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Addressing Social Work and the Black Community
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Addressing Social Work and the Black Community
Strengths, Barriers to Professional Development and Wellness are Focus of Conference

October 2008


NASW-NYC’s Social Workers of African Descent Task Force, which was created approximately one year ago, held its first conference on Saturday, June 21 at City College. The conference, titled, “Strengthening Black Social Workers Strengthens our Community: Balancing Across the Professional/Life Cycle” was attended by 150 participants. The conference planning committee (see photo on page 7), was hard at work developing the program over the year.

Dr. Darrell Wheeler, the task force chair, opened the conference by saying the title of the event was intentionally designed to convey the power, success and beauty of the African descent experience and those who work with the community,
namely social workers in New York City. He said that the conference provided an opportunity for colleagues to come together as well as to recognize pioneers who are still blazing trails today.

According to Dr. Wheeler, the conference’s objectives were to help advance NASW-NYC’s efforts to tackle issues relevant to social work communities of African descent; expand the Chapter’s capacity to be responsive to social work policy and practice issues, including increasing leadership skills and addressing institutional barriers and racism; and to provide a space for advocacy and coalition building.

Terri Williams, LCSW, gave the keynote address. Ms. Williams is the founder of the Stay Strong Foundation and author of a recent book, Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We are Not Hurting.

Health and Wellness in the Black Community

Darwin Davis, President of the New York Urban League, was the first speaker, addressing the most pressing health care
issues in the Black community: asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

Mr. Davis, citing the recent publication of the “State of Black New York” (NY Urban League and Black Equity Alliance), discussed essential interventions that are needed yet are not expensive and can be implemented by members of the community. For example, he discussed the need for people to control the food they eat, such as substituting grilled vegetables for meat. He said that the Harlem Chamber of Commerce is focused on this, while Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company, has been involved with the Urban League in screening for diabetes. He also highlighted the need for annual check-ups to screen for prostate, colon and breast cancer, as well as being willing to engage in honest conversations to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

Overcoming Barriers to Addressing Race and Racism

Mary Pender Greene, Assistant Executive Director of the Jewish Board for Family and Children’s Services and former President of NASW-NYC, discussed how difficult it has been within social work to talk about racism as a professional of African descent. She referred to the Open Letter to the Social Work Community which was published in the Dec/Jan 2006-2007 issue of the Chapter newsletter, Currents in which the experience of Black social workers was addressed and signed by 231 social workers.

Ms. Pender Greene said that the Open Letter basically said to Black social workers that “I am not alone in the struggle”. She said that those who had collaborated on writing the letter knew that many social workers who are not of color in the field would not accept what was being discussed as reality, believing that racism does not happen anymore and that it refers to behavior of the KKK or skinheads. She said that more subtle forms of racism in the workplace prevent people of color from bringing their true selves to work, that they are rendered voiceless when others do not recognize what is being said. She pointed out that a significant challenge is getting others you are trying to communicate with to pay attention despite feelings of frustration.

Ms. Pender Greene underscored the reality that clients are affected by structural racism as well as direct racism, but the profession does not address this in case conferences, supervision, nor do the leaders of agencies ever mention it. She said that it is essential to the profession to discuss these issues authentically and that our voices are needed. She said that NASW-NYC has been helping to put racism and race on the table and that white people need to become engaged in a dialogue about this, that social workers need to be educated about race and racism.

Behind the Masks We Wear

Terri Williams, in giving the keynote address, shared with the audience her personal bout with depression in the midst of developing a very successful career and the lessons for all of us that have emerged from that experience.

In discussing the publication of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, which talks about her own experience with depression and that of many high profile people, she said that her book started out as an article in Essence. She said that it clearly touched something in its readership; the magazine received 10,000 letters in response to its appearance. One of the major points was the tendency within herself and others to hide the interior emotional pain, both from oneself and from others, including those who are close. She said that she only told members of her family about her depression a month before the Essence article came out.

As a result of her years of running from her pain, she ended up having a breakdown, paralyzed, staying in bed for hours during the day, and eating excessively late into the night. She said that despite her success, there was no joy in her life.

She shared that when she was told that she was clinically depressed, she felt a sense of relief. For the first time she was able to see that she could begin to understand what was going on and begin to take the necessary steps to deal with it.

Ms. Williams talked about the masks we all wear in our social and professional lives. She said, “I want to know who you are behind the mask you put on every day”. She said that revealing some part of yourself can profoundly change someone’s life. On the flip side, she said that being the “strong one” gets very tiring over the long run. She said that unless there is time for experiencing one’s emotions, the mask will eventually crack.

Ms. Williams shared that it is her sense that White folks who she has known appear to be more comfortable with revealing their personal issues. She said that they will say that they are going to see their therapists and even say what anti-depressants they are on. In contrast, she said, many people will lie when asked the question, “how are you?” She said that she finds this to be one of the hardest questions to answer.

One of the outcomes of the book’s publication was that people who she does not know will talk to her about their own pain. She said that one of the patterns that has emerged is that a great deal of emotional pain has been inherited from parents. She said parents pass on their talents, their gifts, and their pain, as well.
Ms. Williams concluded her remarks by turning to healing. She emphasized that while pain is everywhere, everyone has a story. We need to be clear that no one is simply bad, or mad. There is a reason for how people are feeling and for their behavior, and we need to know their story. She recommended, “tell your story to someone else… take your mask off and share it.”

She also said that we can stop the intergenerational cycle of passing on emotional pain.

