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.
By establishing a professional relationship with Karen Pence, AATA leadership is complicit in reinforcing structural discrimination. 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 many months of privately working with Mrs. Pence, AATA BOD informed its members that they were acting within the organization’s mission to be “responsible for educating the public and safeguarding the profession against inaccurate information on art therapy.” On the basis of what is good for art therapy, 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.
Mrs. Pence has stated that she does not have political views and merely hopes to raise awareness about art therapy. Without specifying her plans for advocacy in the wider art therapy community, Mrs. Pence has used the assistance of the AATA leadership to depoliticize art therapy. Based on Mrs. Pence’s stated agenda, art therapists cannot reasonably assume that her advocacy will create jobs or improve access to art therapy education and services since each of these tasks requires changing policies, laws and institutions. We challenge the AATA BOD who believe that Mrs. Pence’s initiative will benefit the profession of art therapy. Mrs. Pence cannot advocate for jobs for art therapists or the growth of art therapy education without mobilizing changes in policies such as access to healthcare.
The AATA BOD’s decision to support Mrs. Pence’s initiative is an abuse of its power. 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 member input, 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 institutionalize the oppressive systems of white supremacy, xenophobia, and misogyny. These powerful ideologies have always justified violence in the U.S., a country built on an atrocious historical legacy 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 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. We would further argue that the fact that she is an unpaid volunteer in the Administration is a classic example of sexism as it relates to women’s labor, and not a reason to ignore the power of her political ideas in this position. Mrs. Pence’s three-pronged agenda—1. raise awareness about the art therapy profession; 2. grow art therapy’s education programs; and 3. increase clientele for therapy services—needs critical reflection, given her capacity as a member of the U.S. Executive Administration.
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. Karen Pence’s tacit agreement with the policies of the Trump-Pence Administration must be challenged. We cannot allow Mrs. Pence and the AATA BOD to define art therapy as an apolitical initiative focused on healing and wellness, without a commitment to social change. Our criticisms of Mrs. Pence’s initiative should not be reduced to a misguided attempt at targeting a well-meaning white woman. 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.
The wars on drugs and crime are just two examples of how previous administrations have enlisted the help of First Ladies in their volunteer capacities in the Whitehouse. As we support the gains of former First and Second Ladies who have influenced important public policies, we also remember the racist and classist consequences of policies allied with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and Hillary Clinton’s push for the 1994 crime bill. In citing these examples, it is not our intention to disparage either political figure, but rather to point out that women in the Whitehouse have in fact joined neoliberal forces by situating economic and social problems as the responsibility of individuals. Under the guise of freedom and equality, these ideas have served the economic interests of politicians and corporations, and still, continue to increase the gap between the ultra-wealthy and the poor across the globe. Furthermore, we should be skeptical of Mrs. Pence’s and AATA’s effort to link her art therapy initiative with the treatment of military families, given the current administration’s steps toward privatizing the VA system and away from gun-control legislation, despite the high rate of suicide among US veterans.
We positively view the “Healing with HeART” initiative as an attempt to value our work as art therapists, but we must reject the simplistic notion that therapy can be considered to be a “tool” or “modality” for treating the people we serve. 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. Since the tragedy of 9/11, art therapy has increasingly gained popular recognition and has been linked to the treatment of trauma. While art therapists have readily embraced the science and study of trauma in concert with these and other mass instances of violence, AATA has neglected to critique the post 9/11 foreign and domestic policies that have perpetuated an American culture of fear and trauma as the impact of state violence – increased militarization and public surveillance; global health and economic disparities; inadequate gun legislation; pervasive sexual and domestic violence; and widespread discrimination against racial, religious, sexual, gender and disabled minorities. 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, 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.
AATA BOD’s decision to “enthusiastically” ally with Mrs. Pence falsely represents art therapy as a neutral, apolitical choice thus ignoring the basic tenets of ethical practice and the core values of social justice they supposedly espouse. In doing so, the AATA BOD turns away from all of us—art therapists and those we serve—whose identities, beliefs, lives, and communities are targeted by this administration. The Trump-Pence administration directly works to promote violence and discrimination against those members of our society who are marginalized 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). Karen Pence and her administration work to institutionalize policies that protect and value the lives of white, wealthy, Christian, heterosexual, cis-gender men. Meanwhile, if we hold marginalized and multiple identities as people of color, Muslims, women, immigrants, queer people, and other markers of difference, we are even more vulnerable to the longstanding forces of oppression that have always targeted us. Part of this increased vulnerability comes from knowing that we could be murdered by police, deported, sexually assaulted, beaten, or killed in our places of worship, and that in the wake of our victimization, our perpetrators would receive impunity from and be celebrated by this Administration. It comes from knowing that evidence of and detailed stories about these injustices could be clearly demonstrated, widely publicized, and publicly protested, and still, our names would quickly move lower and lower down on the list of atrocities as state-sanctioned perpetrators continue to impact our communities.
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.