A Networked Approach to Racial Justice
by Laina Y. Bay-Cheng, N. Shaanta Murshid, & Diane E. Elze
University at Buffalo School of Social Work
See update below, with link to our Progress Report for 2020-21.
At the University at Buffalo School of Social Work (UBSSW), we are taking a networked approach to moving our school toward racial justice. Rather than sticking to a linear path or an agenda set by a single person or committee, we have formed a network comprised of multiple nodes: diverse collectives working on various fronts and in various ways, but with the common goal of racial justice. Our Racial Justice Network is a cooperative, pluralist approach to cultivating racial equity in our academic programs, research agendas, administrative policies, and informal culture.
Why a Network
At the UBSSW there are and have long been people, initiatives, and classes dedicated to racial justice and countering anti-Black racism. Yet individual, isolated, or time-limited efforts, no matter how well-intentioned and deeply felt, are insufficient to make a sustained and systemic difference. The common response of creating a single group (a task force, a steering committee, an advisory board) or initiative may provide clear structure and seemingly concrete action, but we see also see potentially deep pitfalls to such singular approaches:
- Ironically, they marginalize the work of redressing marginalization.
Once a single group of people is charged with a task, it often disappears from everyone else’s To Do List. Even if those who join or are appointed to such a body (a problem we visit next) are experts, by virtue of academic study or personal experience, this still gives the vast majority of people – and people with a majority of privilege – a free pass. It also sets up a potentially insidious dynamic such that those on a steering committee are resented and/or scapegoated for adding work and infringing on intellectual freedom. To task a minority of people – and often minoritized people – with moving a school toward racial justice is to pull equally hard in the opposite direction.
- Singular approaches rely on hierarchy and exclusion.
This is true in terms of the people involved:
Does that committee have the authority to set the agenda for the entire school community? Who gets to/has to sit on that committee? How/by whom are they selected? Is there an ideological litmus test or a political strategy involved in their selection? What about those who want to serve and have much to contribute, but are unable to meet at the times or work in the ways that others want?
It is also true in terms of the problems addressed:
Which issue is triaged as most urgent? By whom and based on whose perspective? What method is used to address it? What happens to problems and vulnerabilities further down the priority list? Is there any assurance that energy won’t peter out before the issues next “in line” get their due attention?
- New committees or initiatives overlook existing efforts.
Some schools may be completely devoid of anyone doing anything to promote equity and justice. More probable is that there are already people – likely woman-identified, racialized, and/or former first generation college students – working hard to support minoritized students, to raise colleagues’ consciousness, and to counter bias. Shiny new committees and agendas can eclipse those individuals and their contributions even further. They are also inefficient, reinventing wheels that are already turning thanks to the underappreciated expertise, drive, and generosity of other colleagues.
- Singular approaches homogenize participants and participation.
We see the autonomy and diversity among us as strengths and catalysts. By “diversity,” we refer to social identities and lived experiences, but also our roles in the school, our expertise, our personalities, and even our politics. Those of us who commit to racial justice as an ethical imperative still vary in our methods, priorities, and visions of a just and equitable academy. This diversity should be tapped, not collapsed.
We also think of this in ways alluded to previously (e.g., that a single committee necessarily involves only a handful of people, and consequently a narrower field of ideas, skills, and standpoints; that one/some issues and methods are picked over others). Committees with fixed meeting schedules or initiatives that require open-ended commitments exclude wide swaths of school members (ironically, often those who have the most at stake) whose lives don’t allow for such investment. What’s more, while we appreciate complex and constructive debates about how to move toward racial justice, there’s not one winning answer. Why put our eggs in one basket with a single committee or initiative? Why risk alienating those who disagree with the selected committee, issue, or method for whatever reason (e.g., whether too radical or not radical enough)? Why not enable as many people as possible to work on as many fronts as possible in as many ways as possible?
A networked approach can circumvent these pitfalls. It recognizes that racial justice bears on all domains, operations, and constituents of our school system. No contribution is too small and no problem is too big, no school member is excluded, mandated, authorized to dictate others’ work, or subject to others’ dictates. We need not rank one issue above others, work the same way, or apply the same methods. A networked approach opens opportunities for participation, for autonomy, and for change.
How Our Network Works
Who gets to participate in the Racial Justice Network and what do they have to do? Any school member (faculty staff, student) who wants to participate can. No minimum rank or role, entrance exam, or litmus test. Do only what you can and see fit.
