Social Work, Activism, Police Abolition

The NASW is failing us. Either it changes, or we will change it ourselves.

A banner hanging over a railing that reads “Another Social Work is Possible” in blue, black, and red lettering.

Update, July 14: Boston Liberation Health Group, Social Service Workers Uprising Now-NYC have endorsed our open letter and petition.

Update, July 22: Social Work Action Network International has endorsed our open letter and petition.

Update, July 22: We have exceeded our goal of 1,000 petition signatures, thanks to social service workers and students from across the country sharing our work with their colleagues and networks. We are keeping our petition form open to signatures until we can plan next steps at our next SSWU Chicago meeting July 26th. Please continue to sign and share our petition, and email socialserviceworkersunited@gmail.com if you are a social service worker or social work student in the Chicagoland area looking to get involved with our work.

Update, August 4: Social Welfare Action Alliance has endorsed our open letter and petition.

Update, September 25th: The petition with 1,700 signatures was submitted to leadership at the NASW on August 26th. SSWU Chicago has yet to receive any response from leadership at the NASW. This refusal to engage with our concerns is contrary to the values and ethical principles of social work.

The field of social work is long overdue for a reckoning on how it has created, upheld, and strengthened oppressive systems. We are social workers and social work students affiliated with Social Service Workers United-Chicago, who are organizing for higher pay, better working conditions, and an approach to social work that centers the liberation of oppressed communities within social services. We advocate for improvements to working conditions within the social service industry, which we believe is a necessary measure toward building a world with a just distribution of resources and supportive services, which is to say, a world beyond white supremacy, heteropatriarchy and ableism.

By improving our workplaces, we become better able to support our clients. Due to the ravages of racial capitalism, our clients often depend on our workplaces for access to survival services including food, housing and mental health support. We want a world without the deprivations which make many of our jobs possible. We are abolitionists who believe that the work of calling for dismantlement of oppressive institutions goes hand in hand with the work of cultivating new futures. We are writing to call for reckoning and re-envisioning within our field.

We are writing in July of 2020, during an unprecedented moment of uprising in response to the ongoing anti-Black violence of policing and police brutality. This moment cannot be separated from the conditions of the global COVID-19 pandemic which government and corporate powers are using to excuse the enhancement of existing austerity measures including housing, income and health care deprivations. We understand all of these conditions as interlocked and produced by a power structure which is as anti-Black as it is anti-immigrant, anti-worker, anti-poor, patriarchal, ableist, and colonial.

We reject claims that social workers “aren’t in this for the money”, and that our working conditions and our client’s living conditions are separate issues. Many of us have ongoing contact with social services as clients ourselves due to our own low pay, loss of work, and mental health struggles. Many of us have faced layoffs, furloughs and extended financial duress due to freezes on hiring at many social service agencies. Our clients are grappling with these very conditions. Our BIPOC clients often grapple with these conditions with particularly high stakes. We write in solidarity with our clients and out of a desire to dismantle the oppressive systems which harm professionalized care workers as well as all members of society. With hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, we have taken to the streets and have organized within our networks and communities to protest the white supremacist status quo and build new futures.

We take serious issue with the response of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), one of the largest human services professional organizations in the US, to the ongoing harms of racial capitalism. We believe that this is a crucial moment for deep reflection regarding the role of this institution. Many individual social workers, and some representatives from institutions of higher education and state chapters of the National Association of Social Workers have offered some words condemning police violence and the presence of police in schools, and make mention of needing to transform our criminal punishment system and the field of social work itself. These words are insufficient to address the many failings of the National Association of Social Workers in its approach to this movement. We understand these failings as part of a longer legacy of collaboration with oppressive systems. By sketching out some of these connections, we hope to shed light on the NASW’s profound complicity with systemic racism and encourage readers to reflect on the role of the organization in the future of our field.

Many of us have sent our own letters, or signed onto other letters directed at the NASW’s inadequate approach to this moment in history. However, collective action is required to address the deep and pernicious moral rot within the NASW. We believe that a larger response is needed. The NASW’s proposals for minor reforms will not resolve any of the underlying issues that are causing harm to marginalized people and disinvested communities.

