Melody Brown with group of people at a table

Professor Melody Brown Focuses on Intersectionality in Couple and Family Therapy

September 13, 2021

Clinical Assistant Professor Melody Brown, PhD, knows firsthand the importance of intersectionality. This makes her an asset to the School of Education & Human Development, where she teaches in the MA in couple and family therapy (CFT) program.

Brown, a licensed marriage and family therapist, uses herself as an example to illustrate what intersectionality means. “I talk about who I am and my various identities and how those impact me as I walk through this world,” she said. “I am an African American, I’m able-bodied, I don’t identify as heterosexual because it doesn’t fit for me. I grew up in a religious family and, while I don’t attend church, I do hold dear the tenets of love and equality.” Brown is also the oldest child of a middle-class family. “Think about all those things coming together,” she said.

Melody Brown standing next to outdoor patio
Melody Brown, PhD, uses her own intersectionality to relate to her clients in therapy.

Brown, whose research studies African Americans in therapy with white therapists, believes an effective therapy curriculum should have a holistic approach—because every individual is made up of many intersecting identities. Research shows that clients tend to feel more comfortable with therapists that understand their culture. “People want someone who can identify with their experience and their pain, and that often means someone who looks like them,” she said.

However, effective multicultural training can help therapists work with people from different backgrounds than themselves. As a professor in the School of Education & Human Development, Brown teaches future therapists how to develop culturally sensitive approaches. This is an important part of the MA in couple and family therapy (CFT) program that began this year.

Intersectionality in Couples and Families

Diane Estrada headshot
Diane Estrada, CFT program director

CU Denver’s CFT program, which is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), intentionally focuses on intersectionality. “From the very onset, we need to be thinking about the clients in their context—what values they have, their cultural lens, any sociopolitical identities they might have, their economic status and how they all intersect,” Brown said.

If overlapping identities are complex in individuals, they are even more complex in relationships. CFT clinicians are studying the intersectionality of a couple and/or family system. “Our job is to think systemically,” Brown said. “With couple and family therapy, it’s more about the interactions that are happening that lead to the things that are problematic when multiple people are operating within a system.”

Program Director Diane Estrada, PhD, explained why the program has a systemic approach: “Individuals develop in the context of relationships that shape who they are and how they respond to the world.” 

Individual Identities and Systemic Relationships

Brown gives interracial couples as an example. “Some years ago, I heard that Denver is one of the cities with the highest number of interracial relationships,” she said. The nationwide average of interracial couples is 17%; In Denver, it’s 22%. While interracial couples might not have struggled with race-related issues in the past, recent events could bring up new concerns. “Last year may have been a time when things got quite tense because there were things that weren’t talked about before,” Brown said. “Maybe couples hadn’t talked explicitly about race because the world had not stopped like it did when George Floyd was murdered.”

Every person in couple or family therapy has their own complex identity, which stems from the culture they grew up in. “We come to our relationships with our own sets of values,” Brown said. Understanding how intimate relationships work can also increase understanding of larger systems. “We believe that the context of people’s lives based on their intersectional identities is an important part of how we connect to each other and stand up for one another to develop a sense of community and belonging in a more just society,” Estrada said.

multiracial couple standing in front of flower bush; photo by matheus ferrero via unsplash
Interracial couples may face race-related relationship issues when racially motivated violence occurs.

Culturally Responsive, Equity-Focused Therapy

Social justice is part of CFT’s curriculum. “We want to create a pool of diverse therapists in Denver, and we want to train students to reach people outside their own identities,” Brown said. Estrada emphasized this holistic approach: “Our program centers its philosophy on developing ethical, culturally responsive clinicians who are equipped to work with a variety of clientele with a focus on honoring their multifaceted cultural experiences.”

Graduate students in the CFT program get real-life experience with diverse clients at the Student and Community Counseling Center on campus, where they provide counseling to CU Denver students and people in the greater Denver community. After completing their course of study, students receive mentored counseling/therapy experience with live supervision and continual feedback from licensed clinicians, including Brown.

This clinical training, coupled with a CFT program that stresses equity-focused services, produces culturally informed graduates—something that is vital to successful couple and family therapy. “Not just from my own experience, but also from research, you hear time and time again that the element of safety and identification is really important,” Brown said.

Student and Community Counseling Center

The center is located at Tivoli 454 (4th floor), 900 Auraria Parkway, Denver, CO 80204. Visit the website for more information.