Undoing Racism is Possible One Semester at a Time
Members of the URIP Steering Committee: Sasha Neha Ahuja, LMSW, Director of Government Relations, Planned Parenthood of New York City; Emily Saltzman, MSW, Adult Role Models Program Coordinator, Planned Parenthood of NYC; Mimi Abramovitz, DSW, Bertha Capen Reynolds Professor of Social Policy, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter and the CUNY Graduate Center; Kalima DeSuze, LMSW, URIP, Field Instructor; Margery Freeman M.A., Organizer/Trainer, The People's Institute for Survival & Beyond; Launa Kliever, LMSW, Adjunct Professor, Columbia University School of Social Work; Allison Brown, MSW, Social Worker, Center for Family Representation; Sandy Bernabei, LCSW, Liberation Psychotherapist, Founding Member, AntiRacist Alliance; Candida Brooks Harrison, LCSW, The Village Enrichment, PLLC, Brooklyn College- CUNY; Yasmin Safdie, MSW, Community Organizer, College and Community Fellowship; Mary Ruth Govindavari, MSW Candidate '13, URIP Intern; Jennie Encalada, MSW Candidate '13, URIP Intern
We find ourselves at a critical moment in the history of the social work profession. Today, social workers see a generations-long economic crisis reinforcing the racial wealth gap. We see austerity policies continuing to close deficits on the backs of communities of color. We see a thriving private prison system relying on militarized police forces to place Black and Brown bodies inside its cells. We see the increasing privatization of institutions of higher education. We see the decline in the power of labor unions in the United States, entities that once reliably led working families to economic security. This perfect storm of policies arguably reinforces the social order that racism in the United States relies upon.
In this perfect storm, the trend to de-politicize social work, both in institutions of social work education and at institutions of social and human service delivery could not be stronger. The trend to focus on isolated individual needs and the remote symptoms of what is, in fact, deeply-rooted, racialized inequity, is increasingly common. Pushback when conversations arise around race and racial justice at institutions are a regular occurrence for many in the field. “Some people think that when social workers make individual and social change a fundamental part of social work practice, they politicize a previously neutral, objective, and nonpolitical profession,” explains Dr. Mimi Abramovitz in her seminal article highlighting the integral role of social workers in creating social change (Abramovitz, 1998).
Since the mid-1960s both the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) have recognized the role of social work in promoting social reform. Dr. Abramovitz confirms this fact: “Social work has always been political in that it deals either with human consciousness or the allocation of resources,” she writes. “Arguing for neutrality on professional or public policy issues represents a political stance that favors the status quo by letting it stand unchallenged. Since social workers cannot avoid the political, it is far better to address these issues explicitly than to pretend that they do not exist. The history of the profession suggests that social workers recommit social work to individual growth and social change. These objectives offer a more ethical option than practicing nonpolitical social work. The middle ground, if one ever existed, is quickly receding. Social workers must decide on which side they stand” (Abramovitz, 1998).
Social workers are not exempt from continuing to reinforce systems of racial oppression. Institutions of social work education are thus critical to transform the social work field. Currently, schools of social work do not have a unified method of preparing students to break cycles of systemic racism, and this often leads to classes not addressing these issues adequately. As a consequence, students often enter the field and uphold the status quo. As gatekeepers for communities, for both basic needs and for socioeconomic mobility, social workers have perhaps the most critical role in starting at the root causes of injustice and working towards change. That is only possible if social workers come into their work equipped with an analysis of the lasting impact of racism in the United States.
The Undoing Racism™ Internship Project (URIP) explicitly identifies and builds on the potential that institutions of social work education are grounds for building towards racial justice. URIP, a branch of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), is part of the larger Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA) movement that began in 2002 when a small group of social service professionals and faculty at New York area universities realized that the social work profession was not successfully preparing a workforce that was ready to effectively work with communities of color, much less hold accountable conversations around race. In 2005, by partnering with NASW-NYC, URIP became a fully functioning project and grew out of student led interest and activism toward institutionalizing anti-racist social work practice at their respective universities.
URIP works to undo and reshape the hearts and minds of social work students, organizing aspiring professionals to develop relationships in which they are accountable to their constituents and take direction from communities most affected by inequity to undo structural racism. URIP commits to furthering the anti-racist movement by organizing within schools of schools of social work in NYC, advocating for mandatory anti-oppressive curriculum while supplying foundational community organizing skills to students. This academic year, URIP is offering nine free practice and theory labs, ranging from racial micro-aggressions, to running a campaign, to grassroots fundraising. The first six labs have been attended by 346 students, alumni, and social justice workers.
URIP represents a key political project in the field of social work, yet is only one attempt at working towards a more equitable world. We must continue to encourage institutions of social work education and agencies delivering services to communities to undo the root causes of racism and other forms of oppression, while doing the difficult work of holding ourselves, our peers and our institutions accountable to drive real change.
Abramovitz, M. (1998). Social work and social reform: An arena of struggle. Social Work, 43(6), 512-526
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