Board Profile >> Laurie Phuong Ertley
Laurie Phuong Ertley is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She’s worked in community mental health for 15 years and has been in private practice at Mindful Living, Inc. for 5 years. Her work focuses on the resolution of trauma for individuals, couples, and families. Laurie holds social justice as a core value and regards the impact of systemic oppression when working with persons of color. She’s also trained other therapists in the art of family therapy at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California and served as an adjunct faculty member at the Somatic Psychology program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, California. Laurie has a lifelong somatic practice, taught yoga for 14 years, and is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner.
Can you please share a little bit about your background? How did your experiences lead you to joining the CUC board?
My professional career started in 2000, January 2000. I was working with incarcerated youth, working through community based mental health organizations—Asian Americans for community Involvement, AA Community services. I worked with mostly with youth of color, Latin X and Southeast Asian backgrounds and they’re mostly from poor, mono-lingual parent families and working class, so they were mostly unmonitored and having a lot of hard times in schools. So, I think out of response to white supremacy seeking belonging, and safely to what to them became surrogate families…we call gangs but presences of people ethery didn’t have at home, so they’re youth that were just kind of left and even though their parents were really hard working, law-abiding people, they just fell into these crowds and I think a lot of it out of survival.
Right from the get go, a lot of my work was based in social justice and seeing the impact of underpaying people and giving them sick pay or benefits and living in poor neighborhoods, and their resources, lack of resources they have to content with. Oftentimes I had to go to their homes to bring food—we’d have a burger and this youth would talk to me. It was pretty much an uphill battle to engage this network, gain their trust, and link to better resources or to do something different. And that comes with trauma, and that was the trajectory of my learning.
I had to understand the different layers of trauma, not only in youth but in their own families. The immigration story to the US was often fraught with a lot of war, trauma, even illegal activities. After that I started working in foster care systems and seeing the loopholes, the cracks in society where you could get lost in. There really is a need to strengthen families , you need to work with trauma, and you need to work with systemic oppression.
I spent a lot of my time family therapy, how to heal the family—making [the family] more functional and supportive can save a lot of youth’s lives. I also needed to learn to work with trauma for a lot of reasons. Parents would avoid certain issues because of their own trauma. So this increased [my] capacity by addressing trauma and so that made me go down the trauma route.
Twenty years later, I’m in my own private practice and I work primarily with people who feel that trauma has impacted their lives and I have a broad range of clients that I work with. I have a lot of diversity—not only in terms of race, but also in terms of gender orientation, the way people love, and class—and so that’s the kind of work that I like to do. When I saw the movie Circles, that really moved me because I could see that [Erica Butler] was working in the same circles and his methods were a lot more effective.
Can you share an experience using the Understanding-based model?
I went to the five day training and when I came back to my own professional sphere, which is the sphere of psychotherapy, I found I had a different approach to my own work. Before I would steer them away from conflict and sometimes I would come up with solutions.
Using the Understanding-based model, I was more willing to stay in the heat with them. Letting them express their anger and really validating all of it. I feel like my sessions got a lot more powerful because of my own ability to stay centered—I was more bought in with the model [as] conflict can lead to a good thing. It especially showed up in my couples and family work. If you let people be true and not cut short their rage and anger and respect it, you can come out as something more satisfying for all parties.
What is one key piece of advice you’d like to share with other conflict resolution professionals?
[I] use the training as an adjunct to the work that I’ve done. In the training, they brought up what is your style—are you a competitor? Are you an accommodator? Those different styles and that’s one model and it’s a useful model. But another model that I see, if you look at it from the systemic oppression lens, there are assumptions made—who takes more air time. It’s mostly gender-based, and it’s also going to be race-based.
Sometimes you might think they are an accommodator, but they might be a woman of color and are just surviving—that’s not who they are. There needs to be more nuance. The CUC is a good model, but not a complete model—especially if you do not add in the very real aspects of systemic oppression of what’s happening in the room. Oftentimes, women could be mistaken as accommodators because they don’t assert themselves to take that air space. Women were called “bossy”.
Really be aware of biases at face value. It might look like accommodation. This is how I learned to navigate systems. This is how I learned to navigate the world. Name all these, be aware of them and call them out.
What are some important issues that for today’s conict resolution professionals to be connected with?
Systemic racism. There’s much education that each and every one of us can do around that and it’s so relevant, it’s so moment-to-moment to our interactions and the blind spots. We don’t see and the assumptions we make—the whole nation and globally—to really explore, with each of us doing our parts, no matter who you are—there’s just so much to it.
And the other thing that I think is very relevant is trauma. With trauma, people think war time, but you know it could be in your DNA, such as if you’re ancestors have been enslaved. It’s even physical things, like your pain tolerance might be higher because your ancestors had to endure a lot of physical pain.
I think the most important thing about trauma is that it’s not an idea. Trauma is something that’s based in your body. The reason I know [this], is a lot of people come to see somebody like me [there are indicators], i.e. racing heart, tension in the body, sleeplessness, indigestion. All these things are body based. In fact, right now all of us are in a very trauma provoking, provocative [situation]. I’m not saying everybody is going to be traumatized.
You’re in the stew of it [when] you’re in the field of it. [There are] a lot of things that you feel or think. It could be a result of not feeling safe or your body not functioning as well as it usually is, and just being aware of that—and that manifests in your thoughts. If you are not feeling well physically, you’re more likely to be negative, reactive, and you’re going to have less capacity—just know that.
A lot of negotiations rest on the capacity to be clear headed and think critically. If you’re in flight, you’re in freeze mode. These are neurobiological responses. Your capacity, your executive functioning mind, is limited to none. You won’t make any headway if you are in a reactive state or you are in a survival state like that. For me, that is the very basis. Negotiations can’t happen until you’re in a calm state. So, that work needs to be done first, and if we get off-center, how do we have skills that draw us back to the center?
What is something you enjoy doing with your free time?
I love foraging for mushrooms. I really love to knit and photography.