‘We want measurable change’: a call to action to end systemic racism in social work

Students and social workers are being urged on 19 March to challenge their employer or university to make social work education, CPD and practice anti-racist. Academic Zoe Thomas explains what the campaign is about

African black fist and caucasian white fist raised calling for freedom and equality on a yellow background. Multicultural fists raised. Stop racism.
Credit: Pol Sole/Adobe Stock

By Zoe Thomas

Something is happening in social work.

Social workers are mobilising and demanding change.  Following the recent wave of interest in anti-racist practices and anti-racist ways of being, a grassroots movement has mobilised on social media.  Whilst we have never met, in fact we don’t even know each other, we have come together with a strong and shared commitment.

We’re social workers, we’re an anti-racist movement and we’re demanding systemic change through our activism.

In the wake of police brutality and murder against black people being less hidden, it’s harder to ignore without being exposed as complicit. Collectively, it needs to be made clear by social work that we refuse to move on from this position.

‘We need a whole new system’

We want more than slight disruption for as long as it is on point to describe oneself as anti-racist.  We want measurable and felt change in social work. Change that can be called out, questioned and publicly held to account.  It is not acceptable to tirelessly continue whitewashing our demands to dismantle racist systems with the smoke and mirrors fallacy that individuals and teams are trying to change things from within.

We need a whole new system and here is an opportunity for those of us who decline complicity to do something about it.

Inspired by the social work activism of student social workers Omar Mohamed, Diana Katoto and Charlie Perrett at the University of Birmingham and their visionary book campaign as a means to begin a process of decolonising their social work education, we also call to action social workers and student social workers.

This call does not seek to be prescriptive but rather offers an opportunity, an opportunity to do something other than be complicit.

Reverse mentoring

Hertfordshire council is taking the opportunity, through a reverse mentoring scheme. Staff are also providing training with a focus on anti-racism as a way to explore language and understanding about racism.  In addition to this Hertfordshire is offering ‘Thinking Spaces’ which are facilitated by Frank Lowe, head of social work in the adolescent and adult directorate at Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, to create safe spaces for employees to talk about race.

Rather than simply providing an equality and diversity training session, an unconscious bias workshop or a more diverse social work reading list, this is an opportunity for that reading list to become something that is used to plan and deliver teaching, and to inspire social engagement events that stimulate debate about the historical and contemporary impact of anti-black racism, European colonisation and slavery on social work knowledge and practice.

This could be a platform to redefine the way we recruit, train and retain social workers and academics, or how we design our leadership and executive teams.  Similarly, the burden of representation as a black employee and its emotional labour must be acknowledged and rewarded with paid leadership roles that carry influence, power and opportunity.

It’s amazing what happens when those who hold white power exercise it by opening doors for the loud knocks from those of us who are so often silenced, ignored or offered a half-eaten piecemeal carrot.  It’s much less exhausting, much less infuriating when the doors we are hammering on are opened from the inside.  Better still, when the doors are left unlocked or where they are completely removed from their hinges and we invent a whole new way of passing from one space to another.

Our social work collective voice exists loudly and is active because our beloved profession and those of us who are committed to it require the system within which we practice to be dismantled and changed.

Challenge your employer and university

We call upon student social workers and social workers to challenge their employer, directors of services or their university vice-chancellors to include anti-racist social work education, teaching and learning and continuous professional development.

It’s not enough talking about being anti-racist or describing one’s workplace as anti-racist; having black history month on the team meeting agenda or ensuring there are a few colourful tokens on the team is not anti-racist activism.  Nor is this about disapproving of St George’s flags, Union Jacks and EDL marches.  This is about creating anti-racist systems; less about individuals and more about a complete dismantling and change in the existing systemic and collective racist systems that hold together our ‘great’ British institutions of social work and social work education.

For anyone still thinking that all lives matter then remember, if one house on the street is burning you would not expect the fire service to pour water on the whole street. If you’re born black, you’re on fire.  Your life chances are at the very least much slower and seriously hindered than if you’re born white. If you’re a black student then your attainment is likely to be compromised because of racism.  If you’re painfully one of the few of us that are black academics then you’re likely to feel more of a pinch than your white peers. 

