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Jan./Feb. 2007

Wanted: African American Men in Social Work
By Darnell J. Morris-Compton
Social Work Today
Vol. 7 No. 1 P. 24

Why aren’t there more black men in social work? One organization is working hard to recruit and retain more African American men in the profession.

In Philadelphia high schools, one may find a professional African American man recruiting. He’s not scouting for a 7-foot sophomore basketball sensation, nor is he looking for that rocket arm quarterback phenom. He’s looking for future social workers. Really.

These men, who belong to an organization called Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc. (University of Pennsylvania, www.blackmenatpenn.org), scout high schools. Rather than looking at statistics, they search for Bright Outstanding Young Scholars (BOYS). “We partner with middle and high schools and churches,” says Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW, of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia division of endocrinology and diabetes and adjunct lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Social Policy and Practice. They partner with the community to offer skills in leadership, character building, fatherhood, and combating racism. This collaboration also exposes several high school students—especially African American males—to young, professional, enthusiastic men in the social work field. “We go into the schools as early as eighth grade,” he says. “We talk about emergent identities that social workers have.”

Sometimes, the Black Men at Penn School of Social Work dispel myths about social workers. Other times, they demonstrate how social workers can work in human services, politics, government, and the corporate world. “[High school students] are seeing articulate, caring, young black men that are coming to their school saying this isn’t going to be a one-stop workshop,” Lassiter says. By going out to high schools and recruiting at colleges, the Black Men at Penn School of Social Work build bridges between the universities and communities. “It’s recruiting the next generation of black male social workers and educators and modeling for them how to be productive black men for their respective communities by using social work as the major tool,” Lassiter says.

Black Men at Penn School of Social Work highlights a unanimous concern within the social work community—there aren’t enough African American male social workers in the profession. That is not to deny contributions made by women in this profession. They are not pitting boys against girls for “Survivor” immunity. Instead, the focus is on how to attract and retain African American men to the profession to assist those in need.

By the Numbers
Tracking the number of African American male social workers is like trying to count left-handed doctors in America. Joining the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is voluntary, so not every social worker is a member. Plus, identifying your race to most agencies is an option that some choose not to disclose. Even colleges have difficulty tracking because most forms do not differentiate African from African American or Caribbean. With that in mind, here are a few statistics to offer a snapshot.

African American licensed social workers comprised 7% of the total licensed social worker population in 2004, according to “Assuring the Sufficiency of a Frontline Workforce: A National Study of Licensed Social Workers.” The same study found that men comprised 9% of social workers under the age of 25. Men aged 65 and older make up one quarter of social workers surveyed. Among NASW members, 1,300 members identified themselves as African American males; however, 30% of members did not identify their race, according to Allison Nadelhaft, senior communications associate for the NASW.

Looking at graduate social work programs, an average of 3% of the University of Michigan's graduates during the past three years were African American men. In 2004, 4.6% of those who received MSW degrees from the University of Maryland at Baltimore were African American men. The University of Pennsylvania's MSW program graduated three African American men of its class of 132 in 2006.

Here’s what we do know: More than 42% of African Americans graduate high school, according to The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. The 2002 U.S. Census estimates 17% of African Americans aged 25 and over have more than a high school diploma. Of more than 38 million African Americans, little more than 1 million have an advanced degree. Twenty-eight percent of African American men work laboring jobs such as an operator or fabricator, while 19% work in service occupations. The census reports approximately 27% of African American women work in service occupations. These statistics may provide a glimpse into the minds of African American men; however, more insight could also be gained from the minds of African American men who are in the profession.

Self Psychology
“When asked if I wanted to be [a social worker], I laughed,” says Jesse Harris, PhD, MSW, who recently stepped down as dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. “A little bit later, I saw the light.” Harris found lots of incentives while in the military and says social workers are in the trenches, in administration, in the Pentagon, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. “You have a lot of male social workers,” he says. “They are doing clinical work, working in hospitals, working in combat units and high administration. It was there that I was exposed to male social workers and African American male social workers.” It didn’t hurt that the Army footed the bill for his master’s and doctorate education. “That was a tremendous incentive,” he says.

For Alan Speed, an MSW candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, social work was a good fit for him. “Most of the people that helped did not look like me,” says Speed. “Most of the people that needed help looked like me. I wanted to be involved, especially in West Philly, especially with poverty. I really wanted to touch base with that community.” While volunteering with church-based outreach programs, he began counseling single mothers. The more involved he became with his church programs, the more he realized a systemic problem.

Simmons College School of Social Work Professor Gary Bailey, MSW, ACSW, says it was enough for him to meet a social worker. “I took a class,” he says. “I wanted to work with people. It spoke to me.”

The profession also spoke to Derrick Felton, MSW, a readjustment counseling therapist for the Peninsula Vet Center in Redwood City, CA. “The degree chooses you,” he says. “The school gives you the foundation and the background.”

