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Racism and Anti-Racism in America

Taking Action Using a Privilege, Oppression, Diversity, and Social Justice Perspective

In this video, you’ll hear from faculty and social workers in the field about how their work seeks to center justice in the work that they do.

Excerpt From


I've had a long career going on 20 years now as as a social work faculty member, I've been in this field for over 30 years. I think everyday you try to achieve and do something important in your life. I don't know if you ever see the rewards, I think it's one of those fields, unfortunately, where the problems are so huge that you have to take the small victories. Will we ever live in the society that I envision? Will we ever live in a world free of racism, free of sexism, free of poverty? These are monumental problems that we need to solve. It's difficult to say, how did I impact anything? I think I oftentimes for me look to my students today. The other day I had a student who after my lecture came up to me and said, "You really ought to take this on the road. You really ought to do a TED talk or do something of that nature because people need to hear what you're saying." For me, sometimes I'm just speaking what I believe is my truth and I don't know necessarily how much that impacts people or how much it inspires people. But when people come back and they tell me that what I said to them influenced not only their world view or their perspective, but maybe they shared it with their parents, maybe they shared it with their significant other, maybe they shared it with their kids. That piece of knowledge got passed on to someone else. It influenced someone else to perhaps join us in that shared vision of a just world. To me, those are the things that are the most inspiring and make the most difference. This is my starting point, that people not only deserve shot, opportunity, access, these are things we typically work on, but that everyone deserves to have a life, the kinds of life that they would find fulfilling. I begin there and this informs the kinds of questions I ask, the kinds of policies I advocate for in my writing, the kinds of relationships that I form with policymakers, with for example, wardens of facilities, with program planners or social service providers, the kinds of interventions that I advocate for on the behalf of the people that I study. It's all informed by the idea that people not only deserve a shot, a chance, but that they also deserve to have a life that they find fulfilling no matter what they've done, right? It doesn't matter if they're an ex murderer or if they're an exoneree. There have been 1,700 exonerations since 1989 but it doesn't matter if they're innocent or if they've done something crazy, it's the starting point that everybody deserves. This informs my research certainly, it informs my practice. As far as practice is concerned, my research is my practice, so I do a policy-relevant work. I talk to policymakers about the kinds of policies they should be advocating for. I analyze policy, I study the effects of particular kinds of policy and policy change and policy transformation on the real lives of people. That is my practice and again this lens informs it. I'm studying interpersonal practice in mental health, so that means that I'm studying to be a therapist working one-on-one with children and with their parent or guardian, maybe with the whole family on mental health issues. I see a lot of depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD, learning disabilities but that doesn't mean that I don't think about how larger social systems have interacted in order to influence that person's life. I think even if you want to work in micro social work, that's working one-on-one with a person, you have to think about how different historical factors, political factors, oppressive forces such as racism, sexism, ablism, ageism might have interacted in order to create a lot of the issues that you might be saying with that person one-on-one. Even though you're working with them one-on-one and you might work on mindfulness strategies, you might work on some anti-depressive therapeutic techniques like the CBT triangle or behavioral activation, other evidence informed practices, you still have to keep the larger system in mind. That's something that I figure out is I try to incorporate a socially just practice into my mental health work. I think that's pretty unique to social work. I haven't come across a lot of psychologists or psychiatrists who try to do that. But at the same time, even though my internship is micro, I've been really impressed with the macro education that I've gotten at the School of Social Work. So now I'm actually trying to get more involved in mental health policy change on a national level in order to increase the availability of mental health treatment services and substance abuse treatment services for everybody. Was an alumni of the University of Michigan School Social Work, I had more support than I ever had to really think critically about my own social identities and what that meant for me and my life personally but more importantly, what that meant for my professional work and my lens. I think that learning about social identities that give me privilege and power and instead of being paralyzed by guilt from that, naming it and then knowing that I have a commitment to paying attention to privileged identities to ensure that I have a humble approach, that I'm aware of how if I'm not paying attention to that and undoing ism, so that can really harm my work and harm vulnerable communities. Additionally, understanding that I also hold social identities that have caused me to experience oppression as a queer woman. That is not the only part of who I am, that while that's something that's systemically causes me to experience oppression can be a source of power and strength in my work as an individual. I think that all of this to say, to know that we all hold privileged identities, we all hold social identities where we've experienced oppression, that is the power of the work that we're all coming to it from different lenses. But that for social workers in a professional role, it's always important to remember that being a profession can give us privileges that will remind us of the importance of approaching a situation as a humble outsider. To be aware of when we walk into a room, how we're taking up space, what that looks like. I've been at the Ruth Ellis Center for five and a half years now since I graduated. Even though all the youth know me, I still am always really conscious when I walk into a room to make sure that my presence is not problematic or invasive, that I'm not in a space that I haven't been invited into even though I work here. Because I think we often think of the places we work as that we're entitled to be somewhere, so we work somewhere because we have a title. But maintaining that we should always be invited into communities and be aware of secret spaces that communities have, that have been built for a certain community is very important. Ruth Ellis Center is absolutely that space that people can be queer, they can be themselves, they can be gender creative. Most of these identify as people of color. The way that that looks is really different than a lot of other queer spaces. To be respectful in my approach and my identity is extremely important so that I'm helping facilitate youth to be affirmed in those social identities instead of bringing my lens in a way that makes the space unsafe for the youth that we work with that Ruth Ellis Center.