Social Justice Statement

The Department of Social Work is committed to educating students for social justice-focused social work practice by integrating a social justice lens throughout our undergraduate and graduate programs.

Our Commitment to Social Justice in Our Curriculum

All courses in our curriculum, rather than one or two designated “diversity” courses, examine issues of social justice. The department seeks to prepare competent and effective practitioners who restore, maintain, and enhance human and community well-being with unwavering attention to social and economic justice. As we do so, we integrate four central facets of social justice:

  • An Equity Lens
  • Anti-Oppressive Analysis and Practice
  • Critical Pedagogy (including multiple critical theories)
  • Decolonizing Framework

Read more below. You can also download the full Social Work Social Justice Statement (PDF) here.

Why Social Justice?

The Department of Social Work’s commitment to Social Justice builds off the mission of Seattle University. The university is committed to value-oriented education. Seattle University is committed to teaching, learning, and growth of the whole person through a process of formation for leadership to improve the well-being of others and work toward “a just and humane world.” The department prepares its students with knowledge, values, and skills to analyze social inequity and oppression in its manifest forms and to seek systemic change as effective advocates for social and economic justice. In addition, the Department of Social Work’s focus on social justice is in keeping with the values of the social work profession.

The purpose of the social work profession is to promote human and community well-being. Guided by a person-in-environment framework, a global perspective, respect for human diversity, and knowledge based on scientific inquiry, the purpose of social work is actualized through its quest for social and economic justice, the prevention of conditions that limit human rights, the elimination of poverty, and the enhancement of the quality of life for all persons, locally and globally. (Council on Social Work Education, Educational Policy, 2015)

Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people. (National Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics, 2008).

“Social workers have a responsibility to promote social justice, in relation to society generally, and in relation to the people with whom they work. This means: Challenging negative discrimination… Recognizing diversity… (and) Distributing resources equitably”. (International Federation of Social Workers, Statement of Ethical Principles, 2012).

Justice is clearly an essential value of the social work profession and social work education; however, it can inadvertently become a hollow ideal unless it is specifically addressed in all applications of social work knowledge and skills. Consequently, the concept of justice anchors the curriculum, and is central to the department’s mission.

Introductory Notes

Our BSW program prepares students for generalist practice while our MSW program has a clinical specialization. The following ideas and plans about social justice will be applied in ways that correspond with the focus of each program.

In addition, these definitions and goals may change as we continue to grow and learn and as we respond to changes to the higher education landscape, and changes in scholarly, socio-political, cultural, and activist thinking. This document is ever evolving, and it reflects our current thinking about the current landscape.

As faculty, we are in process with this work. The following is an articulation of our goals and commitments. However, we are not there yet. Our curriculum will be revised on an ongoing basis, and our faculty constantly strives to learn more, so that we can achieve the goals stated on the following pages. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail, but we continue trying. This is a lifetime of work, and we will not ever be done with it. We are always working to live up to the aspirational goals and values described in the following sections.

Finally, although this document focuses on our curriculum, we have also been incorporating a social justice analysis to the implicit (non-curricular) aspects of our program. This includes admission and enrollment, advising, course scheduling, hiring, mentoring, scholarships and allocation of resources, etc.

Our Four-Facet Framework

The Department of Social Work is committed to integrating a social justice lens throughout our programs.  We understand social justice as a concept involving multiple dimensions. As such, we integrate four central facets of Social justice, as outlined below.

In this department, the concept of justice is examined through the lens of equity, rather than equality.  While equality guarantees equal rights and access under the law, it does not address the reality that some people need more than others or have been denied equal access throughout history. On the other hand, equity is concerned with addressing need and restitution, rather than mere equality. Equity requires equality under the law but also requires the remedying of material hardships. Equity involves economic, political, social, and human rights and opportunities.

Our Department operates from the assumption that social justice is not measured merely by legal equality or by simply an equal distribution of social and economic goods.  Yes, social justice includes legal equality and equal distribution of goods, but it also encompasses whether people are able to reach their full capacities, how decisions are made, which and whose perspectives are represented, and to what extent. Consequently, Seattle University’s Department of Social Work defines equity as consisting of four components: (A) distribution; (B) representation and recognition; (C) process and participation; and (D) capabilities.  Students in our department can expect to be required to interrogate these four concepts:

1A – Distribution.

