By Samuel Leibowitz-Lord '21
Rutgers School of Social Work hosted its third annual Challenging Racial Disparities Conference, “Race and Justice in America Today,” on June 4, bringing together social workers and other helping professionals to discuss what they can do to challenge racism.
Busch Student Center’s conference rooms were packed by attendees of this sold-out event, featuring lectures and workshops from faculty, alumni, and practitioners. The conference was organized by the School’s Office of Continuing Education and offered continuing education hours for those who attended.
Welcoming remarks were given by Dr. DuWayne Battle, Director of the BASW program and Associate Professor of Teaching. He urged attendees to take the issue of race in public institutions and private practice seriously, offering statistics that demonstrated continued and systemic disenfranchisement of non-white people in the job market, education, and the justice system. “Racial disparities affect the entire population due to their social and economic costs,” Battle said. Hinda Winawer, a frequent part-time lecturer at Rutgers School of Social Work, gave the opening address, “The inevitable invisibility of whiteness (for whites).”
Jelani Cobb, PhD, the Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, staff writer at The New Yorker, and a Rutgers alumnus, delivered the conference’s keynote lecture. He explored the concept and history of race in America and showed how it has played out in institutions throughout the centuries. He challenged the audience to undo these systemic injustices by confronting racial issues in the field, rather than ignoring them, and called for more focus to be put on systemic reform. “The role of social workers is to be the conscience of a democracy,” Cobb said to the crowd, who gave him a standing ovation at the end of his lecture.
The keynote lecture is offered each year in honor of social work professor Dr. William Neal Brown, the first black professor at Rutgers. Brown, who passed away in 2009, was represented at the conference by his longtime partner, Suzanne Zimmer. Zimmer commended the conference for acknowledging Brown’s legacy and contributions to Rutgers, which have historically gone unnoticed.
Cobb’s keynote was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Marla Blunt-Carter, Assistant Professor of Professional Practice. Difficult questions and thoughtful answers were posed by both audience members and panel participants, including Battle, Cobb, Winawer, and Nydia Garcia Preto of the Multicultural Family Institute. Key points included the need for all social workers to self-reflect and evaluate their roles in potentially oppressive institutions, and the importance of empathy when dealing with issues of race in the field.
Eight break-out sessions were held later in the day, led by Battle, Winawer, Teaching Instructor Dr. Natalie Moore-Bembry, Teaching Instructor Lorraine Howard from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, and DSW program alumna Dr. Jesselly De La Cruz, among others. The workshops were designed to help social workers deal with specific issues, including racial trauma, the intersection of race and addiction, cultural humility, and resilience theory.
Next year the conference will be held on June 2, 2020.