The Department of Art Education acknowledges the importance of allowing space for alumna to connect with current students. Brittney Washington, a former graduate student of the Art Therapy Masters program, recognizes this need after meeting several students during the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) Conference this past July in Baltimore, MD.
Brittney Washington graduated from Florida State University (FSU) in 2012 with a Master’s in Art Therapy. Since graduating, Brittney has continued to advocate for art therapy within the community and has followed her passion and interest in homelessness and youth development through working at Miriam’s Kitchen and teaching for Project Create, both in Washington, DC. She has remained committed to the needs of the community as she most recently ended her term as Multicultural Chair for the American Art Therapy Association.
Although Ms. Washington has a incredibly busy schedule, we were delighted when she agreed to participate in an email interview, which highlights her career journey since graduating from FSU as well as new paths for the future! We have included the interview questions and Brittney’s responses below.
What position do you hold currently?
I currently hold a couple different part-time positions in lieu of one full-time job, which I think is important to mention because many of the art and expressive arts therapists I know have more than one job. My primary position is that of the Senior Art Therapist at Miriam’s Kitchen in Washington, DC. We are a non-profit that serves individuals experiencing homelessness in the District. We provide meals, case management, a therapeutic arts studio, advocacy, housing, and outreach, all with the mission of ending chronic homelessness in the city. As the Senior Art Therapist, I supervise our staff art therapist, art therapy interns from George Washington University, design our programming, curate exhibitions, the works. I do whatever is needed to make sure the studio space continues to function as a safer space that elevates guests’ voices, prioritizes mental and emotional wellness, supports creative (and socially productive) expression, and helps guests feel a sense of belonging in our space and in the larger community. I also work as a teaching artist for Project Create, a DC-based non-profit that offers arts education to kids experiencing poverty and homelessness. I teach Media Exploration to elementary and middle-schoolers, which is fun. Another important aspect of my professional life is racial equity work. I am currently working to develop a racial equity consulting collective with some brilliant peers in the city. Good, good stuff.
What opportunities did you pursue that led to your current occupation?
In Career Counseling, we learned about the importance of being open to the opportunities that present themselves to you…for instance, saying yes to a training, or a networking opportunity even if it’s not normally your style. I’d say, being open in general has led me to this exact spot in my life right now. Applying for positions, even when they didn’t explicitly have “art therapist” in the job title (I started at Miriam’s as a Senior Case Manager), saying “yes” to conversations with new people (an unexpected conversation with a co-worker helped me orient my thoughts committing to racial equity work, and another conversation with a peer I didn’t know very well helped spark my drive toward consulting), saying “yes” to training workshops that weren’t directly related to the clinical application to art therapy but that tugged at other interests I had, inviting intriguing strangers to tea, asking for mentors, presenting at conferences despite stage fright, asking for time off to travel, all those things worked together to get me here. But let’s be real: I’ve been blessed and enjoy privileges that some others don’t. That has certainly played a role in my success thus far, and I want to be sure to underscore that…privilege plays a role in the opportunities that have come and those that I’ve been able to pursue.
Did you ever imagine obtaining the position that you have today?
Absolutely. Working at Miriam’s Kitchen (MK) was my dream job when I was in school. I learned about their program when I visited DC some years ago, and fantasized about having a position with MK since then. I think one of the best defenses against grad school fatigue and senioritis, and the multiple afflictions that can manifest as a graduate student, is imagining the position you want, being real clear about what you’d like to happen, and allowing the universe and forces conspire on your behalf. One of my favorite mantras comes from India Arie’s “Strength, Courage, and Wisdom.” She sings, “I know that anything I want can be, so let it be.” Certainly, things are not as simple as asking and receiving for many, many of us, but I like that little nugget as a way to help ground and motivate me.
Did any particular experience in the FSU art therapy program provide you with the tools needed to lead you to this career path/future career options?
The whole program. In retrospect, each internship (and supervisors, hey Sheila! Hey Ms. Vicki! Hey Ms. Joni!) that I had (at Florida State Hospital, Sisters in Sobriety, and then FSU Fine Arts Museum) all prepared me for community work with populations that live with various experiences with trauma, mental health issues, poverty, etc. The internships, class work, opportunities to do community service, all helped me develop relevant, competent clinical skills that are particularly relevant to the adults and kids I work with now. My thesis was another thing—never in my life have I had to do so much thinking and synthesizing and creating on my own, and I left that experience feeling, first, real smart, and second, real capable of doing the things I decided to do (and had support through, support is important). What’s perhaps unexpected is that the negative space also helped give me tools and insight to do the work I’m moving toward now. When I say negative space, I mean the absence of things that were important for me, and the silence that filled those voids. For example, the absence of art therapists of color and their perspectives from curriculum and literature was isolating. That isolation can be a bit devastating for students of color in mostly white cohorts in mostly white institutions. I can’t speak for all students of color when I say that, certainly, but there are so many articles about the implications of the monocultural curriculum of art therapy programs and therapists of color that echo the sentiment anecdotally that I feel okay not citing that assertion. Having experienced that as a student has motivated me to advocate for mentorship for students and professionals, to help art therapy programs figure out how to become more inclusive of multicultural curriculum/issues, and has propelled my racial equity work on a macro level, too.
