A few weeks ago, I sat down to write about the profession of social work in light of March’s designation as social work month. My intention was to speak to the work we do and express gratitude for all those who have come before me and hope for all those who will come after me. That seems like a decade ago. Now, I find time clearly demarcated as the world pre-Covid-19 and the world in a pandemic.
I look to the day we can add the world post Covid-19 to our continuum of time. To talk about the rich history of a profession that exists solely to challenge injustice and respond to the needs of the times now seems callous when the needs of the times seem urgent to many. But the reality is that for social workers, the needs have been urgent for generations.
While social media is flooded with laments of barren shelves in our local groceries, calling out those who seem to take what they want with little regard for their neighbor, I would say…same stuff different zip code. For generations portions of our communities have survived in food deserts where produce and fresh meat are an occasional option (one that comes at a premium price) and yet there is no outcry of inhumanity or moral abomination.
While some celebrate the low gas prices found as they travel from store to store desperate for food and supplies, others in our communities could share lived lessons of finding ways to survive without access or reliable transportation. Not because of an unprecedented pandemic but because of generational poverty rooted in racism and supported by systems designed to create privilege based on race, gender and who you love. While the worried well grow anxious about the limitations of a health care systems that weeks ago seemed fine from their perch, countless others in our communities live with the scars of a healthcare system grounded in privilege not equity.
The reality is we have been a nation in crisis for generations but a different dichotomous thinking has made this crisis our norm: the dichotomy of privilege verses oppression. Prior to Covid-19, black and brown people in our nation have been dying at rates much faster than their white counterparts. We accept a disparity of life expectancy of up to 13 years with little more than a shrug. But we close entire states for a virus that shows no respect to privilege.
Don’t get me wrong. Covid-19 is a national crisis and extraordinary steps must be taken to reduce it’s long term impact and protect those deemed most vulnerable to it’s assault. Social workers will lead the charge, support our communities as difficult decisions are made and meet the needs of these days. But I long for a day when we apply the same urgency to the disparities that render half our population vulnerable to the diseases of racism, poverty and bias from birth.
If our hearts are stirred to action to support those around us left isolated or at risk by a virus, why aren’t our hearts stirred about the hunger that is a part of our nations fabric every day? If we call our nation to prayer in the face of Covid-19, why don’t we call our nation to prayer over the disparities in the justice system? We are flooded with updates on confirmed Covid cases and fatalities and our compassionate core rises to intervene. Would we respond with the same zeal to reports of children in our community who take hunger to bed like a blanket?
Many have written about the opportunities presented in this crisis. The opportunity to slow down, to reflect on what matters most, to reset if you will. As a social worker I support the idea of reset but with the call for a collective reset…not to what we once were but rather to what we can be. What we once were is a nation that mastered the ability to use privilege as blinders, allowing some to move freely in spaces that they control and that honor a singular story.
Let’s reset to a future that dismantles our past. One that acknowledges the sins of oppression and commits to equity and liberation as our sextons. One that is shaped by a daily conviction to connect and support rather than a crisis driven, telethon style response that assuages our guilt. The selfless acts of countless in the midst of Covid-19 show us all what we’re capable of. May our post Covid-19 world be the world we should have made all along.
Dr. Shannon Cambron, Ed.D., MSW is the School of Social Work Chair at Spalding University. The focus of Dr. Cambron’s work is racial equity and dismantling institutional oppression. Her partnerships focus on addressing inequity as a public health crisis and include Restorative Justice Louisville, YMCA Safeplace, The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, Jefferson County Public Schools and The Volunteers of America Mid States.