06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Social Work and Politics: What's Happening in America

I plan on bringing you, my dear reader, conversations with 10 women who are changing the world and rocking their fields. For this first conversation, I spoke to Dr. Patricia Reid-Merritt, who is a Professor of Social Work and Africana Studies at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, New Jersey. She has a forthcoming book, "Righteous Self-Determination: The Black Social Work Movement in America," due out in time for the fall 2010 semester.

What attracted you to social work?

The desire to be a social activist, the desire to work to uplift Black community and the desire to change the world in such a way that others wouldn't have the childhood experiences that I had.

What were those childhood experiences?

We had plenty of love but there was poverty and need. I was raised by a single parent, mother of nine, in urban America, exposed to an educational system that had no faith in my abilities. One of the reasons why I have been able to achieve what I have, thus far, is a result of the civil rights and black power movement.

What do you say to black children growing up today who feel what you felt, that the educational system has no faith in them?

They have to explore other opportunities that are available... Young students need to look for those opportunities outside of their limited social environment. To connect to those opportunities they need to have a plan. Dream big, maintain their focus on academic achievement. We all have to be lifetime learners.

How do we use social work and Africana Studies in this year, 2009, to advance society?

Well, social work is a field that is dedicated to the advancement of humanity. One of the things that attract people to social work is the desire to uplift people, to improve the quality of their lives.

Social work when practiced at its best is about social change and social justice. Africana Studies is about the exploration of the African studies in the Diaspora. For us in the States, Africana studies are about understanding the African-American experience here in the States. It gives us the tools to understand America's contemporary experience of race. It's important that we have the foundation to help us understand, interpret and analyze the black experience in the States and in the world.

What is happening to Black culture in America?

There are subcultures within the African Diaspora. Subcultures have different values and different people. People see black people, they don't see "Haitian-American." Culture gets lost in this racial dichotomy. Here in America we see black and white. We don't see Irish-American, Italian-American, Polish-American -- we see white. America doesn't have appreciation for culture.

The other thing that is important is that we have always seen ourselves as black people... Some people are just now discovering that when we talk about what Black-American culture is we have to talk about the many contributions made by some of these subcultures.

The thing we all have in common, from our ancestors' point of view, is that we were oppressed. We came from the West Coast of Africa and the boat just happened to land in Barbados or Cuba. That doesn't deny that other groups weren't oppressed.

Can you discuss the intersection of social work and politics?

When I think of social work, I think of people on a noble quest. I don't always get the same feel about politics. However, so much of what social workers attempt to do is based on actions taken in the political arena. The nation's support for housing, health care, childcare, education and other valuable social welfare services are all made by politicians and government officials. Many of these decisions result in those with the least amount of resources carrying the heaviest social and economic burdens. Social workers should be active participants in the political arena. They should run for office and accept leadership roles. Social workers should remember that their commitment to social advocacy and social activism should be equal if not greater than their commitment to direct service. And social workers must work to achieve political empowerment for the populations that they serve.

How has Jim Crow affected the interaction between social work, politics and Africana studies?

The legacy of Jim Crow is not just something that you teach about. As social workers, many of us see the lasting affects of racism, prejudice and segregation in the lives of everyday people and in the communities that we serve. And many of our agencies and social institutions are not yet free of racial biases. Social work provides us with valuable skills that can be used in combating these problems. For both undergraduates and some graduates schools, a generalist approach is utilized, with emphasis on cultural competency. However, most schools do not devote the time and course work needed for social workers to develop in-depth knowledge about large ethnic and racial populations. You learn a little bit about everybody. It is the reason why so many students will graduate with professional degrees and still feel as though something is missing when they attempt to address the specific challenges in ethnic communities. Africana Studies has provided me with the depth and breath of knowledge needed to perform effectively in the African-American community. I understand the history, culture, heritage, values, practices and social customs of African descended community, and community, which is far from being monolithic. And if, for example, I had decided to practice social work in Native American communities, I would have studied long and hard before entering their homes and suggesting that I was culturally competent to do so.

What do you say to people who say we live in an era that is post race?

We are a society where race still matters, the burden of race is still with us. We have to very aggressively address the remnants of our past, including the holocaust of enslavement.

What about those who are saying we live in a post-race, post-racism society because Barack Obama is president?

We should view the world as a place that still needs to achieve freedom, equality and social justice for all. We have not met those goals. In this "age of Obama," his administration needs to define and clarify their civil rights agenda.

Why do you think he has not defined a civil rights agenda?

I think he has been a careful politician, who has been concerned about Americans perception of his role as America's first black president. He feels a need to prove, as he pledged on his campaign, that he will be the president of all America. But, we too are America. I think there is no need to sacrifice our vision of a future that is rewarding and satisfying to us as a people just because a black man is in the White House. We have goals and aspirations and dreams. We would like those dreams to be achievable in America without the burden of race, discrimination and prejudice that's been a part of the American history for hundreds of years.

What role should Michelle Obama play in this administration?

I think Michelle Obama should play the role of First Lady for the nation and I think she is doing that very well. In the Black community she has become a model of inspiration for what is possible for black women of every hue. She's doing what she's doing well, in that she is providing a new contemporary role for the First Lady.

What do you say to women trying to keep it all together?

Always have a plan, burn the candle at both ends; but in this fast paced world keep the middle for yourself.

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