2008 Honorees – Salute to Pioneers of African Descent

Eight social work leaders of African descent were nominated to receive special awards acknowledging their contributions to social work through the years. The honorees were recognized for more than 30 years of outstanding social work service to Black communities throughout New York City. They were celebrated for their commitment to the professional growth and development of all social workers, and especially their role as a pioneer and beacon for Social Workers of African descent. The honorees will be nominated for future induction as an NASW Pioneer. This year’s honorees included:

Velma Banks

Velma Banks serves as the President of the World Community of Social Workers, working to continue the legacy of Whitney M. Young Jr., an advocate for human and social equality. She is the recipient of the first Whitney M. Young, Jr. Leadership Award from Clark Atlanta University School of Social Work. She is a founding member of the Association of Black Social Workers and Black Solidarity Day. She was an administrator and educator in various social work agencies, including Edwin Gould Services for Children and Harlem Dowling Children Services, among others. She served on the faculty of Columbia University School of Social Work and John Jay College of Criminal Justice and as President of Banks Enterprise. Velma directed the International Center for Social Work Education and Training, founded Children of the Light afterschool program, and is the published author of a social work guide entitled, “Are You Ready?”

Dr. Alma Carten

Dr. Carten is the Chair of the social welfare programs and policies area at New York University Silver School of Social Work, and teaches the social welfare policies and human behavior curricula sequences. Dr. Carten is also a Consultant Reviewer for the Children’s Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families. She has held a number of faculty appointments, including Director and Chair of the Westchester Social Work Education Consortium, and has taught at Hunter College School of Social Work. Additionally, she was a member of the Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner’s Task Force on Minority Agencies. She served as President of the New York City Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers from 2000-2002. Among her publications is a book co-edited with Dr. James R. Dumpson, entitled: Removing Risk from Children: Shifting the Paradigm.

Hon. C. Virginia Fields

Hon. C. Virginia Fields is the President/CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA) and currently serves as an adjunct lecturer at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work and Columbia University’s School of Social Work. Ms. Fields is the former Manhattan Borough President. She was elected in 1997 and reelected in 2001. In 2005, she was democratic candidate for Mayor of New York City, becoming the first African-American woman to seek that office. She served as a member of the New York City Council from 1989 until her election as Manhattan Borough President.

Dr. Megan McLaughlin

Dr. Megan E. McLaughlin served as the Executive Director and CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Inc. for 17 years until her retirement in 2003. FPWA is the umbrella organization to more than 240 human service agencies. Dr. McLaughlin broadened FPWA’s influence in public policy development and expanded its role as a leading intermediary organization, growing the budget from $2.6 million to $8 million. She has served as the Chair of former Mayor David N. Dinkins’ Commission for the Foster Care of Children and member of the NYC Administration for Children’s Services Advisory Board. She is also a nationally recognized child welfare, welfare reform and poverty advocate. She is the First Vice President of NASW-NYC’s Board of Directors. Dr. McLaughlin served as Senior Program Officer for The New York Community Trust and as a social planner in the Office of the Prime Minister in Jamaica. Dr. McLaughlin received her doctorate in Social Work from the Columbia University School of Social Work.

Dr. Patricia Morisey

Dr. Patricia Morisey is a recognized social worker and child activist with an impressive record of advocacy on behalf of children in our society. She graduated from Hunter College where she received her B.A. and Columbia University where she earned her MSW and DSW. Dr. Morisey was professor and lecturer at a number of prestigious colleges and universities in NYC including Fordham University, where she retired as Professor Emeritus in 1991. She has numerous publications and has been instrumental in funding projects to improve the delivery of services to children and families by increasing the number of professional social workers with a commitment to supportive and preventive services. Dr. Morisey is on the Board of Directors at Leake and Watts. Dr. Morisey has a long history with many human service organizations and non-profits throughout New York City.

Dr. Peter Vaughan, Dean of Fordham Graduate School of Social Service, Mary Redd, Executive Director of Steinway Child and Family Services and Dr. James Dumpson, Retired, Former Commissioner of Welfare/NYC Human Resources Administration, were unable to attend the event, but were also among those acknowledged and celebrated.

A special wellness room was set up, offering meditation for stress management and Reiki, led by Nafisa Sharriff, Founder & CEO of Entering the Holy of Holies, An Institute of Learning and Healing, Inc. and Jagadisa-devasri Dacus, LMSW, Reiki Master and Senior Director of Training, Harm Reduction Coalition.
Rev. Emma Jordan Simpson, CEO of Children’s Defense Fund-NY greeted guests with inspirational remarks during the invocation. Hafeezah Basir, Chief Connecting Officer, A Circle of Sisters helped to facilitate the day as Mistress of Ceremonies. A special ancestral libation and drumming tribute was presented by Joan Ashley of Alakande! Spread Joy.

Following the keynote and plenary sessions, the conference featured six concurrent workshops covering topics from leadership, career planning, self-care, resiliency and healing to community organizing, advocacy and social justice, and financial management.

Among the presenters were: Megan McLaughlin, DSW, Former CEO, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies; Martha Adams-Sullivan, DSW, Executive Director, Fordham Tremont Community Mental Health Center; Melba Butler, LCSW, Butler Consulting; Monica Dennis, Core Trainer, People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond; Jennifer Crumpley, LCSW-R, Division Director of Mental Health Services, The Educational Alliance; Patricia White, Senior Program Officer, New York Community Trust; Debra Fraser-Howze, Former CEO, National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, and Ivan Ffriend, CEO, Ffriend Enterprises.

Co-sponsors of the conference included City College, Black Equity Alliance, Black Agency Executives and the Caribbean American Social Work Association.


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