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July 2022 Educator|Resource of the Month

The Center for Diversity and Social & Economic Justice Educator|Resource is a monthly feature that highlights curricular resources and social work educators who address diversity and justice.
What Does Teaching From an Antiracist Perspectctive Look Like? A new series by the CSWE Diversity Center

Advocating for Social Justice When You Aren't Sure Where to Begin

As our students grapple with current threats to human rights in our country, they will be looking to us for guidance on how, as social workers, they can advocate for justice. Social workers have worked under conditions in which acute disenfranchisement, human rights violations, and injustice are present. Although there is no formula to give them, we can introduce students to how social workers have put social justice advocacy into practice: how they have analyzed the threats of punitive policies to the well-being of the communities they serve, how they have worked through ethical dilemmas such as the potential complicity with systems of oppression, and how they have considered alternatives and devised action strategies. Learning from social workers' experiences offers students vantage points from which to think and act critically and strategically. In this Educator|Resource, we compile real-life accounts, combined with in-depth analyses, of how social workers have come together and mobilized under social conditions of oppression.

Teaching Resources  

We select three cases with suggested readings for each, one national and two international, in which the role of social work in critical political periods has been documented: (a) in the United States during Jim Crow and other periods of African American disenfranchisement, (b) in South Africa under apartheid, and (c) in Chile in the period of civil–military dictatorship. The readings extend to the struggles for justice that have persisted in each country through contemporary times. 

What can we learn from international forms of political conflict as we address issues in the United States? As the book that we feature this month, International Perspectives on Social Work and Political Conflict, suggests, Western societies are no longer the exception to political conflict relative to the rest of the world as we confront divisions through systematic discrimination based on gender, race and ethnicity, immigrant status, and more. In introducing the book, the authors explain the significance of global lessons for all social workers: 

[It has] far-reaching significance both in terms of equipping social workers who are confronted with such acute situations with the appropriate insights and skills and in terms of sharpening the awareness of social workers in general for the omnipresence of political conflict in their work. The growing literature on these acute encounters shows that political conflicts are indeed on the agenda of social workers in so many different contexts and while every situation has its specific challenges, there are underlying lessons to be derived from the analysis of these situations which have relevance for social workers in general. When these accounts often reveal that social workers were inadequately prepared for the arising challenges during their training, they also testify to the enormous courage, commitment and creativity with which professionals in these situations develop strategies and approaches that build on their specific social work skills to reach extraordinary levels of understanding and competence. (p. xv) 

As in our current political and social period in the United States, the stories of the political periods covered here, and of social work’s involvement in them, are complex and multifaceted. The political context, the history of the area and the specific issue being addressed, and the local cultural norms all play a role in social work responses. Cognizant of this, we focus not on the comparability of the specific issues but on what we can learn to help us understand our particular situation and to devise social action strategies.

Cases With Suggested Readings
United States: African American Social Work Response to Needs Under Jim Crow and Other Periods of Disenfranchisement

In the context of laws on racial segregation and other disenfranchisement, African American social workers used their shared experiences to draw on common values and principles to politically engage their communities. They created their own organizations and structures for communal care and political empowerment, “when well-known frameworks for activism and advocacy commonly associated with social work . . . were not accessible to African Americans” (Shepherd & Pritzker, 2021, p. 242). 

Carlton-LaNey, I. (1999). African American social work pioneers’ response to need. Social Work, 44(4), 311–321. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/44.4.311 

Carlton-LaNey, I., & Chavis, A. M. (2011). Annie Mae Kenion (1912–2009): Teaching and community building in the Jim Crow South. Affilia, 26(4), 431–439. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109911428209 

Shepherd, D., & Pritzker, S. (2021). Political advocacy without a choice: Highlighting African American political social workers. Advances in Social Work, 21(2/3), 241–258. https://doi.org/10.18060/24135

South Africa: Social Workers and Apartheid

During apartheid, social workers turned to community organizing while also “developing considerable ingenuity in circumventing brutal laws and manipulating the environment to the client’s advantage” (Young, 1980, p. 312). An issue that emerged both during and after the conflict was social workers’ potential complicity with systems of oppression. In light of South Africa’s long colonial history, educators are responding to student calls for decolonizing social work education.   