The contents of this letter started as internal conversations among SSWU members expressing long-standing frustrations with the NASW and the role social work plays in upholding the carceral state, and have been influenced by the broad body of work of prominent police and prison abolitionists, including Mariame Kaba, Dorothy Roberts, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, Derecka Purnell and the No New Jails in Social Work open letter.

The depth of policing’s racist and oppressive history

One cannot discuss the history of policing in the United States without addressing how American policing was born out of slavery and the formation of “slave patrols”. Policing, and our current system of mass incarceration show that while some forms of slavery were abolished by the 13th Amendment, the state’s exploitation of Black labor and targeted torture, rape, and murder of Black people has continued without interruption. Police violence, and organizing in response to police violence are as old as the existence of policing itself.

We are currently in the midst of an uprising in response to the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the Minneapolis and Louisville Police Departments — but the mass uprisings are built upon decades of organizing work by Black activists. Before George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, there was Elijah McClain and Ahmaud Arbery and Jamar Clark and Botham Jean and Sandra Bland and Laquan McDonald and Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson and Philando Castile and Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd and Amadou Diallo and countless others that didn’t even garner public attention and outrage but are compiled by multiple databases tracking police murders of civilians in the US.

As social workers in Chicago, we cannot discuss racism and police violence without mentioning the continued impact of the brutal and unspeakably evil history of the Chicago Police Department torturing false confessions out of Black men under the direction of Jon Burge. We stand with and follow the lead of the Chicago Torture Justice Center, a community mental health clinic established in 2015 as a portion of the city’s reparations package — a hard-fought activist victory — for survivors of Burge’s abuse and that of his accomplices, as well as the cover-up efforts which spanned across the police department and city government. In a June 1st, 2020 letter in response to the emerging national uprising against police brutality, the CTJC issued a statement which outlines their activist stance, and commitment to care as a political imperative. The statement reads:

“This moment clarifies what we know: that our healing is political, our political work is healing, and that the road to reparations is a living commitment. We will continue to organize, fight, tell our stories, lament, care for our bodies, make space for individual and collective rage, and nurture joy, while we build this new world inside the shell of the old.”

Inspired by CTJC, we envision new systems which weave together critical assessment of powerful structures and commitments to developing new, transformative ways of offering care. Turning attention to the historical and present realities of racism and poverty in Chicago and across the US shows that police violence is a tool of a white supremacist power structure, a structure which produces harm differently and disproportionately to dis-invested communities. These harms take place along the lines of race, immigration status, and mental health status, among other social categories. A Grand Rapids Police Department officer, who served as the ICE liaison and controlled which undocumented victims of violent crimes received U-VISAS, asked his ICE contact to “check the status” of a US Citizen and disabled veteran who was arrested after having a mental health crisis, and detained by ICE until his case received public attention. Even the FBI, an agency with a profoundly racist past, including surveillance, sabotage and outright murders of Black liberation activists in the 1960s and 70s, expressed concerns that white nationalists were infiltrating police departments in 2006.

The police also have long been an oppressive system of regulation and control along the lines of gender and sexuality. At least 40 percent of law enforcement families experience domestic violence, according to a National Center for Women and Policing Fact Sheet. Police were, and continue to be, an active tool of violent oppression and control of LGBTQ communities, who regularly raided gay bars and strip searched and sexually assaulted patrons. Multiple LGBTQ uprisings in the 60’s started as a direct response to police brutality, including the famous Stonewall uprising.

The police are not allies in building real worker power. In fact, they are adversaries. Police actively participated in violence against striking workers during the American labor movement and frequently commit acts of violence against a wide variety of protesters and have targeted Legal Observers and street medics during current protests against police brutality.

There is a long, global backdrop to the violence inherent to policing in the US. While white supremacy in the US was transitioning away from the institution of slave patrolling to other forms of surveillance and capture, European authoritarianism manifested tactics and logic of population control with many instructive parallels. One cannot discuss the horrors of the Shoah or the violent oppression of Jews in the Soviet Union without acknowledging the role that police under Hitler and Stalin’s rule surveilled, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared Jews. Supremacist, nationalist, and imperialist regimes worldwide collaborate and learn from one another. Accordingly, we write in solidarity with the legacies of uprising against police and military brutality, and mass incarceration of marginalized groups in locations including Palestine, Brazil, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Iran. Not only are police and prisons present across the world, but they use similar tactics and technologies to surveill and oppress marginalized groups and dissidents, from the Chicago Police Department’s complex surveillance network, to Chinese surveillance of Uyghur residents in Xinjiang. Social workers are active agents in surveilling clients, which we will discuss further in a later section.