When anti-racist participation and action at leadership and control levels are required, when those who exercise power on behalf of our profession are overtly complicit, and in a society where it’s okay for the first-ever black university vice-chancellor to be appointed in 2020 then the call to action needs to be a collective army of social workers demanding better. We are not passively asking for positive change, development or a move in the right direction.

Demanding anti-racist education and practice

Our starting point is that this should never have been the case in the first place, it is only with this starting point that we can measure the type of society we are; a racist society, and that includes our institutions.

As a profession, we need to demand an anti-racist social work education and anti-racist CPD with enabled ways of working. As long as this is not happening then the ‘great’ British institutions within which we are teaching, learning and practising social work are complicit. Those who are making executive and legal decisions about what we learn, what we do and what is important need to be held to account and collectively it is our responsibility to take action.

Forget about that token on the team appointed as a gesture towards being representative of society; this is about allowing marginalised groups power to make change.

Why wouldn’t we have only black women as social work professors or all black local authority social work directors of service?  Why, when we don’t blink an eye when it’s all white men running the show.  It is of course under the existing system we have the unsurprising statistics about student attainment, pay and other horror stories about institutional racism.

Is it time to give someone else a turn?

We don’t want to be representative of society, we need to be ensuring there are enough black voices in powerful positions who are able to make things change.

It was the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said we know we have equality when all nine justices on the bench are women.

I wonder if social work has a lot to learn here.

The struggle is real and you are part of it.

Get involved.

Click here for more information about the day of action on 19 March. 

Follow the hashtags on Twitter #SwAction21 #AntiRacistSW #riseAgainstRacism #AntiRacistAction

Zoe Thomas is a social work academic at the University of Bradford. She is in the final stages of a social work PhD, has been a registered social worker since 2007 and, until 2016, worked in local authority child protection teams. 

26 Responses to ‘We want measurable change’: a call to action to end systemic racism in social work

  1. Nihat March 18, 2021 at 9:49 am #

    No, its not time to give someone else a turn. Tear down the hierarchies. In academia and in services. It’s the structures not about the cogs keeping up the same old structures. Why would I regard seeing black vice chancellors, seeing black female directors, black professors as the achievements of anti-racism? If this ‘challenge’ was serious it would storm the institutions and the departments and the places where working class people are oppressed and racially profiled and demand the destruction of the status hierarchies. Why would I be satisfied with a new power structure when the struggle is to obliterate all power structures? History teaches that the most benign or the most strident ‘progressives’ can and are seduced by the trappings of status and power. We are our own destiny. Why would I support a ‘challenge’ that replaces one set of privileged cohort by another set of privileged cohort? Having a black vice chancellor or a black professor or a black director just cements the inequalities that we suffer under now. Its as much about the status as it’s about who the beneficiary of the privilege is. Actuall, it’s this kind of bourgeois approach to change that sustains discrimination and oppression. We don’t need more talk about “representation”. That nonsense has perpetuated an helplessness and no progress. Anti-racism isn’t about career progression. Anti-racism gets you killed in Southall and Red Lion Square. Gets you battered in New Cross and Deptford. Gets you tortured in Handsworth. However ‘radical’ the senior manager or academic the status privileges perpetuate inequality. Even if all it does is keep my mam in her minimum wage job. Anti-racist action worth its name looks fir alliances to dismantle the capitalist relations that sustain worldwide oppression, exploitation and violence. Change comes from battles, not tweets and most definitely not from enthusiasm for trainers manufactured on the toil and misery and death of black and brown and asian labourers. But than as someone more articulate than me once said on national television ” I am literally a communist”. Sorry to politicise the polite head nodding.

