Toni Zimmerman on teaching youth to understand stereotypes & cultural messages

Interviewed by Karina DeAndrade

Dr. Toni Zimmerman is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Colorado (LMFT). She is a Clinical Fellow and an Approved Supervisor through the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT). She is on the faculty at Colorado State University in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program. Her research focuses on teaching youth to resist stereotypes of gender, race, & class; balancing work & family; and analysis of cultural messages that promote or resist stereotypes.


Chronicle (C): Can you tell us a little about your background? What brought interest into wanting to work with youth and understanding stereotypes and cultural messages?

Dr. Toni Zimmerman (TZ): I was trained as a therapist; specifically, as a couple and family therapist. I have been committed to social justice issues for as long as I can remember so I was drawn to the family therapy scholars that focused on having a social justice lens in therapy at the individual, couple, family and larger systems levels. I am a professor at Colorado State University and I am the Program Director for the Couple and Family Therapy graduate program. In my training of therapists and in my research I keep a social justice, diversity, inclusion lens as foundational to my work. I’ve published for many years on how to effectively train therapists to be attuned to critical issues of oppression when they’re doing therapy. It is not just what’s happening in that smaller system–the family system or the couples system, but also how larger societal systems—institutional systems—affect people. Some of these larger systems are institutional racism, sexism, classism, ageism, homophobia, etc. that deeply impacts people’s lives. I also work to train therapists to understand implicit bias and awareness and growth in this area is essential for effective therapy.  That’s really been my work for about 27 years.

I am also committed to prevention in addition to intervention in the area of social justice which of course has led to working with young people. Finding ways to invite young people to ask themselves important questions early in their development such as “What are the messages that I’m getting—gender messages, race messages—in my lived experience in the world that’s limiting me and maybe negatively impacting my ability to be my confident and authentic self.” As young people notice messages in their everyday lives they are more prepared to question and resist messages that are stereotypes and messages that put some people’s worth above others. My colleagues Jen Aberle and Jen Krafchick and I, developed a curriculum called FAIR which stands for Fairness for All Individuals through Respect many years ago. We have delivered this curriculum in elementary schools so that we can have an impact on young people and train teachers to integrate the FAIR ideas into their curriculum.  The FAIR curriculum fun experiential activities to do in small groups related to social justice.   When my colleagues, Shelley Haddock, Lindsey Weiler and Jen Krafchick developed the Campus Connections Therapeutic Youth Mentoring Program we were committed to including a social justice curriculum and activities. We used some of the FAIR activities and developed more to create a full social justice integrated program both in training mentors and in developing activities for mentees.


C: Could you share with us more details about how you conduct research relating to teaching youth to resist stereotypes and understand cultural messages better? Does this work involve using mentors, professors, or others to facilitate this process?

TZ: In addition to my work with FAIR and training therapists to stay attuned to social justice issues in therapy, I also have studied social justice messages in  self-help. As a therapist you realize a lot of clients will utilize self-help along with getting therapy. Self-help comes in so many different ways from talk shows to books to articles in magazines. I have a line of research where we code what advice is given in various publications and media. Those studies ended up being fascinating content analysis. They contained rich qualitative analysis of what people are being taught to help themselves and their relationships. The findings again and again revealed that the old and tiered gender stereotypes that do not strengthen relationships but in fact hurt them. So what we know in the therapy field about how to strengthen relationships is not showing up in the best-selling advice. The goal of the research is to teach people how to question advise that encourages stereotypes and oppression of some over others.

My primary work now is the Campus Connections Therapeutic Youth Mentoring Model which is an innovative way to work with mentees and mentors on a college campus. This program has been running for 10 years, is now licensed and offered at several other Universities, has been recognized by several national awards, and has impressive outcomes for both mentees and mentors. Attention to social justice is the link between the work I have done over the years.


C: What are some example key objectives you hope the youth get out of these teachings?

TZ: The key objectives is to help youth be their authentic self, to strengthen their sense of self and their identity, and to feel empowered to question marginalization and oppression in our society. I also think it is for youth to understand how oppression comes about in society, to recognize how it is a social construction and how that has occurred in history and still today.


C: Have there been any positive findings in teaching youth lessons of resisting stereotypes and understanding cultural messages so far?

TZ: My colleagues and a doctoral student were able to study and publish a couple of articles related to the effectiveness of FAIR. In one study, we did a pre-test, post-test, experimental control design on the effectiveness of the FAIR curriculum in an elementary school over multiple weeks. We had 66 girls, 55 boys, ages 10-13. For the post-test, students in the treatment group reported experiencing less gender prejudice by their classmates than students in the control group. The teachers also reported fewer gender prejudice behaviors by the students in the treatment group.

Unfortunately, the FAIR website that would be interesting for people to see, is currently under reconstruction right now.



C: What have been some limitations or some challenges in trying to teach youth to resist stereotypes and understand cultural messages?

TZ: One of the biggest challenges is that it is difficult for schools and teachers—even the most committed ones—to find time. Working the FAIR curriculum into the regular curriculum given all the demands on teachers time is tough. We’ve done some conferences and workshops on training teachers how to fully integrate social justice in all lessons and raise questions of oppression, and fairness, and marginalization and stereotype throughout any curriculum; to think of that as a lens and not just as a chapter or a topic.