Throughout history, many influential thinkers considered the distribution of wealth, resources, and goods to be a key component of social justice (Reisch, 2002). Distributive justice is the idea that resources should be distributed equally, and social and economic systems must be arranged and redistributed so that they most benefit the least advantaged members of society.

Consequently, systems of economic oppression or structural discrimination must be challenged, in order to create social policies directed toward a more just distribution of social goods.  Poverty and economic inequality are the result of structural economic oppression and the systematically unequal distributions of resources.

Equity that is focused on distribution is based upon the redistribution of goods and resources as determined by need, rather than by class, merit, or identity.

One example of how we utilize this aspect of equity can be seen in how we distribute scholarships to our students.  In our department, scholarships are based upon need, rather than on merit, because too often merit is measured by criteria that are more easily achieved by students with resources.

1B – Representation and Recognition.

Equity that is focused on issues of representation and recognition is concerned with how marginalized groups are treated in the public sphere (e.g., the media, literature, research, or the law), and whether/how they are granted access to certain social institutions (e.g., schools, marriage, public accommodations, voting, etc.). Representation and recognition requires full equality under the law for all social identity groups, as well as their fair, accurate, and multi-dimensional representation in cultural and educational domains.  

In the pursuit of social justice focused on representation and recognition, our department centralizes the concept of intersectionality. Originating from Black feminists such as Patricia Hill Collins (2002), the Combahee River Collective (1977), Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989), bell hooks (1990), and Audre Lorde (1983), intersectionality requires the examination of any issue through the lens of multiple identity groups. Feminists of color have argued that there are multiple oppressions, along lines of social identity groups such as gender, race, and class (as well as ability, age, citizenship, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation). Intersectionality posits, among other things, that it is impossible to understand any one experience of discrimination without understanding how it is impacted by all other systems of oppression and privilege (racism, capitalism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, able-ism, etc.). An intersectional analysis recognizes that people have both advantages and disadvantages due to their locations in multiple systems of oppression. Thus, they can receive privilege from their position in one system (e.g., racism), but be disadvantaged because of their position in another overlapping system (e.g., homophobia). True justice requires liberation from all of these oppressions, none of which can be assigned a place of primacy over the others.

By virtue of their positions on society’s “margins,” certain groups have unique and important perspectives that must be centralized in social justice work. Centering the margins is the process of prioritizing the needs of those people who have been marginalized. Building off of the ideas of bell hooks (1990), many social justice activists engage in “trickle up social justice work”, which operates from the assumption that social justice trickles up, but it does not trickle down (DeFilippis & Anderson-Nathe, 2017; Flanders, 2012). In other words, if policies are made with the intention of helping the most dominant members of society, the benefits rarely trickle down to also support the most marginalized. However, policies designed to help those at the margins usually trickle up and also provide benefits to those with more privilege. Centering the margins is the commitment to serving everyone by prioritizing the needs of those placed at the bottom of structural hierarchies.

One example of how we operationalize this aspect of equity is through our commitment to representational equity in our curriculum. At least 50% of the learning materials in all Social Work classes (and other classes designed by Social Work faculty) will reflect non-dominant perspectives, knowledge and authorship of people of color, and/or knowledge and authorship of other marginalized populations.

1C – Process and Participation.

We believe that equity cannot be measured only by outcomes, but also by the systems of process and participation that lead to the outcomes.  Equity that is focused on process and participation draws from long-standing notions (going back at least to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762) that the people must come together to function and legislate as a collective, and that decision-making must be made by the people, not the elite. 

To do this, equity efforts must focus on increasing the ability of subordinated groups to access power and control in all areas of society.  Social justice requires a society where all people have access to, and control of, various systems and institutions, such as voting, government, education, media, economics, social services, etc.

Examples of how we operationalize this aspect of equity can be seen in various courses taught at the undergraduate and graduate level. In the community practice course, learning activities are designed so that students work on community development or organizing issues in collaboration with community partners. Community partners determine the issue that they would like students to understand and collaborate on, develop collaborative learning/project work plans that are mutually useful to the community and the students’ learning, and help evaluate and/or reflect on the project. Such assignments provide pertinent opportunities for students to deepen their engagement with the community in the learning process. In the program evaluation course, students work on an impact evaluation for a selected agency using community-based research methodologies. In the policy courses, students get an opportunity to participate in advocacy and lobby events, such as the NASW Lobby Day.

1D – Capabilities.

