Combining human diversity and social justice education: a conceptual framework.
Social work education has not yet formulated an explicit educational framework that combines diversity and oppression, but academicians are examining new approaches (Van Soest, Canon, & Grant, 2000). This article presents a conceptual framework for culturally relevant practice that integrates a human diversity and social justice focus within the context of our program's Human Behavior and Social Environment, or HBSE, courses. We believe this framework effectively synthesizes the ideas of scholars who have preceded us in a manner that consistently supports students as it challenges them to actively engage with topics that can initially make them feel uncomfortable. The overall purpose of our framework is to teach students how to work for social justice goals using a continuum of phased actions.

Article Type:
Social justice (Demographic aspects)
Social justice (Study and teaching)
Multiculturalism (Social aspects)
Social work education (Methods)
Snyder, Cindy
Peeler, Janelle
May, J. Dean
Pub Date:
Name: Journal of Social Work Education Publisher: Council On Social Work Education Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Council On Social Work Education ISSN: 1043-7797
Date: Jan 1, 2008 Source Volume: 44 Source Issue: 1
Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number:
Full Text:
SOCIAL WORK EDUCATORS have a professional responsibility to prepare students who can provide competent services in an increasingly culturally diverse society, and they have additional mandates to prepare students who can promote social and economic justice (Council on Social Work Education, 2001; Gil, 1998; Van Soest, 1996). A primary tenet of our framework is that in order to help students aspire toward actualizing these twin goals, it is necessary for them to develop an understanding of the sources and dynamics of injustice and oppression that are interwoven with cultural diversity (Garcia & Van Soest, 2006; Van Soest & Garcia, 2003). The definition of cultural diversity, as that term is used in this framework refers to differences between groups with distinctive characteristics and social identities based on ethnicity, race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and class--as well as other attributes (Van Soest, 2003). It has been noted that social work education has not yet formulated an explicit educational framework that combines human diversity and social justice education, but academicians are trying out new approaches (Van Soest, Canon, & Grant, 2000). Building on these efforts, this article presents a conceptual framework for culturally relevant practice that integrates a human diversity and social justice focus within the context of our program's human behavior in the social environment (HBSE) courses. What we believe to be new about this framework is that it synthesizes the ideas of many scholars who have preceded us in a manner that effectively supports students as it challenges them to discuss topics that, at times, can raise cognitive dissonance and conflict. In this way, students learn skills that help them manage and work through--rather than avoid--the potentially unpleasant dynamics that may emerge as they engage with human diversity/social justice course material.

Outline of the Framework

Phase One: Introducing the Framework

We begin by introducing students to the key concepts of our framework in an effort to develop a shared vocabulary aimed at providing a foundation for raising consciousness about the sources and dynamics of injustice and oppression that are interwoven with cultural diversity. We note our model is heavily influenced by Bell (1997) and Harro (2000a, 2000b), who have both observed that the conscious appreciation of differences--a key goal in diversity work--needs to be inextricably tied to social justice by foregrounding the ways in which privilege and power are inequitably distributed in our society. We mention that we have drawn on the work of scholars such as Bell and Harro, as well as the work of many others, to guide our own thinking as we synthesized previous scholarship into a conceptual framework we could call our own. What seems to be unique about this framework is that it appropriately supports students as they undertake the challenge of actively engaging with topics that may initially make them uncomfortable.

We note that our framework recognizes a complex interaction of multiple cultural social identities each individual must negotiate every day and the continuum of harm and privilege that these identities bestow (Griffin, 1997; Reed, Newman, Suarez, & Lewis, 1997; Tatum, 1997). We agree with Griffin (1997) that it is not fruitful to argue about which type of oppression is the most damaging. For example, additive conceptualizations of oppression most often result in the ranking of oppressions; from this perspective one might attempt to determine whether racism, ableism, sexism, or heterosexism is more oppressive for a Latina lesbian who is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. It has been pointed out that such additive conceptualizations actually work against empowerment and coalition building, two of the prime tools for resisting oppression (Bell, 1997). They also hide the complex, dynamic interactions within and among oppressions and create divisiveness among oppressed populations. This can lead to barriers that prevent diverse groups learning from each other and joining together in their work for collective social justice.

