After Years of Inaction, We Demand Dean Hairston Listen to UIC's JACSW Students

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The following open letter to Dean Creasie Finney Hairston is an attempt to engage the administration of the Jane Addams College of Social Work (JACSW) in an honest dialogue with the student body. Over the last 10 years, I have been witness to fruitless attempts of countless students in their pursuit of change and accountability within the JACSW. Their voices have been ignored or trapped within a maze of bureaucracy. This cannot continue! The following is my experience, my voice, and my demand… I encourage others to add theirs.  

April 17, 2017

Open Letter to Dean Creasie Finney Hairston:

After 7 years in pursuit of my Ph.D., I will not be participating in the Jane Addams College of Social Work (JACSW) commencement ceremony because institutional racism has real-world consequences for the Latinx community!

“In 1973, a small group of Mexican and Puerto Rican college students and community activists angrily demonstrated against the University of Illinois at Chicago. They were protesting because the university was built on what was once a large Mexican community, yet few Latino students attended the university. University administrators refused to meet with the group. Therefore, the students and activists occupied the offices of a high-level university administrator. Police arrested about 39 members of the group when they refused to leave. The group continued their protests and sit-in in the following days and weeks.” (Excerpt from City of Dreams: Latino Immigration to Chicago by Wilfredo Cruz, 2007, p. 52-53)

In 1992, “Police dressed in riot gear were called in from four departments on Tuesday to forcibly remove approximately 150 minority student protesters who had occupied the main administration building at the University of Illinois [at Champaign-Urbana], shutting it down. The Latino, Asian, African-American and white students chanted and locked arms while police dragged them, one by one.”  Among their demands, was “the university`s record of Hispanic student recruitment and retention” and “the failure to recruit a greater number of Latino faculty members and administrators.” (Full story)

My act of protest is minimal compared to the acts of sacrifice made by students in the past in order to challenge administrators to understand the damage done to students and communities as a result of maintaining the status quo. Change does not happen without resistance. As a result, decades after the sit-ins at UIC, the University can now boast the record levels of Latinx students among the freshman enrollment and the nationally recognized categorization as a Hispanic Serving Institution. This is an accomplishment that deserves to be both applauded and used as a motivator to continue to challenge the University in ensuring the environment and curriculum are supportive on campus, in order to provide all the tools necessary to see students through to graduation. As a Latinx alumnus of the Jane Addams College of Social Work (JACSW), MSW ’07, recently completing my pursuit of a doctoral degree, Ph.D. ’17, I can attest to the severe challenges faced by Latinx students on campus and the environment that made me feel discriminated for the views I brought into the College. In full recognition that my perspective may not be generalizable to the experience of undergraduate or graduate Latinx students across campus, with the support of other students we decided to survey students about their perspective of Latinx diversity in the curriculum, faculty, staff and leadership during the Fall semester of 2016. The findings can be found here (overview) (survey responses).

Since 2010, my experience with the JACSW has been both as a student of the doctoral program and in my professional role as a supervisor and field site for JACSW interns. I have been horrified at the lack of attention to Latinx issues in the curriculum and the lack of Latinx representation in the makeup of the faculty and administration. My time at the College has allowed me to observe how the concerns of students fall on deaf ears with the administration. The latest being the following recommendations shared by MSW students in the 2015-2016 school year. Of the 79 respondents to the survey, 16 spoke directly to the experience at JACSW. Their voices are collected here. For the purpose of this open letter, I will only speak to my personal experiences and what I have borne witness to, as it relates to the consequences of the failure in Latinx curriculum, programming and lack of Latinx faculty and administration. What may be perceived as trivial by some, I vehemently argue that this inflicts real harm to Latinx communities which total over 2 million in the greater Chicagoland area and make up 28% of the population of Chicago in 2016-2017. The College is ultimately responsible for every cohort of social workers that graduates and enters the field of practice without developing an understanding and the ability to tend to the unique needs of the Latinx community, including those who are undocumented.

Within a college whose stated mission is “to educate professional social workers, develop knowledge, and provide leadership in the development and implementation of policies and services on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, racial and ethnic minorities, and other at-risk urban populations” it is inexcusable for the 10-year absence of curriculum, scant Latinx faculty and non-existent programming that supports the development and prepares students to address the needs of this already disenfranchised community, all in spite of the demands made by students throughout the years. This blatant disregard amounts to institutional racism. Since I have entered JACSW ten cohorts of MSW students have passed through the halls of the College and enter the field without the preparation and attention needed to engage in practice with the Latinx community. The following examples are presented as categories with artificial distinctions for clarity, but all are interrelated and compounded.

