Black Lives Matter Here: Decolonizing Social Work Education
Social Work education has been criticized for utilizing a Western and Eurocentric framework to guide the curriculum that is a direct outcome of colonialization, or the centralizing of European standards, norms, and values within settings. Globally, schools of social work are expected to prepare new professionals in promoting anti-oppressive practice and be responsive to regional needs (Global Standards for Social Work Education and Training - International Federation of Social Workers, 2020). In the United States, the disproportionate number of Black/African Americans receiving services calls for an immediate need to decolonize the education provided to emerging professionals that will work with diverse client systems at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. African Centered practice methods are a theoretical approach that decenters Eurocentric frameworks and centers African values, perspectives, and worldviews as the guiding principles for engaging with individuals, families, organizations, and communities (Harvey, 2018; Shiele, 2000).
This pedagogy includes application to classroom instruction and course content using the seven core principles of Kwanzaa, an annual seven-day celebration focused on recognizing and affirming African culture (Harvey, 2018). Afrocentric principles are aligned with inclusive and equity teaching practices; critical engagement of difference, academic belonging, transparency, structured interactions, and flexibility although credit is not typically attributed to African culture. Through the adaptation of a previous course, Afrocentric principles were incorporated into classroom structure and content delivery in intentional and strategic ways to decolonize the typical structure of course implementation.
Colonialization has had profound impacts on society as we know it (Shizha & Kariwo, 2011). Taking away land from individuals, capitalizing on the misuse of individual bodies, and forcing acculturation are all outcomes of colonialism. Public education at all levels has the footprints of colonialization that perpetuate white supremacy culture and exclude identities (Jones & Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks), n.d.). Educational institutions have expressed a desire to create plans to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion to address the historical oppression that interferes with learning and development (Molbaek, 2017).
Higher education courses that center and/or focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion offer content knowledge, however, the pedagogical methods may mirror traditional academic structures that are entrenched with the values and beliefs that have resulted from the long-term effects of colonialization. Rigid expectations, single methods of evaluation, lack of collaborative learning, and focus on quantity are often present in courses that are designed to educate on the dynamics of privilege, oppression, diversity, and social justice. This course disrupts traditional methods of teaching and learning that many institutions, instructors, and students are accustomed to and offers an opportunity to disrupt and dismantle racism at an institutional and interpersonal level while decolonizing the academic setting.
Similar to the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning (CRLT) inclusive teaching principles, an Afrocentric model offers an ability for educators to incorporate core principles within their teaching and applied practice methods within their discipline. This model, however, provides the historical context of the origination of the theoretical framework and attributes African culture and ideology. By engaging the contributions of African Americans within specific disciplines, and utilizing unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith, educators are able to create a cohesive classroom that prepares future leaders to engage in work that supports the pursuit of social justice.
Dr. Maulana Karenga is noted as the originator of incorporating the holiday, Kwanzaa into the US after racial discontent with civilians and law enforcement led to public protests. Dr. Karenga shares that Kwanzaa is a time to unite African Americans and center African cultural traditions and principles (Karenga, 1998). The seven principles of Kwanzaa, also known as Nguzo Saba are unity (academic belonging), self-determination (critical engagement of difference), collective work and responsibility (academic belonging), cooperative economics (structured interactions), purpose (academic belonging), creativity (flexibility), and faith (transparency).
Each principle of Nguzo Saba can be incorporated into the development and implementation of a course to decolonize teaching and learning. Having students include expectations of each other in the course syllabus, highlighting previous and current African American contributors weekly, and offering multiple methods of assignments and rubrics for completion through written, oral, and artistic expression support students in seeing Afrocentrism modeled in their academic spaces and observe that it benefits students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.
African Centered Practice with Individuals, Communities, and Organizations is designed to provide advanced intervention practice skills to increase cultural awareness and sensitivity, or the ability to recognize and affirm the differences and strengths within cultures other than your own. Using the Nguzo Saba principles in teaching and learning leads to a unique experience with each section as the norms and values are developed and implemented. Students in the current section have created a space that offers a hybrid learning environment allowing students that are not able to return to campus to participate in lectures with students who are physically in the classroom. Students from other disciplines, education, public health, law, environmental science, and business have engaged in the course along with social work students and offered interprofessional education opportunities. This course design provides educators with a chance to decentralize Western European standards within the academic and professional settings by introducing and developing alternatives to teaching, learning, and practice.
The beginning of class is accompanied by music by a Black or African American artist that aligns with the theme of the day for free writing or reflection on a prompt. Rituals of honoring a Black/African American pioneer in human services/social work occur prior to pouring libations at the beginning of each class. After acknowledging those that came before us, we repeat an affirmation in unison to recognize the work that we are doing and will continue to do. Although beginning classes with music and an opportunity to bring current topics, issues, or concerns is a typical pedagogical practice, the review of the matter using an African centered worldview and evaluating for characteristics of white supremacy is a significant difference that challenges students to consider ways that policies, procedures, and practices perpetuate racism and anti-Blackness.
Lecture content is developed and presented to align with the course objectives and students are encouraged to add thoughts, ideas, and comments throughout the lecture. The focus is on the course objectives and not arbitrary ideas of what a graduate course should include. Resources are provided by everyone in the learning community. As we continue to intentionally de-center whiteness, working together in unity is being demonstrated by this written submission and on our final project.
Evidence of impact on student learning
African Centered education has been named as one method of dismantling the oppressive methods of education with specific attention to African American students (Marks & Tonso, 2006). Reports of feeling marginalized in predominantly white institutions and lack of cultural responsiveness have been shared by students. “Looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” within educational settings that uphold values and ideas of the dominant culture has a negative impact on students of color and white students due to ideas of superiority and inferiority (Du Bois, 1989). Using African-centered education is not specific for African-American students. It is recommended as a method to support the advancement of a true democratic and just society.
