Answering the Call for Racial Justice

people holding hands in unity

During the last year, many events converged to bring renewed urgency to combating racism and white supremacy. The College responded by placing race and racial justice at the center of many activities.

“What is racial justice? A better starting point might be to talk about racial injustice, identify all the places injustice exists,” says Henrika McCoy, JACSW Associate Professor and Interim Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Student Services. “As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

The list of racial disparities, inequities and injustices in the United States is long, at this point almost a litany that should be well-known to scholars and practitioners in social work: the overrepresentation of Black families in the child welfare system; the racially disproportionate use of detention and other punitive practices in schools; the underrepresentation of Black students in higher education; racial disparities in criminal justice, from policing and sentencing, to parole and post-prison; and the disproportionate use of force and violence by police in communities of color. “The list just goes on. It can be overwhelming to think about,” McCoy says. “But we have to. We must be willing to talk about injustice and inequity, and shine a light on racism everywhere it exists.”

Advancing racial justice is a core part of the College’s mission and informs much of the work done at the College and its Centers. Concomitantly, elevating the voices of people who live in marginalized communities of color and including their lived experiences in research and advocacy is central to that work. The past year, however, brought a renewed call to action for combating racism and ending discrimination, with people across the country and around the world pouring onto the streets to express outrage and call for an end to white supremacy. The College has answered that call in a number of very meaningful ways.

Giving Voice to Experiences of Racism and White Supremacy

Dr. McCoy has been studying experiences of violent victimization among young Black men, including both familial, interpersonal and structural violence. Central to her research were interviews conducted with such young men, gathering their experiences and unique perspectives in their own words. More recently, however, her focus turned to other forms of structural and institutional racism, especially as they exist in social work and in higher education.

In the last year, she has published powerful and incisive articles on these topics, in both the academic and popular press. McCoy is quick to point out that the experiences she has written about are nothing new, and that she is expressing thoughts and ideas many people have but may not feel secure or safe enough to share. “America is in a state of heightened awareness of race and racism, and social workers are being asked to interrogate white supremacy in their own practice,” she says.

Just remember, eliminating racism and white supremacy…is a necessity, because only when that goal is accomplished will your black colleagues be able to rest, breathe and live terror-free.

Associate Professor Henrika McCoy  |  from "The Life of a Black Academic: Tired and Terrorized"

“I think there’s a general feeling that we have a window of time in which we can speak more directly to these issues, so that’s what I’ve been doing. We need to take advantage of this because, if history is any indicator, the window will probably close as quickly as it opened.”

As made clear in her article What Do You Call a Black Woman With a PhD? A N*****: How Race Trumps Education No Matter What, as well as in a recent panel the College hosted with the American Society of Criminology (see below), Black academics have no difficulty citing personal experiences of racism in academia. “No matter who you are as a Black person, in my case a Black woman, you don’t have the power to say anything about it. Because even when you do, your words don’t matter as much as the other person’s,” she observes.

It highlights how having a PhD as a Black woman has not resulted in the same respect and reverence generally afforded to those who are White. It reminds us of the work that still needs to be done if we are ever going to be able to honestly say that the playing field is even.

Associate Professor Henrika McCoy  |  from "What Do You Call a Black Woman With a PhD? A N*****: How Race Trumps Education No Matter What"

Racism can extend beyond personal interactions to the core of social work practice, where certain attitudes, no matter how well-intentioned, can manifest white supremacy. “Traditionally, social workers see themselves as people who want to help the world. I remember my first day as a student in practice class, and the instructor asked how many of us were there because we wanted to help people. We all raised our hand,” McCoy says with a chuckle. “She said to us, ‘Put your hands down, that is not what social workers do!’ Social work is not about you being a savior.”

