Decolonize your syllabi: A challenge to social work educators

As we round out the 4th of July weekend, I’ve been “decolonizing” my understanding of that holiday through listening to abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ descendants deliver his speech about the fourth of July, which asks all Americans to consider the country’s long history of denying equal rights to Black people (along with their commentary about the speech). I hope you will check it out. But as a social work educator, this activity comes on the heels of tuning in to last week’s panel discussion “Social Work So White” sponsored by Social Work Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators (SWCAREs) in which a discussion about the need for social work educators to “decolonize” their syllabi came up. You can listen to the panel discussion located in the hyperlink, above.

By using this term, “decolonize,” the social work educators speaking on this panel were referring to the need to eliminate reliance on traditional white scholars and theorists in our syllabi, moving as much as possible towards the use of materials created by people from marginalized populations in an effort to move towards an anti-racist practice stance that is more inclusive of traditionally marginalized voices, truths and ways of knowing. As I approached thinking about this task, at first I was confident, but then I wasn’t so sure. Sure, I “grew up” in social work academia learning about Sandra Chipungu’s Afrocentric child welfare practice and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality framework, but how many disabled, queer, black, indigenous or other social work practitioners of color could I immediately draw on to add material to my syllabi? I need to do better. Boy do I ever.

Over my 15 years at my own School of Social Work, I do recall having similar conversations as a faculty about syllabi needing to include social work authors from marginalized groups but not this has not been a consistent conversation. This fall, I am going to request that both the BSW and MSW curriculum committees consider engaging in discussions about decolonizing their curricula once the 2020-2021 academic year starts up again – but by then we will have lost an entire semester.

So, what about this summer when you are working on your courses for the fall semester?  Why not chip away at it a little bit? Start to explore and get familiar with new names in your sub-field of social work? Push the boundaries a little and get out of your comfort zone? Is it really all about the old classics? As Audre Lorde said “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

In that spirit, I challenge and encourage all of you to consider the ways in which you might “decolonize” your syllabi for your upcoming fall courses as you prepare them this summer. It is small steps like these that take us closer to our goal of being equity-minded practitioners.

Discussions like this are happening across the social work education nation right now – the Rutgers University School of Social Work doctoral students wrote a letter to the Council on Social Work Education that says the following:

We, the undersigned students of Rutgers University School of Social Work, implore the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) to explicitly include “anti-Blackness pedagogies” in the competencies of the educational policy and accreditation standards. We support the social workers who are currently organizing to specifically include “anti-racist” in Competency #2 “Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice.” However, we would like to propose that we specifically focus on anti-Blackness as the core principle from where we derive our understanding of racism and oppression in the U.S. The historical and systematic state-sanctioned violence against the Black community is made vivid in the continuous murders of Black people, namely George Floyd, David McAtee, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others in this country and across the world. These terrorist attacks against the Black community underscore the systemic problem of anti-Blackness that is rooted in upholding White Supremacy. As social workers we have an ethical obligation to address the root of the problem by centering the Black experience as the main lens to understand racism and oppression in our education and practice. Social work can no longer hide behind watered-down words like “diversity” and “inclusion” that neglect to recognize and name the groups that are underrepresented in our curricula, classrooms, leadership, and in the social work profession.

To dismantle white supremacy structures we must:
• Explicitly acknowledge that the voices and theories of knowledge that are represented in social work education are shaped by Euro-centric white male cis-heteronormative, neoliberal, and capitalist ideologies.
• Magnify the voices and theories of knowledge created by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and their intersecting identities.
• Teach students about the role of the intersections of race and other systems of oppression, especially in how they shape the experiences of Black people and the practices to address resulting injustices.
• Address and grapple with our history as a profession that has actively participated in racially segregating settlement houses, placing Native Americans in boarding schools, socially experimenting on Southeast Asian refugees, enforcing acculturation practices in the Latinx community, and removing Black children from their homes at higher rates than white children, to name a few.
• Prioritize the hiring of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color faculty in social work programs and uplift their voices and knowledge in social work curricula.

Social work education must radically alter its theoretical approaches and praxis if we are to produce social workers who are truly committed to racial justice. We must hold all social work programs accountable to be courageous and explicit in integrating and combating anti-Blackness in their curricula. We must adequately prepare social work educators to teach that addressing anti-Blackness is essential for competent practice. The liberation of Black people is ALL of our liberation. We want to thank you for your time and work. We hope that you will consider our request.

In the spirit of those doctoral students, let’s see what we can do. The following are some resources that may assist you in this work on your syllabi – read and search for social work practitioners and researchers and policymakers from marginalized populations and lift them up!

Journals to check out:

Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work

Journal of Black Studies

Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health

Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies

Critical Social Work

National Association of Black Social Workers position papers

Books/book chapters/articles on anti-oppressive practice, black feminism, anti-racism and intersectionality to check out for a more theoretical approach to this work:

Baines, D. (2007). Anti-oppressive social work practice: Fighting for space, fighting for change. In D. Baines (Ed.), Doing anti-oppressive practice: Building transformative politicized social work (pp. 1-30). Fernwood Publishing.

Bartoli, A. (ed.) (2013). Anti-racism in social work practice. Sr. Albans, Critical Publishing Ltd.

Bubar, R., Cespedes, K., & Bundy-Fazioli, K. (2016). Intersectionality and social work: Omissions of race, class, and sexuality in graduate school educationJournal of Social Work Education, 52(3), 283-296.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black Feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment(2nd ed.). Routledge.

Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Polity Press

Connor, D. (2006). Michael’s story: “I get into so much trouble just by walking”: Narrative

knowing and life at the intersections of learning disability, race, and class. Equity and Excellence in Education, 39, 154-165.

Morgaine, K., & Capous-Desyllas, M. (2015). Anti-oppressive social work practice: Putting theory into action. SAGE Publications.

And finally a list of more informal resources for social workers on anti-racism: