Social work leaders gathered for a two-day think tank on “Achieving Racial Equity: Calling the Social Work Profession to Action,” held by the NASW Social Work Policy Institute in 2013. Sandra Bernabei (left center) and Mary Pender Greene (right center) were on the planning committee. Photo reprinted with permission courtesy of NASW News.
by Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, and Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R
Since our introduction in the Fall 2014 issue, we have explored undoing structural racism. Work this complex requires a multidimensional explanation of racism that points a way toward individual action and structural change. To this end, each column has focused on principles outlined by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond: undoing racism (Winter 2015), learning from history (Spring 2015), sharing culture (Summer 2015), developing leadership (Fall 2015), maintaining accountability (also Fall 2015), networking (Winter 2016), analyzing power (Spring 2016), gatekeeping (Summer 2016), identifying and analyzing manifestations of racism (also Summer 2016), and undoing internalized oppression (Fall 2016).
Although we have discussed each principle separately, they are neither independent nor linear. Sharing culture can promote learning from history; recognizing both internalized racial superiority and inferiority can strengthen accountability; identifying and analyzing manifestations of racism can promote diverse leadership; and so forth. PISAB’s principles work as an interdependent matrix that guides three aspects of structural change: education (for a common language and understanding of the concerns and goals), organizing (for coherent collective action), and activism (to garner interest from those who do not recognize the problem).
For our final regular column, we return to action steps from our article, Think Creatively and Act Decisively (Blitz, Pender Greene, Bernabei, & Shah, 2014), which summarized our work with the Antiracist Alliance. These action steps are informed by our experience with antiracist organizational development, described in Strategies for Deconstructing Racism (Carten, Siskind, & Pender Greene, 2016) and Racism and Racial Identity (Blitz & Pender Greene, 2006), and are discussed here in the context of the PISAB principles.
Envision Something Awesome. Articulate your personal vision—one that inspires, conveys a sense of hope for a better future, and is easily communicated to others. Clarify your target for change (who and what) and how the people and organization will benefit. State your vision in the positive: “The racial and cultural climate of our agency will respond to and value all of our staff and consumers, who will know we advocate for racial justice and equity for all people” is more inspiring than “We will end institutional racism in our agency.”
You Have a Role. Your vision is big; making it a reality requires that you scale your action to something you can begin now. Clarify your role and the steps you can take, using the principles of learning from history, developing leadership (including your own), and maintaining accountability as guides. Is the first step educating others so that you have a shared language to communicate as you move forward? If you have that foundation, is your role to organize a group to take the next steps? Does your organization not recognize the concern? If so, your role may be to engage in productive activism to draw attention to the issue. Note that activism does not need to be confrontational, and certainly not hostile. You are working for an awesome vision, not against people or institutions.
You Can’t Do It Alone. Identify partners, allies, and people whose support you need to achieve the vision. Figure out how you will access these people and what you will need to do to gain their trust and partnership. The principles of networking and gatekeeping are helpful here. Some of those you meet in this process will already be active in their own endeavors. Make sure your actions support and enhance, not detract from or compete with, theirs.
There Is Different Work for Different People in Your Group. Analyzing power and sharing culture are important as your group comes together to understand social and organizational culture and manifestations of racism. As the members of the group build trust, their different histories and culture emerge and they will clarify how their work will be different. It is not unusual for internalized racial oppression, both superiority and inferiority, to become central here, and it is important to identify challenges in working together and plan for what can be done to address concerns.
Develop and Nurture Systems of Accountability. Networking will broaden your base, and it will likely bring you closer to leaders who can make change in the organization. Meaningful change, however, requires accountability to communities of color and open communication with them to continually assess the strength and viability of your partnerships. Since diverse groups of people of color are often not represented among agency leaders, accountability structures must be developed inside and outside the organization’s hierarchy.
You Don’t Need Critical Mass; You Need Gatekeepers Who Can Open Up a System. Effective organizing requires that you analyze the power structure and identify gatekeepers for the systems you are working to benefit, and that you use your own gatekeeping power productively. Develop allies outside of your organization who can guide and support you. Use allies’ help to figure out how you can access people in power and bring those in power closer to the group to whom you are accountable so decisions about change can be made collaboratively.
Thank you to those who have thoughtfully read our columns, those who “liked” us (and those who didn’t!), and especially to those who are using our experience to move your antiracist work forward.
Mary, Sandy, and Lisa
Blitz, L. V., Pender Greene, M., Bernabei, S., & Shah, V.P. (2014). Think creatively and act decisively: Creating an antiracist alliance of social workers. Social Work, 59(4), 347-350. Available online at: http://sw.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/07/31/sw.swu031.short
Blitz, L. V., & Pender Greene, M. (Eds.). (2006). Racism and racial identity: Reflections on urban practice in mental health and social services. New York: Haworth Press. Peer reviewed, published simultaneously as a double edition of the Journal of Emotional Abuse, 6(2/3).
Carten, A. J., Siskind, A. B., & Pender Greene, M. (2016). Strategies for deconstructing racism in the health and human services. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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.
Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, is President of the National Association of Social Workers—New York City Chapter. She is a founding member of the AntiRacist Alliance.
Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., 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.