art therapy practitioners, educators, and students, we write this open letter to voice our opposition to the leadership of the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), whose decision to align with Karen Pence’s art therapy initiative is in direct conflict with AATA’s Ethical Principle 7.0-7.8, Multicultural and Diversity Competence.  Principle 7.4 states:

Art therapists obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability.

The AATA BOD’s decision to support Mrs. Pence’s initiative is an abuse of its power. AATA elected officials have pursued their own self-interest by not taking the necessary steps to survey the AATA’s diverse community before publicly aligning with Mrs. Pence on Oct 18, 2017 at Florida State University. After months of privately working with Mrs. Pence, the AATA BOD informed its members that they were acting within the organization’s mission to “educate the public and other parties interested in art therapy to ensure clear understanding about the scope of practice.” On the basis of what is good for art therapy, the AATA leaders have justified their swift decision by claiming that the field will benefit from the Second Lady’s national and international promotion of art therapy. However, the AATA leaders have neither provided evidence to support this claim, nor examples of how Mrs. Pence’s involvement could either positively or negatively impact the profession in various contexts.

On January 26, 2017, the AATA issued the Art Therapy Today e-newsletter to its members to express enthusiasm for the recent embrace of art therapy by Mrs. Pence. This support for Mrs. Pence was initiated without seeking discussion among the organization’s membership to understand its implications for a diverse group of art therapists and clients. Since January, art therapists have individually and collectively expressed their disagreement through social media, emails and phone calls to the AATA, essays published in the Art Therapy: Journal of The American Art Therapy Association, interviews with the press, and letters. We have been met with silence and dismissal. The AATA BOD and Executive Director have claimed that dissenting art therapists have not sought the proper channels to communicate their disagreement, describing us as non-members, troublemakers, divisive, and unwilling to participate in a conversation. We ask the AATA BOD to explain when and where they have made space for conversation prior to joining with Mrs. Pence. On January 29, 2017, AATA BOD drafted an initial core value statement upon “careful consideration of valuable feedback from the membership related to current events.” The statement began with, “The AATA is entrusted to provide leadership and assistance to engage a growing and diverse membership of professional art therapists…” We note that although e-mail correspondence to AATA members included an apology for “misjudgment” by the BOD and invited input from members, the value statement itself did not identify specific matters that were addressed in the “valuable feedback from membership,” nor did it detail the “current events” that prompted feedback. We object to the way AATA has used its power in representing the organization, and in response to our dissent regarding Karen Pence. 

By establishing a professional relationship with Mrs. Pence, AATA leadership has chosen to align the organization with an Executive Administration that actively sanctions and seeks to further strengthen the oppressive systems of white supremacy, xenophobia, and misogyny. These powerful ideologies have always justified violence in the U.S., a country built on a history of imperialism, colonialism, war, slavery, genocide, sexual torture, segregation, and mass incarceration. We must name and demand accountability from the politicians and government officials who perpetuate the systems of white supremacy, xenophobia, and misogyny that aim to undermine and even eradicate our communities. Our response to Mrs. Pence’s misleading statement that she was not elected and that her role in the White House is a volunteer position, is that her name is listed as a member of “The Administration” on the official Whitehouse.gov website. That she is an unpaid volunteer in the Administration is not a reason to ignore the power of her political position.

We recognize Mrs. Pence’s belief that art therapy can enhance people’s experiences of supportive services in a range of health and mental health institutions. We are committed to the practice of art therapy because we know it has the potential to offer meaningful and transformative experiences of healing and emotional repair in many settings and across a broad spectrum of human experiences. However, the people who choose to participate in art therapy face shrinking access to health care services and public arts programming due to budget cuts, which AATA itself has acknowledged. We cannot allow Mrs. Pence and the AATA BOD to define art therapy as an apolitical initiative focused solely on healing and wellness. Karen Pence is married to Mike Pence, who served as governor of Indiana and is now the Vice President of the U.S. In 2015, Governor Pence signed the “religious freedom act,” that legalized discrimination against the LGBTQ community; he also vetoed the bill to ban discrimination against people based on sexual orientation, thus stripping the protections for LGBTQ people against employment discrimination. Finally, Mrs. Pence has been at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement, most recently supporting the 44th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. on January 27, 2017.

We positively view the “Healing with HeART” initiative as an attempt to value our work as art therapists, but, in the current political climate, we are acutely aware of the fact that the people whom we serve actively resist, navigate, or simply survive the dehumanization of oppressive social and cultural systems that limit access to everyday resources and the right to self-determination. Those who assert an apolitical position of art therapy in relation to Mrs. Pence ignore the ways in which the political and social elite actively harm art therapists as well as those who seek out our services. As therapists of color, as queer, trans, and female therapists, as therapists who are young, disabled, lesbian, gay, bisexual, intersex, and who practice marginalized faith and spiritual traditions, we are equally subject to institutionalized violence against our families and communities. The danger that we face today lies in an ability to disregard experiences of oppression in an effort to satisfy professional interests. It is incorrect to suggest that raising awareness about art therapy will benefit the profession without attention to matters such as healthcare insurance, women’s reproductive health, civil rights for LBGTQ communities, the prison industrial complex, and immigration. AATA’s uncritical celebration of well-meaning people like Karen Pence, who refuse to acknowledge the toxic and traumatic impact of the current political environment and policies, signifies an unwillingness to make the decisions that demonstrate an actual commitment to the organization’s ethical principles that are meant to support art therapy participants.

As critically conscious art therapists, we uphold our ethical commitment to, “understand the nature of social diversity and oppression,” (Principle 7.4) not in order to be in compliance with a formal written code determined by an outside governing body, but rather we uphold this commitment because we are intimate witnesses to and direct targets of violence. We uphold this commitment as a means of solidarity with those we serve and as a personal strategy for survival. We are deeply invested in fighting back against the systems that seek to eradicate us and refuse to support an organization that chooses public promotion and visibility over the cause of justice.

Leah Gipson, LCPC, ATR
Gette Levy, MAATC Graduate Student
Jeannette Perkal, LCPC, ATR
Savneet Talwar, ATR-BC

More information can be found here from the Art Therapy 4 Social Justice group. 

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