Speaking Truth to Reality
Social Workers Share Experiences as Men of Color
Maurice Lacey, LMSW, MS Ed, CASAC
(Editor’s Note: At a time when people in New York City, and across the nation, are feeling the crippling effects of a broken economy, it is important to recognize that communities of color have long felt the impact of economic hardship, much before the recent crash on Wall Street. Our families of color have suffered the inhumane consequences of inequity – a disproportionate shortage of resources in their communities’ schools; greater instances of serious health issues with a corresponding lack of quality health care; and extraordinarily high incarceration rates of their fathers, husbands, boyfriends and sons. Men of color who are also social workers have a challenging position in this crisis – while working to address the untenable life conditions of some of their clients of color, they are also members of those families and communities themselves. In celebration of Black History Month and in honor of the powerful organizing legacy of our Black ancestors, NASW-NYC is privileged to share a glimpse of the vital work of the Men of Color Roundtable Discussion Group with our members. We extend a special thank-you to Maurice Lacey for his candor the following article.)
Creating a Vision
The Men of Color Roundtable Discussion Group was created through the vision of Ron Chisom – Executive Director of The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana. In the fall of 2007, Ron called together a small group of men of color who were attending a three-day Undoing Racism™ and Community Organizing Workshop at Fordham University in New York City. He expressed a desire and need for men of color to organize themselves by meeting for the purpose of engaging in self-development and supporting each other in the struggle to undo racism in their agencies and communities. Our original group of about ten men consisted of social workers from various fields and positions. It included a dean, case workers, executive directors, private practitioners, students and public servants.
Ron’s vision quickly blossomed into a movement of men of color, energized and inspired to take a stand against racism in all of its hideous forms. Since that time we have attracted dozens of men of color from diverse backgrounds who are willing to support each other to undo racism. The majority (80%) of the participants are Black, although we have consistently sought to include a greater balance of Latino and Asian men.
The Men of Color Roundtable Group operates under the Anti-Racist Principles for Effective Organizing and Social Transformation set forth by PISAB. As a result, we firmly believe that “[r]acism is the single most critical barrier to building effective coalitions for social change. Racism has been consciously and systematically erected, and it can be undone only if people understand what it is, where it comes from, how it functions, and why it is perpetuated” (www.pisab.org). We also feel that racism must be analyzed through understanding power. We believe that our approach is consistent with the social work values of service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.
In order to undo racism, this group seeks to engage in base-building, community organizing, social justice work, political action, leadership development, networking, strategic planning, and education. This group also gives men of color the opportunity to address the psychological and sociological stressors of anger, invisibility, role strain, alienation, powerlessness, low expectations, hostility, sexuality issues, disenfranchisement, coping fatigue, and feelings of hopelessness. We encourage our group members to use art, music, dance, poetry, and other forms of expression to deal with and highlight the horrors of racism as well.
Connecting Intimately for Mutual Support
As social workers we value group process and education as mechanisms to engage men of color in anti-racist organizing, both of which have a liberating effect that we believe is vital for personal and social transformation. Group process has also allowed our participants to intimately connect with other men for the purpose of mutual development and support. This group provides a safe space for men of color to discuss the impact that racism has on them, their families, their communities, and organizations or agencies in which they work. This type of sharing atmosphere is absent is our major institutions. The majority of our participants have never had this type of supportive interaction with other men of color.
Some of our group members are experienced organizers and others are new to the process. However, each member is respected and valued for his individual skills and talents. Although we greatly respect expertise and experience, we cannot afford to create voiceless members, lest we do injustice to ourselves. We seek to avoid intra-group domination that mimics the broader society.
Recognizing the Need for Individual Healing and Self-Evaluation
As men of color we have been deeply affected by racism and there is a great need for individual healing and self-evaluation. This group is available to address both those needs. We realize that internalized racial oppression has led to feelings of inferiority that have in turn been manifested through addictions, violence, underachievement, depression, self-hatred, shame, and other self destructive behaviors. This group serves as a place where our mutual feelings and experiences are validated by other men of color. This is critical because some of us have hidden our internal feelings out of fear of being perceived as radicals, trouble-makers, whiners, or even worse - paranoid. As a result, we have had to silently endure micro transgressions, injustice, and insensitivity. Even as we took the three-day Undoing Racism™ and Community Organizing Workshop, most of us did not speak our full truths out of fear of offending White participants or sounding irrational. Without individual healing, our efforts towards positive social transformation will be greatly hampered.
Nurturing Authentic Relationships
Another strong aspect of this group is the building and nurturing of authentic relationships. As social workers of color we have been driven to “fit in” with our White colleagues out of fear of being negatively labeled. Therefore, our daily encounters have been carefully and skillfully managed to avoid misperceptions. “Fitting in” to organizational cultures translates into speaking, dressing, acting, and responding in a manner that is acceptable to the dominant group. This phenomenon leads to a creation of an inauthentic self.
The lack of authentic relationships with some of our White colleagues has left a void in our professional lives. We have found that men of color rarely discuss race in an honest and open manner in schools of social work or in the workplace. But yet, virtually all of us have experienced the sting of racism in both settings. This group has become somewhat of a learning laboratory for creating authentic relationships within our group and across racial lines. We are now more prepared to have real conversation with others about race and racism.
Aspiring to Create an Equitable Society
The Men of Color Group is still in the infancy stage of development, but we aspire to mobilize against policies, laws, and actions that undermine our communities and perpetuate racism. Strategic planning sessions are being organized to bring these efforts to reality. We also seek to develop partnerships and strategic alliances with multiracial organizations, individuals, and groups willing to address racism from a micro to macro level. We especially look forward to joining with groups of women of color for the purpose of healing and organizing for change. We believe that the Men of Color Roundtable Discussion Group will serve as a model for others and as a catalyst for antiracist organizing, professional development, political action, movement building, and healing for men of color in social work and other human service professions. Most importantly, we hope that our group will help to create a society that is healthier, more equitable, and free of race-based discrimination that also feeds other forms of oppression. We are grateful to PISAB and the Anti-Racist Alliance of New York (www.antiracistalliance.com) for allowing this group to function under their leadership, care, and support.
The election of President Barack Obama has given us new hope that our organizing is not in vain. America seems ready to listen if our voices are loud and clear enough for its citizens to hear.
The Men of Color Discussion Group meets monthly at Columbia University’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (The Gordon Center). If you are interested in participating in or learning more about this group, please contact Maurice Lacey at firstname.lastname@example.org. The group welcomes any feedback and support.