Statement from faculty and staff at PSU’s School of Social Work on Ferguson

Ferguson: We stand with you

Faculty and Staff of the Portland State University School of Social Work stand in solidarity with communities working to address racism in our society, and in particular in our criminal legal system.  We are saddened and outraged by the St. Louis County grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, and we call for individual and collective healing and organizing for justice.

We know that individual acts of violence happen within broader contexts. In the case of Michael Brown’s death and the failure to indict and allow to stand trial those responsible for his death, this larger context includes institutions that continue to perpetuate racism and other forms of structural violence.  We know that communities of color and other minoritized groups are consistently targeted by police and disproportionately represented within the criminal legal system. In this country, when law-enforcement agents harass, beat, choke, and/or shoot civilians – particularly black men – it is done with impunity. The current crisis in Ferguson and subsequent reactions and rallies across the country is symptomatic of this structural anti-black racism.

As a School, we have an explicit commitment to working against racism, and other social injustices; as such, we aim to expose and challenge the forces of structural oppression that result in violence, disempowerment, and dehumanization of minoritized communities.  What is happening in Ferguson does not exist in isolation; it clearly reflects historical and current conditions globally, across the United States, and locally. In particular, it highlights the injurious effects of racism perpetuated by police against people of color, particularly black men.  We know first hand the realities faced by people impacted by discriminatory policing and surveillance and we continue to support efforts to develop alternative models of safety and justice for all of our communities.

As we look toward Ferguson, it is imperative that we strategize around solutions to dismantle racist institutions and practices while simultaneously supporting those who are most affected by the oppression and injustices inherent in these systems.  We are not alone in this work, nor is this a new charge for social work and our allied fields.  There is a long history of racial justice organizing within our professions as well as important work going on at present.  As a School of Social Work, we are well-positioned to respond to our current social conditions and must continue to work to transform our professional work into efforts that promote socially just, anti-racist services, programs, policies, and change.

Toward this end, we  build on the Smith College of Social Work’s statement on Ferguson (http://www.smith.edu/ssw/docs/fergusonstatement.pdf) to call upon our communities to:

  • Participate in non-violent social and political actions to interrupt oppressive practices and promote systemic changes
  • Engage in critical dialogue about the systemic forces of race and racism that shape our relationships and communities
  • Strategize around solutions to dismantle racist institutions and practices.
  • Support those who are most affected by oppression and injustices inherent in our systems.
  • Advocate for policies that support alternatives to policing including community-based approaches to safety and conflict resolution.

Please see Dean Laura Nissen’s blog post on this matter including additional resources for learning and action at:   http://sswdeanconnect.wordpress.com/

Members of the Faculty and Staff from Portland State School of Social Work:

Ben Anderson-Nathe

Jared I. Best

Bill Boyd

Sarah Bradley

Danica Brown

Beckie Childs

Miranda Cunningham

Ann Curry-Stevens

Joseph Nicholas DeFilippis

Ted Donlan

Erin Flynn

Lisa Hawash

Michael Hulshof-Schmidt

Veronika Ivanova

Pauline Jivanjee

Ericka Kimball

Sandy Leotti

Jennifer Linnman

Analucia Lopezrevoredo

Staci Martin

Michele Martinez Thompson

Martha McCormack

Gita Mehrotra

Pamela J. Miller

James Nash

Bahia Overton

Meg Panichelli

Lisa Race

Teresa D. Schmidt

Claudia Sellmaier

Anne Sinkey

Gary Smith

Susie Snyder

Michael Taylor

Sonja Taylor

Alma M.O. Trinidad

Shannon Turner

Stéphanie Wahab

Norm Wyers

No one is free while others are oppressed

I’ve been struggling for the last several months with the intersectionality and hierarchy created around race, gender, and sexual orientation. I’ve experienced  some personal, professional, and public challenges in these areas.  One example is that I’ve been watching and waiting for people to react to the George Zimmerman verdict for the last few weeks. I’ve been deeply disappointed that some of those who have been so vocal on  issues of marriage equality and reproductive rights, have been eerily silent on the verdict.  Many of those who were enraged by Texas lawmakers passage of strict anti-abortion laws, were silent when the verdict was announced. Nearly all of those who changed their social media avatars to red equal signs of the Human Rights Campaign or the orange & blue messages of MN United for All Families, did nothing to visually advocate for peace and justice in the Trayvon Martin murder case. It was this lack of action, this silence, that deepened my understanding of the importance of discussing race, racism, white privilege, and white supremacy. It was this silence that pushed my understanding of the constant underlying roots of racism and white supremacy in the United States. It was these acts of silence that pushed me to reflect on my experiences.

