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Solution-focused practice in contexts of racism & colonialism

The delayed Euro 2020 football tournament is in full swing, and it has attracted lots of media attention as ever, not all of it about directly about football. The attention has been ramped up following England’s defeat of Germany and I will be keenly watching their quarter-final on Saturday. If he is true to his word, Lee Anderson, a member of the UK Parliament (MP), will not be. Here is what he wrote in a Facebook post before the competition started: “For the first time in my life I will not be watching my beloved England team whilst they are supporting a political movement whose core principles aim to undermine our very way of life”.

My reaction is almost the exact opposite. For the first time in my adult football-watching life, I feel able to watch England and want them to win without feeling vaguely guilty about a nationalistic feeling lying behind this desire. Watching these young and talented footballers “take the knee” before each game, in a symbolic gesture towards racial equality and justice, my feeling is more one of solidarity and pride.

Recent exhortations to keep politics out of sport, many of them emanating from little known backbench MPs, are reminiscent of similar calls made during the apartheid era in South Africa. While sporting boycotts gradually proliferated, as people became increasingly aware of the racist nature of that state and that competing in sporting events alongside or in South Africa would be to collude with this racism, there were always dissenting voices, many again from UK’s Parliament. The Prime Minister in this Parliament throughout the Anti-Apartheid Campaign’s 1980s height, Margaret Thatcher, refused to support sanctions against South Africa and declared the African National Congress to be a terrorist organisation.

Sport is not the only activity which some people believe should be kept separate from politics. In fact, I’ve just entered “Keep politics out of…” in an internet search engine, and scrolling down a few pages of search results makes it appear as though most activities might be covered. It is an open question about how solution-focused practice relates to politics, or might do or should do.

It is pretty clear, for example from his article with Gale Miller on SFBT as a rumour (Miller & de Shazer, 1998), that Steve de Shazer’s answer was that there should be clear blue water between them. My position is somewhat different, and some of this I set out in my article Towards a Critical Solution-Focused Practice. First published in the Polish journal, Polski Biuletyn BSFT (Shennan, 2018), I wrote this before the Solution-Focused Collective formed, in 2018, and went on to develop its solution-focused manifesto for social justice (SF Collective, 2019).

The overall aim of the manifesto is to propose that the solution-focused approach - this powerful means of developing change we have available to us - is drawn upon in the pursuit of social change, where such change is most needed, that is, in situations of social injustice. The manifesto includes the beliefs that solution-focused practice should pay attention to “the social, cultural and political contexts of people’s lives”, and that “power analyses and a consciousness of power relations are essential elements of all change work, whether working with individuals or groups, or joining together in collective actions”. It ends with an invitation to fellow solution-focused practitioners to “join us in our collective aims, for… a solution-focused practice that we share in solidarity with our communities and make accessible to those most affected by social injustice.”

One of my communities involves personal and professional networks connecting people in Palestine and the UK. I have been involved in Palestinian solidarity activism for the past 20 years (this had its roots in a talk I attended by Edward Said, the prominent Palestinian American public intellectual and former member of the Palestinian National Council, in October 2000, which was mainly about the Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, though when it came to the Q&A session, all people wanted to ask Said about was the political situation in Palestine, given the recent eruption of the Second Intifada), and I have visited Palestine on a number of occasions for a variety of purposes. These have included providing training in solution-focused practice, while working with BRIEF (Shennan, 2008), and a 2011 visit with fellow members of the British Association of Social Workers that led to the formation of the Palestine-UK Social Work Network.

At one time, I might have had a notion that my solidarity activism and professional contacts, including training, should be kept completely separate, but this is not a view I now hold. It seems unrealistic, for one, and my involvement in the drafting of the manifesto has also clarified my thinking and my intentions and commitments - to “share (solution-focused practice) in solidarity with our communities and make (it) accessible to those most affected by social injustice”.

So when one of my contacts and good friends from Jenin in Palestine (I was a founder member of the Tower Hamlets & Jenin Friendship Association, Tower Hamlets being the borough of London where I live) contacted me late last year to ask if I could help in any way, in providing information, contacts, or new skills, to mental health professionals there, struggling to help people deal with the impact of Covid in the context of the Israeli occupation, I offered to provide some solution-focused training.

A year or two earlier, having discovered that I had provided solution-focused training in Palestine previously, Dr Samar Zebian, a therapist in Beirut, Lebanon, who has trained in solution-focused practice, had contacted me and we discussed the possibility of training together in Palestine. So an opportunity had now presented itself, and it was a tremendous boost when I discovered that Samar was available and keen to join together in developing and delivering this training, which of course would now be taking place online.

