‘Stay woke’ during Social Work Month, beyond

Happy Social Work Month!  

Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSW

Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSW

I hope March 2018 gives you many moments of peaceful self-reflection filled with personal acknowledgement that your professional social work endeavors are making a critical difference in people’s lives and improving our society.  

The NASW Social Work Month theme, “Social Workers: Leaders. Advocates. Champions,” calls for actions that align with social work’s values. 

The theme underscores that 2018, with the pending midterm election, is a time for social workers to mobilize for social and political action that galvanizes change.  

Shortly after the 2016 election, I had the good fortune to meet with the NASW Social Work Pioneers® Executive Committee. During our discussion about the transition in political power, they urged me to “stay woke.”  

They reminded me that we have been at this juncture before; in 1968 and again in 1981.The Pioneers’ advice has encouraged and inspired me over the past 18 months. 

The stay woke mantra has been a constant reminder that this is a time for watchfulness and a time to be alert for opportunities to advance social equality. In times of great transition, we don’t know when small windows of opportunity for progress will open or close.

In essence, the advice to stay woke is a call to advocate, champion and lead social justice issues rather than a time for stepping back, standing down or retreating.

One might ask, “What does stay woke mean?  

Where does the term come from?”  

In response, some might say people who don’t know what the term means probably aren’t woke.  

“Woke” is a slang term that originated in the African-American community and has now gained traction in mainstream culture through social media. 

The term refers to an intangible level of awareness about community issues and social justice. 

It serves as a reference point to awareness about the persistence of racism and increasing gender inequality in America.

The earliest known instance of the term “woke” as slang for political or social awareness comes from an article in The New York Times Magazine. 

On May 20, 1962, The Times published a piece on white beatniks arrogating black culture, written by African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley and titled “If You’re Woke, You Dig It.”

The term “woke” continued to surface over the next 50 years. In “Garvey Lives!,” a 1972 play by Barry Beckham, the playwright writes “I been sleeping all my life. And now that Mr. Garvey done woke me up, I’m gon stay woke.  And I’m gon help him wake up other black folk.”

Woke’s transformation into a byword for social awareness is most frequently referenced to 2008, with the release of singer Erykah Badu’s song “Master Teacher.” 

And the rise in popularity of the term “woke” has been tied to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which initially surfaced in 2013 following the death of Trayvon Martin — often accompanying social media posts about police brutality, systemic racism and the industrial prison complex.  

Stay Woke denotes awareness, but it also implies blackness and is becoming the hallmark of socially informed, self-educated individuals. 

The phrase is now finding its way into mainstream use. 

Urban dictionary (2014) defines “woke” as being aware, and “knowing what’s going on” in the community.

It also mentions specific ties to racism and social injustice. 

On June 27, 2017, the Oxford English Dictionary officially added “woke” to the dictionary, defining it as “alert to racial and social discrimination and injustice.”

Woke also  is on MTV’s Top 10 slang words of 2016.

For social work, stay woke challenges us to be aware and take actions against racial injustice, and to be willing to speak out in ways that might be uncomfortable for others. 

The NASW Code of Ethics requires that we remain conscious of the social issues that affect our society.  Social workers have an obligation to keep informed about the racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism that affect how people live their lives every day. 

We need to think critically about the turmoil and conflict that’s going on and look past the heavily filtered media narrative. 

Ultimately, “stay woke” reminds us that there is more than one reality in the United States. 

During Social Work Month, I hope that we exhort each other to “stay woke” and assume a renewed sense of urgency in the fight against injustice. 

America needs to know that social work is, unequivocally, “down with” the historical fight against prejudice and that we fully embrace the struggle. 

Contact Angelo McClain at