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Envisioning an Accountable Human Rights Movement for Social Work by Sandy Bernabei, LCSW Chapter Pres


Sandy Bernabei, LCSW Chapter President

Sandy Bernabei, LCSW Chapter President

“All I want is for my child to have a fair chance at what others get. Equity without minority status!”


When I heard these words from another parent, I took my first step toward becoming a community organizer for anti racist change. It has turned into a lifetime journey of learning and personal growth that has brought me to a greater sense of humanity than I could ever have imagined, a committed life to the realities described in the stunning writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates in “Between the World and Me” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), which is a letter to his son. His book is essential reading for a just world. It is my dream that our social work community will move towards this humanity by building a human rights agenda that demands for all New Yorkers a fair chance for a better life.

The adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 established ideals that lift up global humanity; social work as a discipline and profession is in support of these ideals. Promoting the declaration as a stand-alone, however, does little to address the structural arrangements that drive the violations we see in our city.

The work to achieve results and improve outcomes in the field of human rights requires that we know more, namely the difference between human rights and civil rights.

Whenever we engage in the work of human rights, we are confronted with institutions whose civil rights policies are based on laws adopted in the 1960’s, themselves developed in direct response to pressure to undo officially sanctioned discrimination and segregation. Civil Rights laws, while important at the time they were enacted, are in many cases now not enough. They reinforce a system which targets individuals who have violated civil rights, but they have not successfully addressed systemic and structural causes of the patterns and practices of discrimination.

The U.N. adopted in 1965 a broad human rights treaty to address racial discrimination – the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). ICERD was initially signed by the U.S. in 1966 and later ratified by the Senate in 1994.

In an October 2011 report, PRRAC – The Poverty & Race Research Action Council, explained that the ICERD treaty “embodies an obligation not just to avoid policies with a discriminatory impact, but also to affirmatively take action to address racial disparities in outcomes for people of color, both within government programs and in society at large. Extending beyond the usual single-issue approach of U.S. anti-discrimination law, the [committee established to monitor the Convention] has also recognized the interdependence of race with other social principles such as gender and class.”

Our frustration is often grounded in good intentions that do not generate the outcomes we hope for. Trying Hard is Not Good Enough.

All social workers come into this field in order to make a difference and enact some change. At one point or another, many of us feel disillusioned.

While we maintain a human rights lens for all social work practice, it is time for dramatic improvements at the macro level that will do more to promote and ensure equity and deliver on the promise of a good life.

Our civil rights laws fall short of addressing the discriminatory impact that institutions have on the most important area of people’s lives: housing, education, labor, health, environment, criminal justice.

Malcolm X summarized it all with one quote: ”When you live in a poor neighborhood, you’re living in an area where you have poor schools. When you have poor schools, you get a poor education. Poor education, you only work on poor paying jobs and that enables you to live again in a poor neighborhood. So it’s a very vicious cycle. We’ve got to break it.”

The parent I mentioned earlier is Ron Chisom, leader of a national Undoing Racism® movement. Over the course of the past twelve years more than 10,000 NYC social workers and educators – along with over 800,000 nationally – have joined the Undoing Racism® movement, gaining a common macro lens that informs our collective work. The work of Undoing Structural Racism is the work of Human Rights!

We now have models that demonstrate how to actually improve outcomes and effect change. A 2013 NASW think tank on Achieving Racial Equity provided insights and frameworks for producing results. This Framework elements include:

  1. Leadership Development;
  2. Development of a Culturally Competent Workforce;
  3. Community Engagement;
  4. Cross Systems Collaborations;
  5. Training Defined by Anti-Racist Principles;
  6. An Understanding of the History of Institutional Racism and the Impact on Poor Communities and Communities of Color.


Case summaries are documented in Addressing Racial Disproportionality and Disparities in Human Services: Multisystemic Approaches, Nov 25, 2014 by Rowena Fong and Alan Dettlaff.

NYC can be a Human Rights city when we commit to human rights education with an analysis of structural inequities, a measured accountability for improved outcomes and pass ICERD ordinances at the local and municipal level. We would inspire a movement one city at a time.

Social workers are found in all human service systems and are perfectly placed to lead an antiracist human rights movement to ensure our city offers everyone a fair chance for a better life. We can begin a practice of human rights with accountability right now.



About Black Westchester (967 Articles)
Black Westchester - News With The Black Point Of View is an online news magazine for people of color for Westchester and the Tri- State area of New York at every economic level. Our mission is to promote the concept of “community” through media.
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