11/10/2010 10:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The New Generation of Activists: How Social Workers from RISE are Restoring Social Justice to their Profession

Kate Barrow, a recent graduate from New York University, found a job right out of grad school. She works from nine to five at the Midtown Community Court, where she functions as Youth Services Coordinator.

In Kate's perfect world, however, her job wouldn't exist. Neither would those of her graduating class, or the class after hers. One day in the near future, our society would stop needing so many, and her entire profession would eventually become obsolete.

Kate is a Social Worker. One of the most undetected problems with her overarching wish, though -- as she can tell you -- is that one of America's most noble career tracks is currently sabotaging itself from within. As the field becomes more professionalized, whiter, elite and out of touch, the chance of creating a society with less injustice, oppression and discrimination diminishes. How can radical Social Workers work themselves out of their jobs if the way they're taught to do jobs is part of the problem?

Kate would argue that they can't. But she has a solution: along with similarly progressive peers, Kate is starting a movement to restore social work's radical roots, and it's called RISE. RISE is a grassroots collective working to empower Social Workers and instill the values of social justice into a career where that's rarely part of the curriculum. This year, they held their second annual conference, a day of learning that truly embodied the oft-employed concept of "empowerment" and succeeded not in promoting one political party or one method, but in making everyone pledge to work one simple value: people matter.

This is what their mission looks like.


"What is your relationship to privilege?" asked the second annual RISE conference moderator, Heidi Lopez, around 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning. She was addressing a circle of around 400 people, mostly Social Workers, gathered at a community center in Harlem for a day of workshops focused on understanding, and destroying, oppression.

The first RISE conference in 2009, at NYU, had successfully drawn 200 people and had mostly consisted of panels by professors and scholars from the community. But this year was different -- intentionally so. The original idea was to create a space for free and informed discussions about institutionalized racism, discrimination and aggression -- but after their first conference, the RISE organizers realized the insular nature of their first gathering had reflected the very problems they were trying to fight against.

"Last year we had about 95 percent straight white women [apply to present]!" Kate told me, explaining the changes surrounding year two. "We were just replicating the structural imbalance, which is why we changed our entire outreach approach for this conference."

So with a team of about 12 core organizers, the RISE committee decided to tackle their own selection process as radically different as possible: they prioritized the panels conducted by experts and led by important demographics. Sounds obvious, no? Well, as RISE saw it, the "experts" were not the academic scholars, but those who had experienced the system firsthand; the important populations were any other than "white" and "straight." When they received two proposals for a DREAM Act presentation, they chose the one organized by undocumented students who knew what it was like to live with the oppressive duality, not the one by scholars covering the movement. When they put out their call for submissions, they asked potential presenters to check off their identifying ethnicity and gender orientation -- but only "white" and "straight" potential presenters had to check "Other." What a difference a small change in perspective change makes! They received almost 70 proposals and selected thirty. The conference sold out.

This push and pull between "we are the problem" and "we are the solution" dominated the tone of the conference, and beautifully so. But you wouldn't know it was so carefully crafted if you didn't ask, and that's where the beauty lies: the structure of the RISE conference was, itself, built upon the principles that the conference was advocating. They were already putting their values into practice, and this effort seeped into every other moment of the conference. The open discussions about education reform, prison reform, youth services reform, and more, reflected two very distinct yet invaluable ideals: first, it must be understood where the problem lies at the institutional levels, and second, it must be understood that with this knowledge, the Social Worker can do an infinitely better job at working with society's underprivileged populations, if they decide to do so. The synthesis between the two was the most important lesson at RISE, and the organizers succeeded at creating a space that reflected, and championed, this twofold mission.

As Kate described to me, in social work training, the students are never taught to treat those whose cases they handle as "experts," assuming instead that they are the experts themselves. Hoping to change this approach completely, the conference focused on groups such low-income students, sex workers, undocumented youth, disadvantaged mothers, and incarcerated men separately in order to analyze each independently and allow Social Workers to discuss new ways to understand the specific roots and components of their problematic situations, raise their potential, and ultimately facilitate their access to their civil and human rights. At the end of the day, one understood not just the overarching causes of oppression, but the singular ways in which different people experience it in their daily lives.

"It's not radical to collaborate with your clients instead of treating them like you're their savior," Kate told me. "That savior mentality happens a lot. It's well intentioned, but it's uneducated and oblivious."

As a society, we've come a long way from thinking that poverty and racism are a result of inherent qualities rather than situational circumstances, but a progressive critique points out that the guilt and shame from people in power, even those aware of social injustice, doesn't represent real change. Instead of discussing ways to blame these structures of power, the RISE conference made the (radical and important) point that Social Workers are part of those in power -- and that even though this comes with the negatives associated with elitism, detachment and ignorance, it also comes with enormous potential for change. Instead of continuing to be weak parts of the oppressive system itself, why not change the system from within? The Social Worker has a constant, renewable chance to act out these principles as part of their job title, so the shame and guilt must be erased to make way for skilled action and selfless responsibility.

As the outreach coordinator and moderator Heidi Lopez told me, the Social Workers has historically faced condescension and a complete lack of respect. I expected this to be one of the main issues during the day-long conference, but it rarely came up -- instead, the Social Work community looked within and instead of figuring out ways to get respect and validity from outside, they devised new ways to adapt their own behaviors. Social change doesn't just happen automatically; every single piece of an attempt to make it happen needs to be designed with the goal of equality, growth and justice in mind. The RISE organizers noticed they couldn't find these instructions in a textbook, though, so they decided to write them themselves.


What is your relationship to privilege? These were the words that most stuck out at me throughout the day. As I jotted down facts and figures about prostitution and mental illness, about the police mandates that bring cops to NYC schools, about the senators that keep voting down immigration reform, I continued to think about this question. Awareness is the first step, but only if it facilitates action. Everyone can be a social worker, in lowercase, and since RISE is open to anyone, you can take advantage of their ongoing opportunities. Visit their website or attend their next event, Incorporating Social Justice Into Your Education on November 13th -- Register here.