Our framework defines social oppression as the systematic constraint and marginalization of one social group by another social group for its own benefit. This marginalization inhibits members of the target group from developing their full capacities by restricting and limiting their choices. Social oppression thus involves an institutionalized relationship between an agent group and a target group that keeps the system of marginalization in place by cultural ideology (Griffin, 1997; hooks, 1984; Russell, 1993; Van Voorhis, 1998). Young (2000) observes that marginalization is a most dangerous aspect of oppression because "a whole category of people is expelled from useful participation in social life and thus potentially subjected to severe material deprivation and even extermination" (p. 41). Although Pharr (1988) identifies the oppressor group as the normative group, and Griffin (1997) names it the agent group, hooks (1984) calls it the center. This term refers to the center of social, economic, and political power (Russell, 1993). Oppression is a result of the center's control of social institutions such as schools, banks, legislative bodies, and the media--this permits it to control others and limit their access to resources, mobility, and jobs (Van Voorhis, 1998). In contrast to the center, hooks (1984) states, "to be in the margin is to be part of the whole but outside the main body" (p. ix). Hence for every oppressed target group there is an agent group that is privileged and profits in relation to it (Young, 2000). Beyond this, we agree with Young (2000) that it is not possible to delineate a single set of criteria that describe the conditions of all groups of oppressed people. Like Bell (1997) we believe no one form of oppression is the root of all others, but rather, all are interwoven within complex systems that sustain them. Also, consistent with Bell, we believe that combating oppression ultimately requires striving to become conscious of its myriad forms, and the building of coalitions among diverse people offers a promising tactic for challenging oppression systematically. The ultimate goal of our framework is to promote social justice by dismantling oppression at our culture's various systemic levels in order to achieve "full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs" (p. 3).

Phase Two: Raising Consciousness

Our framework posits that oppression is maintained by an agent group through marginalizing acts that are so culturally pervasive they often operate outside the threshold of awareness (Van Voorhis, 1998). Hence much of our pedagogical framework is aimed at raising students' consciousness about the sources and dynamics of oppression. In our framework, we foreground how oppression is maintained at various systemic levels within the social environment. For example, as individuals who are born into a specific set of social identities--such as abled/disabled or poor/wealthy--and through socialization processes that permeate our culture, we are predisposed (but not predestined) to assume unequal roles assigned by that environment on the basis of these identifies (Harro, 2000b). Within our family system, we continue to be socialized to accept the norms, assumptions, and rules of the social environment into which we were born. These beliefs are reinforced as we interact with institutional systems in the macro environment--such as school, church, and the media. Through these interactions we are flooded with unquestioned stereotypical ideas that shape our thoughts and feelings about self and others. It is hard to step out of one's social environment to question these messages because "they are woven into every structural thread of the fabric of our culture" (Harro, 2000b, p. 18), but it can be done. Through conscious effort we can each begin to raise our awareness of the processes within our social environment that work to sustain oppression.

For example, it has been noted that racism in American culture has undergone a transformation from the times when overt bigotry was consciously and overtly displayed in very public ways (Sue et al., 2007). Today, racism is more likely to appear in the more nebulous form of "racial microaggressions." This term refers to "subtle insults (verbal, non-verbal, and/or visual) directed to people of color, often automatically or unconsciously" (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000, p. 60). For instance, a White student may profess color blindness with such statements as: "I don't see color, I just see the person;" or, "there is only one race, which is the one we are all a part of--the human race." The effect of making such statements to people of color is to negate their experience as racial beings (Helms, 1992). Thus colorblindness is a form of microagression "because it denies the racial and experiential reality of people of color and provides an excuse for White people to claim they are not prejudiced" (Sue et al., p. 278). Microaggressions pervade our culture partly because they typically operate outside the threshold of the perpetrator's conscious awareness. Hence there is a pervasive need to raise consciousness about how microagressions operate, as well as the impact they have on their targets (Sue et al.).

