By Sue Coyle, MSW
In October 2022, NASW published Undoing Racism Through Social Work Vol. 2. The report emphasized NASW’s commitment to an anti-racist profession and society. It recognized that while social work and social workers may be starting from a different place than other professions, there’s still work to be done, noting:
“Given its century-long contributions to social justice and social welfare, the social work field is in many ways far ahead of other disciplines. However, like all professions built within our country’s racist institutions, social work has a long way to go to overcome its own history of racism, discrimination and oppression.”
Additionally, the report detailed the results of an April 2022 summit in which experts from across the profession met to discuss ways in which social work can progress toward an anti-racist future. They highlighted six areas of focus for social work: education, training, policy, research, workforce and practice. Each section included recommendations, as well as initiatives within the profession that are working toward or can work toward the larger goal of anti-racism.
This report serves not only as a launching pad for the profession to build awareness and take meaningful action, but also as a foundation for individual social workers and social work organizations. Anti-racism as well as other facets of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) must be a focal point for everyone within social work if the profession is to achieve the goal of providing quality, equitable services from equitable workplaces.
While it is true that social work has long endeavored toward social justice, welfare and reform, that does not mean the profession and those within it are exempt from the need to work toward matters of diversity, equity and inclusion, as NASW noted in its Undoing Racism report. In fact, the history of social work has many examples of exclusion.
“We are called to be culturally responsive practitioners,” says Arabella Perez, DSW, LCSW, the vice president of DEI for NASW. “However, before we start talking about the systemic racism that exists in law enforcement [and other professions], we have to start looking at our own history.” Settlement houses—a key aspect of social work’s history—excluded Black people, and indigenous populations have historically been mistreated by social workers, she offers as examples.
It’s not just historically that individuals and populations have experienced lesser services or lesser access to services. Despite best efforts and intentions, today there remains room for and the need for growth within the profession—at both systemic and individual levels.
“I think what happens,” says Lynn Stanley, LICSW, executive director of the NASW New Hampshire and Vermont chapters, “is all of a sudden a social worker has a client and becomes painfully aware that ‘Oh, this is different. This isn’t in my wheelhouse. I may not have the practice; I may not have the experience; I may not have the knowledge base to do a good job.’” They realize in the moment that their awareness and ability to deliver inclusive and equitable services is not quite what they assumed.
By not having that level of awareness or readiness, harm can be done. “It’s difficult, because nobody gets into the field to do harm,” says Jorge Santana, LICSW, co-chair of the JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) committee for the NASW New Hampshire Chapter. “But we can do harm without intention.”
That harm can occur on an individual level—coming from one social worker to one client or even a population of clients—but it’s important to note that it can also happen on larger levels. The need for DEI education, awareness and action isn’t just about individuals and populations served but also about the social work workforce.
“Many DEI initiatives are often directed to enhancing the delivery of services to clientele and thus fail to consider too the diversity embedded within our own workforce. It is just as important for social worker leaders and organizations to address systemic racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc., in our own systems and to solidify our broad commitment to the welfare of our own workforce,” says Lee Westgate, MBA, MSW, LCSW-C, a speaker, teacher and consultant, and faculty member at University of Maryland School of Social Work. “Facilitating meaningful and systemic change is not possible if we fail to examine the ways in which we are complicit in the very same insidious patterns of discrimination and harm.”
Santana agrees, adding, “We need to be looking at the profession critically. Before we look outward to lead, we must first look internally to see what areas we need to improve.”
NASW members can read the full story in NASW Social Work Advocates magazine.