  2. Siobhan March 18, 2021 at 10:35 am #

    A female Asian Home Secretary, a lesbian Metropolitan police Commissioner, women brutalised at a vigil for a murdered sister in a park on their watch. Not even an apology for male violence by either. Ruth Bader Ginsburg for all her excellence got the all women ticket wrong. We don’t just need people who look like us. We need comrades who understand how to resist being co-opted. Social work institutions have zero committment to meaningfully challenging racism. The very same colleagues who with tears in their eyes took a knee patronised and dismissed me as a nuisance when in our “anti-racism workshop” I brought up the terror and torture inflicted on the Uighur people in China. It’s easy being an anti-racist in a profession where talk is constant and action non existent. A profession where there are predefined parameters of what ‘anti-racism’ is about. I am Irish and Jewish but apparently only my Irish heritage allows me to sneak into the hierarchy of the oppressed. Let’s talk about how we define the debate before we congratulate ourselves on our anti-racist, anti-discriminatory credentials.

  3. Belinda van zyl March 18, 2021 at 2:38 pm #

    It is good to see a local authority, like Hertfordshire Council, has a planned approach to tacking the issue of inequality and systemic racism. Raising awareness through reverse mentoring is a good start, then action is required.

    I am currently undertaking some research exploring the impact of cross-cultural mentoring and career progression for black social workers, working in local authority employment. My pilot case study revealed some interesting themes, which I am hoping to explore further.

    A great article Zoe, thank you.

  4. Jay March 18, 2021 at 8:17 pm #

    How many black social workers get the opportunity to progress to management and senior leadership positions? Very few. My Team Leader told me if the white people don’t like me I won’t get considered for senior positions. So I have to brown nose and work 5 times as hard as my white colleagues. Can’t wait to hand my notice in after my ASYE. Oh, I’m more likely to fail my ASYE to, I’m black I apologise.

  5. Orton March 18, 2021 at 9:57 pm #

    I profoundly disagree with Nihat and Siobhan. This isn’t about class or religion. Its about black people. I am very happy that this campaign cuts through the discrimination narrative. The nab of the action is very simple: only black people experience racism. All other ethnic minorities may experience discrimination. If white people want to gate crush then they need to know which end of the que to stand in. If that frightens you then you should exit our company. What China does to it’s own citizens is not a concern of black people. Good on collagues to keep to the anti-racism agenda. We’ve been polite too long.

  6. Adrian March 18, 2021 at 11:29 pm #

    Strange kind of anti-racism that defines itself by the yardstick of being or not being promoted to “senior leadership.” When I used to get chased and harassed in the streets after anti-racist demonstrations I never thought “you lot just wait, once I become a manager there won’t be any racist NF thugs then.” How did we get it so wrong in the 1970s?

  7. Sally March 19, 2021 at 8:11 am #

    If Black Lives Matter then it’s very much about “disapproving” of St George’s flags, the Union Jack and most definitely EDL marches. Time social workers participated in society. Time social workers took their “Activism” into places where life struggles are fought. Time to risk outside of the sterile but no doubt safe spaces of the like minded. If by midnight today every position of senior management, professorships, university bastions and the positions that seem to matter to careers were occupied by a black person, we will still be living in a racist, oppressive, exploiting society. My pledge? Place myself amongst people who hate me for my colour, standing in solidarity with comrades to change an unequal society. I have no interest in neutering may rage by sweeping the dust of social work. And to those of you who will brickbat me about having to start somewhere: what was that about the “fallacy” “change from within?”

  8. Sachin March 19, 2021 at 1:26 pm #

    Look forward to a Pledge from those activists ‘honoured’ by Queen Elizabeth II with baubles on behalf of the British Empire that as champions of decolonising education and the institutions, they will now return them.

  9. Ken March 19, 2021 at 2:47 pm #

    Personally I agree with those critiquing the lack of focused political thrust of this campaign but I commend Omar Mohamed, Diana Katoto and Charlie Perrett for rising up. Our differences should be our strength. I hope we meet at the end of our struggle for justice whichever road we choose to travel to get there.

  10. Unknown Person March 19, 2021 at 7:09 pm #

    It is sad that some may not understand the struggles that black people face on a day to day life because you do not encounter what we do. I am proud to be a black social worker and contribute to the society whereby some of my service users looks like me and some don’t.

