Kenneth Bourne graduated from Rutgers School of Social Work in 2018. He shares his journey to a career in social work and how current events have shaped his work.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in social work?
I didn’t choose to become a social worker. As a social justice warrior, I was meant to be one. Growing up in Philadelphia, I knew early on that missteps could cost me my life. It took me longer to realize that Black people like me were set up for more than our fair share of missteps by racist systems and inequitable resources. In fifth grade, I had to defend myself from a teacher who was choking me. Yet, I was the one who got suspended for a “physical altercation” I didn’t cause. After that, for a long while, I got the lowest grade on every test, not because I couldn’t do better, but because there was no reason to. It took me longer to realize that what I suffered, both physically and mentally, was experienced disproportionately by Black boys in urban schools nationwide. They are under-expected to achieve and over-disciplined by a largely white teacher workforce. No surprise they continue to trail their white peers in academic achievement. What student wants to try hard at doing well in school when your teachers just think you’re bad and you don’t have what it takes to do well? Every day after school, I remember taking the long way home to increase the odds of making it safely without a fight. It took me longer to realize that the police (who were supposed to protect and ensure safe passageway from school to home) could not only stop me for no reason—other than being Black—but interrogate me for hours then decide to let me go with no apology. This subjugation is just one of things wrong with an unjust criminal justice system.
When I got to Denison University and started to study sociology and anthropology, I was able to start piecing things together. Critical race theory. Hegel’s dialectical thinking. Nietzsche’s coined term discourse. Foucalt’s deconstruction of power and knowledge. All of this gave me the insights to reflect on my life differently. To see how so much had been fabricated by racist design. I started to question everything I knew. That’s when a professor, Dr. Mary Tuominen, who had taken me under her wing, encouraged me to apply to graduate school in social work—for me to put to practice all that I was learning to help others. For me, social work is social justice work. It’s not a rhetorical leap, but meaningfully the same thing for me.
Why did you study at Rutgers School of Social Work?
I chose to study at Rutgers School of Social Work because its mission spoke to me. I wanted to go to a school where I could gain the knowledge and expertise to promote social and economic justice and help strengthen individuals, families and communities. And Rutgers did not disappoint. The professors I was honored to study with—Marla Blunt-Carter, Natalie Bembry and Lorraine Howard, among others—were not only vital to my success while there, they continue to support me and my pursuit of social justice through social work. Rutgers also afforded me opportunities to put to practice all that I was learning. As Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton said, “Theory with no practice ain’t sh*t.”
Tell us about your work as a school social worker and as founder/CEO of ANEW.
As a last resort, I was called in to run a two-week workshop for a 7th grade class at an all-boys public charter school that I was told was terrible, made up of all the boys with the most detentions. Many were on their way to being expelled. The boys were so bad, I was told, that the school couldn’t find a full-time teacher. A substitute had quit after just one day. About a week in, I started to hear about a video circulating among the teachers that showed every single one of those “terrible” and “bad” boys captivated, paying full attention to a discussion we were having during my workshop. Soon after, I was asked by the principal to work at the school as a full-time social worker charged with designing a curriculum all the teachers could use to help students adopt healthier approaches to expressing themselves. Through this new series of workshops, students were introduced to mindfulness, brain breaks and other coping strategies essential for personal growth and academic focus. I intentionally designed the curriculum around how students learn and retain information, integrating whenever I could references to sports, hip hop, pop culture and video games—almost anything that already grasps their attention. As a part of this work, I insisted that teachers assess their own biases and rethink their own pedagogical approach to optimize student engagement and learning. I showed them why it matters to be authentic and unafraid of sharing who they are to build trust and rapport.
This work, more specifically the approach I take, aligns with the values of my new company, ANEW. The mission of my new venture is to propel the academic achievement and life success of Black boys and young men through racial trauma healing and strategies for overcoming systemic inequalities, combating toxic masculinity and cultivating trusting relationships. The three main modalities of consultation delivery are student talks, professional workshops and a substitution series, and each can be fully customized to align with organizational goals. Understanding that, without focused intervention, all signs point to a future for Black boys and young men that is unacceptable. Our Black boys and young men need extra love and guidance from the world. And the world needs them to thrive to advance the eradication of what’s holding all of us back: structural racism, social oppression and intergenerational poverty.
How has your work changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic?
The field of social work and ANEW are both based on authentic human connection. The pandemic has brought unexpected challenges to something we took for granted. But my colleagues and I have proven that authentic human connection—trust building—is possible even when our modes of communications are primarily digital. A big job of mine was to get sixth graders to click into online schooling. And we were able to do just that through the practice of what I’ve been calling concerted compassion. That grade went from having only 31% of the boys attending school regularly to above 95%, the highest rate for any grade in this school and far better than the most recent district reporting of just over 58% of Philadelphia public school students with 95%+ attendance.
In my own classes, I’ve created new ways of building rapport, keeping the boys actively engaged while feeling safe, even during screen time. The other day, for instance, we used the camera on/off function during a discussion on toxic masculinity. All the boys would start the talk with their cameras off, and would turn them on only when the topic pertained to them. So if I said, “Cameras on if you’ve ever heard the statement ‘Man up!’,” some would. This opt-in would allow boys to connect with one another and with each other’s vulnerability, so they could struggle together to reach a place of hope and healing. The pandemic has forced me to be even more creative in ensuring authentic human connection, but it’s also shown me some of the creative workarounds can and should be permanent keepers. Post pandemic, I’m going to keep some of these new methods of counseling and teaching in my professional toolkit.
How has your work been impacted by the social unrest brought on by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others whose deaths were not filmed or publicized and whose names we do not know?
The racial reckoning and turmoil has intensified my social justice-focused social work and that of ANEW. I work at an all-male charter school in Philadelphia, a city where Black boys have the shortest life expectancy. In lifespan terms, their murder rate and their death rate from health disparities and social inequities are the highest. This was all true before the racial endemic—before their consciousness, anxiety, fear and trauma were further heightened by the public, state-sanctioned murder of Black people. Entire communities—marginalized, hurt, upset and rightfully angry—have taken to the streets, demanding safety, justice and humanity—simply, the right to well-being and a fair shot at a good life. To say the least, Black lives are in a constant state of unrest, and as a result, much of my work is centered upon creating authentic ways of rest and healing from racial trauma.
The work I do as a social worker and through ANEW is grounded in restful healing. ANEW’s logo is a quarter rest musical note centered by a circle, which symbolizes the idea that one cannot heal without rest—resting of the mind, body and heart. The students I work with are not immune to the pandemic, nor this racial endemic. It’s really hard, sometimes impossible, to fully engage in schoolwork, especially when you’re experiencing trauma: always on go, but unable to focus; fatigued, but unable to sleep well; and misunderstood. The racial reckoning that Black people have endured and internalized, along with our entire communities, cannot be transfused with vague language or heartless media language. When Walter Wallace, Jr. was shot down in West Philly, where I live, we all suffered. The continued racial endemic of Black people has created shared suffering and a sense of hopelessness. With little to no accountability or significant changes to the policies that make the murdering of Black people acceptable in the eyes of the law and within society, I know I must intensify my work to find ways for Black boys, young men, and our communities to heal from racial trauma as we help heal others. The trauma healing I believe in and practice every day posits that the people often best positioned to help heal others from trauma are the people who are healing themselves. My work continues to be proof of that.