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After a group of students in the School of Social Work penned an op-ed criticizing the curriculum taught in a mandatory course, the school is working to address the authors’ concerns.
Social Work students Justin Woods, Samuel Rentschler and the students of Social Work 504, Section 4 submitted the op-ed to The Daily on Dec. 4, 2019.
The op-ed highlights three main gaps: the structure of topics of Social Work 504, the ways Social Work 504 chooses to discuss and present racism and an assigned reading on the effectiveness of diversity courses.
“Instead of unequivocally and substantively interrogating the systemic white supremacy that allows for incoming graduate students to be unaware of the social privilege of whiteness, we engage in a cursory and trepidatious overview of the uncomfortable topic,” the op-ed stated. “It would appear as the course is developed with the white student majority in mind.”
The authors suggested four courses of action to placate the situation, and they started a petition for the cause. They called for the addition of a mandatory class on race and ethnicity in social work using a critical race theory lens, as well as a course on “anti-oppressive practices in social work.” They also asked that the School of Social Work require a minimum proportion of assigned readings written by indigenous authors and people of color, and that SSW “forge a connection with the Center for Institutional Diversity to support the faculty’s comfort in teaching across racial and ethnic differences.”
On Dec. 10, 2019, the School of Social Work sent a statement to the social work community at the University addressing the issues presented in the op-ed.
“We know that our work is not done and there is much more to do,” the statement read. “The op-ed speaks to a disjuncture that the writers experienced between what the School says and what we do. Our faculty and staff commitment towards anti-racism and anti-oppressive work continue to be aspirational. This is true for our school as well as our profession. This means working towards continuous improvement in all we do.”
In an interview with The Daily, Woods said he was grateful that the School of Social Work formally recognized the issues.
“When we first got the response, I was encouraged,” Woods said. “I definitely think there’s some level of validation from it, that the administration took away to say seriously they were open from dialogue and they’re willing to engage us in a meaningful way.”
The School of Social Work’s statement opened an opportunity for dialogue between the authors of the op-ed and the administration, according to Woods. He said they held a meeting at the beginning of the winter term, but added that the meeting left the authors of the op-ed feeling uncertain about the future of the curriculum.
“I think for us, I was really hoping to get a response from the administration on our four specific recommendations that we outlined,” Woods said. “I think there was some conversation on a couple of the points, but they also then took the opportunity to give us some context on why things are the way they are … For me personally, I was hoping to have real dialogue about our recommendations and a specific response to either ‘we can do that,’ or ‘we can’t’ or making some sort of counter offer. I think we didn’t really get that.”
After the release of the op-ed, the authors received an influx of messages from current Social Work students and alumni voicing their support.
Social Work alum Violeta Donawa noted the challenges of having a class filled with people of different experiences.
“You have students with a wealth of lived experiences who are not starting out at social justice 101,” Donawa said. “The difficulty with that is having students who are much further along in these conversations and those types of students getting challenged in really rudimentary ways that can feel draining and exhausting.”
The 2016 Student Campus Climate Survey on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, — the most recently taken survey — reports that one in six graduate students reported feeling that over the past 12 months they have been discriminated against at the University of Michigan.
Donawa called attention to these surveys, commenting on the number of students who have felt discriminated against.
“Surveys have revealed a number of students who have expressed discomfort in discussing race, who, in some way shape or form, have felt like their voices have been marginalized because of the discomfort in discussing race,” Donawa said. “If you’ve been having to explain your identity in so many areas of life … students can shut down; they can decide they don’t want to participate.”
Donawa applauded the authors of the op-ed for calling attention to the issue and stressed the importance of change.
“Our program is 16 months, 20 months, 12 months, and so you end up with a very rapid graduation rate of students, so it’s very hard to get change to stick in that short amount of time,” Donawa said. “What the incoming MSW class is encountering, or at least the students from 504 that wrote the original article, they’re filling the remnants of the fact that the change is still in progress … You can’t relegate solutions to a specific department, you can’t relegate to a certain office, you can’t relegate solutions to voluntary activities. That’s not how institutional change happens.”
Chidimma Ozor is a Master of Social Work candidate who was able to take advantage of the Social Work curriculum and craft it to better suit her needs and experiences.
“I’ve noticed that there is a focus on those that don’t have very much experience with racism,” Ozor said.
She believes that, for many students who do face racism, it can be emotionally exhausting to constantly recount their experiences within the classroom where she has seen negative experiences.
“What I have witnessed is people having the opportunity to be harmful within the classroom, saying things that are racist and ignorant,” Ozor said. “Racist at worst, ignorant at best, with ‘ignorance’ meaning ‘lack of understanding, lack of familiarity with’…. I have been underwhelmed when I look at my colleagues that will be graduating with me that will have the same degree that I have, and they have been able to harm folks within the classroom.”
In an interview with The Daily, Lorraine Gutiérrez, associate dean for educational programs at the School of Social Work, addressed some of the concerns regarding the Social Work 504.
“Because these classes are so diverse in terms of the background students come from — not only from parts of the U.S., parts of Michigan, but also parts of the world — it can be challenging to figure out where everyone is and what their past knowledge is,” Gutiérrez said. “The dynamics of that class can get very complicated because somebody may ask a question that other students may feel is very naive and ill-informed, but in fact, they might be asking it because of what their own background and life experience has been.”
She also addressed the class content, including the call to move toward introducing critical race theory, the social scientific framework used to examine the role of race in society.
“Some of the things they recommended, for example, critical race theory, are things that could be part of the class,” Gutiérrez said. “The class is supposed to come from a theory-base; the class is not intended to focus entirely on race. … There should be anti-racist and critical race focus in that class, but it’s not the total focus, because the focus in the class is broader than that.”
To address the issue with the diversity reading assigned in the class, Gutiérrez said she hopes to reevaluate a few of the assigned pieces.
“I’d like to do some assessment of the syllabi to see, are we over privileging certain voices over others,” Gutiérrez said.
However, Gutiérrez noted much thought is put into choosing the readings for classes. She also said the administration will be meeting with instructors to debrief and find better ways to provide support to the community.
While Woods said he is grateful the administration has demonstrated they are aware of the issue, he hopes for more concrete action in the future.
“I think sending a response and really engaging the community, we couldn’t have asked for a better response in that way, in terms of being open to the conversation and leaning into what is an uncomfortable topic,” Woods said. “But I think now, in terms of actionable and meaningful next steps, for me personally, I haven’t necessarily seen a concrete plan or meaningful steps outlined that allow students to measure progress and really hold the administration accountable.”
Francesca Duong can be reached at email@example.com