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Gracie E. Brownell, PhD, Texas A & M Commerce School of social work

Social Work Education Through a Liberian Feminist Lens

Abstract

This short article explores the experiences of a Liberian social worker and educator living in the United States. It traces her experiences that led to her commitment to help prepare future social workers to live and work in an interconnected world. It highlights challenges and contributions while working with students, colleagues and clients. The article explores strategies used to prepare future social workers to work with diverse populations in and outside the United States. The author suggests three avenues for creating a positive social learning environment at the classroom, program/university and community levels. The findings support strengthening and holding accountable existing Diversity Equity and Inclusion structures and bringing those concepts into mainstream culture.

Social Work Education through the Liberian Feminist Lens. The intersection of identity such (e.g., gender and race) and position (tenure-track vs. nontuenure track) influence Black women’s interactions with students and colleagues in and outside of the classroom (Boss et al., 2019). My identities as a black woman from Liberia, coupled with my experiences associated with my immigrant status (international student and permanent resident in the United States) have not only contributed to my pursuit of a career as a social work educator, but have also influenced my interaction with students especially my commitment to help prepare them to work in an interconnected world. Prior to moving to the United States, I was never conscious about my skin color, my race, ethnicity needless to say, opinionated by prejudice, stereotype, racism or discrimination. As a result of my limited exposure to these concepts, I often struggled to answer demographic questions related to my race or ethnicity. For example,I felt “African American” does not describe me since I am African while “black” might indicate, I am American when I am not. So I often select other and write Liberian or African.

As an international student, one of my early encounters with American students consisted of me being bombarded with questions like, “Do you speak English?,” “Do you have kings and queens in your country like the movie Coming to America?,” and even “Are you here on a sport scholarship?” I attributed my peers’ questions to ignorance, naivety and the images and stories of Africa perpetuated by the media in the western world. I also wondered what U.S. world history and geography classes were like because in high school I was taught about the United States, including its history on slavery, the civil rights movement and particularly its democracy.

This gap in knowledge made me almost eager to share information about my country and and other countries around the world to help them see how they are connected to the rest of the world. For instance, I help students learn that Liberia was founded by free slaves from America, that it is an English nation fashioned after the U.S. with connections between its constitution, flag and even pledge of allegiance.

However, my mission was soon interrupted when I learned that my interpretation of the questions posed by American students (both white and black) differed from the perception of other black students. On one particular occasion, another black student told me that the question about whether I was on a scholarlship was motivated by the other students‘ belief that I could not afford tuition and therefore, was on some type of sports scholarship. Slowly, I learned about prejudice, stereotype and discrimination that other students experienced, particularly international students.

Since those early experiences as an undergraduate student, I have had dozens of other experiences in graduate school ranging from when a medical doctor at one of the universities I attended suggested that I test for HIV since according to her “you are from Africa” to another university administrator asking me to take the TOEFL to test my English proficiency skills although she realized that I spoke “good American.” When I explained my experience with the doctor to my my peers, my peers were appalled and angry. They perceived the doctor as prejudice and stereotypic. They suggested that I file a complaint against the doctor. I respectfully declined. Later, I reflected upon my immediate reaction of surprise and confusion and my reaction after talking with my peers. Although I was not angry to the point of confronting the doctor or filing a complaint against her, I was concern that a highly educated professional would allow her preconceived notions based on stereotype to affect her thoughts about me and subsequently, the medical advise and care she gave me. This prompted me to think about other professionals, particularly social workers who if are not careful would also fall into the trap of looking at clients through lens(es) clouded with bias, prejudice and stereotype.

As an assistant professor, in the pre-COVID-19 pandemic era, I observed my students sitting in what looked like racial cliques similar to the ones I witnessed as an undergraduate student in classroom. I worried that this promoted self-segregation, limited their chances of learning and growing together. In addition to these apparent racial clique sitting arrangement, I also observed that students often avoided discussion about concepts related to diversity, racism and discrimination despite our diligent commitment to teaching these concepts in several social work courses. I wondered, if students are uncomfortable to discuss these issues, how likely are they to confront and advocate against social injustices associated with the “isms”?

In sharing my observations with my students and department’s head, I encouraged students to sit with and interact, thereby learning more about other classmates from different backgrounds. In addition to this first step approach, my department head and I developed a diversity brown bag lunch strategy where students, faculty and staff would meet to discuss diversity issues and share experiences. During one of my regular classes, an African American female student shared that her manager at the restaurant where she worked told her that her hair braids were not “professional.” The student felt that the manager’s comment was based on prejudice with racist undertones. Reacting, a male Caucasian student said, “there we go again about racism, not everything is about race.” This led to a brief argument between both students. In mitigating the brewing tension, I invited both students to our brown bag lunch which happened to be scheduled right after that class. They accepted the invitation and saved the conversation for later.

