Across the country and around the world, universities, and in particular schools of social work, are among the institutions now taking hard looks at themselves through a lens of racial justice and anti-racism.
Our school is no exception, and, with the 2020 formation of the Racial Justice Network (RJN), we join others in seeking to “cultivate racial equity in our academic programs, research agendas, administrative policies, and informal culture” (from the UB School of Social Work RJN website).
Unlike the more traditional model, where the school’s administration would designate a committee and/or a leadership role to drive any strategy or actions, the RJN has an intentionally decentralized model. In the words of Professor Laina Bay-Cheng, associate dean for faculty development, it is taking a “cooperative, pluralist approach.”
“We felt that we needed to be responsive to calls for racial justice,” Bay-Cheng said. “But clearly, business as usual approaches weren’t cutting it. We wanted to find a new way to make real progress. We don’t have a steering committee or a person calling the shots, we don’t have a plan or path plotted out. Our network consists of autonomous nodes, created and constituted by diverse school members—each mobilizing in various ways to move our school toward racial justice in the ways that feel most urgent and meaningful to them. This allows all of us to work on many fronts at once.”
The network visually and conceptually symbolizes itself through a map of those connected “nodes,” each representing the actions, activities and efforts being taken. Within the RJN, a large and inclusive Racial Justice Coordinating Committee, according to the RJN’s description, “functions as a hub to circulate resources among network nodes, relay information beyond the UBSSW, support the creation of new nodes, and unify our diverse community and efforts to move toward racial justice.” Again, rather than a leadership body, it works in the background to support the individuals nodes comprising the network.
“We think this model is efficient; it honors the diversity among us,” said Bay-Cheng, who, along with Associate Professors Shaanta Murshid and Diane Elze, associate dean for academic affairs, is active in the network and serves as a facilitator. “We don’t all start from the same place—with a networked approach, we are rolling as a system toward a shared goal. The three most important values within this system are diversity, autonomy and cooperation.”
The network visually and conceptually symbolizes itself through a map of those connected “nodes,” each representing the actions, activities and efforts being taken.
Michelle Fortunado-Kewin, who will earn her DSW in Spring ’22, is active within the RJN; as a social worker in the field for over 15 years, and a person of Filipino descent, she said that students want and need to see their schools acknowledge and address racial injustice in all aspects of their institutions.
“As a student, it can be hard to get involved in school efforts around race and racial justice. Anti-racism is a sensitive topic; conversations can be uncomfortable,” Fortunado-Kewin said. “Social work students—and students in general—want their schools and universities to take accountability; to make adjustments. As a doctoral student and a working professional, I may feel more comfortable speaking out and speaking up, versus an MSW student, who may still be figuring out their role.”
Fortunado-Kewin agrees that RJN’s ground-up, inclusive approach is important at this moment—particularly in the profession of and education around social work. She is so impassioned about the work, and its impact in the larger context, that she changed her capstone project topic; instead of focusing on suicidal ideation in Filipino youth (a population she works with in the San Francisco public school system), she will now explore the idea of using restorative practices to address students’ experiences of racism and oppression within the UB School of Social Work itself.
She and some network node members are looking such varied elements within the school as the makeup of the admissions committees and the doctoral program curriculum. “My ultimate goal is that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and all students feel safe at UB, and where we are both talking about and learning interventions and ways to address racism in the profession,” she said. “Social justice is one of the core values of social work. How do you expect us as social workers and students to be able to address this in society if we can’t talk about it ourselves or within our educational institutions and professional environments? Once we have the experience of questioning and interrogating the systems we are in, we can possibly do it in other places.”
Pat Shelly, MSW ‘95, a member of the school’s staff as the director of community engagement and expansion, saw herself as having a place in the RJN. Her role within the school echoes the micro-actions she’s taking in the network, sharing resources and information through a node called “Action Beyond the UBSSW.” Her personal beliefs and sense of wanting to be accountable drive her to be active in the network.
“To be anti-racist is to be a social worker and vice versa,” said Shelly. “We must promote social justice, with clients as well as with communities. Also, as a white person, being part of the advantaged group, it’s my responsibility: I share the need to address racism; to take this on with other white people. That’s part of my motivation; to step up and say ‘I’m here, and to want to be part of it.’”
With no assignments, no steering committee, no one telling anyone else what to do, the Racial Justice Network envisions progress when more people from the school community see a place for themselves within it. “Social change is fundamentally about organizing and inviting an ever-broader group of people into that change,” iterated Prof. Laina Bay-Cheng. “Our school opted for practices of community organizing and movement-building on the ground. We aim to create and work as a diverse network connected by shared principles and investment rather than formal authority and status. We know that those best positioned to make meaningful change in a system are those living within it.”