American society was severely tested in 2020 by the dual challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the outrage over racial injustice ignited by the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many other people of color.
But if anyone is equipped to deal with two crises at once, social workers are. And with particular strengths in direct practice and community organizing, the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work has produced graduates who are not just surviving in times of upheaval but finding opportunities to effect meaningful change amid the unrest.
“In talking to our alumni,” says Dean Betsy Farmer, “we’ve found them to be immersed in trying to meet the needs of whatever community or clients they work with in these difficult times.”
(BASW ’15, MSW ’17)
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pittsburgh’s Casa San José has distributed about 1,000 meals a month to members of the Latino community it serves. That number is all the more remarkable considering that Casa San José, a resource center dedicated to ensuring that immigrants and others are treated with dignity and respect, had never before distributed food as part of its work.
“A lot of the community members were completely out of work,” says Casa San José executive director Monica Ruiz, and many in the community were unsure where their next meal would come from. A number of the people Casa San José serves are undocumented and therefore ineligible to receive either unemployment benefits or payments from the relief packages passed by Congress, and many of them work in fields like construction and hospitality that were shut down completely by the pandemic. COVID-19 also exacerbated existing problems, like a lack of public-interest information available in Spanish language.
Image by Joshua Franzos for The Pittsburgh Foundation
“A lot of the community did not know what COVID-19 was or the severity of it,” Ruiz says. This led many to fail to take adequate precautions against the virus. The problem was compounded when many students and parents were unable to understand school districts’ plans for online and hybrid learning.
But Ruiz says that the community’s resilience has been inspiring. Many families who receive support from Casa San José, recognizing that the need is even greater for immigrant families outside the city of Pittsburgh, volunteered to deliver meals to others in need in Cranberry and New Kensington.
“They [members of the Latino community] have the same needs we all have, just a lot more barriers,” Ruiz says. “Yet somehow they find a way to make it happen. It’s really an honor to work with this community.
Getting community members to fill out the U.S. Census was a priority in 2020. While fundraising for Casa San José, Ruiz spoke to people who questioned the size of the Latino community in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a community that is very much in the shadows,” Ruiz says. Being counted is a key step toward representation.
“My education helped me to see how every decision that’s made about money moving around this country directly affects people,” Ruiz says. “That means seeing how systems are put into place to benefit certain people and allow others to continue to be oppressed.”
Like Casa San José’s food distribution efforts, its fundraising efforts expanded rapidly this year. Ruiz began with the goal of raising $100,000 to distribute one-time $700 cash payments to needy families. She met that target within days and upped it to $300,000. She eventually raised $1 million.
But Casa San José’s work is never done, a lesson Ruiz sees clearly in the way that a lack of language access intensified the pandemic’s ravages in the Latino community.
“We all have a role to play, especially social workers,” Ruiz says. “We’re taught this code of ethics, and if we really want to live them out, we have to take an active role in advocacy to make sure that the needs of the folks we serve are being met.”
As pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Brigantine, New Jersey, John Scotland serves not only Brigantine’s mostly middle-class residents but also residents of nearby Atlantic City, which was hit hard by unemployment and poverty well before COVID-19.
Navigating these different communities and assessing their assets, opportunities, and needs were skills Scotland acquired at the School of Social Work, where he earned his MSW degree while also attending Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
“Those skills became pretty critical in the 1980s after the steel mills closed,” says Scotland, who served for 10 years as associate pastor at the First United Presbyterian Church of Allegheny on Pittsburgh’s North Side. There he drew on the examples of Pitt Social Work professors like Jim Cunningham and Moe Coleman, whose efforts to build a network of organizers and administrators helped many in Western Pennsylvania to weather economic disaster.
Though Scotland’s current locale is different, the need for regional planning and networking among social services is every bit as important in Atlantic City. He’s employed those skills to operate the food pantry at his church safely during the pandemic and to find creative ways of keeping Sister Jean Webster’s Kitchen, an Atlantic City soup kitchen, up and running.
And while anti-racist principles are at the center of much of today’s social justice movement, Scotland received lessons in anti-racism decades ago from Bill Pollard, then coordinator of what is now the school’s Community, Organization, and Social Action specialization. Those lessons from years ago have informed his engagement in the social justice movement of today. When Scotland led a Black Lives Matter march through the mostly white suburb of Brigantine, he says, he faced protests.
“It was ugly,” Scotland says, “but the School of Social Work taught me that if we’re not engaging in those issues, what’s the point?”
As the first-ever Transgender Health Project manager at Allegheny Health Network (AHN), Charlie Borowicz takes a lead role in educating AHN staff and in advocating for transgender patients who enter the health care system.
“I make sure anyone who connects with the Transgender Health Project has all needs met regardless of whether they are transition related or not,” Borowicz says.
COVID-19 has made Borowicz’s work more challenging. Previously, they made a point of meeting patients in person to offer support and resources. As someone who identifies as nonbinary, Borowicz can offer a reassuring presence to such patients. Now, they’re just another anonymous voice on the phone.
