Since May 2020 following the death of George Floyd, I have become concerned about trends in the focus and direction of my social work profession. I am a clinical social worker in the United States. After completing an undergraduate degree in psychology in the mid 1990’s I decided to pursue a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. I wanted to be a therapist, but I also found the worldview and commitments of professional social work appealing (and regardless of the current state of my profession still do). After working for years as a therapist primarily practising at a community mental health center, I had the unique opportunity to transition into academia. Since 2011 I have been teaching full-time, and for the last six years I have taught in the social work department at my University. I primarily teach in our graduate MSW program training future clinical social workers who will go out into the field and provide therapy services in various behavioral health and social service settings.
Teaching full-time, training new therapists, and providing clinical supervision to early career clinicians has made me increasingly aware of how we do so, and the importance of how we educate and train our future practitioners. That is why I have been increasingly alarmed by the rapidly changing trends and standards in psychotherapy training generally, and especially in social work education. This has come primarily from the adoption and endorsement of what for sake of brevity we will call Critical Social Justice and Anti-Racist ideology and pedagogy. Social work in the United States, I am sad to say, has jumped headfirst into the deep end of this pool.
As I am sure is in the case in many countries throughout the world, most helping professions, whether they be psychology, counseling, social work, or others have accrediting bodies that set educational standards. This is true for the United States, and for social work. The body that accredits social work programs is the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) (https://www.cswe.org). It is vital in the United States for social work programs to achieve and maintain CSWE accreditation because social workers are not able to obtain practice-based state licensure unless they graduate from CSWE accredited programs. CSWE establishes Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS), and social work programs must demonstrate that their curricula meet EPAS standards to maintain CSWE accreditation.
I began to have concerns about CSWE in the fall of 2020. At that time Amy Coney Barrett was nominated by then President Trump to become a justice for the supreme court (she was later confirmed and is now an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States). Justice Coney Barrett and her husband, both White, have several children, including two who were adopted from Haiti. During her nomination process Professor Ibram X Kendi, who has become a predominant cultural voice and whose 2019 book How to be An Antiracist is now widely read, tweeted about Justice Coney Barret that “Some White colonizers ‘adopted’ Black children. They ‘civilized’ these ‘savage’ children in the ‘superior’ ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial, while cutting the biological parents of these children out of the picture of humanity”( https://nypost.com/2020/09/28/bu-professor-suggests-amy-coney-barrett-is-a-white-colonizer/).
Some people in media rightly criticized his comments and pushed back against them, but he refused to apologize for them. I found his comments to be disgusting, but what I found even more appalling was that Professor Kendi was the keynote speaker at CSWE’s 2020 annual conference, the Annual Program Meeting (APM), which is the largest international conference for social work educators and practitioners. He was scheduled to be the speaker prior to these comments. CSWE did not disinvite Professor Kendi from speaking at APM following his bigoted and racist comments, and in fact celebrated his inclusion as part of the 2020 APM.
It’s not just the APM conference. This past year I have regularly received emails from professional social work organizations and podcasts that advertise trainings and discussions with titles such as Abolitionist Social Work, Transformational Healing and Critical Race Theory in Practice, Anti-Racist and Anti-Oppressive Mental Health, Critical Race Theory and Social Work, Prison Abolition, and White Supremacy in Social Work (https://dointhework.podbean.com/). White Supremacy in social work seems a questionable assertion to make, especially given the significant historical precedent of social workers being on the forefront of issues concerning women’s rights, the civil rights movement in the United States, and advocating for LGBT rights and protections.
These trainings and topics might be of trivial consequence if not for CSWE. A recent email from CSWE advertised a series of trainings from their Diversity Center (Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) – Center for Diversity). This training has titles that include Acknowledging Social Welfare’s Collusion with Racist Systems, Centering Racial Justice Through Critical Race Theory, Decolonizing the Curriculum, and Creating an Anti-oppressive Learning Environment in the Classroom. Reading the descriptions of these trainings is even more alarming than their titles and they are rife with words such as critical consciousness, decolonizing, complicity, and collusion that thanks to the work of James Lindsay (https://newdiscourses.com/) and Helen Pluckrose, especially in their 2020 book Cynical Theories, can now be attributed to Neo-Marxism and Applied Postmodernism. In fact, the description for the training titled Centering Racial Justice Through Critical Race Theory states specifically that “More than an analytical tool, Critical Race Theory changed the discourse on racial politics—it is considered both an intellectual movement particular to our times and ‘part of a long tradition of human resistance and liberation’.” Even more concerning than these optional trainings is that CSWE has already announced that Anti-Racism standards will be included in their next revision of the EPAS.
What are professional social work practitioners and educators to do? Leave the profession and academia? Submit to, adopt, and teach biased and bigoted content and standards because those are the requirements of the accrediting body? While some social workers might understandably decide to leave the profession, I for one still value my profession and do not plan on leaving it anytime soon. I still celebrate that my profession has a commitment to social justice in its code of ethics and that as social workers we intentionally and purposefully commit to use our professional training, at the micro and macro levels of practice, to benefit individuals who are struggling and suffering, especially those who are vulnerable, disadvantaged, and under resourced and underrepresented. That is who I am and what I am about. Wanting to fight against a multitude of societal injustices, including racism, is a reason I chose to enter and stay in this field.
Still social work educators, trainers, and supervisors like myself will have to decide how to navigate these treacherous waters, to determine what they will and will not teach, and how to do so. For example, in classes I will emphasize the importance of social work practitioners to work against racism, but I will not adopt the terminology and worldview of being antiracist. I will continue to advocate for social justice, but from the standpoint of what Dr. Jonathan Haidt describes as common humanity social justice as opposed to the common enemy stance of critical social justice.
Since I have decided not to leave my profession, the next question I have asked myself is whether I should quit my professional organizations, especially if I think they no longer successfully represent or speak for me. Ultimately, I, for the time being, have decided upon a two-pronged approach. The first part of this approach has included seeking out and joining professional organizations that are more consistent with my intellectual principles and commitments. Recently these have included two non-therapy-based organizations taking a stand against the tide of wokeness and critical social justice, the Heterodox Academy (https://heterodoxacademy.org/) and the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR) (https://www.fairforall.org/), and the newly formed professional organization for therapists the International Association of Psychology and Counseling (https://intapc.org/).
The second prong of my approach is to maintain my current professional affiliations. I respect that many practitioners might not make that choice, but I have decided to do so for two reasons. First, I believe that these organizations do have some merit and I have hope that they can weather, resist, and overcome this storm and correct their path. My second reason comes down to maintaining an insider’s view. It is hard to know what is occurring if you are an outsider. I came to realize that if I were no longer a member of CSWE or other organizations that I would not be as aware if these trainings and changes in trends and standards as I am.
This is not only an alarming time for the practice of therapy, but also for the training and education of therapists. Those of us working as educators, trainers, and clinical supervisors will have to continue to ask ourselves important questions about the standards we follow, the qualities and skills we emphasize, and whether we believe we can be of best service from within our professions and professional organizations or from outside those, or perhaps a little of both.
By John Paulson
An Associate Professor of Social Work in the social work department at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Indiana, United States where he teaches in both the undergraduate and graduate social work programs. His views, opinions, and positions, including those expressed here, do not reflect the views of USI, the USI social work department, or any of the professional organizations with which John is affiliated.