by Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, and Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R
Welcome to our new column on racial equity. We represent an alliance of thousands of antiracist social workers in the Northeast United States, connected to a national effort to undo structural racism. Why this column? Why is achieving racial equity still an important focus for social work? We will be here in each issue to explore this question together and to give you tools to create change in yourself, your organization, and your community. First, we want to share a bit about ourselves and why racial equity is important to us.
Mary: I used to think of racism as individual, intentional acts of meanness, which inhibited my ability to talk about privilege or racism in my organization. When I tried, White people took offense, as if I was criticizing them or our agency, and I feared backlash and isolation. Without a structural understanding of racism, I had no way to talk about what I saw and experienced. I was painfully silent, often the only Person of Color in social work settings, surrounded by talented, caring people who did not understand that structural racism impacts the lives of all people of color. I found my voice, and my ability to create transformative change, when I learned how to intervene with the systems that carried oppression. We need to grapple with racial equity because racism has an impact on us daily. I look forward to sharing my journey of finding my voice and becoming my best professional self.
Sandy: When I started my career, my vision was to help people create lives of their own design. I graduated from social work school and worked as a clinician for many years. My work was fulfilling, but it became clear that helping people find personal power within adversity was not addressing root problems. I needed to do more. Graduating from the Undoing Racism® workshop provided by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond taught me what I needed to do. I learned to use a power analysis to help people locate themselves within our social, economic, and political landscape and to grasp the external social forces that have an impact on their lives. Beyond my clinical work, I became an agent of social change and a community organizer practicing structural social work. I see this column as an honest discussion that supports others in their transformational work, providing a foundation to organize for change.
Lisa: My MSW program taught me to be a better racist. I went to a prestigious school—one that enjoys an international reputation for pushing the envelope of progressive thought. I got a great education. I learned how to see my clients, see their community, see how they received and responded to services. I learned to think systemically, to understand the interplay between person and environment, and to target my interventions to improve the fit. I learned about organizational systems and power, and how to see myself in the context of that power. I was also taught to be colorblind, to see poverty as the overarching oppression. I did not learn about structural racism, nor did I learn to see myself as a gatekeeper with the power to either maintain or change that structure. I wish I had. Since learning this, everything about my practice has improved.
We want to make clear from the onset that our broader focus is on social justice for each individual and each community. Eliminating the many manifestations of oppression—homophobia and transphobia, sexism and misogyny, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, classism—and all the rest too numerous to list—is urgent. We have come to understand, however, that although all of these “isms and obias” are shared among many countries throughout the world as remnants of patriarchy, what distinguishes the United States is that our country was constructed as a race-based society. So this is where the conversation must begin. To see our nation through the lens of race shifts everything about how you see everything. At least it did for us. And once you see it, you have to act. At least that is what happened for us.
In the next issue, we’ll focus on how structural racism plays out in our lives and our work. If you’re ready to act now, here are a few ideas:
- Review the www.AntiRacistAlliance.com website.
- Watch this 20-minute video of Michelle Alexander speaking on The New Jim Crow in the Age of Colorblindness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_HEu4Lnewg
- Read a book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
About the columnists
Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, is an organizational consultant, psychotherapist in private practice, career/executive coach, professional speaker, and co-founder of the AntiRacist Alliance. She has a passion for assisting organizations in addressing structural racism and is committed to the advancement of women and People of Color in leadership roles. Her background also includes executive and management responsibility for America’s largest nonprofit–the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. Mary is the author of Creative Mentorship and Career Building Strategies: How to Build Your Virtual Board of Directors.
Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, is President of the National Association of Social Workers—New York City Chapter. She is a metro area community organizer and private practitioner. Sandy is a founding member of the AntiRacist Alliance, an antiracist organizing collective of New York City area human service practitioners. ARA is building a movement to undo structural racism in our lifetime and to bring an analysis of structural racism as outlined by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond to social work education and practice.
Lisa V. Blitz, PhD, LCSW-R, is a social worker, researcher, and educator with 25 years of experience in mental health and social justice centering on culturally responsive trauma-informed practice and organizational development. Lisa is currently engaged in community based participatory research with K-12 schools developing practice approaches to eliminate disproportionally negative outcomes for students of color and those who are economically disadvantaged.