Consistent with Tatum (1997), we believe that it is unethical to raise awareness about the dynamics of social oppression in the classroom without offering hope, a vision for the future, and practical tools for initiating change at the systemic level. Otherwise, our well-intentioned efforts become "a prescription for despair" (p. 24). We take the view that it is important for each of us to believe that there are action steps we can take to effect social change as individuals or in concerted efforts with other individuals or groups. To this end, as we move through the remaining phases of this model, we emphasize to students how they can move their newly developing conscious awareness about the dynamics, patterns, and consequences of societal oppression into action aimed at social change.

Phase Three: Introspection

This phase of our framework involves helping students to look inward so they will develop questioning and self-reflective skills such that they might expand their conscious understanding of themselves as well as their social environment (Harro, 2000a). We mention that several authors have stressed the need for social work practitioners to explore and accept their own cultural identities as preparation for becoming comfortable with the cultural identities of others (Mama, 2001). To this end, we encourage students to keep weekly reflective journals wherein they chronicle their personal reactions to class readings, structured experiences, simulations, guest lecturers, video presentations, case studies, and class discussions. We mention to students that exposure and interaction with course material may, at times, feel threatening as they will be asked to listen to and talk about issues that could contradict their own personal frames of reference. McFalls and Cobb-Roberts (2001) have noted that a key challenge diversity educators face is to create non-threatening methods for introducing ideas that may be inconsistent with students' prior experience--thereby reducing cognitive dissonance. Borrowing on their research, we attempt to do this by providing didactic information on cognitive dissonance theory at this point in the course. Afterward, as a part of processing our class activities, we often pose the question "Is there any relationship to cognitive dissonance theory and your reaction to this experience?" Asking this question helps to create a learning context wherein cognitive discomfort is normalized as part of the learning process (McFalls & CobbRoberts, 2001). We find that if students are prepared in this way to encounter cognitive dissonance, they will be less resistant to listening to, reflecting on, and dialoguing about information that initially makes them uncomfortable because it threatens their belief system.

We explain to our students that each individual is comprised of an assortment of multiple social identities, and that we will be engaging in several experiential exercises that help to explore this idea (Pike & Selby, 1999; Powers, 1999; Thiagarajan & Steinwachs, 1990). For example, in the initial structured activity, students are told that they will be describing themselves using a social group membership profile which lists the following categories: socioeconomic class, gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, and ability/disability (Griffin, 1997; Reed et al., 1997). We mention that these particular social group memberships are examples and not meant to be all inclusive; students are, therefore, encouraged to add other social group memberships that they feel are self-descriptive (Griffin, 1997). Students are asked to use their preferred name for each particular social identity. We then ask the students to respond in writing to the following questions.

* Which of your social group memberships are you most aware of on a regular basis? Least aware of? (Tatum, 1997)

* Did you add other social group identities to the multiple identity list? If so, what were they? (Griffin, 1997)

When students have finished reflecting and writing, we provide them with an opportunity to share and process their answers with their classmates via a group discussion.

We then ask students to consider each of the social identities that they have included on their list and decide whether or not each identity privileges them in some way--or results in barriers to their forward progress. This question often helps students realize that people who experience societal barriers related to one or more social identities usually possess one or more attributes which provide privilege; thus, we all partake in the oppression of others because of our privileged identities, even though we are also oppressed because of other attributes (Reed et al., 1997). For example, Caucasian women may be targets of sexism, but racism permits them to act as oppressors of persons of color (hooks, 1984). Making this point helps lessen students' defensiveness when considering their own role in oppressive action because they begin to recognize that everyone is a potential perpetrator. We stress that those who have been targets of oppression have often been forced to recognize their marginal status in order to survive within the system. For agents of oppression, it is often more comfortable not to recognize their privileged status, particularly if that awareness challenges the entitlement notion that they have worked for all of their advantages (Reed et al., 1997).