    I have seen the trauma that my black colleagues experience due to their accent. As well as the facial expressions made by my counterpart due to the way my black colleagues speaks. These are so evident in meetings and no one speaks out against this.

    “I have heard managers saying how do service users understand her when she can barely speak English”. Really, so who employed her. Trust me these a real life stories.

    To my White privileged colleagues take a day and reflect on the issues that we face. Yes, not everything is about Racism but 65% is and the unseemly attitude of institutions in the way this has a managed is disgraceful!

    The findings and research is out there for your disposal. Have a look at the proportionate of Black ASYE’s that fail the course. Some
    May say that it is due to incompetence? Really? Have you tried to understand why we may not understand you? Do you understand us and our Dialects?

    Let us be honest here, the truth has to be Said, some LA’s embrace black workers and support everyone to progress. However, majority do not and the evidence are so clear.

    I am sorry to say I never chose to be Black, however, I am proud to be Black. I have experienced racism and discrimination in past LA that I have worked in and I can speak out about this topic, because it has happened to me.

    I know how it feels and still deal with the trauma till today. I know how it feels to be favoured less that my counterparts, I know how it feels when I am told that how I write is not clear and does not make sense because of errors. I know how it feels when I have been told I don’t belong here due to the colour of my skin.

    Let us stop Institutional Discrimination and Racism.

    Though, I have learnt how to adapt and know when to speak out and if I am not happy about it I walk out. But some of my black colleagues do not know this because they are afraid of the unknowns. Such as failing their ASYE. Reform the system, Reform Social Work.

  11. Claudia March 20, 2021 at 6:51 pm #

    Thanks for explaining that the murder of Asian people in Atlanta by a white “sex addict” having a “bad day” is an act of discrimination not racism Orton. I am black but will take my position in the back of the que as advised for having the wrong ideas about racism. In the meantime I offer my solidarity to all peoples who are subjected to racist terror. Solidarity to my Jewish, Muslim and all persecuted religious fellow humans. Last time I paid attention the murdering racists didn’t seem to make a distinction between religion and race.

  12. Andy March 22, 2021 at 8:16 am #

    The current British government is represented at its most senior levels of leadership by a greater proportion of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds than any previous administration. They include the Home Secretary and consecutively, two Chancellors of the Exchequer, the latest of whom is strongly tipped as a potential future Prime Minister. In the light of the fact that ethnic minority communities in Britain are as diverse in their values and beliefs as the rest of the population, what lessons can social work institutions, organisations and agencies take from this phenomenon of representation in order to achieve similar success in terms of ethnic diversity and inclusion at the highest leadership levels?

  13. Kerry March 22, 2021 at 6:55 pm #

    Ideology matters above all else in the Tory party. Social work is not good with nuance as most of our debates about racism, gender and sexuality show us. For a profession that claims a committment to diversity in actuality we can not tolerate difference. Social work doesn’t have any specialised theories, we scavenge and steal from everywhere but cant shape knowledge to a discourse we can claim as unique to us. I suspect Cabinet meetings aren’t driven by many disagreements though the head nodding might be won by social workers. Tories aren’t scared of hard politics. We never stop yapping about woe is us and hurt feelings. They grab and shake the world they have inherited. We endlessly carp on about how everyone else is appreciated more than us. We think tweets are activism, they get out chapping on doors and walking in areas they are not welcome with confidence. They understand that they have to shape the world to suit them.
    Social work fears to engage the world. Social work is fearful of ideas and values it doesn’t share or understand. Orthodoxy in education prescribed parameters at work can never promote vibrant thought. So we end up.with the conviction that podcasts, hashtags, black squares, tweets and virtue signalling matter when our internal debates are an irrelevance others.

