MSW students protest staff member's email based on religious bias

Tuesday, September 26, 2017 - 6:52pm

Over 30 students lined the halls of the University of Michigan School of Social Work Tuesday afternoon to call attention to an email sent by SSW Payroll Coordinator Kari Dumbeck, in which she implored students to respect the Pledge of Allegiance, with an emphasis on overtly religious rhetoric.

Dumbeck sent the email to the school’s Masters of Social Work listserv on Monday afternoon in response to Public Health graduate student Dana Greene’s decision to protest the number of pervasive racist incidents affecting Black students and students of color on campus. This year alone, three Black students have woken up to find racist vandalism in West Quad Residence Hall, anti-Semitic and anti-Black racial slurs have been spray-painted onto East Liberty and South State Street buildings and anti-Latino and pro-Trump graffiti have been scrawled on the Rock.

Beginning Monday morning, Greene kneeled at the block ‘M’ on the Diag for 21 hours to emphasize the difficulty of being a Black student at the University — an action supported by over 100 students, faculty and staff who lent their support, water and presence throughout the day. Greene took after the #TakeAKnee movement many professional athletes are participating in to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

In the email, Dumbeck provided a link to a video of Red Skelton, an American entertainer, performing a monologue on the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance. She drew upon personal beliefs and implied Dana’s actions disrespected her religion.

“Although I can understand Dana's feelings I feel that he must be reminded that it is not through ‘man’ that ‘man was create (sic) equal,’ but through GOD,” she wrote. “And it is a testimonial to GOD that we live as he would want us to, for we only answer to him in the end.”

Dumbeck did not respond to the Daily for comment.

Social Work student Lawrielle West responded to the email thread, calling on Dumbeck to apologize for the harm she caused within the community and educate herself on the difference between one’s original intent and the actual impact it can have on a group of people.

“Intent versus impact is a thing, meaning that regardless of how you meant something, it can still negatively impact someone,” she wrote. “And that's what this email did. Honestly, I personally don't need an apology because I’m interested in you educating yourself, and spreading what you have learned from this in your community. However, an apology is needed to the public in an effort to start the process of restorative justice in a case where a staff member crossed the lines and triggered some students in the SSW and others.”

Dumbeck responded to West, writing she did not mean to offend anyone, yet continued to express a belief in her right to hold her own opinions.

“First let me say that I did not insult or diminish what Dana is doing by any means. That is not what I said or what I meant,” she wrote. “My opinion was expressed just as the emails opinion was expressed when sent out to all. The video I felt was something that all ‘Americans’ would benefit from hearing, or so I felt. I did not put race into my thoughts at all. I only meant that we as ‘humans’ can do better when we look into ourselves and for what purpose do we serve. To each his/ her own.”

West explained the group of students showed up outside of Dumbeck’s office at 10 a.m. to begin the sit-in, but she had already left the building. After sitting in the hallway for a brief period, different faculty members told the group they had to move due to fire code and then called DPSS to assess the situation at hand. The students later moved to a larger space outside the dean’s office, after a DPSS officer advised they would be better seen there.

In an email interview, Lisa Raycraft, communications manager for the School of Social Work, affirmed an associate dean called DPSS because the protestors were blocking a narrow hallway.

“Space was available for students to continue their protest at either end of the hall, where the area is open. Students continued to sit and block the hallway. DPSS was called to assist with opening the hall so safety codes could be met,” she said.

However, Raycraft stated the School of Social Work recognized the protesters’ concerns as legitimate and various faculty and staff members discussed the matter over the course of the event. She said she could not comment on Dumbeck’s email, as it is a personal matter.

“The School of Social Work respects peaceful gatherings and the right of demonstrators to express their views,” she wrote. “The students today engaged in a peaceful protest in the SSW building sharing their concerns. SSW faculty and staff engaged with students throughout the sit-in.”

West expressed disappointment in how the School of Social Work responded to the protest — especially in the context that most of the students there had studied community organizing in classes within the building.

“My major is literally community organizing, so this is what I do,” she said. “When they tell me to move, I’m like, ‘You tell me not to move, in my textbook it tells me not to move.’ ”

She questioned where most of her classmates were during the six-hour sit-in, as they missed an opportunity to truly engage in their field of study.

"I’m Team 96, meaning that we’re the 96th class of School of Social Work, so everybody in my class is usually graduating this December or in April,” she said. “I'll be graduating in April. I see some of us here, but like, that’s 400 people. So I’m like, OK, maybe 50 graduated already from one year. Maybe 50 percent, like I said, are in field or in class. Where are the rest of the people? We’re all social workers, what does social work mean?”

Brendon Holloway, recent graduate of the MSW program, expressed the importance of ensuring that the voices of students of color remain in the center of discussion. He shared an email, signed by the MSW program as a whole, in which they expressed disappointment in Dumbeck for using such insensitive language towards such a diverse group of students.

“In response to your email, we are asking that you issue a public apology stating that you do not understand how students of color (specifically Dana Greene) feel and how for imposing your religion onto others, especially students who do not believe in God or have been kicked out of their churches for their identities,” they wrote. “As a staff member at the School of Social Work, it is your responsibility to respect all students and to not interrupt a conversation by using your whiteness and religious beliefs to do so.”

Holloway went on to emphasize the complex inner politics within the School of Social Work, stating he believes some staff members feel unable to show support for student events due to the risk of losing tenure.

"Due to the climate and power structures in place at the SSW, I can understand why they did not attend the sit-in," he said. "We know that multiple faculty and staff have told us previously that they feel obliged to not be named in supporting student causes because they fear for their tenure, and because of internal politics and ramifications of supporting a position that the administration doesn’t support." 

In a public video posted to her Facebook page, West listed the recent racist incidents that have occurred on campus and called on her white peers to use their privilege to educate others, as she believes social work cannot exist without the fight for social justice.

“Silence is violence, and specifically, white silence is violence, so while you’re saying nothing that says everything to me. You support anti-blackness. You support racism. Yeah, I’m not sure how you think you all are going to go into Black and brown communities without investing in the lives of Black and brown communities, especially, while you’re in college,” she said. “White allies, get your people. Get your people. I know it may be hard, but it’s also hard being oppressed. So imagine our struggle. Don’t be complacent, stand out for things — you will reach communities that I will never reach.”