Pedagogy for Liberation in Social Work: Power, Privilege and Oppression

As part of our final project, we offer some of our reflections and inspiration for the syllabus we co-created:

Diana Melendez:

My experience as a doctoral student who is simultaneously playing the role of educator and student has been extremely eye opening in terms of the the challenges of the process of learning overall. Although I came into my Social Welfare program with multiple years of experience as a facilitator and presenter at conferences, as well as some teaching experience, I have realized how much I did not know and how much I must continue to learn. Due to a combination of factors including the larger socio-economic context of austerity in higher education, the increasing number of adjuncts often being students and historical biases embedded throughout the education system, student-centered learning is not treated as a priority in our formal doctoral preparation. It has largely been due to chance that I found myself in particular courses which sought to actively and intentionally integrate interactive pedagogy, media and other methods of teaching into the content. While the alarming lack of teaching preparation doctoral students receive is of great interest and significance to me, this is only but part of a larger critique I hold about social work higher education.

The need for social workers to be trained in and participate in liberatory praxis, given the complexities of privilege and power across race, gender identity, class, sexual orientation, etc. is  central to the profession’s commitment to social justice. Scholars have an established discourse of interrogating interlocking systems of oppression since the first half of the 1900s (Fanon, 1963; Du Bois, 1903/1904) and the literature around coloniality continues to grow (Mignolo, 2007; Quijano, 2000; Castro-Gomez & Martin, 2002; Lugones, 2008; Giraldo, 2016; Patel, 2014). The colonial project has undoubtedly shaped the etiology and epistemology informing social work professional practice, knowledge base, research, policy and procedures. Thus, there is a need to deconstruct our theories and practices from a decolonizing perspective that addresses the impact of white supremacy, patriarchy, cis-heteronormativity and Christian hegemony on what we know as “reality.”  

The question remains whether the current MSW educational curriculums, learning goals and standards, school culture and climate and expectations for social work students effectively foster critical curiosity and intentionally embed decolonizing opportunities for critical consciousness-raising across intersectionality of identity and foster collective empowerment.  Furthermore, it is not clear whether current social work education is effectively preparing students to be meaningful agents of social change as part of collective organizing which is historically the most effective method of achieving systemic and structural change.

There have been improvements since the time I graduated from a master’s level program in social work. Research shows that offering classes which address and introduce the language of power and oppression is a start and has shown to increase student political engagement (Swank, 2012). However, this same research, conducted across 12 United States colleges, reflects that social workers are more inclined to follow established political mechanisms in pursuit of systemic change.  Less than 20% had engaged in a demonstration with less than 5% having engaged in civil disobedience. Of the students who reported engaging in social action which aimed at pushing for change from “outside the system,” regardless of political party affiliation, students were inclined to participate if they had interpersonal access to the organizing network and if they felt morally pressed. Is our current education fostering these types of networks?  Are we preparing strategic critical thinkers and daring innovators?

I believe using media and digital interactive technology as an additional dimension of teaching can not only engage students more, but also foster necessary critical thinking skills and increase students’ comfortability with using the tools of our time and our future. In order to create a learning pathway for students which both exposes them to critical theoretical scholarship but also engages them in multilevel analyses of areas where social change is necessary, the sources we use must be nuanced and allow for the nuanced complications of lived experiences. Media is a form of art and it allows for multimodal learning to take place, meeting students’ diverse learning needs and styles. It is also important for students to recognize the material discussed in class as relevant to their everyday lives and experiences- illustrating this through the way media surrounds them is a great way to convey this.

This co-created syllabus is informed by my experiences within and outside the system of formal higher education as a social worker.  This syllabus was designed as the learning plan I wish I had when I was in school while addressing the above mentioned concerns I am now able to articulate. I offered some of the foundational concepts which were developed and practiced in direct practice (Institute for Family Services) and community organizing organizations (People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond) I have been a part of so that I can speak to the operationalizing of these concepts. This syllabus also attempts to incorporate various exercises and activities we have picked up over the course of our experiences doing community work, facilitating, teaching or learning. There was an effort to integrate both textual and media-based sources for students to engage with the material as well as ample opportunities for experiential learning through both in-class and outside of class assignments.  

Students are required to take what they are learning in class, and their own knowledge and experiences, into a real life project which is meant to have a public facing positive impact on others outside our class. Students are also required to engage in deep self-reflection regarding their professional roles, their personal stories, and the convergence of these. The assignments are mostly scaffolded to allow for a more fluid learning curve and opportunity for students to develop project management skills. Students are also provided with the opportunity to contribute to their publication experiences whether it be through the online blog posts or the pursuit of publication of their reflection papers. It is my hope that students experience the integration of various forms of media into the course as a template which can inform their work subsequently as professionals.  It is also my hope that I can continue to collaborate with colleagues around this developing learning plan which will continue to evolve as I do over the remainder of my doctoral education.

Tiffany Younger:

I decided to cocreate this syllabus with Diana because I taught across three Social Work Schools in New York City( CUNY Hunter, NYU and Columbia). Currently, based on feedback from both my students and my colleagues the social work curriculum infuses a binary ideology: curriculum is centered around two main identities when it comes to race(black/white), sex(male/ female), or class(Rich/poor). This curriculum will seek to use media and  inclusive scholarship and practice in social workers training to move beyond the binary through a series of critical conversations, an informal place where people can get to know each other and talk about ways to infuse inclusive scholarship which includes media in both social work classrooms and in social work community partnerships and placements.

As schools of social work respond to evolving times and the heightened visibility of oppression towards marginalized groups, new challenges emerge for our profession to contend with. Despite strides made towards racial and economic equality through movements for justice, data continues to reflect the urgency of social workers’ roles within the lives of historically disempowered communities. The demand for social work professionals in direct practice settings is projected to grow, even within a context of neoliberalism, while social workers are also called to participate within the fields of policy and research, program development, advocacy, etc. Social work programs have varying models of how to provide students with a generalist foundation while increasingly being called to integrate opportunities for students to develop higher levels of sophistication in their skills to address the role of racism and other forms of oppression. Some of the challenges that come with this effort include curriculum development, both in process and content, as well as the level of preparation and support expected by and from faculty. The full integration of issues of structural and systemic inequality across all courses remains a challenge.Through the use of media we aim to alleviate some of the challenges presented throughout this course to provide a more inclusive class.

As a Black women educator it is often times hard to hold the conversations about race, gender and class without students thinking that I am complaining or using the race card. My hope is that this course allows for a space for ALL professors no matter their identity can teach this course allows student to focus on media scholarship as a way to “Show” and express the very things I say in class. As a student. What I noticed is that sometimes we have to diversify the way in which we use scholarship in the classroom. The mediating race class supported me in seeing a different way to not only teach but learn.

As a student studying social policy school four years ago at the University of Pennsylvania, I was increasing frustrated when our studies and the way we learned was “white washed”. I originally applied to the program because I wanted to be critical in my work within the policy world; however, the program did not live up to the expectation. The readings were all by white men and ALL of our guest speakers were white men. I remember after one class I asked my professor “ why are all our guest lecturers white men? The means that we believe white men are the only ones doing this work”. Her response, “ you are right, I will do better”. I have followed the different cohorts of people within the program and unfortunately she has “not done better”. This is part of the reason why I decided to get a PHD and enter the academy(also to fight against trump). This journey has been long and hard and although this syllabus was fun to make and I plan on teaching, I hope my students critique it and challenge me to do better every time around.

Throughout different parts of this syllabus I outline the reasoning behind every aspect. Enjoy!