  14. Nigel March 23, 2021 at 7:40 am #

    Andy, when social workers, our supposed leadership, woefully unrepresentative Regulator, BASW and employers stop talking about racism, stop the endless obsession with surveys which inevitably tell us what we already know, we might get to address racism and under reprentation. Where would the “advisors “, academics, managers, life coaches, training consultants, ‘activists’, justice grifters, truth to power speakers be if we actually tackled this issue? The public purse is an ever generous provider for endless policies and un-acted upon recommendations. It’s not very good once a problem has been addressed. We know the reasons why organisations shape their cultures to curtail change and prevent diversity. We know that irrespective of the hand ringing, the pledges, the supposed commitment to anti-racism, our organisations have no intention to change. Self interest disguised as concern is still self interest. Here’s a suggestion. How about directors and managers step down or don’t apply for the next senior vacancy and give the opportunity to those not like them? That would be the door off its hinges wouldn’t it? Here’s my pledge : when buggins turn no longer gives a leg up to the already privileged, I will stop ‘going on’ about the hypocracies of the social work ‘profession’. When the layers of pretend change agents who in reality serve to preserve the status quo get out the way, we stand a chance of tackling inequalities. In my very pretend humble opinion, that’s the reason why Black, Brown, Jewish and Muslim people hold some of the highest State offices and they don’t in social work.

  15. Olu March 23, 2021 at 10:13 am #

    While social work obsessies over slide rules to determine the perfect response rather than actually doing something tangible, it will remain incapable of tackling racism and promoting true diversity. I suspect that the Tories just took the pragmatic decision that diversity garners votes. We are not even that astute. SWE say they are bringing a New Approach to regulating us. Actually it takes some weird intellectual reasoning to reframe as a new approach choosing, practically from scratch, to recruit staff who nowhere near reflect the general social work workforce.That really isn’t a real committment to equality is it?

  16. Winnie March 24, 2021 at 7:58 am #

    Holding up a board with “I pledge” platitudes on twitter is akin to the ice bucket challenge. The privilege too ‘protest’ with lovely liberal sentiments is not an agency for change. But then the Black Marxists always told us this. Stating the obvious, there are many narratives in black communities.

  17. Sandra Killaine March 25, 2021 at 7:52 am #

    Well said Winnie. By the way, we are not “Minoritsed” persons. Your reductionist fad is yours. It does not represent us.

  18. Nihat March 25, 2021 at 4:32 pm #

    Minoritised is the cosy liberal comfort blanket that stops any discourse about class interests. Talking about class would mean talking about the black middle class. But that is uncomfortable our self elected leaders, spokespeople, those with media careers to sustain and tracts to sell. If class interests were not drivers of privilege, we would embrace the likes of Kemi Badenoch and Rishi Sunak as “our own” too. It is demostrably untrue that social work engages in a broad market place of ideas let alone that it has a coherent ideology to fight racism. If it did, it wouldn’t characterise inner city communities as deprived ghettos rather than the vibrant places they actually are. But why set foot in the whites only ghettos of Devon, Borders villages, Cornwall and Dorset towns to name a few and do ‘activism’ when you get kudos by head nodding to shared certainties borrowed uncritically from the USA? We have our own authentic Black British history and noble tradition of political struggles, its time to reclaim and be informed by them. Thank you Winnie thank you Sandra, comrades both.

  19. Stacey March 26, 2021 at 12:01 pm #

    I hope Professor Adolph Reed will be on the decolonised reading lists.

  20. Carlton March 27, 2021 at 9:14 pm #

    I suspect Professor Reed is regarded as the ‘wrong’ kind of anti-racist so unlikely. Would be genuinely be interested in seeing the list though given how much removed from texts I am as a social worker.

