Account Giving of Anti-Racism Work at SSW

Anti-Racism quilt

This quilt commemorates an interactive art installation that occurred in the summer of 2001 at the Smith College School for Social Work. Based on an invitation to respond to this event, participants expressed their sentiments on cotton strips, now woven into the quilt, representing a range of voices. The Class of 2002, the Anti-Racism Task Force and the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute cooperated to complete the quilt project.

In 1995, the School for Social Work faculty made a formal commitment to becoming an anti-racism organization. We made this pledge to make explicit our responsibility to continuously learn about and disrupt systems of privilege, inequality and oppression that maintain white supremacy and reward, punish and silence because of socially assigned differences. In the intervening years we have experienced progress toward our goal to continuously strive toward greater anti-racism and have experienced serious setbacks.

The summer of 2018 marked the second consecutive summer that several Black adjunct faculty members chose to leave SSW rather than continue to teach their courses. This alarming pattern spurred the faculty to issue a national RFP for external consultation to develop a plan to address structural, process and/or interpersonal issues within SSW that were impeding greater accountability to our anti-racism commitment. Organizational consultants, Ann Zanzig and Jim Gray were chosen to lead this work. In summer 2019 based on Zanzig and Gray’s multi constituent organizational assessment, the faculty voted to re-envision the anti-racism commitment to ensure its relevance and responsiveness to the current environment.

In 2020, following faculty retirements and other departures, Black students, faculty and alumni asserted that continuing to frame our school in terms of an anti-racism commitment can be experienced by Black faculty/students/alumni and other marginalized members of our community as ‘an empty promise’ when we have not addressed the ways in which our systems and processes result in harm experienced by Black identified instructors, advisers and students despite our commitment to anti-racism. In response to these demands the faculty announced a pause on the School’s statement of commitment to anti-racism to acknowledge the experiences of the Black faculty and students and faculty and students of color and to signal our intent as an institution to continue working towards greater anti-racism in our policies and practices to earn the right to publicize such a commitment. SSW adopted five core principles, developed by a multi constituent groups of students, resident and adjunct faculty, to guide the School’s programs and operations.

Core Principles

Prioritize intentional action over standard logistics: Prioritize purposeful action over standard “Smith SSW ways” or quick institutional responses. The goal is to bring awareness to the intention of organizational practices, center the formation of equitable practices and assess the impact of our practices, policies and actions on Black faculty/staff/students, faculty/staff/students of color, indigenous faculty/staff/students and those holding other marginalized identities.

Ensure accountability at the individual, program and institutional levels and that there are meaningful processes for repair and reconciliation: In a complex organization like the SSW, we understand that there will be occasions when actions at the organizational, programmatic or individual levels may cause harm. It is essential that SSW take responsibility for creating and sustaining processes of accountability, for the impact of our policies, decisions, actions and words on the experience of Black faculty/staff/students/alumni, that of other folks of color, indigenous folks, and folks with identities that have been marginalized. In recognition of our interdependence, SSW is responsible for ensuring that there are processes for repair and reconciliation following harm. We are responsible for account-giving of our history.

Center communities that have been marginalized for their strength, knowledge and beauty: SSW must draw on the knowledge, strength and beauty of Black communities, communities of color, indigenous communities and other communities that have experienced marginalization, in an authentic and central way to inform School vision and mission, policies, clinical social work curricula, practices and decision-making. By prioritizing the knowledge and experience of these communities, SSW can work toward decentering whiteness as the default.

Ensure that Black faculty and staff and faculty and staff of color are hired and retained at all levels of power in the organization: The hiring and retention of Black faculty and staff and other faculty and staff of color at all levels of the organization is an important way to ensure that the knowledge and strengths of communities of color are centered within School mission, policies and practices and that Black students and other students of color have access to role models and professional networks with whom they share identities. It is an important way to create and support a learning environment that continually works to decenter whiteness and promote action-oriented anti-racism practices.

Stay open to and actively engage with change: Organizational policies and practices must be reviewed continuously to ensure they are responsive to the needs of our learning community. The work of creating change is a collective responsibility and must also be taken up by those with power and privilege. Change must happen collaboratively and must center the lived realities and experiences of Black faculty/staff/students/alumni, other folks of color, indigenous folks and folks with identities that have been marginalized.