Several years ago, I had an experience with an African-American man which ultimately ended our acquaintance.  He had asked to store his bags in my room since he had to check out of his hotel quite a few hours before his flight. I agreed. When I offered him my key so he could place his bags in my room, he offered up quite a few concerns about entering my room without someone else present including a concern about being accused of stealing. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. A mutual friend (a white woman) offered to escort him to my room to place his bags. On the trip to my room, he proceeded to make comments about me and this friend including comments of us being aggressive in terms of academics, etc. This created a firestorm of sorts in which I view his attacks on my “aggressiveness” as sexist. I had several other interactions with him that I filtered through the lens of gender oppression. Then ultimately chose to avoid him.  Upon further reflection and while I still believe there are roots of sexism in his comments and actions, I’m able to better understand his concerns and reaction to my flippant responses. I also understand how my flippancy could have put him at risk. My intention was to not be racist but to put him at ease, what I did was fail to understand the long standing effects of institutionalized racism and white supremacy.  My experiences with him were filtered and clouded through my experiences of oppression to the point that I was unable to appreciate his oppression. I’m humbled and deeply changed from this reflection. I get that my dismissiveness of his experiences are similar to the silence of my white friends in the case of Trayvon Martin’s murder. I know I have a lot of work to do. And rather than judging others by their silence, I’m going to continue to reflect, learn, and continue my anti-oppression work.

Supporting students from a class perspective

An interesting article in today’s NY Times: Poor Students Struggle as Class Plays a Greater Role in Success  (alternatively titled as “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in Hard Fall”)

I write about class a lot because it’s one of the few things I feel secure in my knowledge. When we think about class in terms of college, we often think about the financial aid piece. Universities have made great progress in meeting the financial needs of low-income student, but there are still nuances about growing up poor that are forgotten. It’s beyond the ability to pay for college. This article does a good job discussing the complex socio-economic influences in our lives. There is this cultural difference that exists between classes which people often forget or deny. As academics, it’s important that we are aware of these differences and able to support students coming from low-income families.

From the article: Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials, a problem that would trail Melissa and Angelica in their journey through college.

“Middle-class students get the sense the institution will respond to them,” Professor Lareau said. “Working-class and poor students don’t experience that. It makes them more vulnerable.”

This is a critical statement in understanding the experiences and needs of many students who come from low-income families. I’m sure there are many reasons students may not ask for help. For me, I often didn’t know what kind of help existed or that it was ok to ask for help. There was also overwhelming feelings of shame in needing help or the idea of being a bother.

I don’t know what the solution is or how to ease the transition to college, but I think it’s something we need to keep thinking and talking about. A start might be to move away from this idea of “first generation college student” to actually acknowledging class differences. There are many older academics who are “first generation college students” but mostly like from middle class families. Especially any of those academics who graduated college prior to the 1990s. If you are 60 years old and a first generation college student, you probably come from a middle class background. The poor kids went to Vietnam. So, your experiences as a first generation college student are probably quite different than your students. Trying to identify with them in those terms misses the point. As a person who comes from anti-oppressive practice point of view,  I intentionally discuss class in the same ways I intentionally discuss race, gender, and sexual orientation. I hope this serves several purposes. First, to highlight some of the nuances of class that middle or upper middle class people may not get. Second, to indirectly share with students who may be from low income families that I may be someone who understands their struggle. Finally, I hope it gets people talking about class in the ways that we talk about other experiences of oppression within the context of academic experiences and successes.

Poverty Tourism

I read this article the other day over at Mother Jones. It’s one person’s tale of working as a picker in a warehouse. She spend five days as a picker and writes an expose on the working conditions in the warehouse. I’ll say this once:  I am an advocate for human rights which includes labor issues.  But I have several issues with this article and this type of journalism. It’s a form of “poverty tourism” where middle class people tour the working class to gain insight and experiences that they believe will make them more enlightened.

