Students Set Up First Columbia University Chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers
Open to any person of African ancestry across the University, the chapter will focus on the social welfare needs of Black people across the country.
On a drive through Central Harlem, Ethelyn Pugh (MSW’21) caught a glimpse of something that intrigued her: a sign for the New York City chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW). When and how had this organization come into being, and as an MSW student at Columbia University, how come she’d never heard of it before?
As one of the leaders of the Action for Black Lives initiative within the School of Social Work’s Action Lab for Social Justice, Pugh took it upon herself to research NABSW, and to find out what it would take to set up a Columbia University chapter.
As Pugh soon came to discover, the nationwide organization has been going strong for more than fifty years. It was founded in the late 1960s out of Black social workers’ frustration with the oppressive and racist policies in the larger mainstream social work organizations. Many of these organizations claimed they wanted to help the poor and disenfranchised—but then systematically excluded the Black voice.
In fact, a group of Black social workers in New York City were instrumental in getting the organization started, adopting the title of the Association of Black Social Workers in June 1967. A year later, a group of Black social workers who were attending the convening of the National Conference on Social Welfare (NCSW)—the largest professional social work organization at the time—walked out of the annual meeting in San Francisco. They demanded that the NCSW address racism. The members of this breakaway group started up the precursor of what would become the nation’s foremost advocacy group for addressing the social issues and concerns of the Black community in the areas of social work education, research, and practice. NABSW today encompasses over 100 membership chapters, and over 30 university and college student chapters, throughout the continental United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.
Impressed by NABSW’s history and mission—and by its commitment to providing people of African ancestry with an opportunity to unify in combating racism and white supremacy in the nation’s social welfare system—Pugh went into action. She collaborated with Action for Black Lives Co-Founder Natosha Dobbins, along with several other MSW students—including Ashley Cole Jr (MSW’22), Tiffany Hutton (MSW’21), Mariame Kante (MSW’21), and Seyi Segun (MSW’22)—to apply to NABSW to set up the very first Columbia University chapter, ABSW-CU.
In a joint statement, the students said:
It is no secret that predominantly white institutions continue to exacerbate existing systemic racism. ABSW-CU is a forum where the Black experience is celebrated. The chapter aims to create a culture where one could show up as their authentic selves and feel worthy, respected, and impactful. ABSW-CU will be a group that is more proactive in making changes that directly benefit the Black community on campus. With the number of violent injustices Black people face, many on campus have continued to be overlooked and ignored until traumatic events occur.
Action Lab Executive Director Dr. Ovita F. Williams, who is serving as staff advisor to ABSW-CU, said: “The Columbia University chapter will open opportunities for networking, community change, and enhancing the field of social work. With all that is occurring in the United States, in our world, it is more important than ever to have a supportive community to which you can belong.”
The newly formed ABSW-CU will work in liaison with the Black Caucus within the School of Social Work while also casting a broader reach across campus. It welcomes Black-identified students from all over Columbia University along with Black-identified members of CSSW’s extended community, including not only students but also faculty and social work practitioners. Another defining feature of ABSW-CU is that it plans to provide a mechanism for Black CU students to be mentored by Black alumni.
The group has held two introductory meetings and elected a slate of officers. Those who would like to consider joining can fill in this interest form.