A Year of Student Action and Invention: The Action Lab for Social Justice

August 26 @ 2:29 pm
By Dr. Ovita F. Williams

In this post for our special series on social work in times of crisis, Dr. Ovita Williams, who is the first Executive Director of the new Action Lab for Social Justice, shares a progress report on the new center’s first year: what it has accomplished, and its plans for year two. | Action Lab Home page with (left to right) Natosha Dobbins (MSW’20), Ovita Williams, and Caitlin Yee (MSW’20)


Spring 2021 marked the first anniversary of the Columbia School of Social Work’s Action Lab for Social Justice, also known as the Action Lab. This student-driven center sprang out of a coordinated effort between social work students and faculty to offer resources and trainings to help teachers, families, and social workers respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Although the lab began virtually, we have paired over 90 volunteers with community-based agencies that were impacted by COVID-19, assisting with their immediate needs such as supervision, grant writing, telehealth support, and providing PPE.

After the murder of George Floyd and the global protests that ensued, our focus expanded to demanding the eradication of anti-Black racism. Student leaders including Natosha Dobbins and Caitlin Yee called for the social work community and Columbia University to take action. No longer satisfied with statements, they said it was time for these institutions to boldly and intentionally create meaningful pathways to end racism.

Dobbins and Yee joined forces with Professors Desmond Patton and Susan Witte to create a center aimed at advancing social action on the most pressing social issues of our time, beginning with the need to address racial injustice. The two students then worked with other student leaders to create Action for Black Lives (ABL) as the new entity’s main arm for centering Black liberation, health, and resiliency at Columbia University and beyond.

With the support of Dean Melissa Begg, the Action Lab became a full-fledged university center in Fall 2020; and I became its first Executive Director. After years of facilitating critical conversations on justice and racial equity at CSSW—including playing a role in developing the power, race, oppression, and privilege (PROP) lens for the MSW curriculum—I have relished becoming involved in the center’s work.

I enjoy working with the students and collaborating to create university-wide partnerships. To date, the Action Lab has collaborated with the School’s faculty, caucuses, student union, and Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, as well as with campus-wide organizations. Such relationships continue the pressing work of the Action for Black Lives initiative and the center’s other justice-focused initiatives. We are further committed to working alongside the Harlem community, among others, to build partnerships and shape a consistent response to anti-Black racism.

During our first year, the Action Lab adopted the three-pronged approach of education, practice, and research through anti-racist and anti-oppressive lenses. We are constantly challenging ourselves to define what it means to do activist research; this includes recognizing and naming systems of oppression and microaggressions, and acknowledging the lack of access for those who experience oppressive forces. Be it racism, sexism, genderism, ableism, or heterosexism, Action Lab students are questioning, examining, and working towards eradicating all systems of oppression.

In just a few months, the students have established multiple initiatives and working groups that tackle issues such as defunding the police and public safety on campus. They have developed a racial justice podcast, called Ebony Tower; published a newsletter focused on Black joy and empowerment; provided an emotional processing space for communities of color impacted by the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism; and offered several webinars on reproductive justice rights. They have also developed a list of the Action Lab’s main areas of focus, along with goals for each area:

  • Action for Black Lives: Bring together social workers and communities to build a just and equitable society where Black people can thrive free of oppression, fear, and violence.
  • Civic Engagement: Support justice-based political activism and policies in local, state and federal government.
  • Communications: Create spaces for discussion of themes important to the Action Lab, one of the first initiatives being Ebony Tower, a racial justice podcast that encourages exchanges around racial equity and systemic barriers.
  • COVID-19 Support and Care: Provide agencies with volunteer matching support.
  • Disability Justice: Create an education source and conversation space around disability, disability rights, and disability justice.
  • Environmental Justice: Seek to dismantle racialized oppression imposed by climate and human-engineered environmental inequities, through research and activism.
  • LGBTQ Pride and Black Activism: Connect Black pride and LGBTQ pride through education, research, and activism
  • Mutual Aid: Provide a vehicle of cyclical support and healing within the Columbia University community.
  • Oral History Project: Create an archive of student activism created through interviews and qualitative research.
  • Reimagining Safety and Care: Develop steps to achieve the abolition of systemic and institutionalized racism within child welfare, the criminal justice system, and other institutions
  • Reproductive Justice: Promote research and community education centering wellbeing and health.
  • Research and Writing: Offer a platform for student research on a variety of justice-based topics, as well as collaboration with faculty and doctoral students forever centering liberatory frameworks
  • Social Media Activism: Utilize social media forums to educate, amplify, and resist.
  • Umoja Circles: Provide an emotional processing space for Black folx impacted by COVID-19 and racism.

The Action Lab is also making progress on the research front. We now have a working group tasked with identifying areas for inquiry, grants for particular justice-based efforts, collaboration with faculty and doctoral students, and the need to establish the Action Lab’s own voice in creating research knowledge. In the coming year, I anticipate we will establish collaborations with university-wide centers and faculty by offering consultation and anti-racist perspectives on their work.

As the Action Lab’s momentous first year draws to a close, I am optimistic that our emphasis on participatory and activist research will contribute to the transformation of the social work profession, both in direct practice and globally. We will further the PROP efforts started by CSSW alumni in 2015 by assisting the School of Social Work, and Columbia writ large, to make real progress toward advancing Black lives and dismantling systems of oppression.


Dr. Ovita F. Williams is the executive director of the Action Lab for Social Justice at Columbia School of Social Work. She also also serves as an associate director of field education and as an adjunct lecturer.


Related links: