Merris Obie brought change when she spoke up to the NASW California Chapter board of directors.
A Native American student from the Hoopla tribe who served as a student board member from 2012 to 2013, Obie issued a challenge to address the profession’s — and NASW’s — inattention to the plight of Native Americans and the racism of social workers and the social services system, said chapter Executive Director Deborah Son, MSW.
“Historically, few Native Americans became professional social workers, and the board decided to fund an annual scholarship for Native American BSW and MSW students and name it after Merris,” she said. “The board also issued a formal chapter apology to the Native community for the racism in the profession and system.”
The board voted to name the Birdwoman Scholarship after the Hoopla tribe member’s Indian name, Son said.
“As far as we know, we’re the only chapter with such a scholarship,” she said. “Just as it is important for social workers to be bilingual, bicultural and represent their communities, it is even more important for Native communities who have long been mistreated and neglected. It is especially important now, given the adverse and disproportional impact COVID has on Native communities.”
The chapter general funds handled the $1,000 per student awards at first. After a few years, “the chapter endowed the scholarship at $50,000 with the NASW Foundation and it administers the scholarships,” Son said.
Up to 10 scholarships can be awarded every year. To apply, students are required to be NASW members or join NASW, and they must be enrolled in a Council on Social Work Education-accredited social work school in California. Undergraduate applicants must be a declared social work major in their senior year, and graduate student applicants are required to be enrolled or accepted in an MSW program beginning in the fall after the August application deadline.
Also because of Obie, the chapter formed a Native American Council, which selects the scholarship recipients, Son said. The roots of Obie’s advocacy were in how the marginal Native communities can be sustained and supported, she said. Obie recognized they were under-represented by those in the field, and she saw the intrinsic flaw of not representing those who you serve.
There has been some harm and under-resourcing, and that is a possible argument for why some Native individuals may not be interested in the work. On the other hand, some are aware of that harm and want to contribute to social change, Son said. “Obie understood it’s best practices and you can better connect with and represent those you serve if you understand them.”
Some scholarship winners are inspired to return to their own tribal areas to practice after graduation, but that is not a requirement.
“A lot want to serve in Native communities,” Son said. “They see how under-represented they are. They see it needs to change and social workers are positioned to contribute to that change. Some see personal journeys and stories of resilience and struggles, and they want to create a better world for the children and families in the community.”
Some applicants talk about wanting to do specific research projects like evaluating social and psychological needs of the community, Son said. There are basic needs, and there have been struggles.
She said the chapter is working on plans to follow up on some of the program graduates by writing about them. Seven individuals so far are planned for inclusion.
“Social workers get very busy, and they move on in their careers,” Son said. “We want to do a profile highlighting scholarship winners. Some are engaged in our Native American Council.”
The chapter has other councils, and it fiscally sponsors them all.
“The Native American Council leaders are the ones who make the scholarship decision,” Son said. “We want to give power to those who represent the community.”
The chapter also has an Asian Pacific Islander Council, which has a scholarship program for Asian Pacific Islanders. Son was one of its recipients. “It was a good way for me to get familiar with NASW,” she said.
Son said the chapter believes in the value of councils, and they “hope to replicate it in various communities.”
With 109 federally recognized Indian tribes and 78 “entities petitioning for recognition,” California has the most people of Native heritage of any state in the country. Los Angeles County is home to three tribes “that predate the establishment of California Missions,” according to the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission. In the 2010 U.S. Census, 720,000 people identified themselves as Native Americans.