This article is the epitome of the disconnect between middle class intellectuals and those of the other classes. I cannot speak from an upper class perspective, but I can speak from the working class. There is all this knowledge being created in the middle classes that creates the narrative of “good” and “bad.” This group gets to expound upon the horrors created by the upper classes onto those in the working classes while the middle class intellectuals sit by virtually blameless. Yet, they are the ones writing the article, selling books, and giving speeches on the classism they perpetuate and benefit from.

The disconnect between middle class is apparent from the outset. A middle class woman knowingly takes a job she doesn’t need in order to get a profitable experience. With unemployment at 8% or more, it’s shameful to take a weeks worth of wages from a person who needs them, but she and her editors did not even discuss the privilege or ethics of her taking this job.

Furthermore, her ability to obtain a genuine experience of the working conditions is questionable. There is a difference in the effects of manual labor on a person’s body. A person who has been working manual labor for many years may have less trouble adjusting to the working conditions than a writer. This is not to argue that the  quotas and speed requirements are not troublesome, but the rawness of her pain may be exaggerated by her lack of current experience in the working class.

But this is all part of the disconnect between the middle class and working class. It is even apparent in the title “I was a warehouse wage slave.”  The American middle class values the hierachary created by capitalism. Such phrases reinforce the middle class belief of what kind of work is “valued” and “fulfilling.” Read warehouse work is wage slavery and writing for Mother Jones is not.  My mother, who is in her 60s, has been a waitress nearly her entire adult working life. She averages about 60 hours a week. Two year ago was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer  During her chemo treatment, she cut down to 35 hours a week. She could have cut back more if she wanted to, but the fact is that she didn’t want to cut back–not because she needed the money–but she because she needed the activity and socialization. She finds value in her work in terms of how good of a waitress she is and the friendships she has made through the restaurant. Articles such as this, discounts the value that working class people may find in their jobs. The writer further dehumanizes working class people when she refers to them as “drones” because people are defined by their work which couldn’t possibly have meaning or value.

Ever since Upton Sinclair wrote the “Jungle” we have seen muckraking journalist trying to bring the plight of the working class to the middle to upper middle classes. My question is this: Is anyone really surprised by the working conditions? Do we as a society really believe that we can get our products cheap and fast without some kind of violation of human rights? We need to move beyond this type of expose and start thinking, talking, and writing about–not just what do we need to give up and what are we willing to give up in order to advance a human rights agenda–but how and why are we benefitting from exposing the oppression of working class people. Instead of focusing on the emotional manipulation of working conditions, we need to challenge people to think critically about capitalism, and its insatiable appetite.

Education accessibility

As I enter the academic job market, I’ve been doing a lot of reflection trying to understand what I want to do and where I want to be. I am quite green and naive about what it means to work in academia. I’m a first generation college graduate. I was lucky enough to have an older sister to blaze the trail for me. Though I was a late starter (aka non-traditional student), I knew the ropes of applying to college, putting down the deposit money to hold your place, and completing the FAFSA. I am the first in my immediate family to go on to graduate school. Applying and completing my master’s program was not so different from my bachelors. I completed my undergraduate and graduate education via weekend programs at very reputable private colleges. I was exposed to great professors who were dedicated to teaching and mentoring me through the process.

Recently, I found that this type of accessibility is not always welcomed by faculty. There are faculty members in some schools that only want to teach within traditional day programs. Bemoan any mention of having to teach at night or the weekends. Thus, leaving many of these courses to adjunct/community faculty to teach. While this is a fantastic opportunity for adjunct instructors and students, I am disappointed that a group of students (those who can ONLY take night and weekend classes)  will never have exposure to some great scholars.

Educational accessibility is social justice issue for me. Despite what many think, post secondary education continues to be a relatively white, middle (upper) class  privilege. Without the accessibility of a weekend program, I would have never been able to complete my education. I needed a program that was flexible enough so my partner could work while I stayed home with our two small children during the week. Then on the weekends, my partner took care of the children while I went to class. My children grew up on college campuses as I moved from undergrad to graduate level work.