We emphasize that examining one's own multiple identity status is extremely difficult because we must engage in this investigation while immersed within the same oppressive culture in which that worldview was formed--and within which it is sustained (Reed et al., 1997). We note that it is also extremely hard to recognize and challenge the ways that some of our group identifies advantage us because we receive very real benefits from them, but privilege also bears its costs. Tatum (1997) observes:

Clearly part of the task at hand in social justice education is to engage our students--who are both agents and targets of oppression--to consider the costs of maintaining oppressive systems.

The incentive for change most often comes from those who are targets of oppression, but agents also have a key role in challenging oppressive systems and generating alternatives by exposing the moral, social, and personal costs of maintaining their privilege (Bell, 1997). Goodman (2000) offers a theoretical perspective for explaining key factors that appear to motivate people from privileged groups to support social justice and diversity work; these factors include self-interest, empathy, and spiritual/moral values. While history reveals examples of agents who used their power to actively fight against oppressive systems, most of us do not reject the benefits of our privileged social status, and we routinely fail to assess the costs. But, the social work profession asks more of its practitioners--it asks that we each question how our social identities position us to be agents or targets of oppression. It is equally necessary to understand the ways in which we are privileged, and how that privilege negatively affects others. As our consciousness is raised through introspection, we must ultimately use our expanding awareness to connect with others to take actions aimed at dismantling the systemic forces that privilege some and impede the progress of others.

Phase Four: Connecting and Dialoguing Across Differences

Tatum (1997) notes that most of us were raised in communities within which we had limited opportunities to interact with people who were culturally different from our own families. In this manner we have been exposed to a great deal of misinformation about them. As we engage in the processes of introspection, it eventually becomes necessary for us to seek experiences outside ourselves that expose us to a wider range of difference than we had known before. We initially encourage students to do this vicariously by having them read first-person narratives written by people from a variety of cultural backgrounds (Espada, 2003; McIntosh, 2001; Takaki, 1998). We stress that as a part of reaching out, we need to experiment with expressing our views, checking out our reality as we share our ideas with others, and speaking out when we don't agree, instead of keeping silent (Harro, 2000a). To encourage this, we offer structured questions to help open up and guide a purposeful discussion of each of our assigned readings (McCoy & Scully, 2002). This frequently fosters a purposeful "intergroup dialogue" among students about cultural difference wherein ideas are crossfertilized (Dessel, Rogge, & Garlington, 2006).

The term intergroup dialogue refers to a face-to-face facilitated conversation between members of two or more social identity groups that is used to engage students in learning about difference and diversity (Zuniga, Nagda, & Sevig, 2002) as well as to facilitate the development of vision and action plans that will lead toward greater social justice (Garlington, 2006; Nagda, Kim, & Truelove, 2004). Researchers have noted that intergroup dialogue participants often develop increased knowledge about the social inequalities that members of multicultural groups encounter and a greater commitment to taking action aimed at achieving social justice goals (Hurtado, 2005; Schoem, 2003; Schoem & Hurtado, 2001). As a process, intergroup dialogue work is "designed to involve individuals and groups in an exploration of societal issues about which views differ, often to the extent that polarization and conflict occur" (Dessel et al., 2006, p. 304). Zuniga (2003) notes:

However, supporting this dialogue is not easy. Harro (2000a) indicates that "an integral part of this dialogue is exploring our differences, clarifying them, erasing assumptions, and replacing them with firsthand contact and good listening. That means that we must talk about our differences in a civil manner" (p. 467). We have noticed that as students gain practice dialoguing about and across cultural differences there is a shift in how they listen to their peers and interact with them in an ongoing manner. For example, through intergroup dialogue sessions students can be guided to learn how to respectfully consider the viewpoints of others, rather than actively defend against them. We have found that content of such dialogue is typically emergent but it often focuses on "personal stories about beliefs, prejudices, or experiences of discrimination, and views about policies in response to contemporary situations" (DeTurk, 2006, p. 34). Such personal sharing often sets the stage for the development of multicultural friendships.

