Linda Villarosa, Photo by Nic Villarosa
Linda Villarosa. Photo: Nic Villarosa

Rutgers School of Social Work’s Office of Continuing Education hosted its seventh annual Challenging Racial Disparities Conference, “A Call to Action,” on Wednesday, June 7, bringing together more than 500 social workers and allied professionals for a powerful learning opportunity.

“The annual conference is held to help empower social workers to address the impact of racism in their practice in both small and large ways,” said Douglas Behan, Associate Professor of Professional Practice and Director of Continuing Education. 

Dean and Distinguished Professor Cathryn C. Potter welcomed participants to the virtual event and offered initial remarks. “This promises to be another day of focus on the racism that holds us back so strongly from the country and society we want to be,” she said. “Today will again call us to that perpetual action that is required by our profession.”

The opening keynote, “Race in the Therapy Room,” was led by Nathalie Edmond, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, experienced yoga teacher and JEDI practitioner who takes an integrative perspective to her consultations and trainings.

The main keynote was delivered by Linda Villarosa, author and New York Times Magazine journalist, professor of journalism, English, and black studies at the City College of New York, contributor to The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, and former executive editor of Essence Magazine

She is the author of Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation, which lays bare the toll racism takes on individuals and the health of our nation. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, and was named one of the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2022 as well as one of the books of the year by 6 publications including The Atlantic, NPR, The Washington Post, and TIME.

As a contributor to The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project and the subsequent book-length expansion of the 1619 Project, she traced the race-based physiological myths that have endured since slavery and continue to plague medicine today.

A former executive editor of Essence Magazine, Villarosa is a member of the Association of LGBTQ Journalists Hall of Fame and has been recognized with awards from the American Medical Writers’ Association, the New York Association of Black Journalists, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and many others. She teaches journalism, English and Black Studies at the City College of NY.

In her keynote address, Villarosa focused on the consistent poorer health outcomes for Black Americans over their white and Latinx counterparts, including higher rates of maternal and infant mortality, higher rates of mortality for COVID and HIV/AIDS, and the shocking difference in life expectancy in predominantly Black vs. white Chicago neighborhoods. 

The keynote lecture is offered each year in honor of social work professor Dr. William Neal Brown, the first black professor at Rutgers, who passed away in 2009. Dr. Brown's longtime partner, Suzanne Zimmer, supports the annual conference as a way to acknowledge his legacy and contributions to Rutgers, which have historically gone unnoticed.

Following the keynotes was a panel discussion moderated by Rupa Khetarpal, MA, MSW, LCSW. Panelists included Nathalie Edmond, PsyD, Susan Esquilin, PhD, Rachel John, PhD, and Linda Villarosa.

Attendees gained new skills and ideas to address issues of race in their practice with clients, organizations, communities, and within themselves. “[The conference was] very informative and compelling,” said an attendee. “All speakers made such clear and passionate presentations about the effects of racial trauma and social determinants of health related to racism. I left feeling challenged, informed, and fired up to change my practice, continue my personal work toward antiracism, and disseminate this information to all around me.”