Civil rights and social justice: A social work imperative

Jan 10, 2017


NASW Press has published a special issue of the journal Social Work titled “Civil Rights and Social Justice: A Social Work Imperative”. The contents of the journal reflect the theme of the necessity of a social justice emphasis in the practice of social work. In their editorial for the issue, Tricia B. Bent-Goodley and June Gary Hopps discuss the timeliness and importance of a social justice imperative for social workers. The write:

Social workers have the conceptual idea and raw materials for a blueprint for the pursuit of social justice as it intersects with civil and human rights. Over the profession’s history, social workers have promoted some ideas and forms of furthering civil rights and social justice.… In many ways, today’s topics are a clear reminder that the journey is not yet finished. It is important, however, to acknowledge and recognize the progress the profession has made and to also clearly articulate that there is still more work to be done to achieve social justice and equality.

“Social justice” has been defined in the Social Work Dictionary as “an ideal condition in which all members of society have the same basic rights, protection, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits.” Social justice is a goal for social work to strive toward.

Articles in the special issue include:


Human Rights: Its Meaning and Practice in Social Work Field Settings

The study reported in this article explored the conceptualizations of human rights and human rights practice among students and supervisors in social work field settings. The participants encountered human rights issues related to poverty, discrimination, participation/self-determination/autonomy, violence, dignity/respect, privacy, and freedom/liberty. They saw human rights practice as encompassing advocacy, service provision, assessment, awareness of threats to clients’ rights, and the nature of the worker–client relationship. These results have implications for the social work profession, which has an opportunity to focus more intently on change efforts that support clients’ rights.


A “Just Sense of Well-Being”: Social Work’s Unifying Purpose in Action

For over a century the social work profession has had a dual purpose, to promote both human well-being and social justice, but research that explores how social workers understand and work toward both purposes across multiple practice roles and settings has been lacking. The authors of this article conducted qualitative research to examine how 18 social workers in various roles and settings understand and implement both purposes in their practice. Instead of a dual purpose, participants described a unifying purpose: a “just sense of well-being” that transcends role and setting. Valuing the dignity and worth of all human beings frames and fuels their work toward a just sense of well-being through three interactive themes: challenging injustice on every level; constructing justice through relationship and resource organizing; and constructing justice through the creation of accepting environments where professionals, clients, and community members can reflect and question, and change mind-sets and actions.


Moral Panic and Social Justice: A Guide for Analyzing Social Problems

Professional social work has long been concerned with social justice, social policy, and the relationship between social treatment and social control. However, at times, potential threats to social cohesion become exaggerated in the service of supporting suppressive policies. British sociologist Stanley Cohen referred to such periods as “moral panics,” which assign unwarranted blame and stigma to socio-politically weaker, unpopular groups. By constructing those associated with a given social problem as deviant and downplaying underlying structural causes, moral panics foster the enactment of social policies that entrench social disparity and injustice. Understanding how moral panics influence perceptions of social problems and resultant policies will enable social workers to identify whether particular societal groups are unjustly targeted.


Historical Oppression, Resilience, and Transcendence: Can a Holistic Framework Help Explain Violence Experienced by Indigenous People?

Although all minorities experience inequalities, indigenous peoples in the United States tend to experience the most severe violent victimization. Until now, an organizing framework to explain or address the disproportionate rates of violent victimization was absent. Thus, the purpose of this conceptual article is to (a) introduce the concept of historical oppression, expanding the concept of historical trauma to make it inclusive of contemporary oppression; (b) describe the framework of historical oppression, resilience, and transcendence, which draws from distinct but related theoretical frameworks (that is, critical theory and resilience theory); and (c) apply the framework of historical oppression, resilience, and transcendence to the problem of violence against indigenous women.


The Evolving Politics of Race and Social Work Activism: A Call across Borders

Social work has engaged with and led the revolutionary social movements of the past century. Yet today, as activism by and for racial others unfolds across the United States and Canada, our discipline remains largely silent. This article considers new ways for social workers to conceptualize social work activism, challenge the existing erasures within the profession, and construct innovative strategies to locate social work within the critical social movements of our time.


The School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Primer for Social Workers

The school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) refers to a path from the education system to the juvenile or adult criminal justice system. Over the past two decades, this path has grown significantly, and scholars attribute a myriad of contributing factors to this increase. Prior to the STPP concept, education had largely been considered a protective factor for children and a route to success as opposed to a risk factor or track toward juvenile justice involvement. Staying in school and getting good grades were regarded as strategies that even at-risk students could use to overcome poverty, prejudice, and powerlessness. But since the 1990s, the approach to discipline in U.S. public schools has changed, and the effects of this change are only now becoming evident. This article explains the correlates of the STPP and its disparate outcomes, most notably for students of color; those with disabilities; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning students.


A Qualitative Study of Survival Strategies Used by Low-Income Black Women Who Experience Intimate Partner Violence

Women who experience intimate partner violence (IPV) are often portrayed as helpless victims. Yet many women who experience IPV implement strategies to help them survive the abuse. This qualitative study sought to explore the survivor strategies used by low-income black women who experience IPV. The authors used a semistructured interview guide to survey 26 survivors who reported being in an IPV relationship in the past two years. Thematic analysis revealed three types of survivor strategies used by low-income black women: (1) internal (use of religion and becoming self-reliant), (2) interpersonal (leave the abuser or fight back), and (3) external (reliance on informal, formal, or both kinds of sources of support).


Additionally in this issue, there is a practice update “Queer Aging: Implications for Social Work Practice with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Older Adults”, and commentaries such as “Political Social Work: History, Forms, and Opportunities for Innovation,” “Political Social Work: History, Forms, and Opportunities for Innovation,” and “Supporting Young Men of Color as Survivors of Crime and Violence.”

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