We ask students to practice their connecting skills beyond the classroom by seeking cultural immersion opportunities--such as attending the service of a religion they have never before experienced, visiting a gay/ lesbian event if they identify as heterosexual, or participating in a study abroad program wherein they live with a host family from a different racial or ethnic background (Lindsey, 2005; Rose & Bylander, 2007). Coalitions of diverse people are needed to build systems that are built on principles of social justice, and dialoguing across differences is often a preparatory step toward building such alliances.

Phase Five: Building Alliances

We stress that, while students can effect change on their individual spheres of influence, they become much more powerful change agents when they build alliances with others. We begin our exploration of the term "ally" with Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (1966), "someone joined with another for a common purpose" (p. 41). We use this as a starting point for creating a working definition of an ally as the concept relates to oppression. While there are several such definitions of an ally, we prefer the following: "someone who speaks up or takes action against oppression not targeted at themselves" (Yeskel & Leondar-Wright, 1997, p. 249). Furthermore, "alliances involve a trusting, conjoint commitment toward learning and action in the context of differences and inequalities; they represent an earnest grappling with differences and conflicts in the pursuit of social justice" (Nagda, 2006, p. 569). Nagda also notes that what distinguishes alliances from friendships is intergroup collaboration across differences toward the goal of achieving greater social justice. We ask students to consider these definitions and then reflect on a time when they acted as an ally or had an ally, and then to share those experiences. Following this discussion, we provide students with the following quote from Anzaldua (2000):

We ask students to consider this quote as they think back about their personal experience. We then pose the question, how does this quote relate to your own life? We then go on to read a number of articles that deal with alliance work (Anzaldua, 2000; Bishop, 2002; Tatum, 1994). As we discuss this literature, we work particularly hard to personalize the topic, uncovering points of connection between students' experiences and the broader themes which are introduced in the articles. In this way, we believe that the themes become more immediate and charged with personal significance.

Phase Six: Organizing to Effect Change

We provide students with a short lecture emphasizing that the history of our country reveals that the organization efforts of ordinary citizens have been tremendously successful, and organizing to effect change has been an integral part of the social work profession. We point out that many of the rights and benefits we now have, and often take for granted, were not just handed to us--people had to organize to get them (Kahn, 1991). We discuss a variety of strategies that can be used to organize, such as holding meetings, developing leadership, defining issues, planning actions, building coalitions, fundraising, writing letters, lobbying, testifying, and using the media to educate members of the public (Haynes & Mickelson, 2000). We mention that through such direct action we reconnect with our history of struggle and resistance, and as we forge multicultural coalitions, we learn that we have more power than we did as individuals. We gain confidence as we practice the skills of cooperation, collective action, and supporting each other (Harro, 2000a). We read articles that deal with the topic of multicultural groups who have organized to create change at the systemic level (Anner, 2001; Asetoyer, 2001; Bunch, 2003).

According to Van Soest and Garcia (2003), it is important for educators to be respectful of the fact that not all students may feel comfortable engaging in the same type of actions, and it is important not to discourage the small actions students are initially comfortable taking. These authors also state that students' actions become the levers that drive their growth, and because they choose their own actions, students establish their own comfort zones and control their own rate of personal transformation. Van Soest and Garcia (2003) note that:

Hence, the ultimate goal of our social justice conceptual framework is to provide classroom experiences that foster students' ability and motivation to engage in action directed at social change. We like to suggest to students that, "when they begin to act, their actions join with the actions of others to provide the energy for the journey" (Van Soest & Garcia, 2003, p. 104). As students join with others in this way, they discover that they can become an integral link in a collective effort to create a more just society.