We also believe that equity requires that all individuals be able to live up to their own capabilities. We draw on the ideas of Amartya Sen (1985, 2011), Martha Nussbaum (2003), and others who examine social justice through the lens of capabilities. Capabilities can be described as the opportunities that an individual has in order to achieve their fullest potential or do what they believe adds value to their own life. These capabilities are impacted by social, political, economic, and cultural structures that individuals are embedded in and interact with.

We believe this framework is connected to the social work value (described in the NASW Code of Ethics) of the dignity and worth of all people.  Social workers promote clients’ self-determination and seek to enhance clients’ capacity to change and to address their own needs. Because of this, we believe that social justice requires the need for all individuals and communities to get equitable opportunities to reach their full potential.

With our department, we operationalize this aspect of equity in our pedagogical framework as well as the contents that we teach the students. For example, all professors utilize a diverse set of teaching tools and close mentorship so that students from all backgrounds and learning styles can be supported to achieve their fullest potential. In addition to this, our hallmark course on Social Justice ensures that students understand the inequities at micro, mezzo and macro levels, and how it impacts an individual or community’s ability to access opportunities to achieve well-being.

Our department defines equity in all four of these ways, and we believe that without a careful and critical investigation of the mechanisms and sources of inequity in distribution, representation and recognition, process and participation, and capabilities, inequities may go unnoticed. Or worse, inequities may be blamed on the marginalized.

As of result of the above, we are committed to teaching about social justice in ways that:

  • look beyond the usual questions of diversity and equality, to examine the more complex issues of distribution, representation and recognition, process and participation, and capabilities;
  • emphasize and explore equity (including all of the above dimensions of equity) in the classroom discussions, readings, assignments, and through field practice.

We begin with an anti-oppressive analysis.

Our understanding of social justice includes a critical anti-oppressive analysis (Morgaine & Capous-Desyllas, 2014). An anti-oppressive curriculum examines the dynamics of power that produce economic oppression (poverty, homelessness, exploitation, and class disparities) as well as inequities, discrimination, and oppression based upon identity (race, gender, ability, immigration status, religion, sexuality, etc.). Our department is committed to respect for diversity, and to considering the impact of human diversity and intersectionality on human development and functioning.  To prepare students for practice with diverse individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities, the department emphasizes a critical consideration of the impact of intersectionality on human development and functioning, and the social work practice setting. An anti-oppressive analysis emphasizes the consequences of structural injustice and socioeconomic oppression on the lives of vulnerable populations, and the importance of equity-based practice. Such an analysis must centralize the historical, economic, and structural contexts that produce oppression.

As a result of this analysis, we are committed to the following as we teach students how to engage in social work practice: 

  • In the classroom and in the field, we educate students to bring an anti-oppressive analysis into their practice.

AOP requires the social work practitioner to critically examine the various power imbalances that are found in society, within organizational structures, and between the social worker and their clients. AOP requires that social workers strategize ways to diminish all three of those power imbalances, promoting equity and empowerment for their clients in all contexts. The department emphasizes the interconnection between individual struggles, structural inequalities, and historical oppression. We also emphasize how those struggles are connected to human diversity and intersectionality.  All of these areas of study must be integrated in order to understand human development and functioning, and to engage in empowering practice.

A vital aspect of AOP is critical analysis of client and social worker relationship. Building on the concept of critical reflexivity (D’cruz, Gillingham, & Melendez, 2007; Fook, 2016; Lay & McGuire, 2010), social workers are compelled to locate themselves and their clients within the larger sociopolitical and historical dynamics of power in analyzing and understanding not only the client-worker interactions but also the interactions between the worker, the client, and the larger systems (including organizations and social and economic policies). From the basis of that critical analysis social workers are called to co-create, with clients, interventions that consider changes at all (micro, mezzo, macro) levels.

We train our students to think critically about both the strengths and limitations of their agency-based practice, and to be informed of the important critiques of the non-profit industrial complex that has been offered by a range of activists and scholars (INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence, 2007). These critiques contend that when social service work is completely disconnected from large social change work it has the potential to calcify social problems. They also argue that many nonprofits are structured like for-profit corporations and may function in ways that do not promote social justice values.  And yet, these critics also recognize that most social service workers and social service agencies are operating from the best of intentions and frequently do very important work, despite the reality of working within the significant legal, funding, and structural limitations of 501(c)3s. Consequently, our faculty help students to wrestle with these tensions, and to identify ways that agency-based work can be conducted in alignment with the social justice principles we have identified throughout this document.