“When I say something in a training about Black trans women being murdered at exponentially higher rates, it’s harder to read the room,” Borowicz adds. “I can’t notice over Zoom who squirms [or] who shakes their head.”
At the same time, the pandemic’s challenges have made Borowicz’s job more urgent.
“Some folks have lost their jobs and insurance; we’re figuring out how to get them care,” Borowicz says. “It’s unethical to leave them without it. Trying to bridge those gaps has been challenging.”
The summer’s protests for racial equality also highlighted the importance of the Transgender Health Project’s work.
“We know that trans people of color experience poorer health care and more discrimination,” Borowicz says. “There is a huge racial justice element in doing any work in health care if you’re trying to broaden the scope of what health care can do.”
At Pitt, Borowicz earned dual master’s degrees in social work and public health. Classes in topics like social administration were critically important to understanding how organizational structures run and how change is made.
The opportunity to effect change drew Borowicz to the Transgender Health Project, along with its unique model, which aims to provide care as broadly as possible. Rather than a single clinic addressing trans issues, it’s a systemwide initiative that provides comprehensive care for transgender people at any and all AHN offices.
“We bring care out into every area that the AHN footprint touches—anywhere people will see trans people,” Borowicz says, “which is everywhere.”
As a community medical social worker, Celeste Fields-Stanback connects low-income seniors with health care services in the Atlanta area. The job has changed drastically with the onset of COVID-19. The goal of visiting every patient, in person, every 30 days became not just difficult but potentially dangerous.
“Everything that we needed to do for our patients,” she says, “suddenly became a threat.”
But the “COVID gap,” the result of seniors’ being increasingly isolated during the pandemic, shrank more quickly than she feared as seniors learned to use cell phones and FaceTime and as patients’ family, friends, and neighbors stepped up.
An unexpected challenge was the muted response from state and federal governments. “Those were the stillest moments,” she says, recalling the dawning realization that authorities would not be stepping in to offer more help. But those were also the moments when Fields-Stanback and her colleagues grew most inventive.
“American ingenuity kicked in,” she says. She and her colleagues connected with churches, synagogues, and mosques that were stepping up to create new food pantries to meet a surging demand. “It was wherever we could find the connections,” she says.
The senior population she serves brought unique challenges. Some clients would have needed to take public transit or attend large gatherings to access other food pantries, all problematic in the pandemic. “I can’t send someone with a walker to stand in the elements,” she says.
So, Fields-Stanback reached out to the Atlanta Area Council of the Boy Scouts, who were able to arrange food deliveries to seniors’ homes.
The resourcefulness required during the pandemic was familiar to Fields-Stanback from her training and experience as a social worker. After finishing her bachelor’s degree in social work at Hampton University, Fields-Stanback worked as a union social worker before Coleman recruited her to Pitt.
“Even in a pandemic,” she says, “social work is still about the person in the environment, and the environment is still inclusive of all those elements that make up the community proper.”
That perspective also informed her response to the summer’s police killings of Taylor and Floyd. It was important to make space for at times difficult conversations about race but also to focus her clients on registering to vote and paying attention to all levels of government, including the ways that current events reflect earlier legislative action.
“You’re concerned about what’s happening in the streets with law enforcement,” she says, “but you have to look all the way down the ballot as well.”
Like many organizations responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gwen’s Girls was forced to adapt quickly. The Pittsburgh nonprofit had to go beyond the after-school services it offers to approximately 100 girls in and around the city.
“Our focus quickly went to supporting our families and our girls in ways that we traditionally didn’t have to,” says Kathi Elliott, chief executive officer of Gwen’s Girls. That included making sure that families had adequate food and shelter.
Although the organization shifted to address more basic needs, Gwen’s Girls never abandoned its mission to provide a broad range of educational services to the girls it serves.
“The school districts are doing what they can, but it frightens me to think about just where our kids will be academically, especially those who are missing out on formative educational years,” Elliott says.
Fortunately, Gwen’s Girls has developed a virtual academic learning support service catering to a broad range of children in grades K-12 in Allegheny County. The program explicitly includes often-overlooked students in the juvenile detention and child welfare systems.
During the summer’s social justice protests, Gwen’s Girls was well prepared for difficult conversations with its girls. As far back as 2016, Elliott says, the organization taught a unit on the inequities faced by Black girls within various systems.
“It’s definitely something we’ve been talking about, but now it’s been amplified,” she says.
Elliott is uniquely well qualified to respond to the challenges of 2020. She earned a degree from Pitt’s School of Nursing while enrolled in the MSW program, a combination that underscored, for her, the impacts of mental health and trauma. A field placement at Pittsburgh Mercy Behavioral Health, followed by her first job at the Center for Victims, only made clearer the long-lasting effects of traumatic violence.
“Even when it comes to girls in our program,” she says, “if we can do some preventive work early on and address the issues they have, we can make sure it doesn’t lead to them being adults with some kind of traumatic aftermath and issues we see adults struggle with throughout their lifetimes.”