Our conceptual framework provides a way for students to investigate the connections between oppression, cultural diversity, and social justice issues by helping them question their current assumptions as they explore alternative ideas in a spirit of critical inquiry (Van Soest & Garcia, 2003). Students' self-exploration often provokes cognitive dissonance related to issues of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression as their worldviews come under challenge through the process of critical analysis and exposure to a broader range of perspectives. This type of self-exploration often mandates "safe harbors for meeting and confronting demons" (Kerr, 1996, p. 54). We aspire to fulfill this task by creating a classroom climate that is respectful and supportive--a collective space in which students are helped to develop the confidence that conflict surrounding contentious topics can be worked through.

Numerous authors from a variety of disciplines provide guidelines about how to create a classroom climate where students feel secure enough to take risks, share knowledge, and explore their belief systems with one another--particularly around topics such as oppression, diversity, and social justice. Holley and Steiner (2005) offer an excellent review of this literature. For example, educators have discussed establishing discussion guidelines or ground rules in order to maintain a sense of classroom safety (Chan & Treacy, 1996; Hyde & Ruth, 2002; Tatum, 1992). The norms that we find helpful in developing a classroom environment that encourages open dialogue, conflict resolution, and mutual learning, include interest, respect, and perspective taking. We teach students that we demonstrate interest through our attending skills, and also, by asking others for their input, feelings, and reactions and by replying in ways that show how carefully we have heard them (Kadushin & Kadushin, 1997). Respect involves displaying a courteous regard for others and a consideration of their viewpoints as worthy of esteem, even if they are very different from our own. Perspective taking is defined as the process of putting oneself in the place of another and attempting to understand how that person is reacting cognitively and affectively (Falk & Wagner, 2001).

Other guidelines mentioned in the literature that help establish a supportive climate for risk taking include: welcoming discussion and being approachable as well as supportive (Fassinger, 1995); maintaining a stance of nonjudgmental acceptance of students as individuals even when they express unpopular beliefs (Garcia & Van Soest, 1997); and not trying to keep the class discussion free of conflict (Chan & Treacy, 1996). As Boostrom (1998) notes, "if critical thinking, imagination, and individuality are to flourish in classrooms, teachers need to manage conflict, not prohibit it" (p. 407). The literature also notes that being safe is not the same as being comfortable; to learn and grow, students must open themselves to investigate issues that make them uncomfortable and force them to struggle with what they believe (Boostrom, 1998; Van Soest, 1996).

Students frequently report that diversity courses can engender feelings of "anxiety, confusion, fear, resistance, and/or anger ..." (Ravitch, 2005, p. 6.). Given the complexity of the issues surrounding the preparation of culturally competent social justice practitioners, educators must work mindfully to create a respectful environment that invites a climate of open discussion wherein students can address the affective dimensions of learning and process difficult emotional content (Hyde & Ruth, 2002). In many instances, students look to the professor to legitimate discussions they would like to have but are afraid to initiate (Chan & Treacy, 1996). Through the crafting of guidelines, professors can work with students to create a respectful classroom environment that invites such discussion. Professors can also support risk-taking as students disclose information about their viewpoints by reminding them that risk-taking aids in their affective, cognitive, and skill development (Hyde & Ruth, 2002; Torres & Jones, 1997). Faculty must also develop skills in the area of effectively guiding the discussion when addressing controversial issues. Research indicates that most faculty are not well prepared to conduct a rigorous exploration of multicultural and oppression content (Garcia & Van Soest, 1997; Gutierrez, Fredrickson, & Soifer, 1999; Plionis & Lewis, 1995; Singleton, 1994), and such content is often deliberately avoided by the professor because it initially makes students uncomfortable (Chan & Treacy, 1996).

