Social work students join the protest of the New York City Police Department’s “Stop-and-Frisk” policy in October. From left: Eleni Zimiles from the Columbia University School of Social Work and Undoing Racism Project intern; Sharielle Applewhite from Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and Undoing Racism Project intern; and Kathleen Algire-Fedarcyk from Columbia University School of Social Work and NASW-NYC policy intern.
Recent MSW graduate Mary Ruth Govindavari said she strongly opposes the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, which empowers officers to stop pedestrians, question them and potentially search them if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that a crime was committed.
Social work’s long history of standing up against discriminatory practices inspired her and other social workers to demonstrate against the city’s stop-and-frisk practice.
“I became convinced that social workers had the responsibility, power and skills to make a difference on this front,” Govindavari said.
She was joined by another recent MSW graduate, Jennie Encalada, in mobilizing social workers against the policy.
After discovering how stop-and-frisk disproportionately targets African-Americans and Latinos in the city, Encalada said she knew she had to get involved. She said she personally witnessed racial profiling when stop-and-frisk was put into practice while she worked in the ethnically diverse community of Cypress Hills.
“As a social worker, I sincerely believe in the Social Work Code of Ethics that highlights the dignity and worth of all people to be treated with respect and justice, regardless of skin color, race, etc.,” Encalada said.
She and Govindavari were among several interns for the Undoing Racism Internship Project, which hosted its operations out of the NASW NYC Chapter offices.
The interns, upon encouragement from URIP Supervisor Kalima DeSuze, mobilized other social workers and social work students to stand against stop-and-frisk while it was being challenged in a class-action lawsuit, Floyd v. City of New York, in federal court in 2013.
“Throughout the year, Mary Ruth and I had been organizing students at various schools of social work in the New York City area, including Silberman (School of Social Work at Hunter College), Columbia, New York University and Stony Brook,” Encalada said.
They called on 80 social workers from the various schools of social work to “pack the court” on April 17 to support ending the stop-and-frisk policy.
The NYC NASW Chapter complied with URIP’s request to issue a public stance against the policy as well.
“The chapter’s strong and positive response helped mobilize more social workers to take action against the city’s racist policy,” Govindavari said. “It also reinvigorated social workers already organizing around this issue and made it clear that organizing for racial justice is a professional responsibility for all social workers.”
The NASW Chapter also filled a request by the Center for Constitutional Rights to file a declaration in opposition to stop-and frisk after a federal judge ruled in August that the policy was unconstitutional.
The chapter’s declaration, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals, opposes the city’s motion for a stay to keep stop-and-frisk alive while it goes through the appeal process.
NASW NYC Chapter Executive Director Robert Schachter notes in the statement that NASW policy encourages laws and policies that do not discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, class, political affiliation, sexual orientation, nationality, ability, age or place of residence.
“Discriminatory policing has negatively impacted the emotional well-being of many of the people we serve,” the declaration states. “Individuals have described to social workers how the likelihood of being stopped by the police causes them to fear walking down the street.”
On Oct. 31, the appeals court blocked the judge’s stop-and-frisk remedies order, allowing the policy to continue while it is challenged in the court system.
There is potential for good news on the horizon, however, Schachter said at NASW News press time in November. New York City Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio pledged during his campaign that he would not support stop-and-frisk once he takes office this month.
For Encalada, social workers will continue to play a key role in the issue.
“I think it is extremely important to continue to urge NYC-area schools of social work to use their roles as educators to assume an even greater leadership in the advancement of racial, social and economic justice,” she said.
Get more information: NASW New York City Chapter.