During the brown bag lunch, both parties shared their experiences and thoughts in respectful manners and most importantly listened to each other. At the end of the hour, the Caucasian male student disclosed that he learned more about African American women including hair, its texture and the importance of “protective styles” such as braids. More importantly, he and others realized that the texture of their African American classmates was directly related to their race and thus, had more more empathy for her reaction to her manager’s insensitive description of her braids as “unprofessional.” He agreed that the boss’s comments were based on prejudice and or ignorance. As a participant observer, it was both moving and enlightening to watch my students from different background discuss hair, race and perceptions of professionalism in a safe learning environment.

One major challenge in social work education is the lack of diversity in the history of social work and the lack of inclusion in textbook, resource materials and subsequently, classroom discussion. While we strive to teach social work students to respect, value and celebrate diversity, we neglect to provide the full diverse picture of the foundation and evolution of the social work profession. While the majority of the literature on social work highlight the work of Jane Adams and Mary McDowell, they often leave out Janies Porter Barrett, founder of the first black settlement house (Peebles-Wilkins 1994). It is hypocritical to teach students about diversity, equity and inclusion and prepare them to fight social injustices steming from racism and discrimination when the very underpinning of their social work knowledge does not recognize diversity. Throughout slavery and the civil rights movement, black women fought against racism and uplifted their communities through clubs and organizations they used as conduits to provide social services (White, 1999). Therefore, social work textbook authors and instructors need to be intentional about including minority social work contributors and professionals.

To overcome challenges future social worker educators experience learning about other cultures and having tough discussions about race, culture and discrimination, the first is for educators to create opportunities for students to explore these subjects in the classroom setting. For instance, I am fortunate to teach Global Perspectives of Human Welfare, a social work elective that focuses on themes of world-wide connection and interaction among social workers as well. I include information about the diversity in social work history and practice all over the world. The assignments focus on global human rights issues social justice, cultural competence and humility and learning and appreciating important historical and cultural contents. In one assignment, students are asked to interview a first generation immigrant about their decision to immigrate, the immigration process, culture as well as the economic and social conditions of their country of origin. They are then asked to reflect upon their own culture and economic and social conditions with the goal of learning and appreciating cultural strengths. The second suggestion is that schools develop multicultural programs that promotes cultural identity, pride and a desire to learn and celebrate other cultures. Universities and social work programs should also develop and promote programs similar to the diversity brown bag lunch sponsored by my department. Thirdly, at the community level, collaborative efforts should lead to virtual community festivals where despite the current COVID-19 pandemic, students will learn and appreciate different aspects of other cultures. Pre-Covid19 pandemic, one of the assignments I used, allowed students experience a culture outside their culture of origin and reflect upon it in a paper. As a result of this assignment, my students reported learning about cultures through the Ennis Czech Music Festival, Asian Festival, Irish Festival, St. Elias Mediterranean Festival etc.

One practice experience which demonstrates my intersectionality occurred when I scheduled a MEDICAID cab to transport a client to her equine therapy session since her mother could not. Immediately, upon hearing the driver’s name, her mother asked me to cancel the ride because “the driver sounded Hispanic”. She boldly faced me stating that she did not like immigrants because they come to the United States to take jobs and resources away from Americans. She quickly added, “No offense Gracie, because I know you are an immigrant.” I appreciated her clarifying that it was not her intention to offend me. However, I found it amazing that an unemployed single mom of four, living in a homeless shelter and in need of transportation for her child would allow her prejudice and stereotype to supercede the need for help.

I was not offended because after years of completing demographic questions for research purposes, I understand the lens through which society sees me including students, colleagues and clients. Like my client, society sees a black, immigrant woman with an accent. For some, this conjure assumptions and in extreme cases negative thoughts altering their interaction with me. Through my lens as a black feminist, I view myself as a an educated, passionate and professional black, African immigrant woman, who is committed to preparing future social workers to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

References

Boss, G. J., Davis, T. J., Porter, C. J., & Moore, C. M. (2019). Second to none: Contingent women of Color faculty in the classroom. In R. Jeffries (Ed.), Diversity, equity, and inclusivity in contemporary higher education (pp. 211–225). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
Peebles-Wilkins, W. (1994). Effectively Teaching African American SocialWelfare Historical Developments. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 21(1): 139–152.
White, D. G. (1999). Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves (1894–1994). New York: W. W. Norton Company.