What if someone disagrees with what a node is doing? They can create their own node or just decline to participate.
What if someone agrees that some parts of the school are inequitable and problematic, but sees others as generally fair and functional? They can join a node dedicated to the former and not the latter.
What is a “node,” anyway? A single person, a collective, or a cluster of related initiatives addressing an issue that they see and in a way that they’ve determined.
- Some nodes take on big, enduring projects (e.g., tackling racial bias and discrimination in students’ field placements).
- Others have more focused and time-limited objectives (e.g., a subset of faculty are organizing formal trainings for facilitating discussions and analyses of race and racism).
- Some nodes involve structural or procedural changes. Our colleagues, Dr. Noelle St. Vil and Dean Nancy Smyth, created a special position for Dr. St. Vil to serve as a resource for racialized students, with an attendant reduction in her other service responsibilities; this is work Dr. St. Vil was already doing (no wheel reinvention required!), but the formalization of this role ensures her visibility to all students and due credit for her skillful support. All of our School’s standing committees are examining the policies and procedures within their purview to stem bias and discrimination.
- Some are dedicated to strengthening our communities and networks (e.g., Student Services Advisor Jenell Spitale hosts monthly meet-ups for racialized school members and alumnae; MSW student Gloria James is starting a school chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers).
How does a node start? When a school member(s) sees an issue and acts on it. There is no mandate, assignment, request, or expectation.
How is this not a disorganized, inefficient mess? We recognize that a multi-front, non-hierarchical approach runs the risk of discombobulation, but we reject this as a foregone conclusion. Just because we are prioritizing autonomy and trying to operate free of conventional hierarchies doesn’t mean we are without a plan or focus. We are also motivated to be well-organized and widely visible so that those working in different nodes can look at the wider network and see that they are not alone, that it is not on them to solve ALL the problems, that their hard work is matched by others’.
Crucial to the Network’s smooth operation is our Racial Justice Coordinating Committee (RJCC), which right now consists of 23 faculty, staff, and students (members are listed on our website). In our visual maps of the Network, the RJCC sits at the center not because we control the nodes, but to reflect our primary facilitative function: keeping track of what nodes are working on; introducing people who want to contribute to a node that seems up their alley; helping new nodes get started; circulating information among the Network’s nodes; and sharing information about the Network to those beyond it. We do not direct others’ work (or take directions from others). We also do not regulate who may start a node, or what node is worth starting.
What resources does the Racial Justice Network have at its disposal? Good will, hard work, and substantive expertise (we are social workers: analyzing, organizing, and transforming systems is what we do). We have no funding, no student assistants, no graphic or web designers. The faculty and staff among us have no teaching or service release. Students are not getting course credit (though one, Michelle Fortunado-Kewin, is dovetailing her work with program requirements; hopefully more will be able to do so). We may apply for a grant. We may raise money another way. But in the meantime, we – faculty, staff, and students – are the Network’s resources.
How will you gauge if the Network works? Monthly during the academic year, the RJCC will map our Network, showing what nodes are active and what work they are doing. We expect nodes and our Network to change: a single node may differentiate into two or more; a new node may start; another may expire (either because a goal was reached or because effort stalled out). Our Network maps will show if and how this approach works.
- Our Network works if, when asked, What are you doing about X?, we can look at our current map and locate an answer or create a node where a void exists.
- Our Network works if others can look at the larger map and take heart in knowing they are not alone.
- Our Network works if any school member looks at a map and finds a place for themselves in it.
Most of all, we’ll know our Network works if, when we compare our maps and chart how our Network has changed over time, we will see movement toward racial justice. This might show up in a quantitative increase in the number of nodes and people involved in the Network. It might appear in a qualitative shift in nodes’ emphases such that less effort is needed to fix problems and more can be used to realize the potential of our school’s full intellectual community.
We chose a networked approach because we do not see only one pathway to racial justice. If white supremacy and racism are understood as pervasive – shaping not just personal identities and interpersonal relationships, but our customs and norms, our curricula and knowledge, our methods for research, teaching, learning, and working – it stands to reason that efforts to counter them must be equally so.
Update: Racial Justice Network Progress Report September 2020 – May 2021
And here is the Mobile-friendly version.
About the Authors:
Laina Y. Bay-Cheng is Associate Dean for Faculty Development, and Professor.
N. Shaanta Murshid is Interim Associate Dean for Diversity, and Associate Professor.
Diane E. Elze is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and Associate Professor.
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