In short, while we recognize that American policing is specifically rooted in the violent legacy of anti-Black racism, we believe that abolition is for everybody, and that everyone must organize to abolish all forms of policing in our lifetimes.

The NASW’s complete moral cowardice in this moment

The NASW’s lackluster attempts to address and respond to racist police violence have been abject failures. NASW-NY posted a graphic stating that “social workers belong in police departments” on their social media accounts, with additional messaging that framed social worker collaboration with law enforcement being beneficial to assist with connecting people to services. The NASW tweeted apparent support for the Trump Administration’s Executive Order recommending social workers collaborate with police, before criticizing the EO in a later statement after considerable public criticism. The NASW executive director, Angelo McClain published an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal supporting social worker collaboration with law enforcement, and Stephanie Chang and Algeria Wilson, a Michigan state Senator and the NASW-MI Director of Public Policy released their own op-ed encouraging police collaboration with social workers. An article about the proposed “Citizen’s Academy” training program run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) included that participants could obtain Continuing Education Units (CEU’s) by participating in the program. The NASW must provide immediate clarification on whether social workers can earn CEUs by enrolling in a program designed to train civilians on how to surveil their neighbors on behalf of an agency that has never behaved ethically since their establishment in 2002.

While some state chapters of the NASW have published statements supportive of calls to defund police and demand that the NASW make a greater commitment to promoting anti-racist social work practices, these statements remain within a reformist framework, and propose some solutions that will not adequately address police violence and only pay lip service to social work’s harmful legacy of upholding and enforcing the carceral state without committing to a clear plan of action. One notable piece of historical backdrop to our remarks and demands which inspires us in our writing is the group of Black social workers who walked out of the 1968 National Conference on Social Welfare and formed the National Association of Black Social Workers.

Black women social workers continue to show us a path toward important critiques and new strategies. Kim Young, a clinical social worker who has cultivated a social media presence through her Dope Black Social Worker social media accounts, cites 6.04(d) in the NASW Code of Ethics in the sample letter she crafted to its CEO, and asks the NASW to “publicly commit to deconstructing racist systems”. The NASW Instagram account blocked Young after she publicly criticized the institution demanding meaningful change and accountability, and only unblocked her after other social workers contacted the NASW. This is a perplexing response to demands from within the field for true reckoning and committed action.

The NASW’s active role in developing and upholding all aspects of the carceral state

The paradox is that if the NASW and the social work profession truly committed to 6.04 and deconstructing systemic racism, it would result in the end of the social work profession as we know it. Many social workers work in settings where clients are being held or treated involuntarily, including jails and prisons, detention centers for unaccompanied minors, inpatient psychiatric hospitals, court-ordered drug treatment programs, and mandatory meetings with social workers employed by child welfare agencies. All of these care settings require social workers to actively disregard the CoE’s mandate that we respect the individual’s right to self-determination.

The history of psychiatric hospitalization, drug treatment, child welfare, and immigration programs and services cannot be divorced from America’s history of creating systems to control and harm people of color. The diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia changed due to the APA’s racist fears of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The entire modern child welfare system was developed to continue the genocide of Native Americans and is used as a tool of racist and misogynistic control against Black women, Latina/Latinx women, queer and transgender women, poor women, disabled women, women involved in the criminal punishment system, women who use drugs, and any of these intersections.

Social workers, even ones in less coercive settings, collect a great deal of personal information about clients and strengthen American surveillance culture in doing so. While social workers are bound by ethical mandates to maintain confidentiality and document information responsibly, it is still unacceptable that social workers are frequently expected to collect information on legal system involvement, health history, monthly income and expenses, current or former relationships, and behavior during appointments in order to receive basic services. Many software programs used by agencies, such as Salesforce, also hold contracts with US Customs and Border Protection and ICE. If all we do is replace police with social workers without eliminating these carceral aspects of social work, we will simply subject vulnerable people to cops by a different name. This moment requires profound institutional reckoning.

