Ensuring Humanity in Human Services Work

As human services adopt more collaborative approaches through implementation of managed care, expansion of health homes, and other group treatment models, it is critical for mental health and human services professionals to understand racial oppression as an obstacle to mental and physical wellness. The structural and psychological impacts of racism affect us all—providers and clients. Yet the scourge of racism is often an invisible and silent “elephant” in the middle of the human services room.

Why Are We at a Critical Juncture Now?

With the advent of the Affordable Care Act and its requisite expansion of managed care and care coordination, accountability to provide quality and cost-effective services is the driving force for human services. Lost too often in the shuffle to control costs — an act for which agencies are accountable to governing bodies — is accountability to clients. Ensuring that our agencies are accountable to the clients must include bringing an antiracist approach to service.

What Does Racism in Human Services Look Like?

The most significant indicator of systemic racism is disproportionality— meaning that our services produce outcomes that disproportionately and negatively impact clients of color. Racial disproportionality shows up in all systems: foster care, criminal justice, special education, homeless shelters, and hospital emergency rooms—settings where people of color are over-represented as clients who need services that are not available to them through private providers. Often, we are too busy providing services to ask “Why?” and “Does it have to be this way?” Coming to understand the answers to these questions is complex, because it requires us to take a critical view of our society. It means coming to understand how structural racism is embedded in our history, in our current social services policies and in our psyches. As we examine our agencies’ structures—their staffing, service practices, and institutional priorities—we can better understand how they produce biased results.

How Do We Apply an Anti-Racist Approach to Human Services?

Undoing racism begins by learning about racism, including learning the differences between racism, bigotry, diversity, and multiculturalism. Racism is the fusion of race-prejudiced attitudes with privileged access to power and resources. It has become embedded in our institutions, policies and laws.

We learn about colorblindness as the ideology that discourages us from confronting racism. Colorblindness is based on the idea that because racial discrimination is illegal, racism doesn’t exist. We learn that in the United States we are all victims of internalized racial oppression. This means that our attitudes have been shaped over generations to reflect beliefs of racial superiority or racial inferiority.

Beginning to understand and discuss our internalized beliefs and attitudes is the first step towards personal transformation. Being able to understand how our beliefs and attitudes translate into expectations for ourselves, our clients and our agencies is another step towards dismantling racially unfair practices. We learn to organize strategically to change our agencies.

Making room for clients’ voices to be heard about every policy and practice is the first step towards true accountability. For example, an agency with poor outcomes and a high level of end-of-month case closings could include clients in analysis of outcome data with the specific goal of improving services and reducing racial disparity. The agency might learn that decreased client response was triggered by clients’ limited cell phone plans that lacked minutes at the end of the month. Case management could be adjusted to address clients’ circumstances.

Understanding how to develop and maintain leadership—especially leadership among those previously marginalized —is crucial to creating more equitable practices. We learn how to recognize and confront micro-aggressions suffered daily by people of color. We learn to recognize when promotion and hiring practices are fair and when they result in racial bias. We learn when to take strategic risks to interrupt acts of racial discrimination. We create collaborative efforts with clients, colleagues and administrators to implement practices that promote racial healing and racial equity. We organize to dismantle policies and practices that do not benefit our clients.

Bringing an anti-racism culture and mission to an agency is a slow process that involves a thorough examination of the agency’s practices and history by all stakeholders. Undoing racism requires persistence.

Has It Been Done?

Yes. On a large scale, the Texas Department of Family Protective Services has been undertaking, from 2005 to the present, statewide re-organization aligned with anti-racism principles. This effort resulted from an in-state legislative study that found disproportionate reporting of African-American children to protective services and their placement in foster-care.

Stakeholder teams, including clients, were developed to address issues of staff recruitment, training, as well as services of investigation, placement, removal, placement and reunification. All managers completed Undoing Racism© training in order to understand that racial disproportionality is a manifestation of systemic/institutional racism.

As a result of this massive undertaking, placement of African-American children has been reduced, families are stronger, workers feel more effective, and the state of Texas is saving significant sums of money.

Another example: The Human Services Council of New York City has sponsored Undoing Racism training for agency executives for ten years. As a result, many human services agencies include undoing racism in their core missions. In these agencies, leadership and staff recruitment, service delivery and accountability has changed to incorporate an anti-racist approach.

Who Is Doing This Work?

Fifteen years ago, 60 New York City-area social workers participated in a two and a half day Undoing Racism workshop conducted by the Peoples’ Institute for Survival and Beyond. Realizing that their respective agencies were not incorporating anti-racist practices into client services, they formed the Anti-Racist Alliance to bring collectively a clear anti-racist vision to their work and to organize more human-services workers and agencies to participate in the Undoing Racism workshop.

Their goal was to equip a critical mass of human services professionals with an anti-racist lens, so that they could then begin to transform their agencies to reduce racial disproportionality and bring about more equitable outcomes. As part of the mission to educate and to organize, the Anti-Racist Alliance arranges Undoing Racism workshops by the Peoples’ Institute for Survival and Beyond throughout the greater New York City area. To date, more than 8,000 people from hundreds of agencies and schools have been trained. Their antiracist organizing has expanded into many other cities.

How Can We Learn More and Get Involved?

The Anti-Racist Alliance offers web-based resources and information at www.antiracistalliance.com. Upcoming Undoing Racism workshops are listed on the website, along with other events to support human services professionals in developing antiracist knowledge and skills. Visit the website and learn. Attend an Undoing Racism workshop and encourage your agency to participate in Undoing Racism training.

The Peoples’ Institute for Survival and Beyond teaches that “Racism is the single most critical barrier to building effective coalitions for social change. Racism has been consciously and systematically erected, and it can be undone only if people understand what it is, how it functions, and why it is perpetuated.”

Racism is an unsustainable drain on a faltering economy. In this era of accountability, it is critical that we become accountable to the most vulnerable people: our clients. Consciously working to dismantle the barriers of inequity means undoing racism, so as to ensure the humanity in human services work.

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