USC’s College of Social Work held a virtual panel Friday afternoon to discuss the history of Black social work, and the continuing fight to be heard within a white-dominated field.
The event titled “On the Shoulders of Giants: Black Social Work Pioneers and Contemporary Changemakers” featured three panelists with extensive experience in the field of social work.
Panelist Monique Bingham, a social work alumni from the University of Southern California, said she gravitated toward the field because of the incarceration of her father.
“He spent 20 years in prison, so it wasn’t, there was no question that I would enter into the helping profession,” Bingham said. “My own father didn’t agree with my decision to do this work. He still understood its importance, because I had been robbed of 20 years.”
The experience gave Bingham a personal connection to the field and inspired her to help those struggling with mental health or any form of physical ailment.
Bingham is not the only one who got into the field because of her family history. Justin Harty, an assistant professor of Social Work at Arizona State University, spent his early years in the child welfare system. He did not initially intend to go into the profession but ended up there because of his Ph.D. program focused on Black fathers in the foster care system.
“We have a lot of research on Black fathers who have had their children removed from their care, but we don’t have really any research on young fathers who enter foster care or become fathers while they're in the foster care system,” Harty said. “I think what brought me to this work was this Black traditions of mutual aid, it’s kind of always stuck with me.”
Since the field is so extensive and expands across numerous agencies, the panelists emphasized the need for seeing people like themselves being represented.
“I can find a piece that’s 50 years old, erase the year, give it to someone and you would think that it was written in 2023. Because I think we have lessons to learn, and I think the social profession does a pretty poor job of attending to our history and really forgets a lot of it as well,” Harty said.
Bingham echoed this, explaining a certain understanding comes from people of color.
“Unless you’ve experienced it, you don’t really understand. And that’s okay. And that’s why we need more black and brown and red and yellow people in our profession," Bingham said. "Being at the table, that’s how we get changes to happen."
The third panelist, social worker Yolanda Burwell, has been observing the history of social work since the 1970s. She was taught to start with the community first which immersed her in the Black Power movement, the women’s movement and the civil rights movement.
“People do have communities and starting there, you got to understand that those are often the first source of help for many people. I grew up in a world where going to an agency was the last thing you wanted to do,” Burwell said.
All three panelists agreed that the lack of progress in diversity education in the social work field is frustrating. Harty said the system will continue to fail unless people understand that problems of racism and colonialism must be tackled together.
“Racism upholds systems of colonialism. They’re embedded, they’re intertwined. You cannot address one without addressing another,” Harty said.
Parthenia Luke, a diversity fellow for the College of Social Work and the moderator of the event, asked the audience to take the knowledge from the panel beyond the month of February.
“We don’t want to do something that just checks a box," Luke said. "We want to be something that has some sort of lasting impact that can have implications beyond Black History Month and that can also be replicated for other communities that are historically marginalized and historically oppressed."