This moment must include examining the ways that the profession codifies and enforces its own version of the “Blue Wall of Silence” through the Code of Ethics. Section 2 of the Ethical Standards describes social workers’ “Ethical Responsibilities to Colleagues”. Social workers are mandated to treat colleagues “with respect” and are to avoid “unwarranted negative criticism” of colleagues based on “race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical ability”. Section 2 also contains statements requiring social workers to take actions if they believe that colleagues demonstrate incompetence or are behaving unethically. The difference between addressing unethical and incompetent behavior and unwarranted negative criticism is of course, highly subjective, especially in a context where social workers are rightfully concerned about racism in the field. Social workers consider unintended consequences of any policy, and the vagueness of Section 2.01(b) can easily be exploited by any number of petty tyrants or tinpot fascists to uphold systems of oppression and to silence needed dissent in the field. This is not a hypothetical thought exercise: an MSW student at SUNY-Binghamton faced expulsion in 2008 after he posted fliers that criticized a faculty member’s work at the local housing authority and how the housing authority was harming Black women. Current literature indicates that people from more marginalized groups are disproportionately targeted by disciplinary policies within professions (Pyke, 2018), (Taylor, 2019). There are many prominent social workers who are an active disgrace to the profession, and social workers should be able to speak freely about this without any fear of disciplinary action — especially now.

The authors of this letter have experienced a multitude of racist and patronizing comments about ourselves and our clients in our classrooms and workplaces. We reject the standard narrative that it is “difficult”, “challenging”, or “exhausting” to work with clients from marginalized racial or ethnic backgrounds. The most dangerous people to work with are not our clients, but white men who don’t like being told “no” in any context — identities disproportionately held by our teachers, bosses and CEOs. It is imperative that students and low-level workers be able to speak up, and this is one area where SSWU is already offering support and solidarity across the Chicagoland area.

Racial divisions within social work were created by the NASW itself

The current unacceptable state of affairs within social work can be traced back to the formation of the NASW itself. Prior to the establishment of the NASW in 1955, the social work movement was actively involved in labor organizing, including Hull House raising money to support strikers and assist in organizing workers. Social workers were heavily involved in labor organizing during the Great Depression, and social service workers affiliated with the Association of Federation Workers successfully went on strike to earn back their wages after pay cuts in 1934.

The NASW’s emphasis on service and professionalism must be viewed in a context where “anti-Communist” campaigns had purged many workers from labor organizing and where “professionalism” was frequently a coded term for “white”. The NASW’s direction of the field toward an emphasis on service and professionalism had the effect of suppressing social worker organizing and upholding white supremacy. This is also one of the reasons why social workers have historically seen lower wages than other occupations based on care such as teachers and nurses, who have historically had more robust union representation.

With a dominating narrative that social workers are “not workers”, and do not need to be concerned with making enough money to pay rent and bills because they do this work out of the goodness of their hearts or a sense of moral duty, agencies are excused from paying a fair wage. This leads us to the current scenario, where white people from affluent backgrounds populate the field at a disproportionate rate. This is also unsurprising because the minimum degree for many social service industry jobs is an MSW, which requires social workers to earn both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and be able to afford to work for free for 1–2 years in field placements. These barriers will mean that many people who already do social work cannot be hired as social workers since they are unable to obtain formal social work degrees and licensure. Studies already show that access to higher education is linked to family income, and that there are major disparities in wealth based on race.

Social work researchers unfortunately have a history of responding to criticism of the field with a considerable amount of fragility. One article, published in The Journal of Social Work Education laments that social work programs have limits on their ability to screen out students with “psychiatric disabilities” (Sowbel, 2012). A review of Harry Sprecht and Marc Courtney’s book Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work Abandoned Its Mission published in The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare referred to Sprecht and Courtney’s thesis that social work had become too focused on individual mental health treatment and needed a greater emphasis on developing systems of community care as “long on moral indignation and short on fact and analysis” (Marsh, 1995).