Peter B. Vaughan, PhD, MSW, dean of the graduate school of social service at Fordham University, was a military social worker like Harris; however, Vaughan was also surrounded by social workers growing up. Political figures, agency heads, and community leaders all had social work degrees, he says. “Social workers in Detroit ran political organization for years because they were such activists in their professional lives. They brought a different flavor to the profession. It was a good flavor.”

Social work was definitely a calling for Lassiter. “I think it is something beautiful about black male social workers, and the impact they can have on black males and females and on transforming communities,” he says.

The Social Framework
“I don’t think there are enough men in general,” says Aminifu R. Harvey, PhD, professor at Fayetteville State University’s department of social work. So why aren’t there enough men? Whether it is institutions or industries, many have said social work needs to be more competitive. “It is getting to be a more expensive degree to obtain, and the salary is getting lower,” says Vaughan. “People are taking the option of master’s in public administration. They see it as the less expensive route to do some of the same things.” Schools are affected by rising costs, decreased financial aid scholarships, and online schools.

Harvey alludes to history, where social work was a mechanism for change. “I went through in that time when there was the whole revolution,” he says. “It was a civil rights movement still going on—all sorts of movements. The focus was on equality. There was a lot of money out there. You had a lot of change going on in the country. You had more males [who] were committed and wanted change.”

Alphonso Gibbs, Jr., MSW, agrees with the changes in social movement. “People that were involved in social justice, social welfare were seen as heroes,” Gibbs says. “Social work has many faces, but the face of the hero is not as prominently displayed. That’s not something people want to emulate as much now. They want to emulate a rap artist, or an entertainer, or an athlete; those are the heroes of today, or even the drug dealer.”

In addition to competition and decline in social justice heroes, the fact that social work is a female dominated profession can contribute to the challenge of recruiting African American men. “People tend to look at you as a male wondering why you’re in that profession,” says Melvin Wilson, MBA, LCSW-C, manager of the office of workforce training and development for the NASW in Washington, DC. “Some people, once they get into it and feel that kind of negativity, they can’t deal with it. That’s why a lot of young black males will not get into it in the first place.”

“You can’t start with the outcome in terms of African Americans in social work from a professional degree until you talk about men who drop out of high school and drop out of college,” says Llewellyn Cornelius, LCSW, a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. “You have the issue that African American men are less likely to finish high school and college. If you want to resolve the issue, you have to go back to the beginning. How do you improve educational prospects? It is a systemic issue.” Zip code-based education does not propagate equality, he says. At a collegiate level, financial aid has to mean more than loans, he says.

You can’t stop at getting African American men into college, Bailey says. “For so many of our men, getting them through college is a huge deal. They can’t think beyond that. From the moment they are in high school or freshman in college, we have to ask them, ‘What are you going to do after your master’s, after you get that PhD?’ We have to have that language. We do not help African American men dream. We have to reengineer how we think about success.”

That support should take place throughout the entire educational process, says Sean Joe, PhD, MSW, assistant professor at the school of social work at the University of Michigan. As director of the Emerging Scholars Interdisciplinary Network, his Web-based infrastructure advances the research agenda for junior investigators and faculty. “Many of these scholars have a mission to do work that is much more holistic in nature,” Joe says. “They came to pursue a doctoral degree because of some reason in their past that made them want to contribute—through research—meaningful social change.” Publications, trainings, and grant information are distributed to encourage sharing and advance the research agenda, Joe adds.

Joe’s views are similar to Michael Lindsey, PhD, MSW, MPH, assistant professor of social work at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. “African American men in social work have a heightened sensitivity to the plight of African Americans in terms of disparity and want to be a change agent to communities of color,” Lindsey says. “I have found most of the African American men, especially at the PhD level, have been concerned and have organized a research agenda around issues of the African American community.”

Social work is a viable, legitimate profession, says Wilson. “State, national, and federal government recognizes the need. It’s a really stable career and one that has long-term growth potential. You are always going to need social workers, although you don’t want to admit it.”

Social work is an attractive profession, says Wilson; however, “20 years ago, black men may have been attracted to social work for social justice reasons and to work in the community. Today, men are probably less attracted to the social justice aspect and more attracted to social work for a stable career. There’s a need for young African American men in social work.”

Speed’s welcome to the profession was helpful. “That holistic approach is very important,” he explains. “It’s overwhelming the first year. The Black Men at Penn School of Social Work really help with the transitional part because most of them are graduates. They really go through the whole litany. One of the things I’ll probably never forget is the first day they reached out to attend one of their meetings; instantly, there were 10 brothers surrounding us in this meeting. The first thing they said was we’re a family, and we’re truly here for one another indeed. They asked me for my academic schedule, and they immediately set aside time to meet with me to talk about my experience on a weekly basis.” Now in his third year at Penn, Speed ensures that other Black Men at Penn School of Social Work receive the same treatment. “I thought that was phenomenal. I think that experience was indelible.”

— Darnell J. Morris-Compton is a graduate student at the University of Maryland at Baltimore’s School of Social Work. An Indiana native, he has been a journalist and Peace Corps volunteer and has worked and volunteered in several social service agencies.