Fittingly, the first session of our training, which involved workers from Palestine, Lebanon and the UK, took place on Monday 3rd May, International Workers Day. We had planned a programme of eight weekly sessions, but in the end it was only possible to deliver six of them. The beginning of the training coincided with growing tensions in Palestine, as the Israelis were increasing their activities of ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem, and, towards the end of Ramadan, making violent incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Around the time of our second session, this escalated into the violence that left more than 250 people dead in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel, the vast majority of them Palestinians killed by Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip, many of them children.

While Gaza was under this attack, and Palestinians were being subjected to violence in Israel as well as in Jerusalem and the West Bank (Jenin is in the north of the West Bank), there was no way that our training programme could continue, and our sessions on 17th and 22nd May were cancelled. In the light of this, Samar and I decided to make a statement of solidarity with the Palestinians, and to share this within the solution-focused community. Our hopes and plans to make solution-focused practice accessible to a group of people among those most affected by social injustice had been directly affected by the actions of the Israeli government, and we believe that this is something that should concern us all, both within the solution-focused community and without, just as those footballers are concerned about the impact of racial injustice and inequality, and want to demonstrate this concern to others.

The issues are in fact interlinked, or perhaps we could simply say the same. What the footballers are demonstrating about and for by taking the knee is what Samar and I were demonstrating about and for when we made our statement of solidarity. This year has seen the publication of two reports that show the increasing acceptance and realisation that what the Israelis are doing in respect of the Palestinians constitutes apartheid.

The first of these came from the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, who in This Is Apartheid, describe “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea”, and the second from the Nobel Prize-winning organisation, Human Rights Watch, which is based in New York City. A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution was published on 27 April, and comes to the conclusion that the extent to which the Israeli authorities “have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity… amount(s) to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

Reactions to our statement of solidarity ranged from support to strong opposition, and it also elicited the view that we should not be sharing such a statement in forums set up for the discussion of solution-focused practice. Our view is of course very different to this, as we believe that solution-focused practice should pay attention to the social, cultural and political contexts of people’s lives, and that it is essential that we have a consciousness of the power relations that affect all change work. To pay such attention and to have such a consciousness requires reflection and discussion, and so we need places where this can take place.

For this reason, the Solution-Focused Collective has responded positively to a request from Samar that we discuss these issues at one of our monthly meetings. On Wednesday 14th July, at 17.30 UK time/19.30 Lebanon & Palestine time, Marc Gardiner of the Zebra Collective will be facilitating a discussion, in which Samar will be the lead speaker, under the heading of “Solution-focused practice & practitioners in contexts of racism & colonialism” and all solution-focused practitioners who subscribe to the aims of the Collective’s manifesto are welcome. Further details, including a short biography of Samar, and the Zoom link, are below.


Miller, G. and de Shazer, de S. (1998). Have you heard the latest rumor about . . . ? Solution-focused therapy as a rumor, Family Process, 37, 363-377.

Shennan, G. (2008) Solution-focused practice in Palestine, Solution News, 3,2, 15-17.

Shennan, G. (2018). Towards a critical solution-focused practice, Polski Biuletyn BSFT, 1.

Solution-Focused Collective (2019). The manifesto.

Guy Shennan

1 July 2021

Solution-focused practice & practitioners in contexts of racism & colonialism

A recent statement by solution-focused practitioners in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality led to some difficult discussions within the solution-focused community, as did the expression of views on racism prompted by Black Lives Matter last year. We believe that the issues raised require further inquiry in a space where we listen deeply to one another.

In particular, we want to consider diverse ways that solution-focused practitioners can respond effectively to collective violence or racism; whether standing in solidarity means we are taking sides; and whether there is a place for acknowledging and understanding oppression, colonialism and chronic violence within solution-focused practice.

Is it possible that solution-focused practice and practitioners can be complicit in acts of oppression, and limit freedom of expression of minorities and the marginalised?

Samar Zebian (PhD) is a solution-focused brief therapist and mindful self compassion teacher and researcher, working in Beirut, Lebanon. Samar co-founded Beit Insan which is a centre for supporting inner and outer journeys toward inner peace, love and happiness. Her SF therapeutic work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Palestinian diaspora, along with recent SF training with Guy Shennan for a new counselling and training centre in Jenin, Palestine, has reignited a life-long interest in political oppression and the intersection between the field of psychology, therapy in particular, and political activism.

Meeting ID: 882 7160 6219

Passcode: 240814

Please do join us - our monthly meetings are open to all SF practitioners who share the aims of the Collective’s manifesto.

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