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An Interview with IIDEA Committee Member Elsa Candelario
June 10, 2021

Rutgers School of Social Work’s Committee forElsa CandelarioInclusion, Intersectionality, Diversity, Equity and Advancement (IIDEA) aims to advance the School’s initiatives that further inclusion, intersectionality, diversity, equity, and advancement. Elsa Candelario, Professor of Professional Practice, explains her role on the committee and why she is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives at the School and beyond. 

Why are diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives important to you?
As a former social work administrator and prior chairperson of groups that have advocated for equity and inclusion, such as the NJ Hispanic Directors’ Association and the NJ Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma, my personal and professional efforts have focused on improving diversity, equity and inclusion. For many decades, I have lived and worked in communities that were long neglected by the vital institutions that are needed for the development of healthy and thriving neighborhoods. The impact of such neglect has had profound generational effects on individuals, families and communities that can be reversed if we focus on making systems accountable. My life’s work has been aimed at revealing opportunities to reverse these trends, and thus I welcome the opportunity to work with others to elevate conversations that promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

The birth of the IIDEA Committee demonstrates Rutgers School of Social Work’s commitment to DEI at the institutional level. It should not go unnoticed that IIDEA is the first item within the School’s strategic plan, which demonstrates an acknowledgement of the need to prioritize issues of DEI within Rutgers and, by extension, within the social work profession. It is well known that there exists an underrepresentation of leaders of color and a gap in compensation by race and gender within human services organizations and the nonprofit sector in general. Thus, a disparity exists between the growth of communities of color and their representation as leaders within human services organizations. Through its curriculum, the School has long supported the NASW ethical principle of challenging injustices and pursuing social change. Our work now is to wrestle with questions that make us uncomfortable as we seek to apply this principle across the School because these debates will impact the aforementioned gaps and move us closer to a universe of diversity, equity and inclusion.

For this reason, it is important that we address institutional issues in our collective role as educators of the future leaders of the profession who will succeed the current leaders of social work organizations. Acting with the IIDEA Committee members and its leader, Dr. Antoinette Farmer, we can align our principles and practices to ensure that we develop the potential to have an impact on advancing needed change while focusing on tangible actions. Our work of collecting and analyzing information is critical so that we can engage in rich debate that will result in recommendations to the School’s dean, the administration and faculty to elevate equity, diversity and inclusion in our curriculum, recruitment processes and within our work with community partners.

What do you hope to contribute to the IIDEA Committee?
If we are to be true to principles of diversity, equity and inclusion, our collective role as social work educators of future practitioners and leaders demands that we set an example — and a good place to begin is with ourselves. It is clear that the School is committed to looking inward, which is why IIDEA is front and center in the strategic plan. I hope to share my personal and professional lived experiences to have authentic and informed discussions. I aim to contribute to the development of concrete solutions to shape our future by promoting a diverse, inclusive and equitable curriculum, workplace and classroom at the School of Social Work.

Before becoming a full-time faculty member last fall, I had decades of experience as an administrator and advocate — often practicing NASW’s ethical principle of challenging injustice by the pursuit of “social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people.” My specific experience is with working within the Latinx community, which is now roughly 20% of New Jersey’s population. In addition, I have taught the Rutgers Diversity and Oppression course for nearly a decade and am heavily involved with the LISTA certificate program that focuses on culturally-competent social work practice with the Latinx community.

The fruits of these activities have proven that courageous conversations and a solid framework form the basis for a positive path to action. The very process of having courageous conversations is at the forefront of the IIDEA Committee’s work, and we expect to engage in debate, analyze data and make recommendations that will chart a positive path forward. It’s essential that staff, faculty and students feel accepted and valued and have an equal opportunity to grow and succeed and to ensure the same for our clients, communities and the profession.

As a social work professor, what should students know about the role of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field of social work?
We are living through a reckoning in our nation with systemic racism. Our school has long taught about systems of oppression and the impact on various groups; these national discussions are long overdue. Students and social workers should participate in the conversations as allies, advocates or members of impacted communities. Our profession’s code of ethics is very clear about the centrality of social justice, human rights and inclusion. Our School’s curriculum is unambiguous about the importance of teaching about the subjects of diversity, cultural humility and oppression. Social work is the profession with social justice and advocacy at its core; but it is not perfect and must reckon with its own history of injustices. The values of diversity, equity, and inclusion help create a society that is more just. Social work students are called upon to embrace these principles and take action within their field placements and current/future jobs for meaningful and sustainable institutional changes. This is but one step toward ensuring that our own field is practicing and reflecting its core values.

Are there any actions people can take right now to more fully commit to diversity, equity, and inclusion?
I encourage social workers and social work students to think about the methods in which they will work to raise up the values of diversity, inclusion and equity in their personal and professional lives. It is valuable to make an active decision about when and how to use one’s voice, talents and privilege. There are many approaches to consider, but one positive step in that direction is to identify social work organizations that work to support marginalized populations and engage with them as a volunteer, board member or advisory committee member. Another approach is to participate with an affinity group to promote equity and inclusion.

At Rutgers School of Social Work, there are many meaningful ways to commit to DEI, such as applying to the LISTA or one of the other specialized certificate programs or joining a student organization like the Black Lives Matter Social Work Student Caucus or SWAGGER. In addition, one might review the School’s strategic plan to gain an understanding of the role of IIDEA. The committee includes several student representatives who are, together with any of the members, gateways for suggestions for our work. It is important to note that our work is a start — but DEI is everyone’s work if it is to be sustainable and meaningful. Lastly, participate in forums that address DEI issues because diverse representation is vital. DEI is every person’s responsibility to ensure a more just and equitable social work profession and society.

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