  • In the classroom and in the field, we educate students to make the connections between the problems facing an individual and the structural issues that may be contributing to those problems.

Furthermore, such analysis of power is required at all levels of interaction—micro, mezzo, and macro—including in client-social worker interactions.  It also encourages seeking interventions that integrate micro, mezzo, and macro level changes, including activism.  Our goal is to train our students to develop strategies for creating a just society, free from oppression, racism, exploitation, and other forms of discrimination in the larger society by engaging at the community, legal and political levels, while also delivering services with individuals and families in an inclusive manner.

  • In the classroom and in the field, we educate students to make advocacy a central part of their practice.

Promotion of human and social well-being involves all levels of practice, including advocacy for human rights, social justice, and economic justice. The department explicitly aims to educate students to understand manifestations and mechanisms of oppression.  These forms of oppression may include the larger policies, norms, or laws that can impact the ability of social work agencies to provide effective services, as well as those manifestations of injustice that can occur within direct social work practice. Students are thus prepared to understand the impact of the organizational realities in which they practice as it affects clients and community members, as well as social workers, and their relationships with each other.  With this understanding, students can collaborate with clients or community members as partners with whom to advocate for policies and practices that advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice.

  • In the classroom and in the field, we educate students about evidence-based practice.

In the classroom and in the field, we introduce students to a wide range of thought, modalities, interventions, programs, adaptations, and ideas that are thought to enhance well-being. We train students in the knowledge and skills related to evidence based practice but also acknowledge the limitations and need for further model and intervention development to meet the unique needs of communities, particularly marginalized and diverse communities. We understand that the evidence for these practices is not applicable for all individuals, families and communities. We consider how many interventions, services, and programs are not accessible, even to those they were designed to serve. We recognize that some communities are underserved or unserved, and therefore requirements of evidence-based practice can stifle or prohibit the ingenuity and creativity needed to develop programs for them. Therefore, we teach students to think about ways that interventions can be adapted and developed. We also teach students to consider other research-informed interventions and promising practices.

We teach students about clinical skills from a place of curiosity and compassion - understanding that just as individuals, families, and communities have unique reactions to systems of oppression, students also may have unique reactions to learning the material. We believe that students should be equipped with a wide range of therapeutic tools in order to provide choice in their practice. What may provide regulation, connection, and calm for one, may be triggering and dysregulating for another. The on-going impact of systems of oppression cannot be ignored in every aspect of clinical work and therefore a trauma sensitive approach is woven through courses. We work to destigmatize social work and mental health by both understanding the complex systems within we are living in and our natural reactions to those systems. We consider how harm happens in each system in unique ways for different people in unique ways. We, along with students, challenge ourselves to find many different ways to connect.

Because critical self-reflection is an integral component of anti-oppressive practice, student have opportunities to self-reflect on not only the material presented, but on how the material sits with students and how reactions are often connected with the lens of our experience. Our goal is for this self-reflection to be done with compassion and patience and to be on-going throughout the program in a supportive environment and a life-long practice. We understand that ultimately this helps us to show up authentically in our work.

 3A – Our philosophy of teaching centers social justice-focused content and process.

  • The department’s commitment to social justice is carried into teaching and learning; as such, educational content and process must be congruent with each other.
  • Deeply influenced by Freire’s (1970) critical pedagogy, the department strives to foster an equitable environment where students and instructors co-construct critical knowledge. We believe that students’ own lived experiences and life knowledge can help inform class discussions and practice.
  • Deconstructing where ideas or facts come from helps students uncover unstated assumptions, biases, or values, and examine the role of power in the creation of knowledge.

3B – We consider critical thinking an essential skill for social work practice.

  • An important aspect of critical pedagogy is critical thinking. In this philosophy of teaching, critical thinking incorporates critical analysis that questions normative discourses and excavates dynamics of power that undergird such discourses.
  • Social work knowledge is necessarily complex and equivocal because the lives that social workers are entrusted to work with are complex and heterogeneous. Furthermore, social workers can unintentionally participate in maintaining repressive normative discourses if they lack critical analysis. This critical perspective of knowledge, which is practiced and reinforced through class content and process, helps students understand that critical analysis is an essential tool and process for social justice practice. Instructors actively promote the development of multiple perspectives in students’ analyses through class discussions, instructor feedback, and peer feedback.
  • Equipped with critical thinking, critical reflection, and respect for diverse paradigms of knowledge, students are prepared to engage in research-informed practice with unwavering attention to social and economic justice.