Furthermore, structural forces within the academy itself can make faculty uncomfortable about addressing diversity content in a manner that pushes students to examine their belief systems in a meaningful way, because such pedagogy frequently generates conflict which must then be managed. Examples of structural forces that can impede effective instruction of diversity content include an academic climate that encourages students to be viewed as "customers" who must always be pleased with the product they are consuming as well as the heavy weighting of teaching evaluations to make tenure and promotion decisions. It has been noted that students' evaluations of courses that focus on diversity issues are typically more negative than their evaluations of other courses (Wahl, Perez, Deegan, Sanchez, & Applegate, 2000). Given such pressures within the academy, faculty frequently tend to favor abstract and general discussions about populations at risk and deliberately avoid dealing with more difficult content on oppression, such as exploring what it means to have privilege (Hyde & Ruth, 2002).

As students learn about diversity, oppression, and social justice issues, they are often decentered from their typical worldview and it the responsibility of the teacher to provide a climate of support for students to risk the challenge of potential change as they open themselves up to new perspectives and potential action strategies. Sometimes, in spite of careful course planning classroom dynamics can become very volatile or even break down in moments of extreme controversy; at such times the classroom climate may feel unsafe for both students and the instructor. As a way of defusing such situations, we often ask students to write down their ideas on the subject for 8 minutes and then support their opinions with evidence from the material (Chan & Treacy, 1996). Additionally, faculty need to build a network of support for themselves that they can turn to when classroom dynamics get intense and need to be processed. This may include discussing the problem with a trusted colleague, keeping a journal wherein they reflect on the issues, or reading and reflecting on the literature base that relates to teaching about diversity and social justices issues. As Chan and Treacy (1996) note, "we are asking our students to expand their boundaries and to open the lens to their worldview; in our courses and in our classrooms, we must ask no less of ourselves" (p. 220).

It is our belief that the conceptual framework outlined in this article effectively supports a pedagogical climate that both challenges and supports students as they explore potentially contentious oppression topics which are linked to cultural diversity and social justice issues. As students dialogue about diversity topics, their views are likely to differ, and this framework provides a reliable "holding environment" for productively managing the conflict and cognitive dissonance that may arise. For instance, group polarization can occur as students express anger about injustice, but the emergence of group conflict can become an opportunity to teach students how to avoid unproductive language, use active listening skills, develop shared meanings, and ultimately engage in both individual actions and multicultural alliance work aimed at furthering social justice goals. To these ends, the framework is designed to challenge students to engage with potentially contentious cultural diversity and social justice issues in a manner that supports them along the journey. We have found that the actualization of a classroom climate that feels appropriately challenging and supportive to students is facilitated as students gain the experience, skills, and confidence to work through difficult learning moments even during those times when the classroom does not feel particularly safe.


The overall purpose of our framework is to teach students how to work for social justice goals using a continuum of phased actions. This continuum ranges from raising consciousness about social inequities to forging multicultural alliances aimed at effecting social change. Hence, our framework's purpose is rooted in a structural approach to social work--also referred to as the conflict or political-economy perspective. Structural social workers start from the assumption that social institutions function in ways that systematically maintain social inequities along the lines of cultural identity statuses such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and other social identities. The goal of those working from a structural approach is to transform the "existing structure into a new order grounded in justice, egalitarianism, and humanitarianism" (Finn & Jacobson, 2003, p. 61). We recognize a key criticism of the structural approach to be that it targets its efforts mostly at the macro, or institutional, level of society and inadequately attends to the need for individual-, family-, and group-level interventions that attempt to help those who have been injured by systemic inequalities. To address this weakness, our pedagogical framework is also heavily rooted in an empowerment approach to social work practice. An empowerment approach foregrounds the importance of intervening at various system levels when attempting to change oppressive social conditions. Empowerment theorists typically speak of individual or self-help, mutual support, family/small group work, capacity building from the ground up, collective action, and political work; in sum, they advocate forms of practice that engage many different system levels. This helps to make the framework compatible with our HBSE courses, which also focus on intervening in social justice inequities at various systemic levels.

