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Rev. William J. Barber: Social workers must be social justice advocates

Social work demands that social workers embrace their roles as social justice activists. The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II delivered this central message to nearly 400 viewers who tuned in on Sept. 24, 2020, as the School of Social Work launched its new Centennial Speaker Series.

Barber’s presentation was the first of four lectures scheduled for the speaker series, which is among several programs planned to commemorate the School’s 100th anniversary year. The series aims to explore the work that’s needed to ensure a more just and equitable society, noted Dean Gary Bowen and Louise Coggins, MSW ’80, and chair of the School’s advisory board.

For Barber, social workers are at the forefront of these efforts.

“The real question is how can one be a social worker and not be a social justice activist,” said Barber, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C.

“How can one study social work, how can one engage in the disciplines that you engage in where you look at the underside of society and the breaches of society and then not be engaged in not only caring for people in their peculiar situations but also going deeper and trying to figure out what’s causing the problems in the first place?”

The challenges that marginalized populations face today haven’t changed much in more than 50 years, Barber explained in a 45-minute speech that passionately examined the physical, financial and social well-being of the nation and of the state of North Carolina.

Systemic racism in all of its forms still remains the driving force behind most of what ails much of America, he said.

“From voter suppression to police brutality to mass incarceration to the resegregation of our public schools to the despair delivery of mental health programs and health opportunities to despair inequities and economics,” Barber highlighted of the impact of racism. “But we also mean the mistreatment of our Latino brothers and sisters as racism. We also mean the continual mistreatment of our Indigenous brothers and sisters who were here before all of us. That’s racism.

“And ultimately, racism hurts everyone. So, we must ask not only where we are but what we must do.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated the connecting viruses of racism and poverty, he said. Before March, when the pandemic began to settle into states across the country, people with low wealth represented about 43% of the nation’s population and about 48% in North Carolina, he said. Furthermore, nearly 50% of the state’s workforce were people who earned less than a living wage. At the same time, more than 56% of all children in the state were living in poverty.

Citing a study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Barber added that about 700 people were dying daily before the emergence of COVID-19.

“And now we’re headed toward more than 50% of the population living in poverty, and 40% of all the jobs that made under $40,000 a year are gone,” he said. “We’re talking about thousands and thousands of people dying on top of the thousands that were already dying from poverty.”

Add to these numbers the more than 200,000 who have died this year from coronavirus, an overwhelming number of whom were white but a disproportionate number of whom were Black, Latino, Native American and from low-wealth households, he said.

“And in the midst of this, George Floyd is heard saying, ‘I can’t breathe – the same words we heard Eric Garner say. But this time, they are the same words that are being said by people in intensive care wards,” he noted.

Although the country remains in distress, Barber said he is hopeful, largely because of a groundswell of effort to create transformative change. As architect of the Moral Monday Movement and as co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival, Barber has spent the last several years along with other faith leaders and members crafting a platform to fight “systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy and the false narrative of religious nationalism.”

This work, he noted, must include the efforts of social workers. The path forward involves the protection and expansion of voting rights; an elimination of mass incarceration and resegregation of schools; recognition for Indigenous people and immigration reform, he said. Social workers are also needed to advocate for living wages, affordable health care and affordable housing, access to clean water, and spending policies that fully support and uplift those who are struggling the most in this nation.

“The only thing that keeps us from doing this is a sense of consciousness – a sense of how connected we are, and that’s why social workers need to be engaged,” Barber urged participants. 
“You know that working on society works. So let’s get to work. This is our time to combine social work and social justice.”

Following his presentation, Barber participated in a question and answer session with MSW student Naana Ewool and Ph.D. student Quinton Smith. Travis Albritton, the School’s associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, moderated the session.

The entire evening was an important foundational discussion for launching the School’s Centennial celebration, Albritton said.

“Rev. Barber’s lecture helped to weave together several of the current issues facing our society, and he helped us recognize the important work that we must collectively do if we wish to bring about sustained and meaningful change,” he said.