3C – We believe that students should be exposed to a range of theories that foster critical thinking.

  • We believe that there is no one all-purpose theoretical approach to our practice.  Understanding the strengths and limitations of multiple theories will give students a range of perspectives and options from which to draw in their academic work and in their practice.

As are result of the above, we are committed to doing the following in our classrooms: 

  • The department fosters critical and complex thinking in students through its education, and this principle is infused and explicitly present throughout the curriculum. In order to foster critical thinking skills, instructors encourage students to question what may be taken for granted/normalized and what may be silenced or “othered” in all aspects of learning, including textbooks, articles, and lectures. To prepare students for practice in today’s diverse world, the department underscores the importance of multiple perspectives in understanding diverse realities.
  • We help students deconstruct dominant ideologies and behaviors.
  • Faculty invite students to take ownership of their learning rather than assume a traditional role of a passive receiver of education.
  • Faculty and students are encouraged to bring themselves into the course content, putting their lived experiences in the contexts of the class material, and learning from each other’s practice and lives. Instructors often urge students to be accountable to the collective’s overall learning by actively participating in all aspects of the learning process. Facilitating this active adult learning stance may include opportunities for students to take active leadership in class, such as a class discussion leadership assignment where students assign themselves to lead a brief class discussion.
  • Students are encouraged to extend their critical thinking skills to reflect on the ways in which their assumptions, social locations, and actions influence a situation and how this reflective process in turn changes their thinking and practice.
  • We are also committed to helping students explore how marginalized communities define justice for themselves. For example, the concept of “restorative justice” comes out of the work of various subordinated groups, including American indigenous populations (Zehr, 1990). It is a framework that approaches justice by focusing on the needs of the victims, the offenders, and their communities. It is more focused on healing than on punishment. Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to repair the harm they have done. Restorative justice is just one example of the different conceptions of social justice to which our department is committed to exposing students.
  • Critical thinking and analysis guide the department’s approach to learning social work theories. The department employs a multi-theoretical model and emphasizes robust and critical understanding of contemporary social and psychological theories that inform social work knowledge and practice.
  • The department is grounded in the person-in-environment framework. This framework informs the department’s use of ecological and systems perspectives to conceptualize social work practice, which locate the focus of work within the person-in-environment interaction. Together these perspectives influence and inform the elements of practice by situating difficulties and interventions within and between the systems at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. This holistic view of the client or community member allows for comprehensive assessments that interrogate interactions and mutual influences between the person and the environment. In doing so, students learn how larger issues of economic or social injustice can impact the immediate well-being of clients and community members.
  • We encourage students to consider theories that look critically at how society is constructed, as well as how knowledge is produced and disseminated. For instance, Critical Race Theory puts race at the center of critical analysis, by focusing on how endemic and pervasive racism is in society and its institutions, and emphasizes multiple and varied voices of people of color (Williams, 1991). Similarly, feminist theories, Marxist theories, queer theory, postcolonial theory, and other critical theories also focus on structural analyses of society, while elevating the voices and lived experiences of various marginalized groups. Our classes may combine these critical theories with more dominant social work theoretical frameworks to help students develop complex and nuanced theoretical understandings of their work from multiple perspectives.  
  • Theories are not assumed to be authoritative or unequivocal but understood as always evolving and enriched by diverse perspectives of participants. Thus, the department encourages students to engage in deep interrogation of knowledge paradigms and contextual examination of relevant theories. The emphasis is not on finding the “right” theory that works for every case but rather on critical understanding of theoretical tenets and their applications, moderated by contextual appraisal for just practice. Course contents and assignments are designed to foster this learning process.


We acknowledge that there is no one, unified conceptualization of decolonization in scholarly literature. In fact, decolonization is a controversial issue. Indigenous scholars such as Tuck and Yang (2012) warn against turning decolonization into a metaphor, and contend that decolonization must “bring about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life (p.1)” and that the project of decolonization is distinct from the project of social justice. We also heed the distinction between colonialism and settler colonialism as argued by scholars of settler colonialism such Veracini (2011) and Steinman (2016).