The horrifying and enraging accounts of anti-Black racism in academia under the #BlackInTheIvory campaign illustrates how higher education may claim to support “diversity, equity, and inclusion” while doing nothing to address institutional racism. It is one thing to say the right things about ending racism within social work or acknowledge the field’s harmful past, but it is entirely another to commit to making the needed changes that would make equity possible.

The NASW cannot sit on the fence

The NASW will be unsuccessful in derailing these criticisms with claims such as, “not all agencies are led by social workers” or by offering the Council on Social Work Education or state licensing boards as better targets for criticism. The NASW heavily influences the field at large through the endorsement of local, state, and federal candidates for office and by endorsing and lobbying for policy reforms, hosting professional networking events and Continuing Education opportunities. The NASW must take accountability for how it has negatively impacted social work and upheld racist systems of oppression and commit to concrete action. If the NASW shows courage and moral clarity in this moment, then the CSWE and ASWB will be forced to follow them.

Our Demands

  1. From Kim Young’s letter: “I demand the NASW rescind support of the Executive Order, acknowledge the role social work plays in upholding systems of oppression and publicly commit to deconstructing racist systems.”
  2. The NASW endorses the #8ToAbolition movement
  3. The NASW endorses student demands to remove law enforcement officers from K-12 schools and for colleges and universities to divest from campus police
  4. The NASW commits to making social work training more accessible to marginalized people who are frequently already doing social work but are barred from many social work jobs due to an emphasis on requiring “professional” credentials.
  5. At minimum, this means a clear plan to make BSW and MSW programs more affordable and accessible to underrepresented and marginalized students, including supporting Cost of Living Adjustments for graduate student workers, demanding more scholarships and grants for social work students, and requiring agencies to pay interns by not later than the start of the 2023–2024 school year.
  6. However, the NASW should consider how to look beyond the field of higher education for solutions to make jobs in the profession more accessible. Esq. Apprentice provides an excellent framework for how social work can consider avenues of training outside of higher education in their program that “provide[s] low-income women of color with the tools needed to complete California’s legal apprenticeship program and become attorneys”.
  7. The NASW commits to integrating anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices and racial-socioeconomic perspectives into any training or evaluation offered. These practices and perspectives should reflect the wide diversity of thought and tactics BIPOC communities have used to fight racism and oppression and should not rely on any one book or training.
  8. The NASW makes necessary changes to the Code of Ethics to ensure free criticism and dissent in the field
  9. The NASW condemns involuntary hospitalizations for mental health treatment, court-ordered drug treatment, and state-mandated participation in programs affiliated with child welfare services and provides a clear plan to completely abolish these coercive programs
  10. The NASW publishes clear guidelines on outside programs offering CEUs, and prohibits CEUs affiliated with programs that violate the Code of Ethics, including the proposed ICE Citizens Academy.
  11. The NASW condemns law enforcement agencies perpetuating harm through their use of agency grants at social service agencies. Many agencies receive funds from departments of Juvenile Justice, or the Office of Refugee Resettlement (which reports to ICE), and stipulations of funding mean that social workers are required to report to or otherwise collaborate with law enforcement, creating an ethical dilemma for social workers that does not need to exist.

Do we even need the NASW?

If the NASW fails to meet these demands, we must consider a future of social work beyond the NASW. Social workers are entirely capable of leading trainings for CEUs, developing frameworks for ethical practice, advocating for our communities, recommending needed changes to policy, and holding our lawmakers’ feet to the fire without having to pay dues to an organization that prioritizes alliances with oppressive systems over justice and liberation. The NASW needs us: we don’t need the NASW.

Members of SSWU-Chicago have crafted a petition with our demands that that was submitted to the NASW August 26th with 1,705 signatures. If you are a social service worker, social worker, or social work student looking to learn more about SSWU, please email us at socialserviceworkersunited@gmail.com.

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Social Service Workers United-Chicago is a group of social service workers and social work students in Chicago organizing for collective liberation.

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Social Service Workers United-Chicago

Social Service Workers United-Chicago

Social Service Workers United-Chicago is a group of social service workers and social work students in Chicago organizing for collective liberation.

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