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“Changing Our Lens”: NYU Silver Kicks Off Series about Centering Social Justice in Social Work

Three headshots in a row from left to right Dean Michael Lindsey, Visiting Scholar Jennifer Jones Austin, and Associate Dean Linda Lausell Bryant on a bright red background with the text A Conversation on Centering Social Justice in Social Work
Jennifer Jones Austin, Michael Lindsey, and Linda Lausell Bryant posed in front of an off white wall with a hung painting

In the first year of his deanship, Dean Michael A. Lindsey has been honoring NYU Silver’s tradition of clinical excellence while strengthening the School’s emphasis on social justice. “It’s about stepping back and both identifying and addressing what it is about the larger environmental context that shapes the experiences individuals find themselves challenged by,” he explained during a conversation with Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Linda Lausell Bryant and Visiting Scholar and Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies (FPWA) CEO and Executive Director Jennifer Jones Austin on the urgency of centering social justice in social work education, practice, and research. 

Held on the first day of Black History Month, the unscripted conversation among the three longtime collaborators kicked off a three-part conversation series titled “Conversations on Centering Social Justice in Social Work.” The discourse was shaped in part by questions submitted in advance by members of the NYU Silver community.

Red and black slide with the NYU Silver logo and the text A Conversation on Centering Social Justice in Social Work, Wednesday, February 1, 2023, 6:00-7:00pm
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All three speakers agreed that social workers need to work with, not on, their clients; to address the needs of individuals, families, and communities while recognizing how their lives are shaped by oppressive systems; and to take action to change those systems.

“Centering social justice in social work is about moving away from a medical model that focuses on fixing the individual to one that recognizes the context of each individual in systems that perpetuate oppression and inequity,” said Dean Lindsey. “It’s not enough to just do our work and close up shop and go home. I think about what are those next steps and things that we can do to really shape outcomes for our clients?”

Dr. Lausell Bryant underscored that point, saying, “Putting social justice at the center of social work means changing our lens on the people we are trying to help and our role in that equation. Are we fixing broken people or are we helping people to find their own liberation with our support and our partnership?” Moreover, she said, “It’s not just about looking at the person in the context of the environment and saying, “oh, the environment played a role here,’ but it’s also about what we are doing about what’s going on in that environment.” 

Dr. Lausell Bryant offered the metaphor of coming across a group of people trapped in a ditch “You might send down water, food, and supplies to make them more comfortable because it’s rough down there,” she said. “But your ultimate aim would be to make sure that people aren’t in ditches. That’s the work. That’s social work.”

The Concept of the “Deserving Poor”

While social justice should have been fundamental to social work from the profession’s beginnings, said Ms. Jones Austin, “everybody didn’t buy in.” In the early 20th century, she explained, “social services in New York City were doled out based on race and religion. If you were of the Jewish faith and white, then you were cared for by Jewish organizations; if you were Catholic and white, then by Catholic Charities; and for everyone else, it was just a no man’s land.” To fill the void, her organization, FPWA, was founded to “be the voice at the policy making table primarily for Black and Brown families.” She added that there were Black women and Black organizations, like Dorothy Height and the National Council of Negro Women, who rose up to meet the needs of the people of color that white organizations had deemed “unworthy.”

Dr. Lausell Bryant noted that the concept of the “deserving poor” is a theme that continues to pervade our field, and Dean Lindsey traced that concept to the English Poor Laws, which are the basis of welfare in our society. “There has always been this impression that the resources we have to take care of those in need are scarce,” Dean Lindsey said, “and thus we have to think about how we’re going to carefully dole them out. Somehow or another, you have to be ‘deserving’ of the support that you’re going to receive.” 

Dean Lindsey said that “part of centering social justice is removing this notion of scarcity and really thinking through a lens of abundance, in terms of how we can help and support folks to be their full selves unencumbered by challenges related to how we pathologize them or judge their worthiness for help. We have to agitate and disrupt the notion, first of all, that there’s scarcity, and then, that there are folks who deserve it more so than others.”

Rows of seated people looking toward the front of the room and attentively listening

The Undervaluing of Social Workers

“Another issue around social justice,” said Dr. Lausell Bryant, “is that those of us who fight for justice, and those of us who represent the underrepresented, also tend to be the most undercompensated, undervalued, underappreciated in society. We carry other people’s pain along with our own, which a lot of times leads to illness, stress, and all kinds of negative outcomes. And we don’t challenge that so that the individual sense of not being good enough also translates into the larger community of social work practitioners in which we find ourselves disempowered but really wanting to empower others.”

Dr. Lausell Bryant cited sexism as part of the reason social work, a woman-dominated profession from its inception, has been undervalued, undercompensated, and underrepresented in the senior leadership of human services agencies. 

Another reason why the social work workforce is undervalued and undercompensated, said Ms. Jones Austin, can be traced back to the notion of scarce resources. “The root cause of limited resources and underpayment of social workers is the implicit biases of a system that at its core has structural racism baked into it and a sense of who is and isn’t worthy. So in turn, those who are caring for and about those we deemed less worthy are themselves not worthy… We have an interest in advocating for others but we also have to speak up about the value of this profession in society.”

The Path Forward

To ensure social justice is centered in social work education, practice, and research at Silver, Dean Lindsey said his vision is that “as a school, we speak to those [macro] issues and challenges and disrupt those systems, in addition to being really incredible at delivering the requisite supports and services that individuals and families need.” He also stressed his commitment to recruiting more students from historically marginalized communities and making an NYU Silver education more accessible to them. “Affordability is something that’s really important to me and I think that that’s part of what will happen as we envision a center of excellence that is focused on great training, but also centers social justice.”

Dr. Lausell Bryant cited the things she wants every student who graduates from Silver to know when they leave:

  • The person you serve and their environment go together.

  • Take into account the impact of systems.

  • Whatever challenges the person you are working with is bringing, they are also bringing strengths. Train your eye to see those strengths and also take the time to learn the sources of those strengths so you can help them to build on them.

  • Work with people, not on them.

  • Our role is not just to help people function better within a dysfunctional system. We have to impact those dysfunctional systems, disrupt them, shut them down, even rebuild them.

  • Assume positions of leadership and exercise leadership from whatever position you're in.

  • Understand how the nonprofit industrial complex works and that it is a big system that needs a lot of disruption and change. 

Ms. Jones Austin said that in her role as a Visiting Scholar at Silver, “I will be able to support you to center on how to resist adaptation when you are out there doing the work, because it is so easy to adapt and to assimilate into institutions and structures that perpetuate these injustices.” As a disrupter herself, she said, “I want you to have the knowledge and the agency to say ‘my work matters and my work can inform and reform the system. I imagine something more and I can be that something more.”’

Dr. Lausell Bryant expressed optimism that under Dean Lindsey, Silver will “course correct some of these shortcomings of the profession. I really do believe in the promise of this profession and I know how hard so many of you work to make that a reality. But we do have collective work to do on this, and it means letting social justice be our true North. And even if we don't get to see it in our lifetimes, we have to work for it as though we’re trying to bring it on tonight. We have to work that hard for it.”

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The conversation between Dean Lindsey, Dr. Lausell Bryant and Ms. Jones Austin was the first in a three-part series on Centering Social Justice in Social Work. Please save the date for Part 2 on March 1 with New York City Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom and Part 3 on April 5 with Rev. Al Sharpton, Founder and President of National Action Network.