Social Work At The Crossroads: How To Resist The Politics Of A Donald Trump Presidency

Social work is not nor should it be a neutral profession.

12/01/2016 08:30 am ET | Updated Dec 03, 2016

In the age of a Trump presidency, social work has a decision to make: will it participate in policies made by a regime that trafficks in bigotry and exclusion, or will it refuse to be complicit and, instead, resist? Donald Trump’s political ascent began by challenging the legitimacy of the nation’s first Black president. There were many factors that led to his election victory – e.g., economic uncertainty, the disproportionate political power of rural white America, voter suppression laws and practices, James Comey’s divine intervention – but he succeeded by campaigning for the rise of a specific cultural identity: white and male. His campaign slogan and rally chants ― “take our country back” and “let’s make America great again” ― constituted explicit rhetoric meant to evoke a sense of white racial pride. More than any campaign in modern American political history, he supported xenophobia, anti-semitism, ableism, racism, heterosexism and misogyny. Again and again, Trump’s messages defamed, dehumanized, and denounced Muslims, Mexican immigrants, people with disabilities, people who live in poverty, people of color, women, and people who identify as queer and/or transgender. To be sure, the normalization of white supremacy existed before the rise of Donald Trump, but he amplified and deepened these discourses of denigration, surfed their destructive waves and now, he is president. It is up to social work to answer this critical question: What will be our role as he executes his plans?

We believe the answer to this question lies in our professional code of ethics: social work is not nor should it be a neutral profession. Social work’s commitment to vulnerable communities is explicit. As the preamble to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Professional Code of Ethics reads:

The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.

Research from social work and other disciplines clearly suggests a link between experiences of discrimination and an increased risk for health and mental health problems. Allowing codification of such discrimination is counter to our ethical standards because it permits a social context that threatens individual well being. We cannot stand idly by and allow this rhetoric to continue. It would be a violation of our ethical standards.

On the question of what to do, the code of ethics is equally clear. Social work has a strong social, racial, and economic justice imperative that condemns practices which threaten to violate basic human, civil or political rights and demands our engagement in social change. In section 6.04 of the code of ethics states:

Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.

The code of ethics is clear. These times are those for which our profession was designed. We have an ethical obligation to act and to do so in political and social arenas. It is not enough to work with those who are oppressed by regimes like Trump’s. We are expected to engage in social action aimed at changing the political structure.

The history of social work is decidedly mixed: it has been in the forefront of social justice. Social work made significant contributions to and within the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Yet our profession has also been complicit within and contributed to racial and economic injustice. Social workers enabled the eugenics movement that sterilized mostly African American women and collaborated with the U.S. government during the internment of Japanese Americans. Recently a Trump advisor cited the internment of Japanese Americans as a precedent and justification for registering all Muslims in the United States. For certain, we will be asked, as we have before, to have a role in implementing these policies and to help maintain social control. Where will we stand when that request comes?

Over the years, social work has consistently supported marriage equality, a woman’s right to choose, economic and racial justice, affordable health care for all, and criminal justice and police reform. In fact, during the annual Society for Social Work Research (SSWR) conference held in Washington, DC in January 2016, social work identified 12 key grand challenges facing society and social work today with an emphasis on social scientific research and political advocacy that focuses on improving the lives of vulnerable and historically marginalized individuals and communities. Social work recommitted itself during the January 2016 SSWR conference to issues that would help to promote the social and economic well-being of its clients―the very issues that would be worsened by President-elect Trump’s policies and agenda. In other words, social work supports a multi-racial inclusive society and democracy.

In this pivotal moment in U.S. history, we want to share our concerns about some challenges that social work will undoubtedly face under a Trump administration if he continues with his political agenda and campaign promises. President-elect Trump has promised policies that will force our profession and individual social workers to face critical decisions. These intentions include but are not limited to: racial profiling, torture, deportation of immigrants, a registry of Muslims, increased surveillance and policing, dismantling of public education, the stripping of civil and human rights gains, a reduction in individual social welfare benefits in favor of increased corporate welfare benefits, and tax breaks for the wealthiest that will widen an already gaping chasm of economic inequality. The administration’s recent efforts to target and squelch activism and the freedom of the press are especially concerning. Social work should pledge now that it will not support any policies or practices that harm our clients and undermine our profession and its values even when promulgated by the President elect and his allies in Congress and/or codified by law. There are already many ominous signs.

First, since the election on November 8th, we have seen a spike in the number of hate crimes and attacks in the country. More than 700 incidents of racial harassment and violence have been reported already. Some of our clients, who already feel vulnerable, may feel extremely unsafe at this moment. Feelings of hopelessness, despair, depression, and hypervigilance about one’s safety are likely to increase now and into the foreseeable future. Social workers will need to find ways to offer post-election counseling, and other supports, for clients and their families who have realistic fears about their physical safety (which is something that white, non-Muslim people in the U.S. do not face) in a world where some Trump supporters chant that that this is “their” country, in brazen displays of white supremacy. We cannot and should not stay silent in the face of this discourse. Social workers in school settings may need to provide extra supports, tools, and training for teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors who lovingly and willingly already support their students and their families, but may not necessarily feel equipped to address the specific racialized trauma that is already present and is likely to escalate. It’s equally important that social workers who are also members of a targeted groups have institutional and collegial support both professionally and personally.

