Black Lives Matter: How you can help a student (or anyone) think through the problems with the statement “All lives matter”

I remember the first time I talked about Black Lives Matter in a classroom that someone voiced “but all lives matter”. I feel like I had been coasting along, talking about the BLM movement for a couple of semesters, when one evening (because of course it was a night class at the end of a long day) one of my students said she thought the statement “All lives matter” was a better reflection of her beliefs and perspective, both as a person of faith and as a social worker to be. I was taken off guard, though I shouldn’t have been, because I know social work students (just like social workers) are not uniform in how we interpret and experience the world around us. However, I was taken off guard, and my first response, to buy me some time, was the old professor standby: asking a question to the class as a whole, of “what arguments have you all heard about why this response is or is not an appropriate response to the statement that ‘Black lives matter’?”

We had some discussion and mercifully, the end of class came. I was dissatisfied in my ability to respond to the student in a way that held space for everyone, in a way that was promoting critical thinking, and in a way that was intentionally inclusive for the (small number) of Black students in the room. So, I thought about it and came back to the class the next week with the image below and used this to lead off discussion. (This particular class meets once each week and I make an announcement a few days before the class to let students know what “the plan” for the class is, so they were clued in to the fact we would be picking up this topic again.) The original source of the image below is https://chainsawsuit.com/comic/2016/07/07/all-houses-matter-the-extended-cut/

I had also used the time between classes to think about my own honest response as to why I find the phrase “all lives matter” problematic. I shared this with the student who raised the issue in the previous class in a private email, because I wanted her to know she had helped me by asking her question, and I also wanted her to know why I was bringing the topic back up again and that it wasn’t “at” her, but that I hoped it would be a learning moment for all of us.

The use of the graphic and me sharing my thoughts in a transparent way were both helpful in “furthering the work” of the conversation. And, though I wish I had had “the best” response in the moment of the original question, coming back to it the following week also modeled for students that it is okay to not have perfect words, but that what is required is willingness to keep thinking and keep growing.

If you are looking for other creative ways to help students think through this same question, I thought this list was helpful as well: https://www.vox.com/2016/7/11/12136140/black-all-lives-matter

Allies for Justice and living by the Code

I want to make this space useful for a social broad an audience as possible, but truly this entry is probably only of interest to social workers 😊. It has been awhile since I have taught Intro to Social Work, but I read a piece a couple of days ago in The New Social Worker that would be great to include in an Intro course, and it reminded me of some other resources that are important to highlight and spend some time discussing in class.

Introduction to Social Work is where students start to become familiar with our Code of Ethics and our core values. A solid introduction to these standards can help students identify with the profession, and also identify where they may struggle with living out these principles. Asking them to think through an action in the context of whether it is in alignment an ethical standard or core value is good practice, and helps them get a feel for how we should make decisions in social work.

The piece I read most recently is called “Social Workers: Allies for Justice?” (https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/social-workers-allies-justice/). In this, Dr. Lakeya Cherry discusses the risks of racism (citing current illustrations of COVID-19, Christian Cooper, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd) and grounds her discussion of racist outcomes being the result of racist policies in the context of looking at some of the core values of social work as well as our Code of Ethics. As I mentioned earlier, I love it when there are articles that specifically explore the Code and the timeliness of this one is on point.

The second source I point students to and use in the classroom is the website for the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW). In times when I have taught Intro to Social Work I have used a variety of textbooks. All of them have included a reference to and discussion of the National Association of Social Workers and I think many, if not all, have included a reference to the National Association of Black Social Workers. However, we all know that students sometimes gloss over reading, and I think pulling up the NABSW website in class and discussing some of the links (or assigning students to discuss in small groups) is helpful because it points them to thinking through some issues related to race and our profession. The organization website is here https://www.nabsw.org/ and the information on their history and Code of Ethics is particularly important and a rich focus of discussion. There is also a National Association of Puerto Rican Hispanic Social Workers http://www.naprhsw.com/. Showing the reach and focus of different professional organizations is also important because it can help students see themselves as part of a broader professional community.

Between the World and Me

I read Between the World and Me in the summer of 2017. The ladies at church have a monthly book club and I usually end up hosting one of the summer months. Generally, the host picks the book and so I chose Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates for our July book club that year. The membership of book club is kind of fluid, so you never know what to expect at book club in terms of attendance, and I especially didn’t know what (or who) to expect that night. But we had about 8 women who came and had an honest, and sometimes awkward, discussion about the book and—more broadly—about race.

One of the sections we talked about at length that night is on page 33. Here is an excerpt: “It does not matter that the intentions of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions…very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of Black people being left for the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the dream. No one directly proclaimed that schools were designed to sanctify failure and destruction. But a great number of educators spoke of “personal responsibility” in a country authored and sustained by criminal irresponsibility…Good intention is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the dream.”

There is a lot to unpack there! All of the women at the book club that night had, or would soon have, school aged children so we talked about our experiences with our own local schools with respect to how inequities appear and how they are or are not addressed. We also talked about the language of personal responsibility and how that gets embedded into a lot of assumptions/expectations in schools, faith communities, and policies. We also talked about “good intention” and how white people (including us) sometimes have good intention, but often we want our good intention to take the place of any actual work done in the area of racial reconciliation and the pursuit of equity.

The image of a “hall pass through history” is something that sticks with me. When we don’t understand history in all its complexities, it is easier to give pat answers or to assume the whitewashed version is the absolute truth.

I have never assigned this book outright in a class, though it appears on a list of suggested books that students can choose for a book critique assignment. I have used quotes from the book, including the one above, to initiate discussions or to give students something to center their minds on while they are in those few minutes of waiting for class to begin. The passage above is especially good for a beginning discussion of education policy for students in social work, education and related fields. Also it is a good discussion starter in other settings to think about how we generally teach and learn history.

Say their names! Won’t you please say their names?

“Hell you talmbout” is a 2015 protest song by the artist Janelle Monae and other members of her Wondaland group. The first time I heard this I was so overcome I really couldn’t speak. The rhythm of the song and the power of the words held me captive. I played it for my students in my macro practice class that week as a kick off to talking about the need for creative aspects of community organizing, and how you can use different mediums to share your message. If you have never heard the song, stop now and go listen to it on YouTube or better yet buy it on your preferred platform! As you know, or will hear, the main part of the song is a listing of the names of African Americans who died or were killed as a result of racial violence or encounters with law enforcement. There is a refrain of “say her name” or “say his name” throughout the song after names are chanted.

After the song played, we talked about which names were familiar to my students and which names were new to them. This was the fall semester of 2015 and the death of Sandra Bland was fresh on my mind. In the fall semester of 2016 I played the song again for a different group of students in the same course. We added the names of Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher. We have added new names most every fall semester which is a wake up call for some students, and a sobering reminder for others.

As I mentioned earlier, I use the song as part of a discussion of creative aspects of community organizing. You could also use the song and narrative to discuss legislative change that has happened in light of some of the racial violence (for example, the Sandra Bland Act was signed in Texas in 2017 (https://www.texastribune.org/2017/06/15/texas-gov-greg-abbott-signs-sandra-bland-act-law/). You could also use the song and narrative to discuss social and political action around legislation that needs to change, such as “stand your ground” laws (https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-05-21/ahmaud-arbery-and-the-lethal-outcomes-of-stand-your-ground-laws) I am sure there are many other ways you can integrate the song into your teaching; the important thing is the names get said and that we keep working for change.