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Banner year for Janet Helms

By J.M. Berger

“We sort of talk about diversity in this society, but we never actually talk about race or culture,” says Janet E. Helms, the Augustus Long Professor in the Lynch School’s counseling, developmental, and educational psychology department. Race, culture, and violence are on the agenda October 19–20 at the 12th annual Diversity Challenge, an event Helms established when she came to Boston College in 2000 to direct the Lynch School’s Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture.

“I’ve always been interested in what you might call the social justice aspect of psychology,” says Helms, who is the author of A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life, Using Race and Culture in Counseling and Psychotherapy: Theory and Process, and dozens of scholarly articles. She is known for her racial identity theory, which argues that people identify themselves and others according to their race, and interact with one another based on the relative power they think each race holds in society.  

Helms has also enjoyed a reputation as a standout student mentor since at least 1991, when Teachers College, Columbia University, named her the inaugural recipient of the Janet E. Helms Award for mentoring and scholarship in professional psychology.  In January, she was one of 15 professors to receive the 2011 Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award, a $25,000 cash award for faculty who inspire their students to create community-enhancing organizations. In March, the journal Counseling Psychologist published “Phenomenal Woman: The Legacy of Janet E. Helms and Racial Identify Theory,” by Maryam M. Jernigan, Ph.D. ’09, now a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University School of Medicine. Jernigan’s piece touted Helms’s influence “in the field of counseling psychology and beyond,” noting in particular her “exceptional mentoring to the next generation of counseling psychologists.”

In interviews, Helms’s former students and protégés lauded her leadership and pointed to her generosity in including them in opportunities for research or publication that she could easily have kept for herself. “She’s really good at challenging our thought processes … challenging us to understand our own biases and experiences and how they inform the work that we’re doing, whether that’s clinical or research or otherwise,” says Jernigan.  

Carlton Green, Ph.D. ’12, says Helms encouraged him and other students to find their own professional interests, while preparing them to navigate the sometimes challenging waters of research on race and culture. “[She taught] me to create an argument that would be publishable but still says what needs to be said,” Green observes. “Sometimes people don’t want to read those things, or get offended, or they hold them to a higher standard. So whether people see it as offensive or not, they can’t argue with how solid your argument is.”

“I think mentoring has a lot to do with who chooses you,” Helms says. “And students usually choose me because they want to make a difference.”

This year’s Diversity Challenge will focus on the topic “What to Do About Race and Culture and Violence.” More than 80 presenters will offer opinions and perspectives on such subjects as violence against women and minorities, the impact of ethnic and political wars, and racial disparities in criminal justice systems. Some will address sensitive topics like sexual violence in the Arab-American community, bullying of ethnically diverse children, and psychological interventions with teenage gang members and their families.

“What I wanted to do with Diversity Challenge was to have people explicitly talking about issues of race and culture as they intersected with other societal forces,” says Helms.  “We want to know in what ways does violence show up” in psychology research and practice, Helms says, “and the ways people have found to intervene in racial and cultural violence that will make a positive difference.”