Students at a graduate school of social work spend more time engaged in the world outside the classroom than their counterparts in other professional schools such as law, business, public health, or international affairs. At Columbia University, graduate-level social work students work in the field three days a week, and on the other two days, are expected to bring this real-world experience back into the classroom.

In addition, many MSW students join extracurricular social justice groups and other advocacy organizations. They engage in the world at the macro level as well.

It can be a challenge to balance these various commitments and realities, to go from the classroom to the field, from a place of learning to a political rally, especially at times when the world outside the academy appears to be in a state of turmoil and crisis.

The 2016 fall semester was one of those times. From ongoing police brutality to the spike in hate-crimes connected to the Trump campaign, students felt more shaken than usual by national events.

What they showed in response, however, was interesting: resilience rather than exhaustion or despair. Students didn’t simply talk about events they found upsetting, they also got to work on finding ways to make a difference—a response that continued on through the 2016 presidential election and is still with us at the start of the spring 2017 semester.

* * *

On the morning of September 21, 2016, faculty and students at the Columbia School of Social Work headed to class. For Professor Desmond Patton, it wasn’t just another day. He had only just learned that police in Charlotte, North Carolina, had killed Keith Lamont Scott. As he is originally from Charlotte, he couldn’t get the news out of his mind.

“It was the second event of this kind within a five-day period; the first was the shooting of Terence Carter in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But this one happened very close to my home,” Patton said. “The individual who was killed… people in my life were connected to him in many ways. It was a situation where I could not not speak about it.”

So Prof. Patton opened his class that day with a truth circle urging his students to talk about what happened.

“I wanted students to hear other students talk about how they felt, and think about what it means to be empathetic and to use that as a mechanism to drive this all forward,” Patton said. “I teach Contemporary Social Issues, so it was the perfect time to talk about it.”

The students responded positively.

“It was so clear that they needed a space to process,” Patton said.

But more than that, they wanted to take action.

“It’s wonderful to process and talk and think but that can still seem a little helpless,” said Chelsea Bodansky, a second-year student in Patton’s class. “We also discussed creating a forum on the topic of police shootings, and Prof. Patton said he would reach out to the deans and try to get it to happen.”

Eight days later students, faculty, and staff held a special event called the Social Justice Forum on Police Brutality. What had started as a discussion between a professor and his students turned into an experimental gathering for the school as a whole.

* * *

The forum began with a moment of silence for those who had been killed. Anger and sadness then filled the room as, slowly, community members began opening up about how they felt. It’s not every day that a space like this is created, and it took people some time to get comfortable with opening up in front of the crowd. By the end of the first hour, small breakout groups had formed to discuss how the school can better address the issue. A lively discussion of next steps followed.

For several CSSW students, the forum became a springboard to take actions of various kinds.

Kainen Bell (MSW’17) said the forum inspired him to become the senate representative for the School of Social Work.

Interestingly, Bell had chosen to join an institution that the School of Social Work had played a major role in forming; the University Senate was created in 1969 as a way to give students more say in the creation of university policy at Columbia. Faculty at CSSW—as a trip to the University Archive at Butler Library shows—rallied faculty at other schools to endorse its creation.

Bell hopes he will be able to voice students’ concerns to an assembly of his peers and various other stakeholders in the university community.

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Figure 1 Courtesy of Butler Library University Archive

“I want to use the role to bring up these issues to the general campus and see who else is talking about these things and create new allies,” Bell said.

 

Shortly after participating in Prof. Patton’s class that jump-started the forum, Bodansky and a friend conceived of a new work of performance art that they say is inspired by Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) project, which they had read about for their Contemporary Social Issues class with Patton.

At the Social Justice Forum, Bodansky took the next step of inviting her peers to collaborate with her, explaining that the performance would involve black and brown students wearing bulletproof vests while going about their everyday lives. The goal, she said, is to bring into relief the daily threat of violence that black and brown people face while also recalling the mundane situations that victims of police brutality have been doing when confronted and killed—like driving a car or walking in the apartment building where they live.

The idea struck a chord with her fellow students. Several of them—including photographers, models, and web designers—approached Bodansky afterwards and volunteered to help.

* * *

Students’ robust responses to the national events of fall 2016 are evidence for the assertion made by second-year student Nick Baitoo (MSW’17), the morning after the U.S. presidential election:

“Social workers are wily, creative, and resourceful. We find a way to overcome any obstacle preventing us from doing our job.”

Baitoo delivered these words at a gathering of students, faculty, and administrators on the concourse level to watch President Obama’s speech acknowledging Donald Trump’s victory. Baitoo was trying to reassure his fellow students who’d said they were anxious about the future—of the social work profession (would they be able to get jobs?) and of society at large.

On an occasion when emotions were running sky-high, it was helpful to remember that students like Baitoo, Bell, Holmes, and Bodansky had spent the semester deepening their political engagement. Baitoo gave us an update on what he is doing to help Middle Eastern Americans when serving as the special guest for an Online Event held on December 16, 2016 (go to Webcast).

* * *

Spring semester is now upon us. President Trump has been inaugurated, and several of the actions perpetrated by his new administration are provoking new waves of protest nationwide. Where does that leave students? Will they be leading the charge against President Trump’s new policies? This was the question raised by Nancy Thomas and Adam Gismondi, both researchers at Tuft University’s Institute for Democracy & Higher Education, in a recent essay for Inside Higher Education.

Based on what we’ve seen thus far this academic year, students at Columbia’s School of Social Work will play a prominent role in this new era of unrest, finding ever more creative ways to engage in the fight for social justice.

—John Bohn, Communications

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