We interrogate the continuing impact and practice of global colonialism and settler colonialism and our practice as social work educators and practitioners. In this endeavor we use the lens of coloniality (Quijano & Ennis, 2000) to understand global colonialism: the historical and continued modernist production of Eurocentric global hegemony that includes European conquest and occupation; racialization (Omi & Winant, 2012) and formation of “racial” hierarchy of the world population; re-identification of geocultural regions from the European dominance perspective; production of global capitalism through subjugated labor, resources, and products; and establishment of Eurocentric dominance of production of knowledge and culture. Veracini (2011) and Steinman (2016) distinguish settler colonialism from colonialism in that the project of settler colonialism is displacement and elimination of the Indigenous people and world (as compared to domination and extraction of labor and resources of the colonial project). Thus, Steinman argues, that decolonization and settler decolonization are different projects.

In this context, we are aware that the decolonizing framework that we are engaging here is in the sense of global colonialism. This view also at least partially reflects the make-up of our faculty; more than half of us are from nations that are formally or culturally/economically colonized. But more than that, we are thoroughly aware that coloniality is deeply implicated in the system of education, including social work education, within which we were educated and also currently located.

In our efforts to avoid reducing decolonizing into a metaphor, we follow the guidance provided by Gray, et al. (2016):

Decolonizing social work requires that the [social work] profession acknowledge its complicity and ceases participation in colonial projects, openly condemns the past and continuing effects of colonialism; collaborates with Indigenous Peoples in engaging in decolonizing activities against public and private colonizing projects, and seeks to remove often subtle vestiges of colonization from theory and practice (p. 7).


We know that universities are often sites of the colonial project.

Edward Said (1978) described how western nations have dealt with the peoples they have colonized: by not merely settling and ruling over them, but also by authorizing views of those people that define how they are understood. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1999) argued that colonized people are forced to engage in discourse, knowledge, laws, and norms that have been developed by the colonizers. Western countries perpetuate these views through their educational systems, where western thought becomes the standard – assumed to be universally relevant, valid, and applicable to all. Often what we understand as scientific and rational/objective knowledge actually serves the hidden agenda of assuming European superiority and non-European inferiority.  Universities often center the experiences of white, western people, making them the invisible norm against which all other races and groups are compared.  By perpetuating the idea that Whiteness is normal, all other people are implicitly (or explicitly) understood to be different, exotic, dangerous, and/or inferior. There is a “direct and material relation between the political processes and social structures of colonialism on the one hand, and western regimes of knowledge and representation on the other . . . Western epistemology and systems of knowledge have been integral to the internal colonial domination suffered by indigenous and nonwhite peoples” (Tejada, Espinoza & Gutierrez, 2003, p. 24).  For Seattle University, the act of colonization is not merely metaphorical, it is also quite literal. We are on occupied Coast Salish land, and Seattle University is on the homelands of the Duwamish people. And we continue to benefit from this settler colonialism and occupation. 

We know that social work is also often a site of the colonial project.

We recognize that the social work profession has often contributed to colonizing and oppression.  The profession began, in part, by sending “friendly visitors” to try to change the alleged moral failings of the poor, and by creating settlement houses where immigrants were taught dominant norms and behaviors (Addams, 1899; Katz, 1996; Lasch-Quinn, 1993; Park & Kemp, 2006). The profession also has a history of working with the government to monitor, target, regulate, and discipline communities of color. This has occurred in such areas as the welfare system, child protection services, and the criminal justice system, among others. Because of social work’s partnership with the state, we recognize that, in the words of Freire (1990), “the social worker, as much as the educator, is not a neutral agent, either in practice or in action” (p.5). In addition, we recognize that social work has often served to uphold economic inequality in the United States. Piven and Cloward (1971) have documented how social welfare policy functions to support capitalism, rather than supporting poor people. Kivel (2006) has argued that social service programs can institutionalize and professionalize serving and controlling the poor instead of working to eradicate poverty. And Reisch (2013) has written about the ways in which neoliberal economic policies have shaped and limited social work practice. These and other scholars contend that social workers often blame the victims of economic exploitation and inequality for their own poverty, and focus on “fixing” poor people, instead of working to challenge the systems that cause the exploitation and inequality.