Initial evaluation of the course offers support that African-centered pedagogy can positively impact the ability of students to learn and integrate theoretical knowledge within their practice as professionals. A commitment to delivering quality services to people of African descent to reduce the disparities present has consistently been an outcome from course completion (Hollingsworth & Phillips, 2016). In course evaluations, the median score for the responses on a five-point scale; class content was connected to real-world practice examples and content on diversity prepared me to better engage and intervene with diverse populations, was 5.0.
Participants in the course are encouraged to decenter colonial ideas in their roles. One student shared,
“[this course] has positively influenced my social work philosophy. I have obtained a much greater understanding of the potential for a largely negative impact of eurocentric social work practice on the Black Community, especially when such practices are being defined as “best practice”. I have shaped my values and practice to align better with the 7 Principles and have committed myself to ongoing reflection and analysis of my work in light of these principles. I have learned to ask more questions and more deeply analyze the tools that we have been handed and will continue to modify the tools to align with Afrocentric principles whenever possible and/or to simply toss them out and replace them with Afrocentric tools and methods.”
Students report the course as being transformative.
As one student shared,
“This class was the best class I took this semester. The content covered was so helpful because it was linked to my life, my real-world experiences, and helped make some fundamental shifts in the way I think about the world. Professor Price exemplifies everything that an amazing teacher should – the ability to push students beyond what we are "supposed" to think, discussion based learning where we are able to come to our own conclusions rather than her lecturing at us, and connection to the real world. Professor Price is one of the few professors who gets to the root of things – digging deeply into oppression, social justice and liberation. Her practice is always client centered as she operates from the base of seeing social work as an act of justice and liberation rather than simply a profession. I will forever be grateful for her teachings, they have pushed me to be a better social worker and person in general.”
Another student shared,
“Within political social work one might assume that there is no way to integrate African centered practice. However this course, alongside Dr. Price’s eagerness for students to think outside the box, has pushed me to be the change I wish to see.”
As an opportunity for interprofessional education, this course has been open to students of all disciplines. The impact on professional practice in other disciplines is described by a former student who shared,
“This has been one of the best classes I've taken at Michigan. I am not a social work student but this class gave me both a deep insight into afrocentric approaches and showed me the shortfall of Eurocentric approaches, as well as helped me to cultivate curiosity and learn the right questions to ask and where to find the answers. I cannot say enough positive things about this course!”
Using an Afrocentric approach to teaching offered a unique learning experience by intentionally creating an environment that fostered learning, growth, and development as a collective group. In addition to teaching Afrocentric principles, the course was designed to incorporate Afrocentric practices. Students were able to describe their experiences and provided the feedback that
“This course embodied the approach that it taught. Also great to have opportunities to build relationships with one another by going outside of the classroom, sharing meals, and libations.”
Students consistently recommend that the approach be integrated within the larger school. One student wrote,
“This course has had a big impact on my learning and should be a much bigger part of SSW approach.”
Challenges, Considerations, Implications, and Recommendations
A challenge for international replication is the various experiences of colonialization on different groups. Depending on the geographical area, the group(s) that have been disproportionately impacted by colonialization should be identified and incorporated into the engagement, assessment, and development of educational experiences. Engaging the leadership of marginalized groups to consider the cultural values that were disrupted through colonialization can support the affirming of those who have previously contributed to the world.
Being able to ensure that students recognize that these principles can be used by all social identities is critical. Theorists contend that using this framework increases equity for disproportionately marginalized individuals as well as creates a more inclusive environment for all.
Language is a consideration that should be noted. In the United States, a major outcome of colonialization was the creation of racial classes based on skin tone/complexion and assumed ethnicity. Black, as a racial category typically refers to individuals that have origins from the African diaspora. Individuals that have migrated to the US post colonialization may not identify as Black although they have the same skin complexion that was used to define the categories of Black and White. Understanding the needs of the region and adapting language frequently would be necessary and an essential component of decolonizing educational settings. By being transparent and maintaining collaborative learning and teaching environments, the evolution of language can be respected.
A common criticism from students and faculty includes the exclusion of other ethnic identities and centering those practices. In the US, the recommendation to focus on African Centered practices is deeply grounded in the history of the forced transition to a new space and enslavement and recognizing the contributions of those individuals. The unique experience of descendants of enslaved Africans is acknowledged through this practice. Also, centering another culture when attempting to deconstruct typical norms that are oppressive must be done with great care to ensure that new cultural norms and values don’t perpetuate oppression within education.
This model requires reflexivity, the ability to consider the internal and external thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of self by everyone. One of the agreements is that everyone is a teacher and a learner. Unfamiliarity can lead to feelings of anxiousness and fear. Again, by modeling anti-racism and being transparent about what can be expected, the outcomes can be transformative to the individual and the people they will work with.
We are combating the impacts of colonialism! An environment that supports challenging our current social norms and feeling confident in our abilities to enhance the future of our society has been co-created in our section. This is the way to dismantle racial oppression within the profession. In order to develop social work professionals that are aware of the dangers of perpetuating oppression, there must be a space for us to imagine a world that counteracts the global impact of colonialization.
Schools of Social Work across the globe can utilize Afrocentric principles to reorganize the structures of courses with special regard to courses that are designed to increase cultural awareness and sensitivity. The social work profession has shared a desire to engage in teaching and scholarship focused on dismantling systemic oppression. Offering frequent and ongoing courses that explicitly name their purpose and intent at decolonizing practices can nurture students that aspire to change society as we have known it.
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