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
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
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
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
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,
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
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Western Kentucky University
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
Address correspondence to Cindy Snyder, Western Kentucky
University, Social Work Department, 1906 College Heights Blvd., Bowling
Green, KY 42101; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.