Equity-minded practice for social workers

(A slightly different version of this article is coming out soon in The New Social Worker)

Lisa M. Johnson, MSW, PhD, Elspeth M. Slayter, MSW, PhD, and Lamont D. Simmons, MSW, EdD,

School of Social Work, Salem State University

Though discussions about the need to shift from a focus on equality to equity have been happening for some time (George Washington University, 2020), the particulars of equity as applied to education and practice is new for many social workers. Images such as the one below are helpful in raising our awareness of the differences between equity and equality and may inform our thinking about its application to practice. However, there are fewer resources that speak directly to what equitable practice really looks like.

Open access image credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Recently, social work educators have started to dialogue about the idea of “equity-minded practice” in the context of what they do related to social work students’ educational process. We wonder about how this concept may prove useful for all social work practitioners. Let’s define our terms, first. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) defines equity-minded practice as (CSWE, 2020, p. 1):

“the perspective or mode of thinking exhibited by practitioners who call attention to patterns of inequity in student outcomes. These practitioners are willing to take personal and institutional responsibility for the success of their students, and critically reassess their own practices. It also requires that practitioners are race-conscious and aware of the social and historical context of exclusionary practices in American Higher Education.” (p. 1)

Further, CSWE states that social work educators can engage in five actions as equity-minded practitioners:

  1. Becoming aware of racial identity;
  2. Using disaggregated data to identify inequitable racial and ethnic outcomes;
  3. Reflecting on racial and ethnic consequences of practices;
  4. Exercising agency to produce racial and ethnic equity; and
  5. Viewing the classroom as a racialized space and self-monitor interactions withstudents of color.

We would like to extend this thinking to be more inclusive of a broad range of social identity considerations and applicable to a broader range of social work settings. As such, we propose this revision of the actions. As equity-minded practitioners, social workers can engage in five types of actions:

  1. Becoming aware of all of their social identities;
  2. Using disaggregated data to identify inequitable outcomes based on socialidentities;
  3. Reflecting on the differential consequences of social work practices on peopleand communities based on social identities;
  4. Exercising agency to produce equity across social identity groups; and
  5. Viewing the practice context as a potentially oppressive and marginalizing spaceand self-monitoring interactions with clients/patients/constituents/consumers of different social identities.

Perspectives informing actions

There are several theoretical perspectives which can inform the five types of action steps we propose above. First, with respect to awareness, social workers need to engage in self-assessment towards self-awareness through the lens of cultural humility. Also vital to equity-minded practice is critical cultural competence which posits that awareness, knowledge, and skills are not enough for doing empowerment-oriented, anti-oppressive practice (Danso, 2015). Specifically, awareness actions need to take into account structural oppression – as well as personal reflection about one’s involvement in the former. Practice without the use of critical cultural competence lenses may affect ineffective or low-quality services (Casado et al., 2012) and deepen marginalization in traditionally oppressed communities (Danso, 2015).

Equity-minded practitioners take personal and institutional responsibility for the success of their clients, and critically reassess their own practices through engaging in what is known as reflexivity and reflectivity (Schön, 1983; 1987). To be reflexive, you consider – really investigate – your interactions via introspection as they happen given the cultural, historical, linguistic and political context. Whereas with reflection, the focus is on various factors – spoken, nonverbal, emotional, as well as thoughts that follow the action. All of this is applied to the “in between” the client and social worker and the interaction they share with the intervention. A central question to ask oneself as an equity-minded practitioner is, “How do I create and influence knowledge about my practice that I use to make decisions?” In this way, equity-minded practice can call upon the tenets of the anti-oppressive social work practice framework, in which we engage in reflectivity and reflexivity about power dynamics between social worker and client (Baines, 2017).

Second, use of data is a key action in equity-minded practice. This action calls on social workers to use an intersectional lens in their data-driven examination of phenomena in their practice sphere, considering how different social identities interact in oppressive scenarios. Third, by committing to reflect on differential consequences for clients of different social identities, social workers are extending their reflexivity beyond their individual practice decision-making and actions and bringing it into the mezzo and macro spheres with respect to potential structural oppression. Specifically, equity-minded practitioners are intersectionality-conscious and aware of the social, cultural and historical contexts of oppressive practices across social welfare structures. This may also be described as engaging in what Freire (2000) referred to as praxis, or “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” (p. 126). Fourth, equity-minded practitioners exercise their personal agency (capacity to act freely) to produce and promote equity for disadvantaged populations, through specific, clear and direct actions at the practice level. This is closely tied to the fifth action, which is recognizing processes within the practice context that might be, for example, racialized or gendered, in order to engage in the actions discussed above.

Doing equity-minded work needs to take place at multiple levels–meaning personal, interpersonal, and professional at both the individual and organizational levels. This work is life-long and never-ending and should be considered an ongoing practice. Reflecting on how you influence the world, and how your social location (Benness, 2017) is part of this process and is key to this work. Below are some examples of opportunities social workers might have for engaging in equity-minded practice:

–Seek out professional development opportunities that will foster your equity-minded practice approach

–Search for paths that will allow you to advance equity in your practice, in the agency policy realm, in state policy and community relations, etc., while engaging others in this work along the way

–In your organization, draw on disaggregated data about people from different social identity groups to learn about potential inequities in service delivery patterns, or treatment outcomes. This may mean fighting to gather disaggregated data!

–Continually utilize data to examine practices and policies that influence experiences and outcomes across identity groups

–Create tangible, implementable approaches for changing practices and policies that are inequitable and supporting those that are equitable

–Identify and implement support strategies centering clients from marginalized groups

–Cultivate networks of social work practitioners who are equity-minded in order to share ideas, successes and strategies in order to partner towards promoting equity

References

Baines, D. (2007). Anti-oppressive social work practice: Fighting for space, fighting for change. In D. Baines (Ed.), Doing anti-oppressive practice: Building transformative politicized social work (pp. 1-30). Fernwood Publishing.

Benness, B. (2017, October 12). Social location: What people mean. Medium..https://medium.com/@bennessb/social-location-what-people-mean-27dd94c29dd5

Casado, B., Negi, J., & Hong, M. (2012). Culturally competent social work research: Methodological considerations for research with language minorities. Social Work57(1), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/swr002

Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) (2020). Equity-minded Competence in Higher Education. https://www.cswe.org/Centers-Initiatives/Centers/Center-for-Diversity?_zs=J4G4f1&_zl= BP0U6

Danso, R. (2015). An integrated framework of critical cultural competence and anti-oppressive practice for social justice social work research. Qualitative Social Work14(4), 572-588. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473325014558664

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum International Publishing Group.

George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (2020). Equity vs. equality: What’s the difference? https://onlinepublichealth.gwu.edu/resources/equity-vs-equality/

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. Temple Smith.
Schön, D. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner. Jossey-Bass.

Co-author biographies:

Lisa M. Johnson, MSW, PhD, is Interim Dean and Associate Professor at Salem State University School of Social Work. Her primary areas of intellectual inquiry, research, and advocacy are child welfare, equity, workforce development, disability studies, and social work education.

Lamont D. Simmons, MSW, EdD, is an Assistant Professor at Salem State University School of Social Work. His research broadly frames the experiences of students in social work education in relation to their academic persistence and success.

Elspeth M. Slayter, MSW, PhD, is a Professor at Salem State University School of Social Work. Her research centers on race, ethnicity, disability, addiction and child welfare.