Letter to the AATA Board of Directors from an AATA Featured Member March 13, 2018

Dear Christianne Strang, President, Margaret Carlock Russo, President-Elect, and the AATA Board of Directors:

Since the executive decision on behalf of the American Art Therapy Association by the Board of Directors to embrace the Second Lady Karen Pence’s “Healing with the HeART Initiative,” hundreds of members of the AATA have expressed deep concern and called for restorative action to address the harms that this decision has caused within the art therapy professional community. I write this letter as one of the co-sponsors of the resolution that was accepted for consideration by the BOD at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Membership and as one of the 742 people who signed An Open Letter to the AATA BOD, which the BOD recognized in its Letter to the AATA Conference Attendees from the AATA Board of Directors. In November 2017, former President Donna Betts, then President-Elect Christianne Strang, and the BOD openly acknowledged “the concerns addressed in Gipson et al.’s (2017) Open Letter,” and stated that they wished “to engage with the authors and the AATA membership to guide us in our ongoing work in support of AATA’s mission. I also write as an AATA February 2018 Featured Member with the expectation that the organization would demonstrate an action-oriented commitment to social justice by taking an anti-racist, anti-capitalist position on political issues that have already been raised in Open Letter. It has been five months since the above mentioned documents were widely circulated and discussed at length at the AATA Conference on November 8-12, 2017, in Albuquerque, NM. The BOD has had ample time to consider the resolutions from the AATA Annual Meeting and to determine a set of actions that reflect the ethical principles (7.0 – 7.7). The BOD has refused to respond and address the impact of its decision to embrace “The Healing with the HeART initiative.” In fact, the AATA has maintained its position that this initiative will support the advancement of the profession. There has been little attempt from the BOD to deliver on its “wish to engage with the authors [of Open Letter] and the AATA membership.”  Therefore, I now submit a prioritized list of demands to the BOD:

Because the BOD does not agree to denounce its public endorsement of Mrs. Pence’s “HeArt” Initiative, and the BOD has already acknowledged that critical decisions were made on behalf of the organization without consulting the membership, AATA members are entitled to a detailed report of the following information by April 13, 2018:

  1. A clear and descriptive account of all communication that has occurred between the Second Lady and her team and the AATA;
  2. A full account of the number of letters and correspondence submitted to the AATA that were against or questioning the organization’s public affiliation with Karen Pence;
  3. A detailed comparison of the membership numbers and budget prior to AATA’s embrace of Karen Pence’s initiative from January 2017 with that of current information as of March 2018;
  4. A general account of any impact of the BOD’s decision to support Karen Pence’s initiative on national and chapter operations;
  5. Public recognition in the Art Therapy Today of the members who declined awards at the AATA 2017 Conference in protest of the BOD’s decision to support Karen Pence’s initiative

Because the BOD has failed to communicate with members any specific plans to address the harms that have been caused to the art therapy professional community in a timely manner, AATA members are entitled to a plan of action by April 13, 2018. This plan should detail when and how the BOD will address the following questions:

  1. What specific changes will be made as a result of the BOD’s acknowledgement of the problems that members have repeatedly raised regarding the Healing with the HeART Initiative?
  2. How will the BOD notify the members of any future communication between the Second Lady and her team and the AATA? What time frame from the date of communications can members expect this notification?
  3. How will the AATA BOD introduce democratic processes into the AATA’s engagement with the Second Lady? How will members be included in determining AATA’s public representation of this relationship?
  4. How will the AATA document and provide membership updates about the ongoing impact of the BOD’s decision to embrace Karen Pence and her art therapy initiative?
  5. How will the BOD’s new Diversity and Inclusion Initiative function to address structural issues of power within the organization and in the broader profession, including historical issues related to art therapy education, research and scholarship which have evidently made art therapy attractive to an Administration that has outwardly expressed bias against people on the basis of “race, ethnicity, national origin, color, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability” (Principle 7.4)?


Leah Gipson, LCPC, ATR-BC



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.



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