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Social workers march for social justice at “Moral Monday” movement

For weeks, protesters have flocked to the state legislative building in Raleigh, eager to denounce new laws and policies that some argue will have a detrimental effect on women, children, minorities and low-income families.

The “Moral Monday” events, which were organized by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, kicked off in April and over three months, captured national media attention and drew thousands of demonstrators from across the state and from across racial, gender and economic lines, including countless UNC social work students, faculty, staff and alumni. By late last month, more than 900 total participants had been arrested during the rallies.

Most came to rail against a broad swath of legislation championed by the state’s new Republican majority—initiatives opponents claim will negatively affect North Carolina. These changes include: gutting unemployment benefits for 170,000 workers; rejecting the expansion of federal Medicaid benefits to 500,000 uninsured residents; requiring drug testing for welfare applicants; requiring photo ID to vote; shortening early voting by one week, banning Sunday voting and eliminating same-day registration; adopting additional restrictions on abortion and abortion clinics; cutting education funding; and eliminating bonuses for teachers with higher degrees.

The changes are breathtaking in scope and are a regressive step for a state that was once known as a “progressive beacon in the South,” said Joanna Fullmer, a second-year MSW student at UNC.

“What I see are ideas that have been put in place that are most harmful to vulnerable populations such as children living in poverty and to people of color,” said Fullmer, who attended nearly a handful of Moral Monday demonstrations.

Fullmer said the state’s new voter ID law particularly concerns her. The law requires residents to produce a government-issued ID, such as a driver’s license or passport, in order to vote in 2016. Supporters of the law say the requirement will help prevent voter fraud, while critics argue the measure attempts to address a problem that doesn’t exist.

Furthermore, opponents say such requirements will likely suppress voter turnout among the poor, elderly, young and minorities, all of whom may have difficulty obtaining valid ID due to, for example, lack of transportation or prohibitive costs. According to a state study, more than 300,000 registered voters—most of them elderly or low-income minorities—lack driver’s licenses or other forms of government identification. The changes also prohibit students from using college and university ID to vote.

“It seems to me this policy exists for no other reason than to disenfranchise people who tend to vote Democratic,” Fullmer added.

Daniel Ham, also a second-year MSW student, agreed. Ham, who joined Fullmer and other social work students for many of the protests, said any efforts to marginalize individuals demands that social workers step up and speak out.

“As a social worker, I strongly believe in my ethical commitment to advocacy and working with and for the most vulnerable people in our society,” he said. “The policies being enacted now directly impact the lives of so many citizens and will determine the future opportunities and future quality of life for so many. …Social workers need to be among the crowd advocating for change.”

For some, this latest call for social justice has served as a reminder of all the sacrifices made and the work accomplished in the fight for women’s rights and for civil rights.

“I still remember my mother taking me as a 10-year-old to pro-choice rallies,” recalled Denisé Dews, a clinical instructor at UNC’s School of Social Work. Dews, who attended two Moral Monday events, said her mother actively campaigned in the 1970s for women’s reproductive rights.

“It’s something that I think most women of my generation never thought would be an issue again,” she said.

Although she grew up in Birmingham, Ala., ground zero for the civil rights movement, Clinical Assistant Professor Bebe Smith said she was too young at the time to understand the significance of the era. Even so, Smith, who participated in three of the Raleigh demonstrations, said she felt a sense of historical responsibility to get involved with the grassroots activism in North Carolina.

“(The protests) really got me to thinking about this historical context that we live in and how race and all these things are woven together,” said Smith. “I also feel like some of the complacency that we’ve felt as a society has gotten shaken up a bit.”

Joan McAllister, MSW ’70, can appreciate that sentiment. At 68, McAllister, a retired state coordinator for a program serving children aging out of foster care, said she has “always been kind of on the margins of social movements.” Although she marched against the Vietnam War, and she supported civil rights, McAllister said as a young college student from Chapel Hill, she was a bit naïve about the realities of segregation and discrimination against African Americans.

“I think my head was in ‘La-La Land’,” she recalled. “I would read about what was going on in other places but if it wasn’t happening apparently in my front yard, I didn’t know it was happening in my city. It just didn’t hit me really what all was going on.”

As a result, McAllister said she lived her life in a bit of “bubble.” She was eager to support important causes but never willing to risk her personal or professional reputation for the fight. That is, until this year. After watching week after week of what she referred to as “draconian” legislation being introduced in Raleigh, McAllister decided she’d had enough. So she started attending the Moral Monday protests and on July 1, she was among 83 participants arrested. (Read more: Barbara Zelter, MSW ’91, talks to Social Work Helper about her decision to protest.)

“I guess you could say I had a historic guilt kind of thing,” McAllister said of her decision to participate in 10 of the rallies and to get arrested. “Part of it for me was to finally take that step and to do more than just offer lip service.”

McAllister and others agreed the protests are just the beginning. Over the next few months, rallies are expected to branch out across the state and efforts to register voters are being discussed. Expect social workers to continue to be among those raising their voices, Smith added.

“It really is that democratic principal of participatory government that I feel is pretty much something that social workers believe in,” she said. “That it’s a government for all the people and not just some of the people and not just the people who have the wealth to be heard.”