Last month in Washington, D.C., the world watched as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris took the oath of office. It was a moment of reckoning.
As she swore to uphold the Constitution, it sparked a conversation about the historical underrepresentation of women and African Americans in political leadership and elected office and the urgency of eliminating institutional barriers.
Others remarked on the significance of the many firsts the 2020 election represented. As the first woman of African and Asian descent, graduate of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), and member of a distinguished African-American sorority to serve as vice president, Kamala Harris’s achievements stimulated excitement and hope among countless women and men (also little girls and boys) spanning diverse communities and transcending social, economic, political, and geographical borders.
I am a social work professor who currently teaches at the undergraduate level. During my first class meeting following the inauguration, I met students who were eager to share their impressions of the event and its meaning to them as women. One student expressed joy at having witnessed “so many confident women leaders” assembled on the steps of the Capitol Building, including former first ladies Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush. Another student was struck by the color purple in the clothing choices of Vice President Harris, Michelle Obama, and other prominent women leaders and guests. Still another student expressed hope that Vice President Harris would succeed in serving the nation without constraint or risk of harm. As women, they were moved by the vice president’s ability to overcome barriers by using her intelligence, persistence, and family support. As social work students, they understood that it’s only when people work collectively that inequality and social injustice can be ameliorated.
In the aftermath of the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African Americans by law enforcement officials, the public discourse about racism seemed to increase but the subject was difficult for many to engage. Despite the uneasiness, avoiding conversations about what we all saw happening publicly was not the answer. I intentionally asked my students to share their understanding of the role that social workers are expected to play in efforts to prevent and eliminate racism and discrimination as endorsed by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). In his response, the only male student in the class argued that the popular perception that people lack education about racial injustice should not be used as an excuse for inaction.
As an educator, it was gratifying to witness these students giving voice to concerns that are deeply impacting people, as well as raising their own aspirations in the field.
A student in one of my generalist practice classes talked about traveling 40 miles from her home to participate in a Black Lives Matter peaceful protest march in Syracuse, N.Y., because she was frustrated by the racist comments in her community and wanted to do something to support the movement.
Following the death of Daniel Prude in Rochester, N.Y., a student in another class acknowledged the impact of economic disparities in Black and Latino communities in her hometown and vowed to return to the Rochester area to collaborate with law enforcement and health professionals to deliver better mental health services to match the needs of families and individuals in distress.
During discussions about school-based discipline and the criminal detention of girls, students raising African-American children shared their fears about how to keep them safe at school and in the community.
One mother who aspired to become a school social worker stressed the importance of teachers, administrators, youth, and parents relying on the expertise of social workers to advocate for high-quality learning opportunities for students and contribute toward tailoring supportive programs to strengthen social and emotional health and wellbeing at school.
As an educator, it was gratifying to witness these students giving voice to concerns that are deeply impacting people, as well as raising their own aspirations in the field. The maturity and thoughtful consideration that characterized their ideas were remarkable. Their willingness to engage with peers and partners around common interests in promoting social justice and community strengths suggested a high level of commitment that we look for among new professionals.
Social workers have a lot in common with public servants and elected officials who are trusted in diverse communities. The two groups feature individuals who stress service, hard work, social justice, and working in partnership with diverse populations to make sure needed resources reach them in neighborhoods, communities, cities, and states. NASW recognizes the women leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives who are also members of the profession.
As part of current conversations about professional development with students who are nearing the end of their BSW degree programs, I encouraged them to talk about how the pandemic was influencing their career aspirations in the field. Despite the ongoing uncertainties in the world, all appeared to rededicate themselves to helping others and making a positive difference, especially within low-income communities.
When I asked the students what sparked their initial interest in social work, they took turns remembering senior members in the field who first introduced them to the profession and influenced their personal interests to follow in their footsteps. They remarked about qualities they most admired in these role models such as persistence, respect, communication, and the life-long faithfulness to protect those who are younger and older.
As social work students, they understood that it’s only when people work collectively that inequality and social injustice can be ameliorated.
