Meeting Rachel Mickenberg and Social Therapy

by Christine LaCerva, DirectorSocial Therapy Group

Hello everyone,

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hosting a celebratory community event at the Social Therapy Group to introduce Rachel Mickenberg, a talented social therapist who is joining our staff. As a way of continuing to build community with all of you, I’d like to share with you the talk I gave that evening.

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As we begin our celebration tonight I want to tell you a bit about where you are. This is the Social Therapy Group, a community therapy center with offices here in Manhattan and in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. We also have centers in Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta and San Francisco, and colleagues and practitioners who have been influenced by our approach in Uganda, Mexico, Norway, Denmark, South Africa, Argentina, India, and Brazil, to name a few.

But what is social therapy?

Social therapy is, first and foremost, a group therapy. Its methodology — what we call the practice of method — stands in sharp contrast to traditional approaches based in natural science and focused on the individual. In social therapy, we focus on development, and on the collective creativity of human beings. We understand human life to be primarily social, cultural, and relational.

Social therapy is a “performative psychology.” Performing is the human capacity to be who we are and who we are not at the same time. We relate to people as performers with the capacity to perform “ahead of themselves,” and who are in a social process of becoming — transforming, learning, and developing.

Social therapy is challenging and it is curative. It requires a particular kind of performance, “emotional improvisation” — creating developmental conversations that challenge our most deeply held notions of who we are, how to be together and what we are capable of. We bring together diverse groups of people and support them in performing this emotional improvisation together, creating new ways of “doing relationships” and of living their lives.

We reject the authority of the therapist as a “knower,” and support the leadership of the therapist as an organizer of developmental environments in which people can grow. Through the process of the group creating its therapy together with the therapist, a new experience of who they are and who they are becoming emerges.

Social therapy was founded by an extraordinary person, Dr. Fred Newman, who passed away a year and a half ago. He was a Marxist, with deeply held beliefs about changing the world we live in. He wanted to eradicate poverty, to address the failure of the education of our young people, and bust up the gridlock of the American political system, which continues to hold us all back. Fred understood that in order to create social change, people had to grow and develop emotionally. He knew we needed a new psychology that focused on human development and not on telling people what’s wrong with them and what box they fit into, what medications will “fix” them, or interpreting what’s “inside their heads.”

Fred Newman Ph
Fred Newman Ph

Fred Newman’s life work and legacy includes a constellation of independent institutions, of which the Social Therapy Group is a part. Among others, It also includes the East Side Institute, an international research, education and training center for human development and community; and the All Stars Project, a non-profit organization that creates outside-of-school development programs and activities for thousands of poor and minority young people using an innovative performance-based approach closely related to our own. The All Stars also offers classes and activities for all ages through its university-style school for development called “UX,” and runs the multicultural off-off-Broadway Castillo Theatre, which produces post-modern political theatre and is a home for Black theatre, the avant-garde, improvisational performance, and free training in the theatre arts for young people.

Rachel Mickenberg
Rachel Mickenberg

Tonight I have the pleasure of introducing you to a “being and becoming” social therapist, Rachel Mickenberg. We love her. She is a deeply caring person who is dedicated to helping people grow and develop. And I want to share with you how much Fred Newman, the founder of social therapy, loved Rachel Mickenberg. What did he love about her? He loved that she’s tough, and passionate. She’s a progressive, from a family that has worked to do something about what’s going on in the world. As a progressive Jewish man, he loved that she’s a progressive Jewish woman, an ordinary woman who’s doing extraordinary things with her life. He loved that Rachel is willing to have the fights that need to be had, and her commitment to the young people she does social therapy with at the High School for Public Service. There, she helps them work together to perform ahead of themselves, and not be victims of a culture that does not recognize their value or offer them any opportunities. Rachel is helping them become the creators of their lives.

When I would meet with Fred to discuss how the work of the Social Therapy Group was going, he would often ask how Rachel was doing. “Don’t be too easy on her,” he’d say. “Make demands, help her grow. She’s got talent, you know. I think she could be a really good social therapist. What do you think?”

My answer to Fred Newman’s question was to create this event, to celebrate both social therapy, and Rachel Mickenberg as its newest practitioner.

— Christine LaCerva