Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Akai Gurley. Freddie Gray. Ramarley Graham. They’re the names of unarmed black males who died at the hands of police. These cases made national headlines as painful examples of the racial bias that exists in every corner of our society. This discrimination results in a lack of equal access and opportunity in education, employment, housing, health care, social services and criminal justice.
How does racial discrimination impact social work? And how can social workers and the profession as a whole recognize and overcome it in practice? To answer these questions, Rutgers School of Social Work’s Office of Continuing Education held its first conference on race on June 7: Challenging Racial Disparities: Poverty, Race, and Addiction.
The conference grew out of discussions among SSW faculty and staff, explains Douglas Behan, L.C.S.W., director of continuing education and assistant professor of professional practice.“ “We hold events on race and culture, but they’re mostly workshops,” he says. “We decided to do something with greater impact that would really get people thinking. Social workers help the most oppressed and vulnerable in our society, but we can do more. So this was really a call to action.”
“Race is difficult for us to talk about, not just as social workers, but as individuals. Most people don’t know where to begin,” adds Marla Blunt-Carter, MSW ‘03, assistant professor of professional practice. “Our intent was to help our audience understand the experiences of race. We wanted to provide practical knowledge they can use. That’s what social work is all about. You don’t just study and read and theorize about it, you go out and do it.”
Clearly, social workers found the topic compelling, with more than 300 participants signing up for the full-day conference. Said one attendee, Jodi Brodsky, L.C.S.W., “Everyone is unique and race is part of who we are. But as much as we try to be unbiased, racism is often unconscious and unintentional. I’m here to gain a stronger understanding of how race affects my relationships with clients, and learn ways to make them feel more comfortable.”
Conference presenters included Rutgers faculty and alumni, outside experts, and two speakers: author, entrepreneur and philanthropist LaTia McNeely-Sandiford, MSW ’02, and keynote speaker Carl Hart, Ph.D., a neuroscientist, activist, and educator whose research challenges society’s perceptions about drugs and addiction. Members of the conference planning committee were familiar with Hart’s work and had seen him on the news program 60 Minutes. “We felt he’d be a powerful speaker who would generate great interest and be relevant to social workers in the field,” says Blunt-Carter. The conference organizers also knew McNeely-Sandiford’s compelling personal story. A former social worker before founding her own media company, Lions Vision Productions, she brings a unique perspective to the discussion of poverty and addiction. Her parents were both heroin addicts. Her mother died at age 26 and her father was unable to be an effective parent due to his drug use. McNeely-Sandiford was raised by her grandmother and had a baby at the age of 13. Living in poverty, she strove and achieved, fueled by her belief in the power of education.
“Racial disparities in social work can’t be discussed without also talking about race in America,” she says. “We must look at our profession realistically. Social work is part of a greater society in which policies, resources, and practices were historically designed to benefit some groups while denying others access.” To be agents of change, she encourages social workers to challenge prejudice and call out every instance of racism, whether it’s big or small, passive or aggressive.
She adds her voice to the national debate about mandatory drug sentencing, pointing out it disproportionately impacts minorities, particularly males. “Becoming a convicted felon negatively affects an individual’s employment and housing, the ability to vote or obtain a student loan or driver’s license,” she states. “Removing so many male authority figures from their homes weakens families and communities, creating a vast pool of second- class citizens. Social workers need to speak out against these discriminatory policies.”
Hart, who is chair of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, also spoke about how his personal experiences have informed his work. Growing up in a poor Miami neighborhood, he saw first-hand the effects of crack cocaine. “We were told it was destroying the black community. I wanted to find a cure for that,” he says.
Once Hart began studying crack users in the laboratory, he saw their behavior was not as addictive as everyone thought. When offered a choice of crack or financial incentives, many of the drug users chose the money, even when it was only $5. “Given an appealing alternative to crack, they could stop using drugs and make rational economic decisions,” he notes.
Through his research Hart became an advocate for drug policies grounded in science. He points out that the vast majority of recreational drug users are not addicted. Instead, they’re responsible citizens who go to work, support their families, and pay taxes.
“We’ve demonized drugs, but they’re not the real problem in our communities,” he says. “The real problems are discrimination, poverty, poor education, and lack of jobs—the broader underlying causes of why people are struggling. It’s much easier to blame drugs.”
Hart called for social workers to put in the work and learn the science about drugs. Separate the facts from the hype. Spread this knowledge, correcting misinformation with information, and use empirical data in making assessments. “Knowledge can guide your decisions,” he says. “For example, you may be asked to remove children from parents testing positive for drugs. Armed with the facts, you can look beyond drug use and focus on the real issues, evaluate parenting skills, and offer much-needed help.”
Following the presentations, a panel discussion and breakout workshops offered innovative approaches to help social workers take effective action toward racial equality. Workshops covered a variety of topics, from racism in substance abuse programs to cultural competency in counseling Latino clients.
A workshop presented by instructor and field educator Lorraine Howard, MSW ’08 L.C.S.W., L.C.A.D.C., and colleagues addressed the effects of racial perceptions on clients and social workers. “Issues around race, poverty and addiction intersect all the time in social work, sometimes subtly, sometimes not,” says Howard. “A better understanding of our own socialization around race will help us build stronger, more effective relationships with clients.”
She cites the theoretical example of a white female colleague counseling a tall, imposing African-American male. During the session he becomes excited and raises his voice. “Lacking an understanding of this man’s experience, the social worker may describe him with terms like ‘threatening,’” explains Howard. “If this case involves the correctional system, her recommendation might even be to send him back to prison. I’ve always told my staff: ‘Not only do we help people—we can also hurt them, if we don’t take the time to understand their experiences, and the impact on who they are.’”
The evaluations received from partici- pants were overwhelmingly positive, with many participants expressing strong interest in attending another such conference. Plans are in the works to make it an annual continuing education event, expanding the dialogue to encompass other ethnic groups and cultures.
A key skill of an effective social worker is belief bonding—forging strong bonds with clients through empathy, warmth, acceptance, competence, and genuine interest. “If we don’t see people for who they are, if we don’t accept their culture, their race, and their challenges, there’s no bond created and we won’t be able to help them.” says Blunt- Carter.
She adds: “But if we do make an effort to really understand others, through this conference and in other ways, we can be more than culturally competent—we can be culturally courageous. This means we have the courage to say, ‘Yes, we’re different, but I see you. I won’t act as if your experiences don’t matter. I’m putting in the time to understand them so I can help you.”