What was the most important/influential thing that you learned while in school?
I think a very necessary lesson I learned is that important relationships can survive conflict with the necessary work.
I know that you are currently preparing to switch gears by focusing on racial equity. Could you speak more about this new career path?
Sure thing. I’m currently working with a group of consultants, we are organizing a collective of folks interested in working on behalf of racial equity. As racial equity consultants, we are invested in helping organizations examine the ways in which racism may be affecting their stakeholders and the ways in which they function, and helping them strategize for racial equity organizational healing. We are also interested in providing the larger community with tools to identify, confront, and dismantle racism. I’ll be sure to send you all more details when we’re up and running.
In pursuit of your new position, were there any major setbacks that you had to overcome?
One of the biggest challenges for me is figuring out how to navigate this essential work of dismantling racism with massive amounts of emotional intelligence and kindness, balanced with appropriate amounts of moxy and mental/emotional toughness to keep pushing and encourage others to do the same.
What unique abilities/traits do you possess that gives you an advantage when pursuing racial equity consultation?
Being trained as a therapist is an advantage for sure. I feel equipped to help people work through difficult emotions, I feel skilled at creating a holding space for people to feel safer as they move through a process. I think that will be an essential part of this work, as I imagine much of it will mirror the [therapeutic] group process. I’m really interested in applying my clinical skills in a more expansive way for our consulting.
With a degree in Art Therapy, how do you envision art therapy as a tool to navigate/aid in the work?
First and foremost, what CAN’T art do? I have been fantasizing about using art as a means to create a vision of an equitable future, encouraging people to process their experiences via art, using art throughout the work. I feel called to zoom out, and use my training in a more expansive way. What could art therapy applied on a more macro level, as an option in an well-stocked toolkit to confront racism and other oppressive systems look like? That’s what I’m working through. So, I guess the answer to your question is, I have some ideas about how art will aid in this process, but we’re still thinking through it.
I know you just recently ended your tenure as the Multicultural Chair for AATA. Did that experience shape your interest in racial equity consultation?
Oh yes, everything you touch, everything you experience shapes you. As MC Chair, I was privileged to be in the company of so many great people doing great work who encourage, inspire, and support me. I’ve been fortunate to meet elders like Charlotte Boston, Cheryl Doby-Copeland, Gwendolyn Short, Stella Stepney and contemporaries like Jordan Potash, Maricel Ocasio, Lindsey Vance, Martina Martin, Veronica Bohanon, and others who are doing amazing work and using alternative traditions in art therapy, demonstrating that art therapy can be used in vast capacities to suit the needs of the populations and communities. I feel empowered to explore how art therapy can be applied related to racial equity by those before and around me who are courageous in their application. I’m learning that community is vital for our personal and societal growth (sorry, Dave) and development. Being a member and chair of that committee was life changing. It was hard work, but I left with mentors and experiences (such as public speaking) that’ll continue to inform my work forever, I’m certain.
What is your vision with racial equity consultation and what do you hope to achieve?
I think the goal of work related to racial equity is that we will: 1. Be able to make a living doing this vital work, and 2. That there will come a day when we will no longer be able to make a living do this work because it’s no longer needed. We’ll achieve racial equity, we’ll live it.
Do you have any advice for students or professionals who might desire to follow in your footsteps?
GET. A. MENTOR. Reach out to folks. Figure out how to attend conferences (although it’s expensive, and we need to work on that) because you’ll never find a larger concentration of therapists and resources in one venue. Find your community, find the people that help you be well and help you do good, love those people and nurture those relationships. Don’t expect that you’ll learn everything you need to in class, do some reading, do some traveling. Come talk to me, I’m happy to be a resource and a friend. Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge your professors have, don’t be afraid to ask questions, even the hard ones. Also, do some real investigation into cultural awareness. Read people like Audre Lorde, Ta’nehsi Coates, just to name a few and be grounded in the fact that you can do this difficult work. Finally, be intentional and adamant about self-care.
The department would like to thank Brittney for such an insightful interview and looks forward to hearing more from her and other alumni in the future.