Social work education can perpetuate oppression as well. Students are often taught cross-cultural competency that assume static and generalized conceptions of the cultures being studied. By not positioning white experiences as deserving of cross-cultural study too, whiteness remains invisible while simultaneously othering different racial groups. Cross cultural competency also puts social work students of color in the untenable position of assuming the social worker is a white American, and thus situates their own communities as “other” and in need of help from white people. This approach only propagates marginalization and internalized racism for students of color, and upholds the worldviews, knowledge bases, and experiences of dominant white society. 

Finally, SU’s Social Work faculty recognize our own culpability.  We know that we have been trained in the same oppressive paradigms as the dominant culture, and have internalized many problematic ideas. Consequently, we are committed to thinking critically about our own practices and pedagogies. We must also be open to feedback from each other and from students, in order to continue the ongoing work of liberating our teaching.

We know that social work also effectively responds to oppression and enacts change.

Despite the oppressive history described above, the social work profession also contributes to liberatory work, when done thoughtfully and with a focus on social justice.

Some forms of social work (anti-oppressive practice, strength-based practice, radical social work, critical social work, anti-colonial practice, indigenous social work practice, trauma-informed practice, etc.) focus on working with clients and community members in ways that prioritize their autonomy and dignity, and in pursuit of social and economic justice (Morgaine & Capous-Desyllas, 2014; Mullaly & Molgat, 2002; Reynolds, 1942, etc.). Through clinical practice, social workers respond to the complexities of people’s lived experiences by practicing from equity and anti-oppressive lenses. Throughout our country’s history, at times social workers have been actively involved in various social justice movements (anti-war, civil rights, immigrant rights, economic justice, welfare rights, education reform, etc.) and built coalitions with numerous social justice activists and organizations (Reisch & Andrews, 2014).  The profession of social work has made important contributions to social justice.

As are result of all of the above, we are committed to decolonizing our curriculum. 

  • The faculty recognizes from our collective teaching experiences that the lack of representation of non-dominant perspectives as the source of knowledge has been a perennial problem. Not only is this shortfall problematic in terms of equity in representation but also it seriously limits students’ ability to learn and use multiple and critical perspectives.
  • Decolonizing knowledge in academia requires challenging oppressive knowledge, pedagogies, and methodologies. Social justice requires a relationship between the dominant and the subordinate that allows voices to be heard from the ground up. The dominant must be willing to unlearn domination and embrace their duty to others.
  • We are committed to training our students to become leaders in dismantling unjust and unequal colonial legacies of power. In order to liberate the classroom, we require faculty and students to reflect on our dominant values and beliefs and to consider alternate ways of knowing, while examining how certain groups of voices, ideas, values, and peoples are marginalized, while others are privileged.
  • We are committed to training social worker students to attack the systemic roots of poverty and economic inequality, rather than blaming the victims of those systems. This requires educating students about the role that neoliberal economic policies play in the lives of their clients and community members, as well in the design and delivery of social work programs and services.
  • We are committed to beginning to liberate our profession by looking at social work practice, theory, research, programs, and policy through a critical, decolonized lens.
  • We are committed to utilizing culturally relevant forms of scholarship and education that resist frameworks and paradigms that serve to universalize. 

  • Finally, for all of the above reasons, the Department of Social Work has made an explicit commitment to representational equity in our curriculum. At least 50% of the learning materials* in all Social Work classes will reflect:
    • non-dominant perspectives
    • knowledge and authorship of people of color
    • knowledge and authorship of other marginalized populations.

* - “Learning materials” are defined as: required and suggested readings, videos, guest speakers, and exercises.

Addams, J. (1899). A function of the social settlement. The Annals of the American Academy of Political  

     and Social Science, 13(3), 33-55.  

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of

     empowerment. Routledge. 

Combahee River Collective (1977). A Black Feminist Statement.

Council on Social Work Education (2015). Educational Policy

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of

     antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. The University of Chicago Legal

     Forum, 139-167

D'cruz, H., Gillingham, P., & Melendez, S. (2007). Reflexivity, its meanings and relevance for social  

     work: A critical review of the literature. The British Journal of Social Work, 37(1), 73-90. 

DeFilippis, J. N. & Anderson-Nathe, B. (2017). Embodying margin to center: Intersectional activism

     among queer liberation organizations. In M. Bretschneider, S. Burgess & C. Keating (Eds.), LGBTQ

     politics: A critical reader. A new collection of Essays (110-132). NYU Press. 

Flanders, L. (2012). Dean Spade. The Nation.


