Executive Director’s Message: Social Work’s Pivotal Role in Fighting Systemic Racism

By Janlee Wong,
NASW-CA Executive Director

Historically, NASW has had an intentional policy to recruit members, leaders, and staff to reflect diversity and inclusion of the social worker population and to a lesser extent the general population. In some years it has been successful. Some chapters have struggled but the intention is there and will continue. To measure progress in this area, chapters are required to submit Diversity Plans and updates annually because performance towards goals must be more than intentions, it must be measurable.

NASW has also been a strong advocate for social justice with its advocacy at the chapter and national level. Its strong advocacy for Obamacare has helped many states expand Medicaid and insure many persons of color, especially valuable with the COVID-19 health crisis. NASW’s work on COVID-19 emergency measures has helped everyone. NASW’s advocacy for personal protective equipment for social workers and other first responders and essential workers is literally lifesaving advocacy. NASW’s support for lawsuits against unjust and inhuman Administration immigration policies resulting in some wins such as the recent DACA SCOTUS decision. NASW has long supported civil rights measures throughout its history and now we are called to join with a national movement to be intentionally anti-racist, the 21st Century civil rights movement. But NASW can and will do more.

As with the mid-20th century Civil Rights movement, progressives can and do differ on tactics and strategies, but the end goals are very much the same. Reimagining public safety or defunding the police have the same goals but may employ different methods. Words matter. Reimagining implies we know what is needed to make things better and gives hope.  Defunding leaves us guessing what comes next. The many social workers who work with or for police have an opportunity now to reimagine the public safety system, so it is transparent and truly safe for all. NASW supports those efforts.

Social work has always taken a stand on the critical issues of the times and certainly Black Lives Matter (BLM) and anti-racism leads all issues today. While COVID-19 is the other major concern, NASW has done the work and continues to. With the two pandemics of COVID-19 and racism the nexus fits well in NASW’s healthcare agenda of increasing access to disproportionately impacted communities such as the African American community and other communities of color.

What BLM and anti-racism also tells us we have much work to do in all the systems social workers work in. Child welfare is and should be a major target given its role in disproportionality and the devastating impact it has on children and families. Behavioral health is another system that underserves communities of color but those most in need are communities of color. Aside from criminal policing, the entire criminal justice system needs to be reimagined with its severe disproportionality in terms of those arrested and incarcerated. Professional social workers work in all these systems which means social work can do more to impact these systems than any other profession. Individual ethical social workers who work in this system have and will continue to speak up. NASW as their professional association is their ally and can multiple their advocacy strength and seek long lasting significant policy changes.

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