Having difficult conversations about police brutality and structural racism in social work classes

This post is dedicated to the social work educators who are participating in the #SWEduActs teach-in on police brutality as a form of structural racism being held the last week of October 2020. We recognize that taking on this work may sometimes lead to classroom tensions, so we have prepared this handout with strategies for you to work through such challenges. You may want to start by reading the following article by Dr. Felicia Mitchell which specifically addresses teaching about police brutality in social work classrooms.

Mitchell, F. (2016). Creating space for the ‘uncomfortable:’ Discussions about race and police brutality in a BSW classroom. Reflections. 21(3). 4-9.

Also, check out. this poem on creating “brave spaces: from Micky ScottBey Jones: https://helpingout.net/2018/12/02/invitation-to-brave-space-poem-by-micky-scottbey-jones/

A great place to start with your group is to suggest a set of shared agreements for difficult conversations, such as:

  • Do your best, be curious and respectful
  • Together, we know a lot, alone we don’t know it all
  • Take space, make space
  • Lean-in to discomfort, it’s how we grow
  • Uphold what’s confidential, what we learn leaves here, what we say stays here
  • Put relationships first
  • Keep focused on our purpose
  • Be kind and brave
  • Look for learning moments

Q. What if class gets contentious during the teach-in?

A. Don’t panic! Hot moments can occur when people are discussing issues about which they care deeply. They can also be teachable moments. Here are several strategies to consider:

  • Check-in with students during the discussion to assess their needs and your own.
  • Take a break to diffuse the situation.
  • Gently lead students to consider the sub-text of their own beliefs. Where are they
    coming from? What experiences led them to their beliefs?
  • Do not tolerate personal attacks and ask students to make their arguments
    responsibly and grounded in course material.
  • Redirect students away from personal experience and identity towards the issues
    at stake in the course material you prepared.
  • Encourage students to consider their own views from another’s perspectives and
    to build their capacity for empathy.
  • Ask students to engage in a reflective writing exercise to work through their ideas
    and, if you and they feel comfortable, ask them to share their thoughts.
  • If you feel comfortable doing so, model your own discomfort and vulnerability,
    telling students that you too find the conversation difficult.
  • Should you believe there is no way to manage the discussion, it is okay to stop, let
    your class go, and reassess in preparation for your next class meeting.

Q. What if a student says something problematic during class?

A. You may also want to use one of these phrases to start a “calling in” conversation with your students (from Teaching Tolerance):

  • “I need to stop you there because something you just said is not accurate.”
  • “I’m having a reaction to that comment. Let’s go back for a minute.”
  • “Do you think you would say that if someone from that group was with us in the room?”
  • “There’s some history behind that expression you just used that you might not know about.”
  • “In this class, we hold each other accountable. So we need to talk about why that joke isn’t funny.”

Q. What if a student has an outburst or is confrontational during my class?

A. Again, don’t panic! Try engaging in the strategies above to get your class back on track. After class, speak with the students involved or invite them to your office hours. This conversation might help students learn from their experience, express themselves, and develop an open mind.

Finally, we want to thank you for participating in this challenging and important work. We join you in navigating the complexities of doing long-term anti-racism work in social work education.

This post is largely based on Salem State University’s Black Lives Matter teach-in document with some small additions and modifications.

Readings on police brutality in the United States:

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (2020). Fighting police abuse: Community action manual. https://www.aclu.org/other/fighting-police-abuse-community-action-manual

Butze, O. (2020). We can’t just go back to normal: Research-based Resources to Help You Teach, Talk, and Learn About Structural Racism. Sage Publications. https://group.sagepub.com/structural-racism-police-violence?fbclid=IwAR1xYH6Zdt05pueSmsf7nFPLxJ1Ha8nM0PUWzIGLr6xCrGh9L0qpdtwjons

Cheslaw, L. (2020). 15 best books on police brutality according to the experts. New York Magazine. July 1, 2020. https://nymag.com/strategist/article/best-books-police-brutality.html

Chicago Public Library. (2020). Topic guide: Police brutality. https://chipublib.bibliocommons.com/list/share/901860537/1415865957

Edwards, F., Lee, H. and Esposito, M. (2019). Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race-ethnicity, and sex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). https://www.pnas.org/content/116/34/16793

Grady, C. (2020). George Floyd protests: A reading list to understand police brutality in America. Vox. June 6, 2020. https://www.vox.com/culture/2020/6/6/21281018/anti-racist-reading-list-police-brutality-syllabus

Kendi, I. (2020). The American nightmare: To be Black and conscious of anti-Black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/american-nightmare/612457/

Khatib, J. (2020). 5 books to read about race and the police. The New York Times. June 10, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/10/burst/books-policing-race.html

Taylor, K. (2020). How do we change America? The quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police. The New Yorker. June 8, 2020

Readings on police, social work and abolition

8toAbolition (2020). 8 to Abolition: Abolitionist policy changes to demand from your city officials. https://elspethslayter.files.wordpress.com/2020/08/df868-8toabolition_v2.pdf

Critical Resistance (No date). Reformist reforms vs. abolitionist steps in policing. https://elspethslayter.files.wordpress.com/2020/08/af73a-cr_nocops_reform_vs_abolition_crside.pdf

Critical Resistance (2003). The CR Abolition Organizing Toolkit. http://criticalresistance.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/CR-Abolitionist-Toolkit-online.pdf

Movement for Black Lives (2020). The Breathe Act. https://breatheact.org

Movement for Black Lives. (2020). #DefundPolice Concrete steps toward divestment from policing and investment in community safety. Filter Magazine. https://filtermag.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Defund-Toolkit.pdf

MPD150, (2020). Police Abolition: Frequently Asked Questions. https://www.mpd150.com/faq/ (Note: In Somali, Spanish and English)

Singer, J. (2020). Both/And or Either/Or: Social Work and Policing. The Social Work Podcast. July 14, 2020. https://socialworkpodcast.blogspot.com/2020/07/socialworkpolicing.html?fbclid=IwAR2-7D0amRNPrbQ67Xm2TFH0pjThNr7_w9abxDkvFylm7Q9wi6VtHZkbe3Y

Resources for discussing race in the classroom:

Anti-racism resources for White people (list prepared by Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein – May 2020)

Summary of the stages of identity development — this document includes white identity development models, as well as models for people of color (document prepared by Interaction Institute for Social Change)

Starkman, R. (2020). Dropping the N-Word in College Classrooms. Institutions should consider developing guidelines to address the main objections to doing so. Inside Higher Ed. July 24, 2020 https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/07/24/colleges-should-develop-guidelines-using-n-word-classes-opinion?fbclid=IwAR0oj7JRw9VuFytivWPadczLYcu536hrmrxqVpv_lSjrETrqX-NSiFCJsOg