Moving Beyond Crisis: Centering Social Justice in Social Work and Human Services
Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom is overseeing New York City health and human services at one of the most difficult periods in the city’s history, particularly for people who have been marginalized, oppressed, and disadvantaged. Yet, as she explained to a capacity crowd at NYU Silver, she is moving beyond crisis to address root causes and reform systems in her purview to serve people in need with dignity and respect.
“Very early on,” Williams-Isom said of being Deputy Mayor, “I decided that I’m not going to spend my whole time just in the crisis. That I’ve got to figure out what are the things that I’ve come here to do that I want to accomplish over these next four years so that when I’m done in this seat, I feel like I’ve done something that was proactive and set the ground for other things that may come.”
Over the course of the one-hour conversation, which kicked off Social Work Month, Williams-Isom, Visiting Scholar and FPWA CEO and Executive Director Jennifer Jones Austin, and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Linda Lausell Bryant, shared their experiences and reflections on centering social justice in social work practice and the delivery of health and human services. Curated by Jones Austin and Dr. Lausell Bryant, it was the second in a three-part series on Centering Social Justice in Social Work.
First, however, Dean Michael A. Lindsey framed the conversation and introduced the Deputy Mayor, highlighting her more than 25 years of leadership experience in large, complex organizations serving children, families, and underserved communities. In her current position, Williams-Isom oversees the city agencies and offices addressing child welfare, homeless services, public benefits, aging, health and mental hygiene, public hospitals, veteran’s affairs, and forensic science. Williams-Isom noted later in the conversation that she brings leaders of each of those agencies together in a weekly call to discuss the work that needs to get done and to figure out collectively how to make it happen.
Anne Williams-Isom answers audience question on how to get agencies to work together:
Living Their Values
Williams-Isom, Jones-Austin, and Dr. Lausell Bryant first met each other more than two decades ago when they worked at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). Jones Austin recalled that when she interviewed a then 32-year-old Williams-Isom for a position at the agency in 1996, “child welfare in New York City was in a shambles … It wasn’t considered to be the place and space where you wanted to be.” Yet Jones Austin said that she was motivated to “run into the fire.”
Jennifer Jones Austin on why she changed jobs often earlier in her career:
Williams-Isom, by contrast, said she was drawn to the work by a desire to do something more meaningful and enjoyable than her 80-hour-a-week job as a lawyer at a New York law firm. Her interest in child welfare had been piqued when she had participated in a child advocacy clinic in her third year at Columbia Law School. She later realized that her own mother – who was raised by nuns at an orphanage in Trinidad and Tobago and later had been a victim of domestic violence – had much in common with the mothers who are traditionally impacted by the child welfare system.
“There was all of this stuff that was in my DNA,” said Williams-Isom, “that probably led me to come to ACS in a different kind of way, and to show up and to be like, ‘why are all these Black kids in care?’ And like, ‘why are all the people around this table white people?’” She saw a disconnect between the communities most affected by ACS and the decision makers.
Just by asking questions, Williams-Isom had an impact, even before she had the power that she currently holds. Dr. Lausell Bryant noted this, and said that students don’t need a big title to influence change. “You don’t have to be deputy mayor to practice in this way.”
Linda Lausell Bryant on how she feels as a Black woman leader in social work and how everyone can help the profession fulfill its promise, no matter their position:
That said, Jones Austin observed that through experience, the Deputy Mayor now brings a deep understanding of oppressive, inequitable systems and years of experience managing complex organizations to her position.
“I’m not 32 anymore,” answered Williams-Isom “So at 58 I’m able to show up more authentically myself, which means that I can share my gifts in a way that I couldn’t share when I was 32. It means I’ve learned some hard lessons about what it means to be a Black woman in leadership. It means what’s the point of having a personal narrative if you can’t use your personal narrative to lead and to do what you’re doing?” That experience has enabled her to handle the “crises” that come across her desk, “with calmness, with clarity, with love, and with hope.”
Jennifer Jones Austin on how you need to show up, citing Anna J. Cooper:
A Calling to Do Less Harm and Serve
A key theme all three women emphasized was the need for health and human services organizations to do less harm. For example, they cited the damage that can occur for families that have a child welfare call made against them, or a child placed in foster care. Even an unsubstantiated ACS case on their record opens families up to scrutiny and prevents them from being foster parents.
“I’m not a person who doesn’t believe in child safety,” said Williams-Isom, “but everybody can’t be calling things in. And so today, I said to my staff, do we have the data [on places that are submitting a disproportionate number of SCR reports]? Let’s look at the schools….Why don’t we use the data to stop the harm [families experience from unsubstantiated reports] instead of just saying like ‘oh boy, isn’t this terrible?’ And I can say the same thing about hospitals and other places.”
Jones Austin agreed and noted that in her position, Williams-Isom is overseeing systems that are structurally oppressive by design.
“It’s kind of painful,” Williams-Isom said of leading agencies that have historically contributed to systemic oppression, “How do we get people to give children, families, communities the supports that they need way before they need to come in contact with these systems? So that’s what my vision is.”
Reimagining Human Services
Jones Austin pointed out that “our systems are set up in such a way that sometimes we are treating problems rather than working to cure them.” Rather than such “Band-Aid solutions,” she, Dr. Lausell Bryant, and Williams-Isom are focused on “reimagining human services” to get at the core issues.
Anne Williams-Isom explains how students and practitioners can intervene from where they are now:
Williams-Isom highlighted a new initiative from the Office of the Medical Examiner, which is using opioid settlement funds secured by the State Attorney General to hire a team of social workers to work with family members of fatal overdose victims. Such surviving family members are at elevated risk of drug use and overdose themselves. “I don’t think that there’s any other office in the country that’s doing that,” she said, “but that’s an example of where social workers can help that we wouldn’t necessarily think about.”
Self-Care Supports Social Justice
In response to an audience question, all three speakers addressed the importance of self-care. However, Dr. Lausell Bryant acknowledged, “I literally have to challenge myself and say, ‘if I don’t do better with this, I’m not really providing good service, right? And that is actually not social justice.”
Linda Lausell Bryant and Anne Williams-Isom answer an audience question about burnout and social justice fatigue:
Listening and Learning From Those They Serve
The three women stressed the importance of listening to what clients want for their own lives and taking what we learn from them back to the rooms where policy is made.
Anne Williams-Isom on managing the administration’s approach to mentally ill homeless:
“The way I think about it,” said Williams-Isom, “is that it is this continuous learning experience. You’re leaning in trying to bring whatever you can to the table to be helpful and impactful. But what are you also taking from the situation that allows you then, in other places and spaces you may occupy, to speak to the larger issue?”
“That’s what I think that relationship should be about with everybody that we’re dealing with,” said Jones Austin. ”How am I learning from you? How am I seeing you? How am I listening to you? And then, what am I taking back from that into the rooms that I go into to represent?”
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The conversation between Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom, Ms. Jones Austin, Dr. Lausell Bryant was the second in a three-part series on Centering Social Justice in Social Work. Please join us in person for Part 3 on April 3 with Rev. Al Sharpton, Founder and President of National Action Network. He will be speaking with Jones Austin and NYU Silver Dean Michael A. Lindsey.