Social workers and social work educators taking socially conscious actions in the Trump era

Mickey Sperlich

Assistant Professor Mickey Sperlich at the 2018 Lansing, MI Women's March Photo: Liz Brauer

It is in the social work code of ethics that social workers advocate for, defend, and work towards positive change on behalf of vulnerable, discriminated-against and disenfranchised people—namely, towards “social justice.”

Published June 1, 2018

By: Jana Eisenberg

This means taking action—whether it’s professionally and on an individual level, personally, for example, going to demonstrations, or in daily practice, as a social work educator/researcher, student, or professional. In these complex and divisive times—with this specific president and political climate—there are both challenges and opportunities for social workers and social work educators in taking such actions, especially considering the pervasive and seemingly deepening divides along racial, ethnic, sexual/gender identity, national, economic, party, personal and religious lines. UBSSW faculty, staff and alumni are facing those challenges and taking those opportunities in various ways. In addressing issues through the lens of social work and social work education, Dean Nancy J. Smyth says that one challenge in all communication, and particularly in these times, is acknowledging others’ perspectives, and making sure to listen. “We have to be careful when talking about social action; we don’t all think the same way about what constitutes social justice,” she said. “As educators, we must emphasize dialogue across differences—our faculty are getting training on how to do that in the classroom. We must continue to advocate for vulnerable people and for policy change, while educating about and understanding that we need to hear different voices.”

Facilitating Dialogue

Assistant Professor Annahita Ball did just that recently, when a consortium of Buffalo area high schools contacted UBSSW to request assistance working with their students on learning to become more aware of and speak with each other regarding issues around diversity. With other UBSSW faculty members and a group of her MSW students, Ball organized a daylong workshop bringing together diverse students from several high schools. The MSW students gained confidence and experience moderating potentially sensitive topics, and the younger students were able to think, speak and learn in a supportive atmosphere. Ball answered her own question, regarding why the high schools reached out to UBSSW now for help. “High schools have been working on these types of issues for decades,” she said. “But these unprecedented times feel like they’re pushing people to do something. I’ve heard our faculty members saying, ‘I haven’t done enough, I thought I was.’ It feels like a crisis; it’s more urgent to take these sorts of actions.”

Facing Discomfort and Uncertainty

Teaching assistant and doctoral student Sarah Richards-Desai, MSW ’17, agrees that, between policy changes and the tone and magnification of the national conversation in the past year, she’s feeling and seeing more public discussion and more anxiety around various issues. “I’m married to someone from another country, and I work with refugees. The week after the election, I was teaching in a class of diverse students about global social work and immigration,” said Richards-Desai. “I shared with the class that at that moment I was concerned about the future of immigration policy, both personally and in my research. I wanted the class to be an open setting where people could say what they wanted; I’m there to help educate and professionalize new social workers. “Because we are social workers, there are core principles that we must affirm, whether we personally agree with them. That can be uncomfortable for some; it’s important to acknowledge dissent and division, which can impact us professionally,” Richards-Desai continued. “As part of the higher education system, I acknowledge that uncertainty in the classroom. "The goal for students, said Richards-Desai and others, isn’t to feel comfortable or safe in expressing potentially controversial or unpopular opinions, but to feel heard; the teacher’s role is to direct the discussion so that everyone can learn from it. (See sidebar for some of the social actions in which Richards-Desai and other UBSSW individuals participate.) “When a student says something [that might echo some of the more hateful rhetoric] during a class, it can be difficult to make sense of it,” agreed Nadine Shaanta Murshid, assistant professor. “The students all look to me, and I have to encourage conversation; I try to switch from challenging the person’s ideas or belief system, to an inclusive, critical, logical and structural exploration of the sources of inequality or the social norms that are creating the issue.” “It’s so easy to dehumanize and stereotype people who don’t agree with us. And neither a debate or facts alone works; stories can help,” said Smyth. “I start with the assumption that everyone is human; that they want some of the same things that I do. Then you can ask, what is important to you? How have you come to that belief system or opinion?”