Then I went on to the PhD program. In my admissions essay, I wrote about wanting to teach and do research. That is what I wanted to do with my PhD. It’s still what I want to do, but what seemed so simple nearly 4 years ago, does not seem as simple today. There is a wide range of the types of positions to choose from tenure track to non-tenure track, research intensive to teaching colleges, and BSW, MSW, and PhD programs. Among all of these options though, one thing remains clear to me. I want to be at a school where I have the ability to teach in programs that emphasize accessibility. And I’m not just talking about accessibility in terms of ability. I’m talking about in terms of day, evening, online, and weekend classes or some variation. I was only able to obtain my education because of weekend and evening classes and I want to make sure I pay that opportunity forward to others. I am committed to teaching on the day, time, and locations that make it possible to bring educational opportunities to people who may not otherwise have the opportunity.

Leave your ego at the door

Great article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Being Mean in Academe

I too have been thinking a lot about meanness in academia.  I think this recent post in The Chronicle of Higher Education gets at one point of meanness in terms of the ways in which we provide critique and feedback to others, but it also got me thinking more about how others perceive and interpret feedback. I don’t support putting work down on personal level or lambasting them at professional conferences or presentations. I don’t support feedback that is not constructive. Constructive feedback is the key word here. This is feedback and critique meant to advance thinking, writing, and knowledge development. It is not personal. Yet, I’ve encountered people in the academy that cannot take feedback or critique without taking it personally. Their own self-doubt or ego inhibits their ability to receive feedback graciously and kindly. Instead, they respond in a retaliatory manner to defend their own ego and bully others into submission. This is a level of meanness that also needs to be considered. When we are working together to advance thinking, writing, and knowledge, it cannot be done in isolation. Feedback and critique are essential. We need to put our self-doubt and egos aside to really think about the greater purpose of our work. For me, the work I do will never be about self-glory, rather it’s about advancing the prevention of violence against women and children. If you have  feedback, suggestions, or critique on how to advance this purpose  I’m happy to have an ally to work with.

Disheartened in Tampa

I’ve been pondering my SSWR experience since returning from Tampa last week. I attend only a few sessions as I was also on a mini-vacation with my family. As a lover of research and applied research, I love the SSWR conference. However, I left Tampa last Sunday feeling a little disheartened. I attended a session where a prominent social work researcher lumped cultural healing practices in the same category as reparative and primal scream therapy. He made bold assumptions and offensive remarks about cultural healing practices such as Reiki, Ayurveda, and acupuncture. At one point, I was embarrassed of his lack of cultural awareness and his ignorance. As he preceded to rail against these practices, calling them bogus, encouraging lawsuits against MSWs who practice these techniques, he began to show screenshots of MSW practitioners who practice some of these techniques. As he went through each slide, he mocked these people and the audience roared with laugher. At one point, I thought of walking out, but I needed to see if anyone would bring up the cultural relevance of these practices. No one did!

I wanted to call him out. I wanted to say something, but here’s the thing: He’s a prominent researcher with several important positions. The power he holds kept me silent. I’m angry at myself for allowing the power to matter.

My issue isn’t specifically with his lack of belief in any types of alternative medicine. I am a notorious skeptic of non-Western medicine even as I have a partner who is studying holistic healing practices. I have four main complaints about this presentation and his power. First, he failed to understand  the differences between cultural practices (i.e. acupuncture, Shamanism, Reiki, and Ayurveda) versus alternative therapies (i.e. reparative, primal scream, rebirthing, etc.). By lumping them together as the same types of practice, I question his understanding of the various methods. Second, his use of the word “bogus” to describe the alternative practices makes me question his ability to logically argue against them. Rather than presenting evidence against these, he used incendiary words. That’s just academically weak.  Third, displaying the website of his MSW colleagues to mock them is an ad hominem attack and/or appeal to ridicule which are logical fallacies. Furthermore, by mocking these social work practitioners, he appears to disregard NASW Code of Ethics 2.1a and 2.1b of treating colleagues with respect and avoiding unwarranted negative criticism of colleagues in front of other professionals. Finally, I take issue with the power he holds. As a person who sits on a number of editorial boards of professional journals and  grant reviewer, he hold a lot of power in determining the research that gets funded and published. I have great concern with someone who gets to be a “decider” who cannot logically and professionally argue his opinion but instead chooses to present it as evidence. I wonder how this affects his decision-making in the review process.  I left SSWR disheartened by the fact that so much power is held by such a person.