During her opening remarks at the School of Social Work fall 2019 orientation, Dean Lynn Videka implored incoming students to achieve one goal while in the program: to become anti-racist. As racial disparities in all morbidities have culminated in Black Americans facing the shortest life expectancy of all Americans per a recent report, anti-racism work is of the utmost urgency. However, we as students of the program question if the Master of Social Work curriculum is helping us achieve the dean’s singular goal.   

Our time in the classroom has illuminated a gap between social work’s core value of social justice — echoed in the school’s much touted curricular framework of PODS (privilege, oppression, (intersectional) diversity and social justice) —  and how we’re being taught. This gap has been most exemplified in one of the curriculum’s required courses, Social Work 504 – Diversity and Social Justice in Social Work. 

Diversity and Social Justice in Social Work is taught as a week-by-week exploration of different marginalized identities: Black/African Americans, American Indians and Alaska Natives, the LGBTQ+ community, etc. The layout of the course alone contradicts the school’s goal of focusing on intersectionality, or the understanding that individuals have multiple identities that interplay to compound social privilege or oppression. By compartmentalizing the discussion of different identities, the curriculum effectively erases the reality of intersectional oppression and instead provides only surface level exposure to the impact of oppression experienced by various marginalized social groups.   

Furthermore, when it comes to discussing oppression the course is tepid on the pernicious oppression of racism. 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. It would appear as the course is developed with the white student majority in mind. By doing so, the school placates students’ discomfort discussing race at the expense of the racially diverse clientele we’re all but certain to engage as social workers. 

The most ironic element of the course may be a reading it assigns that challenges the effectiveness of “diversity courses” in Master of Social Work curricula, the very type of course in which we read the article. The article’s authors, Laura Abrams and Jené Moio of the University of California at Los Angeles, cite research in their article that students who take “diversity courses” in MSW programs were more likely to report seeing the world as “fundamentally fair and equal” after taking the course. To have students’ belief that the world is fair and just reinforced in a course which seeks to raise student’s awareness of injustice, inequity and oppression is antithetical to the course’s aim.    

To address the gaps of courses such as Social Work 504, Abrams and Moio recommend curricula incorporate critical race theory, which acknowledges endemic racism, focuses on intersectionality and amplifies oppressed voices by assigning readings and discussing theories from marginalized scholars, among other principles. Similarly, anti-oppressive practice is another theoretical framework that can be incorporated into the curriculum as it seeks to analyze, critique and dismantle the structural oppression that leads to the marginalization of many of the identities we discuss in Social Work 504. Such curricular frameworks are necessary as they affirm the experience of oppressed communities and utilize pedagogical tools that dismantle, not perpetuate, oppression in learning environments.  

We at the University are not the only students demanding that schools of social work better implement the professional values of racial and social justice. Student movements for anti-oppressive social work at peer institutions including New York University and Columbia University demonstrate the systemic nature of this problem in academia. Progress is possible, as demonstrated by the social work programs at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Houston, which currently offer “American Racism and Social Work Practice” and “Confronting Oppression and Injustice” courses, respectively. 

Based on our experience and our desire to actualize the social work values that brought us to the University, we believe the School of Social Work stands to grow through the following changes. First, add a mandatory course on race and ethnicity in social work that uses a critical race theory lens. Second, offer a course on anti-oppressive practices in social work. Third, mandate a minimum proportion of assigned readings across courses from indigenous and people of color authors, acknowledging the role academia has played in the dearth of racially and ethnically diverse scholarship. Last, forge a connection with the Center for Institutional Diversity to support the faculty’s comfort in teaching across racial and ethnic differences.

As the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics has made education about “social diversity and oppression” a professional imperative, we invite members of the School of Social Work community to join our movement for a more equitable curriculum. Students share the dean’s commitment to becoming anti-racists, and we look forward to a curriculum that supports that goal. 

The Students of Social Work 504, Section 4 of Fall 2019 can be reached at jstnwds@umich.edu.

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