Global Problems, Personal Decisions

By their code, social workers are called to help bridge societal divides, for example, between immigrants and refugees and their advocates, and those who may profess anti-immigrant sentiment. “These divides are global, they are not new, and this didn’t happen overnight,” said Murshid. “I will ask my students, when something happens, who benefits? What is the purpose of creating this kind of division? We can laugh about what’s happening on Twitter, but the truth is [these policies and actions] all have a purpose—they are all to divide. This old tool, dividing to control, seems truer today than last month in some way.” It can be challenging for social workers to maintain momentum and commitment to action, with near-daily policy changes and threats to vulnerable populations. “If and how to get involved is a personal decision each social worker makes depending on skills, interests, and comfort level,” said Ball. “I do some in my personal work, but maybe not as much as I think I should. There was a point in life where all of my volunteer and community participation was around social action and social work; you can burn out. Now I do things that are more ‘here and there,’ like Girls on the Run, which is about opportunities for girls, as well as going to protests.”

Media-driven Divisions?

“With the popularity and rise of cable TV news, we became able to choose sources that support what we’re interested in,” said Smyth. “I love social media, but it’s not always good…now, with the ‘filter bubbles,’ it’s easier to live in different cultural realities; we lack a shared understanding of what we think is happening. Our entire society—including academics—doesn’t do a good job of evaluating content.” Murshid agrees, and in the classroom or in conversation, urges people to question: where did we hear a particular opinion?  Are we parroting someone else? What are the sources of barriers to critical thinking? “We need to believe in fact-based ideas, in research and science—and need others to as well,” she said. “As social workers and social work researchers, we need more evidence about policies and their implications. We must push against the anti-intellectualism wave that we are in the middle of; we must promote evidencebased practice. The need for it is that much more.” All agree that social workers and educators can help each other remain resilient in tough times—both by reminding themselves of their initial passion and commitment for the profession, as well as engaging in self-care. “People are feeling like they’re under siege,” said Smyth. “Every day, multiple things happen, and you ask yourself, how can I possibly address all of these? To avoid getting overwhelmed and paralyzed, I encourage people to limit exposure, to get headlines from trusted sources, and dive in to get details.” “While we have to do more in terms of work on the ground, self-care is something that we often forget, and it is so important,” said Murshid. “In these times, self-care can be an act of revolution.”

High school student group

During a break-out session at the Challenge2Change Summit, MSW student Savannah Figueroa facilitated, reading scenarios where participating high school students might encounter diversity. In silence, the students refl ected and walked to a space of their choice, representing zones of “comfort,” “danger,” or “learning edge.” They debriefed as a group after the exercise. Photo: Candra Skrzypek, MSW ‘17

Some examples of how we TAKE ACTION:

  • STUDENT TAKES SOCIAL ACTION ON HER OWN - PhD student/activist Josie Diebold is deeply involved in Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a grassroots organization committed to dismantling white supremacy. As part of a campaign to oust the Erie County sheriff, she had letters published in local newspapers and was a media spokesperson at a rally. She was also arrested during a direct action to protest the sheriff and his policies.
  • TAKING ON ISSUES VIA SOCIAL MEDIA AND TWITTER - Pat Shelly, MSW ’95, SSW director of community engagement and expansion, hosted a live Twitter chat as a member of #MacroSW, a collaboration of social workers, organizations, social work schools, and individuals that promotes macro social work practice. The discussion, on innovating gang violence prevention through social media, featured Desmond Patton talking about his research project, @SAFELab.
  • REGIONAL COLLABORATION TO IMPROVE DELIVERY OF TRAUMA-INFORMED CARE -  Samantha Koury, LMSW, MSW ’15, project manager at UBSSW’s Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care (ITTIC) reports that ITTIC facilitated a seven-month learning collaborative, training almost 40 trauma-informed care “champions” across Western New York’s eight counties. Through a contract with the Trauma Informed Community Initiative of Western New York and the Health Foundation’s Health Leadership Fellows Program Cohort V, The WNY Champion Team learned how to create and advocate for traumainformed organizations.
  • FACILITATING IN HIGH SCHOOLS TO ADDRESS BIAS, PRIVILEGE, AND OPPRESSION -  Challenge2Change (#c2cwny) has grown from a partnership between one high school and the SSW into a wider and ongoing program, offering opportunities for MSW students to gain real-life facilitating experience while working with high school administrations and students to develop anti-racism programs and dialogue. (See main story for comments from one of the organizers, Assistant Professor Annahita Ball.) 
  • MULTIPLE ISSUES AND ACTIONS - Diane Elze PhD, associate professor and director of the MSW program, is involved in many local groups, including Showing Up for Racial Justice, the Fire Howard campaign, and the Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition.
  • EXPRESSING HERSELF IN PRINT - Assistant Professor Nadine Shaanta Murshid writes opinion articles for the Daily Star, an English-language print and online newspaper in Bangladesh. A sampling of her 2017 headlines: “Spot the Patriarchy,” “The Case for Angry Women,” and “Minority Lives Matter.”
  • EXTREMELY ACTIVE ACTIVIST -  PhD student Sarah Richards-Desai, MSW ’16 founded “Checking in: Potluck and Postcards,” a political letter writing and Facebook group—friends and colleagues get together, share a meal and information, and write to lawmakers on social justice issues, as well as staying in touch between meetings via their Facebook group. She blogs and gives presentations (a recent example: Erie Niagara Area Health Education Center on the value of cultural humility and expanding access to healthcare for marginalized communities). Richards-Desai’s also joins in marches/protests (bringing her young child to many), attends hearing and sessions on issue of concern, and volunteers at events. One such event is World Refugee Day in WNY (an international annual event founded in 2000 by the United Nations; locally, Ali Kadhum, MSW ‘14, was one of the people who began organizing the regional event around 2009.) Many SSW faculty, students and alums participate in the annual refugeeled event, celebrating refugees and newcomers. “This year more than ever, we gathered to support our communities, expanding to emphasize refugee women and girls,” said Richards-Desai. “I coordinated family, youth, and women’s events, fundraised, donated, and ran events all day.”
  • A FOCUS ON THE FUTURE FOR HIS KIDS - Raising their three young children to be “gender-equality focused” is a commitment that MSW student Wayne Brown and his wife have made. “The government today genuinely makes me sad,” said Brown. “I feel that it’s my duty to put forth gender-equality motivated young people—to let them try and make a better place than what we’ve given them.” That’s why Brown, who says he’s been a “social activist” most of his life, took his oldest, a four-and-a-half year-old girl, to the Women’s March in Buff alo earlier this year. “My wife wasn’t sure about me taking her,” continued Brown. “But you can’t teach kids to be advocates and activists simply with words. It was a fantastic experience—of course she’s only 4½, but she asked what it was about, and I said that these people are working to make sure that as she gets older, she has the same rights as everyone else.”
  • BECOMING A LEADER, MAKING A DIFFERENCE -  Because of the “trying time” we’re living in, and the division she’s felt even with some family members, Kathryn Franco, MSW/MPH ’18, knew that, during her internship, she wanted to re-engage somewhere that she could make an impact. Franco, who identifies as a woman of color and queer, selected Partnership for Public Good, a community think-tank action group in Buffalo, where she is conducting “macro policy research work,” and reaching directly out to policymakers to seek support for the group’s positions. “This feels so utterly important,” said Franco. “While social workers are not necessarily seen as powerful leaders, it is part of our role to inform others of what’s going on. I feel very active in that.”
Group photo of UBSSW alumni, staff, students, faculty and family at the 2018 Buffalo Women's March.

UBSSW alumni, staff, students, faculty and family at the 2018 Buffalo Women's March