McCoy thinks there has long been an underlying sense among many well-meaning social workers, though certainly not all, that the point of their practice is to be heroes or saviors, bringing exogenous knowledge into the community and speaking on behalf of people. “I’m increasingly seeing this, social workers assuming they know what the problems are, what people in the community need or want,” McCoy observes. “But they don’t live in the community. They’re latching onto what they think is important because they heard one community member say it. That’s not good enough. Broad involvement from community members must underlie our understanding of what’s true, as well as our practice as social workers and advocates.”

If you are silent, you are complicit. If you fail to demand change, you are giving approval. If you fail to demand justice, just know, you are guilty, and you support injustice.

Associate Professor Henrika McCoy  |  from "Black Lives Matter, and Yes, You are Racist: The Parallelism of the 20th and 21st Centuries"

McCoy hopes that her recent scholarship, op-eds and opinion pieces will have an impact as a form of macro social work advocacy, but she has no illusions about the resistance or discomfort some people experience with these issues. “The primary goal in all of my work is to give voice to people who don’t have the same opportunity to share their thoughts and experiences. In my recent articles, I hope that my voice has been representative of people who are perhaps unable to share their own experiences,” she says. “And I want to make sure that paternalistic or racist attitudes in social work are pushed aside, and that we foster an authentic community-based ethos in our practice. Social workers are not saviors; the community leads, we follow.”

Addressing Racism with the American Society of Criminology

screenshot from the webinar

Beginning in the Fall of 2020 and continuing through Spring 2021, the College has partnered with The American Society of Criminology, Division on People of Color and Crime, to produce a series of webinars exploring aspects of race and activism in academia. The first such webinar was Activism Among Academics: Creating Change from “The Ivory” and featured a panel of four Black academics at different stages of their careers. The panelists discussed racial disparities and personal experiences with discrimination in academia, as well as their decisions to engage in anti-racist activism despite potential damage to their academic careers.

Interim Associate Dean Henrika McCoy served as a panelist, drawing on the ideas and experiences she has presented in her own scholarship. “Calling out racism can have professional ramifications, and Black tenure-track academics have to make a potentially difficult decision. Your academic career can be dependent on other people who have power over you,” she says. “I’m very fortunate that Dean Hairston has been so supportive; I’m sure I would not have felt as free to say such things in other environments. But it is very important to share these experiences and ideas because people need to know the truth.”

The second webinar, Black Lives Matter vs. Far Right Extremism: Protests, Movements, and Riots, featured Black academics and activists who addressed the rise in white supremacism and how Black activists and their allies can combat this threat to justice and equity. This panel included JACSW doctoral candidate Janaé Bonsu, who has been a prominent and powerful voice for racial justice in Chicago.

Engaging with Race, Racism and Trauma in School Settings

screenshot from the webinar

The 2020 JACSW Training Institute for School Social Work Professionals, titled Mental Health Strategies for School Re-entry for Students & Staff Amidst Societal Uncertainty and hosted virtually in August, was a response to what Clinical Associate Professor Annette Johnson, MSW ’03, describes as the “double pandemic of COVID-19 and racial injustice.” Johnson is Chair of the college’s specialization in School Social Work and also spearheads the annual training institute.

“I was concerned that there was so much information about the concrete, preventative aspects of the pandemic, such as wearing protective equipment and social distancing, but very little was being said about people’s emotional response to COVID-19,” she says. “Communities of color have been so disproportionately affected by the pandemic, then in the midst of that we saw the killing of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed. All of these things can be traumatic and impact mental health, especially among vulnerable young people. I knew we had to do something.”

Johnson searched the literature but found very little that would help address the issue, so she assembled a team of practitioners and administrators from Illinois schools. The team examined ways of addressing the social and emotional impact of the double pandemic on students, teachers and staff. “We began to think about what this would look like when in-class instruction resumed, what information school practitioners would need to convey to administrators, teachers and students,” she says.

The institute drew nearly 180 participants from across the country and featured Sharon A. Hoover, PhD, Co-Director of the National Center for School Mental Health, who provided expertise in school practice and the mental health needs of students. “The webinar was very well-received, and all participants received a comprehensive resource guide that was developed by our team,” Johnson says. “But I knew there was more work to do, that we had not exhausted the topic of addressing race and racism.”

