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Teaching Social Justice in Today's Social Work Classrooms
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 17 No. 5 P. 10

Social work professors throughout the country aim to help students understand social justice by understanding their students.

At the core of social work is social justice. It is the profession's foundation, tracing back to the development of the field and Jane Addams.

"The mother of social work was Jane Addams," says Crystal Hayes, MSW, a PhD student at the University of Connecticut. She notes that Addams advocated for policies related to workers' rights, women's rights, and children's rights, among others, extending beyond individual clinical work. "She understood that it was really important for us to structurally address why people are poor in the first place," Hayes says of Addams. "She didn't say poverty was a sin or a personal failure. She said it was the direct consequence of policy. That's what social work is rooted in."

Over the years, the social justice component has remained a staple of the profession, even as clinical practice has become more dominant. Thus, it falls to professors to impress upon their students not only what social justice is but also how it fits into the students' future careers as social workers.

In 2017, this task is complex, as the classroom is filled with a multitude of perspectives, ideas, and, of course, millennials.

Social Justice
The first step in teaching about social justice is to define it, so as to best understand where it fits in the classroom. For Hayes and the other professors Social Work Today spoke with, that definition begins with the NASW Code of Ethics.

The Code of Ethics identifies social justice as a core value of the profession: "Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers' change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity."

This description, however, is just a start and leaves room for varying perspectives in truly defining social justice. "It [social justice] is mostly socially constructed, and it's interpretive," says Johnnie Hamilton-Mason, MSW, PhD, LICSW, a professor at Simmons College School of Social Work. "There are laws and norms that we have in this country about being a democratic society, and what ends up happening is that [the definition of social justice] is not always really clear. There are inconsistencies in what it means for different people. "

For social workers in particular, Hayes believes that "It's about equality, human rights, equity, and challenging power and the status quo. It's a reminder that power and privilege are always operating in the room—always at the forefront of what we do."

In addition to being interpretive, the concept of social justice is also fluid, evolving as society does.

Hamilton-Mason, who has been teaching at Simmons for more than 25 years, has seen this firsthand. "Social justice has gotten broader," she observes. "We talk about intersectional identities—the intersection of race, class, gender, sexual orientation. We include the sociocultural identities that clients and students present with, creating overlapping and interdependent systems of privilege and disadvantage intersecting with social justice."

Similarly, to what degree social justice is addressed in the classroom and societally also changes. When Anne C. Deepak, PhD, LMSW, an associate professor and MSW admissions coordinator at Monmouth University, earned her degrees, social justice wasn't at the forefront of the curriculum. It fell to her to make it an integral part of her education, as it was also her passion.

Hayes, too, notes that social justice had not been as discussed when she earned her MSW in 2006. "When I got my MSW, Obama hadn't been elected, we didn't have Black Lives Matter, [and] there wasn't this constant group of black and brown bodies felled by police violence. It was different. That doesn't mean that there weren't these issues. [But] things started to shift." She remembers the impact of a conservative majority taking control in North Carolina, where she was then living, and how a lack of funding began to impact social services programs in the state and country. It made the topic of social justice one that needed to be discussed openly.

"Even if people didn't want to talk about it or hadn't talked about it, you had no choice at that point," she says.

That's not to say that social justice had been ignored in social work classrooms. At schools such as North Carolina State University, it was and is a part of the mission statement. Students, particularly those in the graduate program, should anticipate a curriculum with social justice at its core. "Any student who applies is well-informed before they apply," says Karen Bullock, PhD, LCSW, a professor and head of the department of social work at North Carolina State University. "We are going to be focused on social justice."

Rather, the shift to a more vocal discussion of social justice simply means that more students will have more exposure.

Student Origins
Thus, the next and most crucial step in teaching about social justice in today's classroom is to understand who fills the seats in each room. Given the vocal perception of millennials and 24/7 access to news, one might assume that today's more traditional students would be equally opinionated and informed. However, that is not necessarily true. Instead, many students (particularly undergraduates) come to the classroom with a narrow scope of understanding and only partially formed opinions.

Deepak draws on her experiences teaching in Texas, prior to moving to New Jersey, by way of example. (However, she is quick to note that the same dynamic exists in New Jersey, without the influence of the Bible Belt.) "In Texas, I felt like people there were coming from pretty segregated communities and had been taught a lot stuff that had never been challenged," she says. "When they came to school, their world was opened up more. There was some information they hadn't been taught before. Once you unravel some of it, and they learn new things, they're totally on board.

"A lot of times, the students don't have a developed political view of the world," she continues. "But they are coming from communities where their relatives do. [For example,] I don't think they are knowingly Islamophobic, but they're coming from communities where people are."

Bullock agrees. "There are some very rural areas [in North Carolina] that are very homogenous. For some students, this is the most diverse place that they've ever been. They're just not accustomed to it. They have some challenges as they are interfacing with this information. They have to reorient themselves."

Of course, this isn't true of all students. Others have more diverse lived experiences and are very aware of at least some aspects of social justice/injustice—though it is entirely possible that even these individuals have a narrow perception of the world. Selective friending and following on social media in tandem with relying on like-minded news sources has made it far too easy to be exposed to only one set of views.

With this in mind, professors must be prepared for contradicting perspectives in each cohort. For students to truly grow and learn about social justice, a safe space must exist in every classroom.

"I treat each comment seriously and validate every perspective," says Aaron Gottlieb, MS, PhD, an assistant professor at Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "In expressing my opinion, I try to back my views up with evidence, and I challenge students to do the same."

