Featured Women Doing Community, Part 2 of 3: Cote Soerens

In April/May I had the privilege of being a panelist and speaker at The Parish Collective’s Inhabit Conference in Seattle, Washington and The Conspire Gathering in Cincinnati, Ohio. I had a wonderful time seeing old friends who stand with us in solidarity in rooted, place-based, asset-based, Christian community development principles and practices. By far, the highlight of the experience was meeting so many remarkable leading ladies who are integrating transformative community development in the places they call their own. Each of them are integrating ABCD practices into the work they are doing WITH community, though not all in the traditional way of connecting through neighbors. Last month, I used this space to introduce you to Majora Carter. This month, I will use this space to highlight the work of Maria-Jose Soerens, in hopes that you will connect with her, share with her, and learn (as did I) from her practice. She is the second installation in a three-part series, to be followed next month with the work of Anna Golladay of Chattanooga, TN!

About Maria-Jose Soerens

Maria-Jose Soerens, affectionately known as “Cote,” is working on her doctorate at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, at Middlesex University, UK. She lives in Seattle where she conducts her research, with her husband, Tim Soerens of The Parish Collective, and their son.

A BIT OF HER STORY IN HER OWN WORDS “I was born in Chile and have lived in the United States since 2005. I earned my BA in Psychology in Universidad Central de Chile and my Master in Counseling Psychology at Northwest University, where I did my thesis on immigration and identity transformation. After I graduated, I worked for a couple of years at Agros International, where I was able to get acquainted with the stories of the rural poor in Central America. During my work there, I was constantly impressed by their resilience. Later, in 2009, I had the opportunity to travel to Uganda with an indigenous organization called Pilgrim Africa. There, I had the opportunity to share briefly with members of the Iteso tribe, who were struggling with the aftermath of civil unrest. In the NGO-saturated place that is Uganda, I could see how ‘the ways of the people’ contrasted with the ‘clinical help’ they were receiving from American psychologists. The problem was not as much that the insights of psychology were not appropriate, but that western practitioners were, generally, not even taking the time to question whether their own notions of healing had any currency in the local context, much less whether or not the local tradition had something to offer beyond instrumental means to build rapport. This lack of curiosity from western practitioners, together with my experiences in Central America and in my home country, sparked in me an interest to research how local traditions can dialogue with the western scientific tradition in regards to healing trauma. This question was further developed through my work as a mental health counselor in Seattle for the past 4 years. Most of my clients were undocumented immigrants from Central America and Mexico seeking to regularize their status in the U.S. Among the women, most were seeking asylum, escaping an abusive partner back home. Most of them had been victim of intimate partner violence or sexual abuse throughout their lives. As with the rural poor in Central America and the war-torn communities in Uganda, their ‘mental health’ was embedded in the intersection of poverty, economic injustice, and gender dynamics. In addition, there was a common thread uniting these communities: There was a strong religious component to their experience of pain that made me curious. For example, among 90 of my female clients who qualified for a diagnosis of PTSD or Major Depression, only 2 had sought professional counseling; the rest, had all gone to church. I found this fact ‘problematic’ in the academic sense and it felt like a fertile ground to research ways toward a dialogue between local traditions and western expertise.”


So Cote and I began talking in her backyard at a barbecue after the completion of the Inhabit Conference this past spring. She spoke about her professional work in mental health, and together, we began to dream about what it would look like to integrate asset-based community development practices into the fieldwork of mental health!

The conversation became very exciting very quickly, and we are now planning to gather a group of mental health professionals from the Seattle area to train them in asset-based community development, and then allow them to dream about all the ways in which the principles of ABCD can be applied within the context of their work! This is significant to much of what Cote speaks about (see above) in terms of relying on what the people in a particular culture or community already know and are able to do as it pertains to their own healing and transformation. How can “the ways of the people” be valuable, even essential, to the implementation of mental health practices WITH them?

We are excited to explore the possibilities of what will be revealed when ABCD practices are married to mental health care, and I am even more excited knowing that the heart and passion that Cote possesses for the people will compel her to lead from behind them. For more information about her work, please visit www.cotesoerens.com.

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