Turton, Y., & van Breda, A. (2019). The role of social workers in and after political conflict in South Africa: Reflections across the fence. In J. Duffy, J. Campbell, & C. Tosone (Eds.), International Perspectives on Social Work and Political Conflict (pp. 128–141). Routledge. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9781315150833-11/role-social-workers-political-conflict-south-africa-yasmin-turton-adrian-van-breda 

Van der Westhuizen, M., Dykes, G., & Carelse, S. (2022). From colonialism to postcolonialism: Decolonized social work education in South Africa. Journal of Social Work Education, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1080/10437797.2021.2019636 

Young, M. H. (1980). Social work under apartheid. Social Work, 25(4), 309–313. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23712100

Chile: Social Work and the Period of Civil-Military Dictatorship

Social workers defended human rights under dangerous conditions (e.g., created a commission to register and document testimonies of human rights violations and organized to meet basic needs). Working under authoritarian rule generated significant professional dilemmas for social workers and social work academics. In addtion, a long-term consequence of this period appears to be the “depoliticized and individually oriented approaches of social workers’ interventions” (Arce, 2019b, p. 289). 

Arce, G. M. (2019a). Chilean social work and the legacies of the dictatorship. Social Dialogue, 22. Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://socialdialogue.online/sd22/06_article.html 

Arce, G. M. (2019b). The neoliberal turn in Chilean social work: Frontline struggles against individualism and fragmentation. European Journal of Social Work, 22 (2), 289–300. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691457.2018.1529657 

Donoso, G. R., Valderrama, C. G., & LaBrenz, C. A. (2021). Human rights in Chilean social work: Lessons from Chile to prepare social work students for human rights practice. Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 6(2), 108–119. Retrieved July 2, 2022, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41134-020-00156-8

Additional Readings 

Fiske, L. (2013, May 28). Social work values and refugee policy [Speech transcript]. Australian Association of Social Workers. https://www.aasw.asn.au/communications?command=article&id=2676 

Jolliffe, K. (2014). Ethnic Conflict and Social Services in Myanmar’s Contested Regions. The Asia Foundation. https://reliefweb.int/report/myanmar/ethnic-conflict-and-social-services-myanmar-s-contested-regions 

Li, Y., & Fabbre, V. D. (2020). The health and well-being of LGBTQ people in mainland China: The role of social work. International Social Work. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020872820940018

Teaching and Learning Activity 

Students’ immersion in the experiences of social workers who have mobilized to confront injustice can provide opportunities for rich discussion on lessons learned. We provide a list of prompts for students to reflect upon as they read the articles in preparation for discussion.   

Prompts for Small Group Discussion Followed by Whole-Class Exploration 

Provide students with the links to the nine article abstracts or full texts and ask them to give you their top choice from each country (United States, South Africa, and Chile). Assign each student one reading from their three preferences, ensuring that all the readings are covered across the class. Assign groups that represent a range of readings. 

To prepare for small group discussions, ask the students to read their article, writing down their reflections on the following prompts as they read. In the small group discussions, ask that one student write down key points on the themes that surfaced to share in a whole-class conversation. 

  1. Share your initial emotional reactions to your reading. For example, what do you think was going through the social workers’ minds, or as a future social worker how do you think you would react under similar circumstances? 
  2. What stood out for you in the readings regarding constraints faced by social workers, the social work values that guided them, social action approaches, pressure to become complicit, and/or other themes? 
  3. What connections can you make between the form(s) of oppression you read about in your article and those you see in the United States? Are these oppressions mirrors (you’ve experienced them yourself) or windows (you see others being affected), or both for you?
  4. What ideas did you get from your reading about how to advocate for social justice (for dealing with both pressing problems and longer-term consequences)?
  5. As a future social worker, what do you believe you need to learn to be adequately prepared to help end the systemic oppression faced by some segments of your clients?
  6. Add any other reflections, even if they seem off topic.
Featured Book

International Perspectives on Social Work and Political ConflictInternational Perspectives on Social Work and Political Conflict narrates how practitioners have responded in the context of social oppression occurring globally, with lessons relevant to Western societies.

Genre: Social Analysis


The views expressed in the Educator|Resource are those of the educator(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Social Work Education.

 Contact Dr. Yolanda Padilla, CSWE Diversity Center Director, at [email protected].