Curriculum

As an MSW student, I was astonished that the extent of readings in the one week on Latinxs, in the single course offered on multicultural issues were dated and from socio-political context not relevant to the experience of Latinx communities in Chicago. These were not the readings that I expected and even less what would prepare students to tend to the needs of the predominantly-Mexican and undocumented community of the Chicago-land area, nor could it be expected that any social worker would be prepared to enter to serve this community after only 1 week of content, within a 2-year graduate program.

As a practice-oriented graduate program, the College is producing professionals that are entering the field without adequate exposure or training in serving the needs of the Latinx and undocumented community. The lack of preparation creates scenarios in the field in which social workers at best will be ill-equipped to address the challenges of this vulnerable population and at worst will perpetuate real harm, especially if they are met with less than ideal available supervisory supports while operating in overworked/understaffed settings. A mission to advance social, racial and economic justice is far from apparent based on these practices. Given that continued challenges throughout the Dean’s prolonged tenure, it is the time that there is institutional accountability for this situation.

Once in the doctoral program, this led me to action. In order to address the dearth of Latinx curriculum within the college, two colleagues and I took the initiative to create a course specifically designed around the Mexican experience in Chicago titled The Mexican Experience: Structural Social Work and a Transnational Examination of Social Justice in Chicago. This was unheard of, given that we were told, 'only the faculty develops curriculum for the graduate students.' The lack of retained Latinx faculty is perhaps the main reason no course like this or remotely similar was ever developed and offered in the College. What was immediately clear was the amount of time and overwhelming bureaucratic process that courses must go through for review and approval to even become a pilot class much less permanent for the College’s standard curriculum. Our process included a 2-year revision process that led us into a drawn out committee-wonderland where no one seemed to have any urgency in the course making its way to the classroom. Even finding a faculty sponsor to champion the course through the process became an impediment as we had to seek out at least four individuals. After having the class accepted as a pilot for the current semester, the course may be at risk of not being offered again soon or at all again. The faculty sponsor, an excellent and qualified professor who provided unmeasurable support in the final leg of the review process and during the time it was finally offered to students this Spring 2017 semester, is leaving to direct a different MSW program in the city.  We are willing to work with any other faculty to ensure that the course continues to be offered at the JACSW in the upcoming academic year and make its way as a permanent elective offered at the College. So far we have received no guarantee or clear answer to the inquiry of when this course would be scheduled again.

Faculty

In the last semester before my MSW graduation, I took a course with Dr. Aida Giachello, the only Latinx faculty at the time. Her course on Participatory Action Research was compelling. I was exposed to the power and importance of research when those within communities take the reins of the research process to drive social change. However, there was one thing that I was not expecting to receive from the course, words of personal encouragement. Her course ended with her meeting individually with students to discuss their final grades.  As I met with her, she asked if I would ever consider the pursuit of a Ph.D., without hesitation, I answered, ‘no!’ My answer was definitive, given my disappointing experience within JACSW. Years later, she was there for me when I asked her for a letter of recommendation to include in my application packet to the doctoral program.

Throughout the last seven years, there have been faculty positions where little to no Latinx candidates were interviewed, much less hired. As a result, the current composition of the permanent faculty does not include a senior level Latinx and there is only one faculty member that had some Latinx-focused research involvement prior to coming to the institution. This year no self-identified Latinx candidates were interviewed for the two faculty positions. I think of the countless lost opportunities for MSW students to receive the mentorship and encouragement necessary to pursuing a Ph.D. giving them the opportunity to develop knowledge and best-practices on Latinx issues with the absence of Latinx faculty.

I can not be an active participant in a ceremony in which my presence will be confirmation that Latinxs can succeed within JACSW. My successful completion of the Ph.D. was due to sheer determination and commitment to the reasons that drove me back into academia. This gave me the strength to carry on against all the limits placed in my path. The process has been personally rewarding and ended upon successful completion of my dissertation thanks to the one professor and current advisor who believed in me and offered me the support when all my previous advisors left the College. My participation in the ceremony would only be an act of complacency to an institution that does not seek to support the needs of the Latinx student body.

