Discussion focuses on racial equity

Social workers involved in advancing racial equity reinforced the need for the social work profession to be at the forefront of eradicating institutional racism, during a recent congressional briefing on Capitol Hill.

NASW sponsored the briefing, titled “Achieving Racial Equity: Social Workers as Agents of Change,” in March in conjunction with the Congressional Social Work Caucus.

Congressional staff, social work leaders, and civil rights, policy and racial equity experts attended the event. It built on a two-day think tank symposium on achieving racial equity hosted by the NASW Social Work Policy Institute in November.

Social worker and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., attended the briefing and stressed that the U.S. needs a “comprehensive mental health approach for populations of people who don’t have access to the economic systems of this country.”

She said the “Great Society” reform programs launched 50 years ago, in part by President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, continue to help millions of people today.

“Some of these Great Society programs provided the foundation for many to be lifted out of poverty into the middle class,” said Lee, who is chairwoman of the Congressional Social Work Caucus and the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus.

However, work remains on eradicating racial inequality, she said.

“We have to address structural and institutional inequities that have been left behind for communities of color,” Lee said. “We have made progress, but race is still a factor.”

“We can move forward on achieving racial equality in this country, but we can’t do it without social workers in the forefront of this fight,” she added.

Panelist Diane Bell-McKoy offered examples of ongoing racial disparity. The president and CEO of Associated Black Charities said there is a false belief that a quality education will result in racial equity.

“The systems and structures that impact our lives — despite our education — control the issue of equity,” she said.

Bell-McKoy told attendees that skin color and its relationship to availability of networks provide “invisible capital.”

“I urge you to take a look at your own networks and the networks you use for your children, your family and friends,” she said. “Take a look at the networks available to people who do not have the breadth of your access.”

Panelist Doua Thor, a Health and Aging Policy Fellow, is a senior adviser for the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

The initiative works in several areas to reduce racial inequity, she said, including addressing the needs of undocumented students from Asia and the Pacific Islands, reuniting families through the immigration system and reducing language barriers that can limit Asian and Pacific Island Americans from accessing government grants and programs.

“We (the initiative) help federal agencies better understand our community,” Thor said.

Thor and Bell-McKoy also will be plenary speakers at the NASW national conference in July.

Panelist and social worker Marilyn J. Burguier Zimmerman is director of the National Native Children’s Trauma Center at the University of Montana. She is a member of the National Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse Fatalities and is an enrolled member of the Assiniboine-Sioux tribes of the Fort Peck reservation.

She said lack of funding to support social workers in tribal communities is a perpetual problem. Researching tribal communities to quantify need is also an issue. For example, typical research projects want to come in from the outside, do the project and then leave, Zimmerman said, failing to respect the tribal communities and not taking time to build trust with tribal leaders.

Child psychologist Valerie Maholmes also served as a panelist. She is the chief of the Pediatric Trauma and Critical Illness Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which examines challenges families face that keep children from reaching their full potential.

“We look at the vulnerabilities for how a child may be off course. We look at what are the areas of inequities,” she said.

Maholmes noted that the institute’s Science Ecology of Early Development program has brought a multidisciplinary approach to examine long-term impacts on child development over a 10- to 12-year period.

Part of the ongoing effort examines how family development impacts health outcomes for children, she said. Factors include how poverty and social inequities make a difference, for example.

“We want to fill the research gaps in those areas,” Maholmes said.

Sandra Bernabei, president-elect of the NASW New York City Chapter and founder of Antiracist Alliance, moderated the briefing. She also served on the planning committee for the SWPI think-tank meeting on achieving racial equity.

NASW CEO Angelo McClain said speakers offered unique insight into the challenges of reaching racial equality. He reaffirmed that social workers will play a leading role in helping achieve racial equity.

Social workers “are change agents, and undoing racism is an area that needs changing,” he said.

NASW resources

  • “Institutional Racism and the Social Work Profession: A Call to Action” {}
  • “NASW Standards on Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice” {}