When reflecting on her own activism and development as a leader, Vice President Harris consistently named her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, as her most significant inspiration. In her public comments, she remembered her as a scientist, educator, activist, and advocate who encouraged her daughters to embrace their social and cultural roots and dream big. The vice president has also acknowledged the massive efforts of Native American, White, Asian, Latina, and Black women, in particular, to dismantle social and racial injustice and achieve civil rights for all people. While the extraordinary sacrifices of these women are not well recognized, Vice President Harris paid tribute to them when she said she “stands on their shoulders.”
One of the most important traditions in African-American culture is our preservation of events, activities, and names of people (past and present) who used the power of their convictions to fight for justice within their communities and beyond. Women in the United States representing diverse social, economic, and cultural backgrounds have long collaborated to remove barriers leading to the building of better program and institutional opportunities for youths, adults, and families in rural and urban locations. They include everyday women who were taught early in their youth about the inevitability of struggle and necessity of staying the course towards achieving new knowledge and pathways for freedom for themselves and others.
Many partnered with groups and organizations in such areas as education, health, agriculture, criminal justice, labor, and civil rights and became regarded as passionate change agents who put the needs of others first.
As social workers and women, we should acknowledge their influence, say their names, and lift them as models in the ongoing work to promote the growth and development of our students and ourselves: Ida B. Wells, Dorothy Height, Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Mary Church Terrell, Thyra J. Edwards, Wilma Mankiller, Dolores Huerta, Dr. Shirley J.Jones, and Dr. Ruth McRoy.
The historical and contemporary achievements of these women and many others teach us that the vital work of overcoming obstacles to building trusted relationships must continue. With increased partnerships, the current student members of our profession will be in strong positions to promote social justice and support social work values, research, programs, and policies.
Sekai Turner, Ph.D., M.S.W., M.P.S., is an assistant professor of Social Work at Keuka College, where she teaches at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Dr. Turner earned her Ph.D. in Human Development at the University of Maryland, her M.S.W. at the University of Pittsburgh, her M.P.S. in Africana Studies at Cornell University, and her B.A. in psychology at Spelman College.
About The Social Work Program
Complimenting your classroom study, you’ll gain real-world, practical experience as early as your first year through our Field Period® program. For students taking classes full-time at Keuka College, you’ll complete one Field Period® each year you’re a student. This is a great time to challenge yourself and explore the areas of social work that will enhance your foundational skills.
During your capstone course, you’ll be placed as a professional-in-training in a human service agency. You’ll work side-by-side with licensed field instructors in a safe, supervised environment—paving the way for you to transition from student to professional.
Keuka College’s social work faculty are active scholars and researchers, and offer you the opportunity to partner on projects if that’s where your interests lie. Our faculty understand the importance of scholarship and its ability to enhance our understanding and advocacy for important societal and community-based issues.
Some of their research interests include the treatment of traumatized youth, transitioning to a competency-based education, an examination of local foster care practices, and building social capital.
You’ll take courses focused on research methods, evaluation strategies, and the various policies that govern the social work profession—all to assist you in becoming an active researcher in the areas that matter the most to you. And if you’re interested in pursuing an advanced degree, you’ll have a leg up on knowing the right questions to ask and how to find the answers.
At Keuka College, your social work faculty are more than just great teachers. They’re seasoned professionals and innovative educators committed to your success. With background and expertise in traumatic brain injury, youth and adolescent counseling, women’s rights issues, solution-focused casework practice, advocacy for the disabled and underserved populations, mood disorders, effects of the child welfare system, and domestic violence, each of your professors come to the classroom with real-world, clinical experience.
They serve as role models, leaders, practitioners, and advocates dedicated to helping you achieve your educational goals, paving the way to improve the health of the nation and the world.
Keuka College’s bachelor’s in social work is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Our students are prepared for, and encouraged to, pursue master’s-level social work education and training, and because of our accreditation, graduates may apply for advanced standing in these programs.
MSW programs around the country accept a percentage of applicants in advanced standing, which allows students to graduate with their master’s degree in one year as opposed to the traditional two years.
The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) requires all programs to measure and report student learning outcomes. Students are assessed on their mastery of the competencies that comprise the accreditation standards of CSWE.
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