In January of 2021, a virtual Booster Session was hosted to continue that work. Titled Expanding Equity: Addressing Racism in Our Work, the discussion was led by three outstanding school-based practitioners, Jenny Andersen, LCSW, Dawn Deacon Maroscher, School Psychologist, and Joe Alger LCSW. The webinar prepared school practitioners to engage in difficult conversations about race and equity. The discussion challenged attendees to alter their paradigm on how best to engage in discourse on race, structural inequalities, oppression, and the invisibility of privilege.

Johnson notes that as remote learning has continued longer than anticipated, practitioners have had no knowledge of how students have been impacted by social isolation amidst the ongoing double pandemic. “In addition to addressing the trauma we wanted to continue building on the themes of racism and equity, and get helping practitioners to think reflectively and introspectively about their own perspectives, and how they address equity and racism,” she says. “School social workers need to be acutely aware of their own potential biases, how they see and respond to students of color.”

The presenters also spoke of “the talk”, a conversation that African American parents have with their children. “I think some people may not know what that talk is. But I don’t think you can approach an African American parent who hasn’t had that talk with their children, particularly if the children are male,” says Johnson. “What we’ve accomplished in this session is to open this conversation for practitioners, get it on their radar. And we will continue building on this foundation, and are looking to continue this important work at future institutes.”

The Injustice of Trauma and Violence Among Young Black Males

Olga Osby, DSW

The focus of the Karen J. Honig Memorial Lecture has always been children, especially those in urban settings and/or involved with the child welfare or foster care systems. However, given the nation’s renewed sense of urgency for racial justice, the theme for this year’s virtual lecture was Strategies to Address Trauma, Anxiety and Violence Interruption Among Black Males, a topic that is crucial for the advancement of racial justice in marginalized communities. For the lecture, a panel was assembled to bring expertise in trauma-informed clinical practice with youth and families, community violence, and violence intervention and prevention, in order to fully explore the theme.

Panel moderator Associate Professor Henrika McCoy has herself researched violent victimization experienced among young Black men. “Young men in marginalized Black communities may experience so many forms of violence and trauma, which have so many ramifications for their mental and physical health and well-being, as well as their progress in our society,” she says. “The importance of addressing these experiences and traumas cannot be overstated. This is why we asked Dr. Olga Osby to present as our special guest panelist.”

Olga Osby, DSW, who has received many honors and accolades throughout her career, is currently co-managing partner of Clean Slate Behavioral Health Solutions, LLC, which provides trauma-informed training to health care, law enforcement, social service and other professionals, and trauma-informed counseling to children, families and communities. It was this range of experience that made her particularly well-suited to this panel.

The other panelists were JACSW faculty members, each bringing essential knowledge and experience to inform this discussion. Assistant Professor Kathryn Bocanegra has over fifteen years of experience in community mental health and violence prevention, and is advancing survivor-centric reforms to criminal justice processes and developing community-based models of public safety. Dr. Joseph Strickland brought 25 years’ experience in community-based advocacy and programs for affordable housing, community development, ex-offenders, youth, and community health, and has a research focus of how Black males bounce back from the traumas of incarceration and street violence.

“Addressing racial injustice has long been a pillar of the college’s mission and the work of its faculty, whether the injustice occurs in schools, the criminal justice system or other environments. It is affirming to see social workers and social work educators joining these discussions, and calling for justice with an energy and interest seldom seen before,” says JACSW Dean Creasie Finney Hairston. “Yet we know the magnitude of the task that lies before us, the work we have still to do, on a number of fronts. To help meet that challenge, the college will continue to foster these sorts of dialogues – in a spirit of openness and inclusivity, even if uncomfortable at times – in the knowledge that we share a common goal of achieving justice and equity for all people. Working together, we can make a difference for individuals, families and communities of color.”

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