Second, Trump has created a powerful learning opportunity and teachable moment for those of us in education. For many of us, we deeply rely on our syllabi to help students understand how they can change the world. Having the right reading materials, activities, and assignments are crucial for developing our ideas and knowledge on a particular topic. For those struggling with how to contextualize and discuss with students the divisive forces that Trump exploited to get elected there’s a crowdsourced syllabus here assembled by historians N. D. B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain. It’s an interdisciplinary syllabus with contributions from scholars from around the country and from across several disciplines. Yet, a critical syllabus alone isn’t enough. Educators will also need the skills and tools necessary for facilitating difficult conversations with students about how power, privilege, and oppression operate in our society and in our political process. For those seeking additional supports on how to facilitate these difficult conversations some can be found at Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have a diversity of ideas, tools, and resources for how to have challenging difficult conversations about human suffering, anti-oppression, and power. Other resources includes Organizing for Power, Organizing for Change, and Gender Spectrum Resources. Specific supports for white people to do anti-racism work can be found here. There are also additional resources that may be useful as this political moment may call up other recent painful events in our society such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the Charleston 9 Massacre, and the Pulse Nightclub shooting. There are syllabi supports for each of them here, here, and here respectively.

Third, there are many different ways to do advocacy work on behalf of the values that are core to the social work profession. For some people it may be participating in a direct action like a march, protest, or an act of civil disobedience. For others, these actions might not feel like something that they can do. There are all kinds of ways to get involved, and there is no right or wrong way as long as social workers are doing something to advance social justice beyond the provision of individual and group services. For example, for those who don’t have a lot of time but would like to support a specific issue, social workers can consider joining a local or national advocacy group, by becoming a paid member or making a donation. Social workers can help to support those efforts that are aligned with professional and personal interests and values. Here is a very short list of some organizations and movements doing important critical work that promote human rights and social justice. This list is not exhaustive but it may help people to find ways to support specific causes, policies, and movements if they are not able to get involved directly: Black Lives Matter, American Civil liberties Union (ACLU), Race Forward, YWCA, Girls, Inc., Sistersong, Southerners on New Ground, Alliance of Families for Justice, The Prison Birth Project, National Disabilities Rights Network, Girls for Gender Equity, Center for Constitutional Rights Against Muslim Profiling, Trans Youth Equality Foundation, African American Policy Forum, and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Social workers are trained to build communities and organizations, we need to join those communities and organizations already working to address these issues and lend them our strength and skill-sets.

Finally, another thing that social work can do immediately is help schools, churches, and cities to become trauma-informed sanctuaries for immigrant families in solidarity with cities from around the country from New York to San Francisco. They have all publicly declared their intention to bar ICE from their communities, especially their schools, and from wreaking havoc on immigrant families. We must support and help implement this kind of policy. This will help to send a clear and strong message that social work does not support brutal policies and practices that terrorize immigrant communities with the possibility of deportation, as President-elect Trump has promised to do. By saying that all families are welcome regardless of their immigrant status, social work will be taking a powerful stand in an act of resistance against an unjust system of laws and policies that will do more harm than good. Social work agencies can strengthen this effort by providing the necessary resources and supports to families in their cities facing possible deportation through a trauma informed strength-based lens in addition to supporting macro level resistance. Actions of this kind can integrate our rich tradition of clinically informed work with our commitment to social and political action. As individual social workers, we must urge our professional organizations and employers to take ethical stands to protect the vulnerable clients we serve. By drawing on social work specific training that is trauma informed and strength-based, clinicians, advocates, and organizers can resist outside influence, and build the systems that are inclusive, fair, compassionate, empowering, and just.

The day after the election, many of us who live and work for equity, justice, and a more inclusive society woke up in absolute horror. Since, we have watched President-elect Trump appoint people to important policy positions. Many of these individuals are ultra-right wingers opposed to a socially just society, others have no government experience, most are wealthy white males and some express clear neo-Nazi white supremacist beliefs and values. It’s excruciating to watch this unfold. It is even tempting to look away. For some of us, it’s been difficult just getting through the day as we anticipate and watch the violence that these appointments effect, particularly on Black and Brown, Muslim, queer, and undocumented communities. Yet, we also know that social work can be a powerful constituency. There are more than 650,000 social workers in the United States with training in mental health, crisis intervention, policy, research, organizing, and advocacy. Social workers perform the vast majority of mental health labor in the United States, but we also work in nonclinical settings in government and non-governmental agencies, schools, colleges and universities, advocacy agencies, etc. There are also 123,000 social workers who are members of NASW who work on setting the policy agenda for the profession as well as advocating for policies that defend and protect those who are most vulnerable and marginalized in our society. Social work can have a big powerful voice that helps people to see the world through a strengths-based model. It is a lens that allows for the possibilities of what the world can be when rooted in justice, equity, and peace. We don’t only see what is broken, we see what is possible beyond the pain and fear that many of our clients understandably carry. In our roles in the health, behavioral health, government and educational settings we can refuse to implement the policies that target, exploit, and oppress our clients.

The work of the Trump administration cannot be done without our consent. Through the values and skills of our profession, and under its ethical mandate, we have the capacity to contribute to dialogue versus despair and hope rather than fear and anger. It will not be easy. It’s going to be a long journey, and for some of us, this work will require being and feeling uncomfortable and maybe even unsafe. However, we hope that these concrete examples will help build an anti-racism social work practice and coalitions to defend and support targeted communities rather than normalizing in any way, however passive, xenophobia, racism, and bigotry that characterizes the incoming administration. There can be no hesitation about where we stand when the new incoming president is embraced by neo-Nazis or when he appoints overtly white supremacists as his key advisors. Not only does our code of ethics guide us about where to stand, but it implores us to stand loudly, publicly and to take action in concert with the majority of Americans who voted against Donald Trump.

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