Fook, J. (2016). Social work: A critical approach to practice. Sage. 

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing USA (2018). 

Freire, P., & Moch, M. (1990). A critical understanding of social work. Journal of Progressive Human

     Services, 1(1), 3-9. 

Gray, M., Coates, J., Yellow Bird, M., & Hetherington, T. (2016). Decolonizing social work. London, UK:


hooks, b. (1990). Choosing the margin as a space of radical openness. Yearning: race, gender, and

     cultural politics. South End Press. 145-153. 

Incite! Women of Color Against Violence (Eds). (2007). The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the

     non-profit industrial complex. South End Press.


International Federation of Social Workers (2012). Statement of ethical principles.

Katz, M. B. (1996). In the shadow of the poorhouse: A social history of welfare in America. Basic


Kivel, P. (2006). Social service or social change.

Lasch-Quinn, E. (1993). Chapter 2: A social church but not a mission. In Black neighbors: Race and

     the limits of reform in the American settlement house movement, 1890-1945. Haworth Press.

     Lorde, A. (1983). There is no hierarchy of oppressions. Bulletin: Homophobia and education,

     14(3/4), 9

Lay, K., & McGuire, L. (2010). Building a lens for critical reflection and reflexivity in social work

     education. Social Work Education, 29(5), 539-550. 

Marx, K. (1867). Capital: A contribution to the critique of political economy. Palgrave Macmillan US. 

Morgaine, K., & Capous-Desyllas, M. (2014). Anti-Oppressive Social Work Practice. Sage. 

Mullaly, R. P., & Molgat, C. (2002). Challenging oppression: A critical social work approach (p. 232).

     Toronto: Oxford University Press. 

National Association of Social Workers (2008). Code of ethics.

Nusbaum, M. C. (2003). Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and Social Justice. Feminist


Omi, M., & Winant, H. (2012). Racial formation in the United States. In Longhofer, W., & Winchester,

  1. (Eds.), Social theory re-wired: New connections to classical and contemporary perspectives (pp.

     348-363). Interactive book. Routledge. 

Park, Y., & Kemp, S. P. (2006). 'Little alien colonies': representations of immigrants and their

     neighborhoods in social work discourse, 1875-1924, Social Service Review 80, 4, 705-34)

Piven, F. F., & Cloward, R. (1971). Regulating the poor: The functions of public welfare. Vintage.


Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press. 

Ouijano, A., & Ennis, M. (2000). Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla:

     Views from South 1(3), 533-580.

Reisch, M. (2002). Defining social justice in a socially unjust world. Families in Society, 83(4), 343-


Reisch, M. (2013). Social work education and the neo-liberal challenge: The US response to increasing

     global inequality. Social Work Education, 32(6), 715-733. 

Reisch, M., & Andrews, J. (2014). The road not taken: A history of radical social work in the United

     States. Routledge. 

Reynolds, B. C. (1942). Learning and teaching in the practice of social work. New York: Rinehart. 

Rousseau, J. J. (1762). The Social Contract: & Discourses (No. 660). JM Dent & Sons. 

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism: Western representations of the Orient. New York: Pantheon. 

Sen, Amartya (1985). Commodities and Capabilities (1st ed.). New York, NY: North-Holland Sole

     distributors for the U.S.A. and Canada, Elsevier Science Publishing Co. ISBN 9780444877307.

Sen, A. (2011). The Idea of Justice. Harvard University Press. 

Spivak, G. C. (1999). "Can the subaltern speak?." Harvard University Press. 

Steinman, E. W. (2016). Decolonization not inclusion: Indigenous resistance to American settler

     colonialism. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2(2), 219-236. 

Tejeda, C., Espinoza, M., & Gutierrez, K. (2003). Toward a decolonizing pedagogy: Social justice

     reconsidered. Pedagogies of difference: Rethinking education for social change, 9-38. 

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity,

     education & society, 1(1). 

Veracini, L. (2011). Introducing, Settler Colonial Studies, 1:1, 1-12, DOI: 


Williams, P. J. (1991). The alchemy of race and rights. Harvard University Press. 

Zehr, H. (1990). Changing lenses: A new focus for crime and justice. Herald Press. 

Please do not use all or any part of this document without citation. To cite this document: Seattle University Department of Social Work (2020). Department of Social Work Statement of Commitment to Social Justice in Our Curriculum.