At this historic juncture, the conceptual framework outlined in this article is situated amid two key social work debates. The first debate surrounds the question "should social work be political?" (Fisher, 1995, p. 195). Progressive approaches toward social work conceptualize social change and social justice as central to the mission of social work and argue that all social work is political. "Conservative commentators have deemed attempts to politicize social work--to focus it on social change--as unprofessional" (p. 195). Clearly our framework will not appeal to the latter group.

Another social work debate surrounds the issue of how best to achieve the political agenda of the profession's social justice mission in terms of practice interventions. One model argues that social justice goals are best achieved through the use of macro interventions that are typically taught in the "community organization, social justice, or multicultural sequence" of the social work curriculum (Fisher 1995, p. 195). A second model "argues for a more 'integrated' model of education in which all social work practice, from micro through macro interventions and in all settings, is treated as part of political social work (p. 196). Our conceptual framework is most closely aligned with this second model given its heavily weighted empowerment emphasis.

We have successfully used the above-articulated conceptual framework in our HBSE courses over the past 3 years. This experience has provided our social work department with the confidence to place its social justice commitment at the center of our program's mission statement. We are presently developing conceptual frameworks for other foundation courses that support the centrality of social justice to our mission statement. Research scholarship relating to those endeavors will be forthcoming. As the field of social work engages in dialogue over contentious issues such as the theory base, epistemology, and priorities of the profession, we feel optimistic about the direction we are taking our program. Our optimism is partly fueled by a consideration of the perplexing array of external forces our profession currently faces--such as the trend toward increasing inequality amid a globalizing economy and the steady erosion of human rights. Clearly, existing theoretical perspectives and conceptual frameworks must be continuously examined as the social work profession faces these types of complex challenges that transcend geographic borders (Finn & Jacobson, 2003).

Accepted: 09/07


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Cindy Snyder

Western Kentucky University

Janelle Peeler

Western Kentucky University

J. Dean May

Western Kentucky University

Cindy Snyder is assistant professor; Janelle Peeler is instructor; J. Dean May is associate professor and department head, Western Kentucky University.

Address correspondence to Cindy Snyder, Western Kentucky University, Social Work Department, 1906 College Heights Blvd., Bowling Green, KY 42101; e-mail:
When I ask White men and women
   how racism hurts them, they frequently
   talk about their fears of people of
   color, the social incompetence they feel
   in racially mixed situations, the alienation
   they have experienced between
   parents and children when a child
   marries into a family of color, and the
   interracial friendships they had as children
   that were lost in adolescence or
   young adulthood without their ever
   understanding why. White people are
   paying a significant price for the system
   of advantage. (p. 14)

Intergroup dialogues encourage direct
   encounter and exchange about contentious
   issues, especially those associated
   with issues of social identity and
   social stratification. They invite students
   to actively explore the meanings
   of singular (as men or women) or intersecting
   (as men of color or White
   women) social identities and to examine
   the dynamics of privilege and
   oppression that shape relationships
   between social groups in our society. In
   addition, the dialogues build dispositions
   and skills for developing and
   maintaining relationships across difference
   and for taking action for social
   justice. (p. 9)

Becoming allies means helping each
   other heal. It can be hard to expose
   yourself and your wounds to a
   stranger who could be an ally or an
   enemy. But if you and I were to do
   good alliance work together, be good
   allies to each other, I would have to
   expose my wounds to you and you
   would have to expose your wounds to
   me and then we could start from a
   place of openness. During our alliance
   work, doors will close and we'll have
   to open them again. People who
   engage in alliances and are working
   toward certain goals want to keep their
   personal feelings out of it, but you
   can't. You have to work out your personal
   problems while you are working
   out the problems of this particular
   community or that particular culture.
   (p. 475)

Some students may wear a button to
   work or to their field placement, some
   may talk daffy to others about the
   issues. Others may read an alternative
   news source or periodical each week
   (e.g., The Nation, In These Times, Sojourners,
   Mother Jones) or write letters
   to congressional representatives, or
   bring a family member, neighbor, or
   friend to a lecture on campus. The
   opportunities for taking action are limitless.
   (p. 104)
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