Each month throughout the New York City (NYC) area, more than 20 separate gatherings bring social workers and other professionals together to discuss one thing: undoing structural racism in their organization, community, university, and profession. Over 8,000 strong in 2014, the Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA) began in 2002 in the living room of one very motivated social worker and a small group of dedicated colleagues. They had all attended an Undoing Racism Workshop (URW) provided by the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in New Orleans. They have been providing Undoing Racism workshops and antiracism consultation throughout the nation for over 30 years) and left with a commitment to transform their profession. This practice update describes the movement that rose from this critical alliance of social workers, noting its impact and key points to inform similar organizing efforts.
Racism is manifest in the outcomes of social systems that persistently show disproportionally negative outcomes for people of color, regardless of social class or other factors. Individual bias, embedded in history and cultural norms, and rooted in institutional structure, are the three interlocking components of racial inequity that need to be understood and addressed. Social work recognizes the need, and the NASW Call to Actionexplicitly addresses institutional racism (NASW, 2007). Of the many challenges involved in heeding this call, however, one central concern is finding a group of people who agree on a definition of racism that attends to all dimensions and who then commit to work together toward a common goal.
Developing and maintaining a critical lens to analyze various forms of oppression and privilege requires both education and ongoing support (Blitz & Kohl, 2012). Social work students begin this education process, and competency in responding to diverse populations and advancing social justice are assessed as essential practice behaviors (Council on Social Work Education, 2008). Culturally responsive practice does not demand institutional change, however, and bias can remain entrenched in agency culture. Going deeper to identify ways in which organizational norms privilege some and marginalize others helps to define a new organizational culture (Griffith et al., 2007), but still falls short of addressing policy. Engaging in policy advocacy in the organizational context (Mosely, 2013) creates the potential for broad systemic change. Realizing this potential requires a movement that crosses institutional contexts to develop and nurture antiracist social workers at every phase of career development. Forming critical alliances to work collectively for social justice (Ledwith & Asgill, 2000) is a method of tackling racism that is consistent with social work values, uses social work skills, honors the history of race in America, addresses institutional functioning across different agenciesincluding the interface of those agenciesand supports individual development.
In 2002, the two primary partners in the development of what became the ARA met at a conference on diversity. Mary Pender Greene, a black executive of a large human services agency, and Sandy Bernabei, a white psychotherapist in private practice, shared concerns about how institutional racism affects social work and began to explore what they could do about it. In an effort to find partners in antiracist work, Sandy had been reaching out to social work leaders in NYC agencies and schools of social work. She had placed an ad in the NASW News and tried to contact a past president of the NYC chapter of NASW, but to no avail. Unbeknown to Sandy, Mary was the current NASW chapter president. An alliance was born.
Please read article to see the steps we took.
1 People's Institute for Survival and Beyond is a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in New Orleans. They have been providing Undoing Racism workshops and antiracism consultation throughout the nation for over 40 years.