Ferguson and Its Implications for the Social Work Community

November 26, 2014 @ 8:08 pm

Ferguson march in NYC, November 2014

By Jeanette C. Takamura, Dean and Professor, Columbia School of Social Work

Since the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri, failed to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown, citizens of our country have taken to the streets. Not just in Ferguson but also in New York City (in Times Square, headed to Harlem) and In Washington, D.C., Boston. Los Angeles. Miami. Chicago. Denver. San Francisco. Seattle… People all over the world—in Shanghai, Amman, Almaty, Mumbai, Kampala, San Juan, Santo Domingo, Tokyo, and many other places—have watched young and old, Blacks, Latino/as, Asians, Native peoples, Whites take to the streets as allies, united as one.

The marches, incited by the events of Ferguson, are a demonstration of a pent-up, deeply held desire to have social justice woven durably and inextricably into the social and ethical fabric of American society.

The marches are a statement about the long overdue need to confront and eradicate racism and to fix institutions, among them the criminal justice system, to at last ensure the fair treatment of all people, irrespective of color, gender, economic status, primary language, sexual orientation, and religious preference.

Many of us entered the social work profession because we shared the dream so brilliantly articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr, when he said more than 51 years ago that he had “a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream…one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men [and women] are created equal.’”

I believe that many of us who are now at the Columbia School of Social Work—faculty, students, and administrators alike—are here because of our own personal dreams for a just society. We have been motivated by observations or lived experiences of injustice.

Like all of you, I have been witness to discrimination based on color of skin and accent in spoken language and ancestry, to women being patronized or objectified, to tyranny by mean girls who regard themselves as superior. I personally know of poor people who are treated as less than human, men of color who are disregarded and discriminated against because of socially attributed stereotypes, persons who are LGBT rejected by their own families, and individuals with disabilities who are not given a chance to show their strengths and capacity.

You, too, have your stories of your experiences and of injustices you have witnessed, if your soul, not just your eyes, have been open to looking. And this goes beyond the United States to our global community, where the desire for human rights joins with the desire for social justice in battling such causes as:

  • Genital mutilation
  • The genocide of Darfurians in Sudan,
  • Mass atrocities with disease and malnutrition in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Mass atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Burma
  • Chemical weapons attacks in Damascus
  • Honor killings
  • Anti-gay laws in Uganda, Russia and India
  • Forced sterilization of young girls
  • Ethnic violence in Mali
  • The harassment of Open Constitution Initiative lawyers in China
  • Anti-Semitism in France

and the list goes on and on…

As we absorb the impact of Ferguson and its devastating effect upon the Black community—but really all of our communities—we know the importance of critical dialogue, of beginning with and appreciating in all persons the pure essence of being—of being human. At the same time, we hold fast to ethical and professional commitments and rededicate ourselves to achieving a just society in which “isms” are known and addressed.

There are important lessons for our students to learn in class and in practicum. But, in times like these, there are also important lessons to be learned in the streets of our communities.

If you choose to march, hopefully you will choose the power of nonviolent civil disobedience shown to us by one of the world’s greatest teachers, Mahatma Gandhi, who said: “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man. . . [for] an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

We are in an important moment in the history of the United States. Our School is about taking this time and working to be sure that the arc of justice will be forever bent towards the realization of a society in which men and women of color, persons who are LGBT, and all others who are marginalized and discriminated against no longer need suffer because of systematic oppression and in too many instances because of violence against them because they are different, the “other".

Do not miss the moment. Look within, and look beyond yourself. You are the difference that is needed. Hopefully you will have the opportunity to discuss this in your classes, in the halls, in your caucuses, in practicum—as well as among those you meet up with over the holiday weekend.

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