Creating this environment where students can listen and learn from each other will carry over into the new social workers' careers, Deepak adds. As a social worker, she says, "You don't have to agree with what everyone says, but you are signing on to listening to what everyone says. You have to, have to listen.

"We are all part of these systems, and we are unintentionally colluding with those systems. It's so much easier to say that we're not like them, but no. We are like those people," Deepak continues. "We all struggle. We all need to figure things out. We all need to stay safe and be aware of what's going on with our friends and within our community."

Clinical vs. Macro
In addition to the community perspective today's students bring to the classroom, they also carry with them the anticipation of what they believe to be their career path. That path may not initially align with their understanding of social justice, particularly for clinically focused students.

There is sometimes a misconception that social justice is a "macro" value, to be addressed only at the larger, systemic level. As a result, some clinical students enter with a narrow understanding of their professional responsibility.

"They [macro students] think in terms of these much broader terms about the world," Deepak says. "Clinical students are more drawn to individual, micro interactions. As a result, you can lose that analysis that includes larger issues of social justice. That's the challenge. How do you help them to see that it is relevant to the work they are doing and to their clinical practice?"

To highlight the relevance, one must show students how the larger view impacts the individual or smaller community. "I do think that the macro-level factors are where we need to start in looking at the trickle down or lack thereof of rights and opportunities," Bullock says. "It may be an individual or family that's having psychosocial challenges; they get depressed or become very anxious, so it's difficult for them to function at their very best," she describes by way of example. "On a micro level, you have someone in need of an intervention to feel better, but it's difficult for them to find the time to access services because they have all these competing demands. Macro is one's inability to seek services."

Such examples can help students who may be hoping to become therapists or case managers begin to grasp their role in social justice and the role social justice will play in their work. But professors must also help them see that the micro-level solutions are multifaceted. There is no one-size-fits-all intervention, though often there is only one available. Many of the services accessible to clients are often culturally inappropriate, Bullock says, having been crafted for the dominant, mainstream populations.

The lack of appropriate tools is something Hamilton-Mason highlights in her classroom. "What are the tools we use? What is the evidence that we use to respond to people on a micro level?" she asks. Looking at that, "The larger systemic problems are never far away." They are able then to look at questions such as "Why is it that young black men are more likely to be murdered than others of their age? What is it about our justice system that almost consistently refuses to indict a police officer? [And] what is our role as social workers to engage in activism?"

Student Enthusiasm
Beyond understanding where students are coming from and helping students to understand what their role will be in working toward social justice, professors must also help future social workers channel their enthusiasm appropriately.

Many are invigorated and driven to act once they learn about injustice. On the one hand, their want to dive in is great. "I'm excited about students who are ready to go," Hayes says. "I think we all have a set of tools that we come to this work with. We can sharpen those tools in the classroom and decide how we want to use those tools."

However, action must be coupled with thought. Students who are not taught about the potential consequences of their interventions risk not only being ineffective but also damaging relationships with the people they aim to assist. It falls to the professor to teach their classes about informed social work.

"I do see younger people coming in really energized," Bullock says. "They want to do things; they're really action-oriented. We have to say, 'Wait. Hold on. We have to increase your knowledge base before you leap ahead.'" She adds that students must be able to act deliberately, be aware of other possible actions, and be mindful of imposing their plans on a community. "It is the community's responsibility to decide the need [for] X, Y, or Z," she says.

Hayes agrees that students do need to be informed when taking action. "The biggest issue has been—particularly with white students who are really ambitious—that there might be people in the community who are already doing something about the identified problem. So, identify who in your community is already working on that issue [and] how can you support them," she posits.

Teaching Tools
While a large part of teaching about social justice in 2017 is about who the students are, where they are coming from, and where they plan to go, professors must also craft a curriculum that enables students to garner the same information about society and its citizens. Lessons and assignments need to impart to the students the impact their actions will have and incorporate experiential and present-day learning.

This can be as simple as discussing the news. "Every class begins with a discussion of current events for the week and how current events relate to policy and social justice," says Gottlieb, who adds that the most recent presidential election has stimulated students' interest in social justice. "I also try to incorporate videos that show social justice in action, and I divide students into groups to have them think critically about social justice issues. Lastly, I try to create assignments that require students to take action."

That action could be drafting a letter to a representative. Or it can be the design and implementation of a project aimed at a social justice issue. At Monmouth University, students do this over the course of two semesters. "It's on-the-ground learning about larger issues and how people are addressing them," Deepak says. "The class where they have to implement the project, I'm really excited about because it's a way in which students are asked to think about gaps in systems they can impact. Even if they're planning to primarily do clinical work, they're becoming aware of and observant about barriers to social justice.

"I know many, many schools do have some kind of course like this," she continues, "and I think that is exciting, because that's something you really can impact, and you can be on the lookout for where you can make larger system changes."

It is hoped that eventually all social work schools will have courses and assignments like the ones Deepak describes as social justice reclaims its prominence in the social work field. In the meantime, the onus falls to the professors to find ways to weave social justice into their classes.

As seen above, teaching about social justice in 2017 requires a great deal of insight from the head of the classroom. One must understand who they are teaching and find ways to use that understanding for each individual's personal and intellectual growth. It is difficult, but for the professors who are leading the way, it is worth it.

"I have so much confidence in social work students. I love my students. They inspire me. I look at them and listen to them and see their passion and their fire to go out into this world and do good work," Hayes says. "I feel very optimistic about where social work is going because of this new group of social work students."

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is an award-winning freelance writer, a social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs, and a frequent contributor to Social Work Today.