Guest Column | Retreat from confronting oppression at SP2
March 18, 2013, 1:05 am·
The School of Social Policy & Practice, or formerly the Penn School of Social Work, is one of 12 professional schools at the University of Pennsylvania. Recently celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2008, SP2 is one of the oldest and most respected graduate programs providing training for human service professionals. The school has also been acclaimed nationally and internationally for its research.
A major hallmark of SP2’s history has been its unapologetic commitment to combating all forms of human oppression, including sexism and institutional racism. It was from the courage and foresight of the faculty and students that two courses, dealing directly with oppression and especially racism, were developed between 1965 and 1970, and fully incorporated into the curriculum of the two-year master’s degree program. Among the major factors contributing to this incorporation is the fact that historically, most students entering the program have lived relatively insulated lives, and have not been exposed to the harsh realities of racism and other forms of oppression nor understood their effects on the populations they will be serving as professionals.
The first of these courses was designated SWRK 603 and entitled, “American Racism and Social Work Practice.” The second course, and which is the focus of this op-ed for its restoration, was designated SWRK 613 and was entitled “Understanding Social Change: Issues of Race and Gender.” Over the past 40 plus years, SWRK 613 proved to be an academically rigorous and profoundly important course in preparing students to become competent social workers with diverse populations. A major reason for this is that in addition to its intellectual challenges, the course also took students out of their emotional comfort zones and required them to plan and execute a social change action that addresses an inequality (related to race, gender, and/or sexual orientation difference) in the agencies where they complete their clinical and social policy placements.
Over the many years there were three major beneficiaries from this required active engagement by students. The first was the thousands of poor and underserved in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, whose lives were incrementally improved from SP2 student change interventions. The second beneficiaries were the 300 field placement agencies which were able to enhance their services, as a direct result of the insights and actions of students. The third beneficiaries were, of course, the thousands SP2 students whose growth as professionals was greatly enhanced through getting to know intellectually, but most importantly emotionally the pain and suffering of clients, which are the common byproducts of oppression. The resulting competence and inner convictions imbued distinguished these graduates from SP2 from other professional schools in the United States. Simply stated, SWRK 613 was a no-brainer and a win, win, win for all stakeholders, including the University of Pennsylvania.
Given the aforementioned benefits of SWRK 613, it naturally came as a shock that a few faculty members at SP2 were planning to radically change or eliminate it. The author of this editorial is a 1983 graduate of SP2 and also a member of Penn SP2 Black Alumni Activist Council. Members of BAAC met face-to-face with the involved faculty twice during 2012 (in addition to several email communications) in order to remind them of SWRK 613’s tremendous benefits, and to also raise concerns about any disruptive changes to it. The concerns were raised not because BAAC is inherently opposed to change, but due to an enduring appreciation of the role SWRK 613 played in their own professional development. Emphasis is given to the fact that opposition to changes with the course were not limited to BAAC, but also included scores of current SP2 students and other alumni as well
It is noted that the only rationalization given by the faculty, which presumably is meant to serves as a veneer of legitimacy for changes to SWRK 613, is that the Commission on Accreditation of the Council of Social Work Education, supposedly singled it out for not being integrated with the rest of the curriculum. Several rhetorical questions can and should be raised about this rationalization. First, why after 40 plus years would SWRK 613 suddenly be declared by the COA not to be integrated with the rest of the curriculum? As was previously noted, SWRK 613 was an indispensible sequel to SWRK 603 for four decades. A second question beckoning to be asked is could the concerns, probably initiated by a faculty member about SWRK 613 with the COA, have only been a pretext for eliminating the course? It has been an open secret for decades that some faculty are uncomfortable with SWRK 613 because of the racial issues entailed with it.
Despite what some might see as a dubious rationale (related to alleged concerns raised by the COA) and the longstanding benefits of SWRK 613 highlighted by the BAAC, the faculty decided to gut the course of its time-tested benefits beginning in January of 2013. It was replaced with a course designated as SWRK 713, and also entitled “Understanding Social Change: Issues of Race and Gender.” A review of the new course’s description shows it to be, largely, an intellectual review of social movements in American history. Revealing an unfortunate retreat with SP2 from inculcating in students an aggressive need to confront oppression, SWRK 713 does not require them to individually engage in a social change project which addresses a disparity related to race, gender or sexual orientation differences in their placement agency.
The failure to incorporate this important component in SWRK 713 will have multiple ramifications and which include: (1) depriving students of a critical learning experience which enhanced the professional development of thousands of others over the last four decades; (2) depriving the poor and underserved of incremental improvements in agency services, which resulted from active student interventions; and (3) diminish the reputation of SP2 which, historically, had been given accolades for not just its rhetoric about pursing equality, but also substantive actions as manifested in the learning requirements of students. This concern about matching words with action is consistent with those raised in an editorial, in The Daily Pennsylvanian (“Guess who’s not coming to dinner,” Jan. 30, 2013) by African-American faculty about the failure to increase administration diversity at the University.
In conclusion, there would appear to be hope for a restoration of the tremendous benefits of SWRK 613. This hope stems from several sources. First, there remains clear opposition from some faculty about the radical changes to the course. In addition, and even among these who pushed for the changes, there appears to be ambivalence about the changes and their unanticipated consequences. Part of this ambivalence is manifested in the different ways the course is currently being taught. For example, while some professors are still suggesting to students that they individually engage in a social change action in their clinical field placements, others are not. This obviously will result in a divergent learning experience. Yet another spark for restoration will come from hundreds of SP2 alumni who appreciate the role that the course played in their own professional development, and want to preserve its benefits for future generations of students. Finally, an impetus for restoration of SWRK 613 will also likely come from concerned individuals in the Penn community, who want entities to match their rhetoric about equality with actual action.
William A. Wolfe is a 1983 graduate of the School of Social Policy & Practice and a member of the Black Alumni Activist Council at SP2.