by ANGELA TONA
I was welcomed into the field of social work 8 years ago in Rochester, NY. Since then, I’ve rarely been asked to reflect on my implicit biases as a white woman, or to reckon with the ways the institution of social work has caused harm to the people we are employed to help.
I support the movement to abolish policing and the prison industrial complex. But I worry about the assumption that social workers are somehow inherently equipped to support people in crises, as I’ve seen that social work is a white supremacist institution too.
To me, this means that the institution of social work as a whole prioritizes the needs, benefits, perspectives, and perceived safety of white people. Historically, social work as an institution has a role identical to that of law enforcement-- to uphold the legitimacy of capitalism, perpetuate colonialism, and exploit the poor and working class.
Social workers were tools of the state to violently uproot indigenous children from their families, communities, and cultures. Some argue that to this day, this legacy still stands in the foster care system, uprooting Black and brown children from their homes and placing them in white or upper class households.
Currently, social workers can hold a license and be a police officer, a parole officer, or a corrections officer. This means that these social workers can literally perpetuate the prison industrial complex and still be considered ethical practitioners.
Even as practitioners outside the carceral system, we are often required to police and punish our clients in ways that could cause tremendous harm. During the recent panel discussion "Abolitionist Social Work: Possibilities, Paradox and Praxis," Tanisha "Wakumi" Douglas urged social workers to be "incredibly critical about how we are undoing punitive models at every level of our being.” This means questioning the way social work upholds systems that require people of color, and Black women especially, to meet unrealistic requirements and submit to monitoring and surveillance in order to meet their basic needs.
Social workers must be knowledgable on a number of topics to adequately support people in crisis without reinforcing our carceral system. Understanding systemic racism, intersectional oppression, the criminal legal system, as well as mental health first aid and de-escalation techniques is imperative.
However, the Council on Social Work Education currently requires just one course on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to become a licensed social worker. In my experience, this curriculum tends to be white-centered and focused on how white people can work with clients “across cultures.” And, a 2013 study found that less than 5 percent of social work education offered courses with content related to the criminal legal system.
Currently, the field of social work doesn't require us to interrogate our own biases or inherited white supremacist values. That’s very dangerous when we hold the ability to revoke housing opportunities, food stability, employment opportunities, and more. We know that these insecurities are so intertwined with incarceration. When we don't confront this power, we as social workers are all stewards of the prison industrial complex.
Of course, there is a long history of social workers fighting against the white supremacy within the institution. In the past year, the Social Service Workers United-Chicago urgently demanded that the National Association of Social Workers reckon with their relationship to the carceral system and make significant strides towards abolition. Abolitionists like Mimi Kim have been researching anti-violence alternatives to the carceral system for years. Organizations like Freedom Inc, S.O.U.L Sisters Leadership Collective, and Survived & Punished are also offering alternatives to carceral social services.
Like many abolitionists, I support the call to demolish the system that puts cops in front of vulnerable people in the first place. This requires investing money into housing, healthcare, schools, community programs, and more. But it also requires the people who provide social services to reflect more deeply on our biases, trauma, and conflict processes. And it also requires us as a society to recognize and respond to the punitive measures we take in our legal system, our communities, our relationships, and in our minds.
As Cameron Rasmussen & Kirk “Jae” James have written, this is a matter of imagining and building at the same time. "We can imagine a social work rooted in solidarity over charity, one that is decolonized, de-professionalized, anti-capitalist, and is committed to repair, accountability and continual transformation," they write. "Black feminist thought and organizing has taught us to create with intention, to build and imagine simultaneously, and to root our work in possibility."
That is the task before us as abolitionist social workers.
ANGELA TONA received her Bachelor’s of Social Work from Nazareth College in Rochester NY. She currently lives in Minneapolis MN and works as a policy advocate for LGBTQ+ Rights and Mental Health Justice.