5 Lessons on Addressing Racial Equity and Promoting Change

Over the past decade, MSW@USC has graduated thousands of social workers who have set out to create change at the local, national and global levels. Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat who earned her MSW at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in 2015, is among USC’s growing network for good that has taken the approach of advocating for change through policy. 

In November 2020, Bass was re-elected to her sixth term representing the 37th Congressional District. She serves on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs where she is the chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Global Human Rights. As chair of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2019 and 2020, she advocated for more targeted support to address the needs of communities of color during the COVID-19 pandemic and introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (PDF, 345 KB), which passed the House of Representatives in March. 

Renee Smith-Maddox, clinical professor and diversity liaison at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, talked with Bass about policy affecting communities of color. Bass’ message was clear: Social workers can play an invaluable role in promoting equity and justice at micro, mezzo and macro levels. 

“No matter which level you are, no matter which area you go into in social work, I just can’t tell you how much you are needed,”
-Karen Bass

How can social workers help to advance practices and policies that create change? As the MSW@USC program celebrates 10 years of educating the next generation of social workers, let’s reflect on the lessons Bass shared that can continue to evolve the practice. 

1. Working with people of varied cultures and ethnicities requires immersion in their communities.

While working at an agency provides valuable experience and training for social workers, students should not limit their interactions with the community to the agency setting. Bass encourages social work students to put in the effort to learn about the communities where their agencies are based and to build authentic relationships with community members through direct interactions. 

“It’s not about reading something. It’s not about just practicing within the agency,” Bass said.  “It’s about going out and learning the neighborhoods, learning the environment [and] learning the history.”

2. Advancing racial equity starts with acknowledging our history and learning how to speak about it honestly.

Bass explained that many people don’t have an accurate understanding of history, specifically the history of race in America, because our systems of teaching history focus only on the positive stories. 

“The average American has no idea that enslavement lasted for 256 years and [does not] understand why Black people still talk about it, or that for a hundred years after the period of enslavement there was apartheid by Jim Crow, [or] the fact that affirmative action lasted for a nanosecond before it was attacked and virtually eliminated.”
-Karen Bass

Social workers need to be proactive in educating themselves about the racial history of the country to better understand what they are fighting for. 

“We’ve never learned a way to talk about race and be comfortable with it,” Bass said. “I think you have to understand that yourself before and while you’re out promoting racial equity.”

3. Tackling racism includes examining societal structures.

When most people talk about race in this country, they tend to take an individualistic lens, Bass explained. Rather than looking at structures in society, they focus on individual beliefs, feelings and issues.

“As long as we talk about it like that as opposed to examining the structures of society, people feel guilty. They feel like, ‘Oh, my God. Did I do something? Did I say the right thing?’” she said. “That’s always important, but it is secondary to the barriers that exist in society.”

Bass pointed to the educational achievement gap as an example. The COVID-19 pandemic is only exacerbating existing inequalities in education. Many parents who are essential workers or who cannot afford to take off work aren’t able to stay home with their children to work through a Zoom lesson. The repercussions of that will require attention.

“That’s no one individual’s fault, so there’s no reason for you to feel guilty about it,” she said. “But that’s structural racism.”

4. Engaging lawmakers is a critical component to advocating for your clients.

There are very few social workers in Congress, or on the City Council or Board of Supervisors, which leaves lawmakers to make critical decisions in a vacuum, Bass explained. 

“If you don’t speak up and get involved on behalf of your clients and you don’t interact, then you will essentially be in a passive mode while we make decisions about you and about what you’re doing and about your clients. So your voice is absolutely critical.”
-Karen Bass

Bass encourages social workers to reach out directly to their members of Congress and work with offices to set up meetings where they can share recommendations on policy. They can also work through congressional offices to connect with other elected officials involved in certain policy issues. However, she reminds everyone to do their homework about what recommendations apply to their city, county or state or the federal government to ensure they are meeting with the correct officials. 

5. Storytelling can help to move the needle on policy.

Data is an important component of advocacy work. But social workers should not underestimate the importance of sharing the stories of their clients with policymakers. Stories can capture the attention of busy elected officials and affect them emotionally. Bass reminded social workers that they are the experts in policy because they are living it, and the insight they provide can be priceless. 

“What you’re doing is just so important, and sometimes in the work that you do day-to-day, you don’t necessarily feel valued,” she said. “But know that we value you. We need you to be out there. I desperately need your stories to back up what I might know in my gut.”

Advocacy and Racial Equity Resources for Social Workers

The USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work is committed to dismantling racism and promoting racial justice. The school has assembled resources for students who want to learn more about how to engage in practices that work toward equity and inclusion.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the largest professional organization for social workers, promotes racial equity through its policy agenda as well as training and professional development opportunities for those in the field. Visit the web pages below to learn more about how the organization and its California chapter are helping social workers create change.

  • NASW Advocacy page highlights the association’s advocacy priorities with opportunities to join sign-on letters and receive legislative alerts. 
  • NASW Policy Issues page features key policy issues for the association and federal social policy recommendations for the new administration and Congress. 
  • NASW Social Justice page highlights the organization’s social justice priorities with briefs on specific issues such as policing, refugee resettlement and gun violence. 
  • NASW Racial Equity page provides training and resources from various NASW chapters designed to promote anti-racism efforts. 
  • NASW-CA Advocacy and Political Action page features the California chapter’s 2021 policy agenda and has tips on how to engage lawmakers directly and through the media. 
  • NASW-CA Racism and Social Justice page provides anti-racism resources with continuing education courses related to race. 

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) houses the Center for Diversity and Social & Economic Justice, which offers resources for educators, students, practitioners and policymakers to better engage with and advocate for diverse populations and address systems that perpetuate inequity. The Center’s Educator|Resource of the Month offers guidance for educators on how to teach competencies related to diversity and social justice

Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.