Administration

My introduction to JACSW administration was in my first year as an MSW when I approached with the desire to have the JACSW be a vocal supporter of the 2006 Immigration Reform March. This request was immediately struck down after a meeting with an administrator. For me, the question persisted, how would they tend to the complex issues facing the Latinx communities of the area if they could not take a stance on public support for the undocumented community?

Throughout the seven years in the doctoral program, I have borne witness to oppressive practices within the College from micro-aggressions including faculty using the term ‘illegals’ in the classroom and the indifference shown when I would expand on the plight of the undocumented community, to the elimination or near elimination of the doctoral program of exclusively women of color through the process of the qualifying exams (also known as prelims/comps in other departments). Every academic appeal responded by forceful resistance and traumatic degradation by the administration. An experience I also shared when appealing an arbitrary grade issue by a professor.

Disinterest by the administration meant the missed opportunity for a solid partnership with the College of Social Work of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City (or UNAM for its Spanish acronym) that had already been started through the University’s initiative to create sister city ties with Mexico City (email of interest from UNAM). As a colleague and myself sought to explore this possibility in order to bring programming to the College (proposal), we were faced with indifference by Dean Hairston and what seemed to be a bureaucratic strategy to keep us at bay with never really saying no. The opportunity was lost.

Program

Developing programs to carry out cultural training opportunities outside of the classroom is crucial. Working within the Mexican community of Little Village, I would hear the horror stories of well-meaning social workers who would cause real harm to families due to a lack of cultural and class consideration. These families would become entangled in the DCFS system or refuse to seek services due to the harmful experiences they had with unprepared social workers.

Although the College has as part of its research arm, the Midwest Latino Health Research, Training, and Policy Center, there is a clear disconnect between the work being carried out on the field with what is being offered in classroom instruction. Beyond Latinx tenured faculty, the lack of Latinx representation is also obvious in the visiting classroom instructors that are invited to teach every semester. The input of experts with connections with the Latinx community would be able to develop to college programming, invite guest lecturers, and create learning opportunities outside of the classroom. Once again, all absent with the failure to seek out these experts to be a part of the JACSW.

Call to Action

Finally, despite how disappointed my parents were when I shared to them my desire to not walk at graduation, they understood. In a context in which the immigrant community is perpetually under attack, more so by the current Trump administration, our communities are seeking protection from those in positions to serve. It is easy and tempting to focus our attention on the Republicans and the Trump administration as being the culprits, but it is necessary to question all those in positions of power who push through policies that hurt vulnerable and marginalized communities. Supporting marginalized communities does not only mean speaking out against racist and xenophobic politicians. People of color in power can also perpetuate institutional racism. One notable example commonly cited within the Latinx community were the actions of Former President Barack Obama, who won the moniker 'Deporter-in-Chief' for his role in deporting more immigrants than any other president in history, despite his public position of being for racial justice and a supporter of the immigrant community. More than pleasantries, accountability is what is necessary when marginalized communities are reeling by the action or inaction of those in power.

I hope this letter can contribute to a healthy reparative process moving forward that can challenge for the continued inclusion of all voices within the College. Recognizing that changes in curriculum, hiring faculty, and development of programming all take time, there is ONE demand for immediate action.

Recommendation For Immediate Action

The immediate creation of a Latinx Task Force to ensure accountability and deliverables are established and met within the constraints currently faced by the College. The purpose of the task force would be to ensure that there is an increase in the number of Latinxs in faculty, staff, and administrative positions, a build-up/modification of the curriculum to include Latinx-related issues, an expansion of Latinx-focused research and scholarship that comes from the College and actively engages in the efforts of racial, social and economic justice within the Latinx communities. Without this accountability mechanism, there is no guarantee, despite any claims by the administration that any substantial changes will be made to the College. Several decades worth of inaction will not change without the creation of an inclusive gamut of stakeholders with shared commitment, power, and responsibility to the growth of the Latinx voice within the College. The Latinx Task Force should include participants from within JACSW (administration, faculty, and students) as well as outside experts within the field (alumni and the underrepresented voices of the undocumented community). Anything less will be seen as an effort to sweep this problem under the rug as has become standard operating procedure for the administration.

In peace and solidarity,

Arturo Carrillo, PhD, LCSW

UIUC BA ‘05, UIC MSW ‘07, PhD ‘17

 

 



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