  21. Claudine March 29, 2021 at 12:46 pm #

    I agree that we have to have measurable outcomes to ensure that our services, our minds, our ethical core, our anti-racist struggles go beyond ambition to achieve change. What are those measurable outcomes to be though? Having an all black management team, having decolonised texts psychotherapy for reflection are mere slogans unless we have a transparent and agreed definition of our meanings.We should have the confidence to engage in the combative diverse polemics shown in this thread. I welcome those challenging my certainties, I am not sure others have the same tolerance. We have too many self elected balck experts whose intolerance of people who think like me borders on bullying. Painful to acknowledge perhaps but true when people who think like me are told to shut up more than we are validated. Politics is a many roads activity, it’s the struggle to find the common path that determines what is effective. I am from Cote d’Ivoire, a woman, Wobe is my ancestral language. I spoke French before English. I am an African, but not all Africans are like me. We have to be honest about our many positive differences if we want to break down the structures that support and crucially rely on racism. There are many black experiences but we do unite around our common experiences of racism, don’t we? Or so I thought until I failed to get a job and the panel chair, black, male, senior manager, fed back that I hadn’t ‘demonstrated’ sufficient understanding of Caribbean culture. Was he being racist or insensitive or not in touch with his diaspora culture for rejecting me on that basis? Would it have a different nuance if he had been white? Is knowledge valid only if it’s lived experience or is knowledge gained from a more complex route to understanding common truths? He may have been right about my unsuitability for the job ofcourse, only the appointed white male candidate can “evidence” that. I say this not to claim discrimination but to articulate that the complexity of how we overturn power structures is not really addressed by replacing a set of white directors with a set of black directors. Equally, who appoints the arbiters to decolonise texts? Why is their ideology better than mine if I disagree with their choices? Life is a bit more complicated when difference creeps into orthodoxy isn’t it? A few weeks ago I was berated for saying I had no interest in the British monarchy other than it’s abolition when I was supposed to say how racist they are towards a princess. I was told she is our princess not “theirs” and that I needed to be on my own side not on the side of those “without colour.” How do we measure that? I was born in a country blighted by the privileges of elites, why would I show solidarity to an institution that plundered my continent? The treatment of one black princess is not worth waisting my energy on when millions of black women are abused and exploited by the legacy of that same institution. My interest is the interest of the working class. Let’s set the institutions, the departments, SWE, BASW, Unison and the rest that oversee us not just a set of demands but a time frame for change? What’s the measure of change achieved through the recent Pledges? We look to our intellectuals, our polemicists, our activists for direction and new ways of thinking. I am not interested in any discussions that sets the rules in advance though. All democratic revolutions have their heretics. Bhaskar Sunkara gets my vote for inclusion. A Socialist, though I suspect a very indifferent enthusiast of sneakers.

  22. Simon March 29, 2021 at 2:38 pm #

    In a profession where anti-racist ‘activists’ demonstrate their “passion” for equality and justice while proudly embracing their MBE’s on their Twitter and Instagram profiles, Barack Obamas view that politics now is “a contest where issues, facts, policies don’t matter as much as identity” couldn’t be more apt. On our side some of us will be on socially distanced picket lines in support of striking BT and British Gas workers. No social media kudos there but an equally warm glow of sharing perhaps.

  23. Arthur March 30, 2021 at 9:20 am #

    I would take my betters more seriously if rather than tickling fish in a barrel about racism in the Establishment, they really showed courage by risking friendships and called out the Lords, the Dames, the Knights, the MBEs sloshing around social work. I know it’s difficult to add criticism of mates to the anti-racist armoury but they are on the same side as all the other privileged by dint of their titles and ‘honours’ aren’t they? Disgusted at racism in the monarchy? If you have a privilege granted by the monarch, I don’t believe you. No more articles without the caveat of disgust at these people, no more pretending, no more hypocracy.

  24. Alison Carter March 30, 2021 at 11:16 am #

    Surely bowing to the Queen for the bauble is their “truth”? Aren’t we meant to respect that?

  25. Tony March 30, 2021 at 11:08 pm #

    A powerful, cogent, pertinent and affirming analysis by Claudine. Thank you.

  26. Carlton March 31, 2021 at 6:28 pm #

    I now realise that everything I ever thought, everything I ever said, everything I ever did whivh I mistakenly believed to be about racism is wrong. I now realise that what I experienced , past tense as of now, as racism was in fact my over sensitive misunderstandings. I realise now that I live in a country that should be a model for other white societies that are riven by racism. Thank you Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities for my educating me.