The Gestalt Training Institute of Philadelphia (GTIP), unlike many training institutes in the early 1980s, was a learning environment where people who were gay and lesbian were received with openness. Faculty and trainees could be out and feel supported in their sexual orientation because of the accepting atmosphere created by GTIP’s founders — two White cisgender lesbian women, Mary Lou Schack and Joyce Lewis, and two cisgender straight men, David Henrich and Philip Lichtenberg. They came together over shared beliefs in the philosophy and theory of Gestalt Therapy and its strength to help people live more fully and vividly. The four founders report that their primary focus was adhering to the principles of Gestalt Therapy Theory. They did not realize they were beginning an experiment that would last for decades.
Despite our radical beginnings regarding how inclusive GTIP was for people who identified as gay and lesbian, like many training institutes of the times, we were not inclusive around many other identities, including race. Race and equality were approached conceptually, like most White organizations who saw themselves as open and non-racist. Looking back at our history, and knowing we were located in a suburb of an urban environment with a large Black community, we have had to examine the ways in which racism and anti-Blackness were embedded within the relational interactions at GTIP.
Although the founders were interested in learning and teaching about relationships that were non-authoritarian — relationships that promoted equality, particularly between therapist and client — discussions of difference based on social location and power were not a part of their collective awareness. Philip Lichtenberg was especially interested in oppression and how Gestalt Therapy Theory could play a vital role in understanding and changing difficult patterns. In 1990, he wrote Undoing the Clinch of Oppression, and in 1997 wrote Encountering Bigotry with Dorothy Gibbons and Janneke van Beusekom, two GTIP trainees. Philip’s work brought international recognition to GTIP. By today’s understanding, neither social location nor race were emphasized as an important part of any clinical relationship. Although these books continue to be part of our curriculum, we now recognize their limitations.
Even though GTIP had a Black trainee in the first graduating class of the three-year training program that began in 1984, we did not prioritize finding a way to include her in our community until over three decades later when we invited her to be a volunteer supervisor. Over that 30 year period, we estimate that we have graduated less than ten Black trainees. However, not understanding that Whiteness was hindering our decision-making process, we did not see the need to keep track of the social identities of our trainees, so we do not have an exact number of how many BIPOC trainees we have graduated over the past 36 years.
In 2009, we developed our first Board of Directors (BOD). At that time, there was only one Black BOD member, who was active for less than one year. In 2012, we brought on a multiracial Black graduate as a volunteer supervisor, who later became the first Black adjunct faculty and full faculty member by 2016. In 2016, we had brought on our first Black Latinx BOD member, who became our first Black Latinx BOD Chair in 2018, and that same year, we brought on another Black BOD member. Unfortunately, by early 2020, both members had left.
In the wake of several racial ruptures, in 2020 GTIP hired its only Black faculty member as its first Black Executive Director, and brought on one Latinx BOD member and one Black BOD member, both cisgender and gay. We are continuing to seek out more racial diversity among our BOD and as we have more racially diverse trainees graduate, we hope to bring on more supervisors and faculty who identify as BIPOC. To make this a reality, in 2019, as a way of making reparations for the ways in which we have upheld anti-Blackness and in recognition of the extra level of emotional labor that BIPOC trainees may do at GTIP, we began inviting three trainees of the African Diaspora per cohort to attend the three-year training program tuition-free.
For the past few years, GTIP has continued to challenge itself to create inclusive spaces for all gender identities. We have had to examine our shortcomings and prioritize our learning around the experiences and needs of transgender and gender nonconforming trainees. We have at times hurt our gender nonbinary trainees in our lack of awareness of gender expansiveness and have yet to graduate any transgender or gender non-conforming trainees. In 2021, we expect to graduate our first gender nonbinary trainee. As we reckon with this awareness, it is our intention to increase our representation across the gender spectrum among our trainees, supervisors, faculty and BOD members.
Possessing the awareness that GTIP is in the very early stages of a 7-10 year process, we want to be intentional and careful about fully attending to the multitude of identities that make up all of our social locations. The journey has been complex and painful. In our efforts to increase diversity we moved too quickly and did not act in mindful and inclusive ways. In spite of our intentions, our actions impacted people in hurtful and damaging ways. Although we have worked hard to repair some of the racialized hurt we have caused our BIPOC community members, there is still work to be done to become the inclusive and equitable institute we strive to be. Recognizing that we could not accomplish this within existing structures, GTIP developed a Change Team in 2020. With their guidance, we are acknowledging our past transgressions and doing the growthful work of holding ourselves accountable. We remain committed to decentering Whiteness. We know that the work we do within our institute will foster healing in our personal and professional relationships as well.