She adds, “It’s important to be flexible and adapt to help any way we can. I feel like that is going back to the true essence of what social work is about.”
The School of Social Work Responds
Just as School of Social Work alumni have responded with creativity and resilience to the challenges of 2020, the school itself has worked tirelessly to address the dual crises of COVID-19 and systemic racial inequality.
In March, as Pitt’s campus emptied, the social work faculty faced the Herculean task of rapidly shifting to an online instruction model that would allow the school to continue to offer high-quality instruction.
“It was a chance to come together as a school to make sure we were doing everything we could to meet students’ needs,” says Dean Farmer. “And it worked really well.”
“It was really about trying to provide students with as much clarity as possible at a time when there was none,” says Keith Caldwell, associate dean for student success.
Students stayed connected with Caldwell and with Yodit Betru, director of the MSW program, expressing their desire for flexibility and rigor.
“They’re our partners, and they challenge us,” says Betru. “They make us a better institution.”
Though the sudden shift to virtual learning modes was challenging, working through it helped to uncover opportunities to leverage technology in ways many had not previously considered, says John Wallace, David E. Epperson Endowed Chair and Pitt vice provost for faculty diversity and development. Among other responsibilities, Wallace oversees the University Center for Teaching and
Learning, which played a critical role in the shift to online learning.
“Even when things get better, I don’t know that we’ll return to the old way,” he says. “With digital and virtual learning, I think of it as adding tools to the toolbox.”
COVID-19 also exposed systemic failings that underlie many of the problems social work strives to address. Wallace worries that young people who were already struggling academically will only fall further behind their peers as economic disparities grow more pronounced.
The school is committed to work together to dismantle this existing system and create an anti-racist society, institutions, policies, practices, attitudes, interactions, and behaviors.
From the School of Social Work anti-racism statement
“COVID-19 has brought those disparities into greater relief,” he says. “We can see more clearly the challenges linked to poverty.”
In a similar way, the brutal killing of Floyd at the end of May laid bare serious and persistent social problems.
“Long-standing issues around systemic racism [and] state-sponsored violence— particularly against African Americans and other communities of color—became so overwhelmingly prominent and real that for a while the pandemic faded into the background,” says Farmer.
“These events bring into bold relief where we are as a nation,” says Wallace, “and how much more work we have to do despite the progress that has been made.”
It was clear to students, faculty, and administrators alike that a meaningful response from the School of Social Work was needed.
“We have this long and important history, as a school and [as a] profession, of engaging in civil rights and social justice efforts,” says Caldwell. He cites both the leading role that the Center on Race and Social Problems has played in that work and student activism in response to the June 2018 shooting death of Antwon Rose II in nearby East Pittsburgh.
Wallace agrees: “Issues of social justice and trying to ensure that populations that are often left out have a seat at the table—that’s implicitly what social work does.”
“Students told us that business as usual doesn’t work,” adds Betru. “The usual process needs to be moved up.”
But there’s a tension between presenting a swift response and a thoughtful one, says James Huguley, cochair of the school’s Inclusion and Diversity Committee and interim director of the Center on Race and Social Problems, which took a leading role in drafting what would become the school’s statement on its commitment to anti-racist practices and principles.
Issues of social justice and trying to ensure that populations that are often left out have a seat at the table—that’s implicitly what social work does.
“We’re building the plane while we fly it,” he says. “It’s urgent, so we don’t want to wait, but we also want to make sure it’s good.”
“If you rush or are sloppy,” adds Betru, “it can have devastating unintended consequences and harm the people it’s meant to help.”
Navigating the tension between speed and thoughtfulness was a learning opportunity for students, says Caldwell. Forming committees and task forces may not feel exciting, “but this is the way change happens,” he says.
Drafted and adopted over the summer, the school’s statement of its commitment to anti-racism is a first step toward meaningful change. Grounded in the idea that it is not enough to simply not be racist, the statement articulates guiding principles that affirm the school’s dedication to anti-racism, addressing systemic racism, and reducing racial inequalities.
“The school is committed to work together to dismantle this existing system and create an anti-racist society, institutions, policies, practices, attitudes, interactions, and behaviors,” reads the statement, posted on the School of Social Work website.
The statement was drafted following “a lot of meetings and a lot of work,” says Farmer.
At a full school meeting in June, faculty and staff talked over concerns and priorities. Participants broke into small groups to think about areas to focus on and target goals within each, work that continued throughout the summer in learning groups, committees, and task forces. A draft of the commitment statement was presented at the school’s August meeting, with faculty and staff breaking into groups to discuss the draft and offer feedback. A final version was adopted at the school’s September meeting.
The importance of adopting the statement so publicly, says Farmer, is demonstrating that “our commitment to this is not just our words but our actions and the changes we make over months [and] years as we move forward on all of this.”
Huguley agrees: “We don’t see this as a quick fix; we see this as a real shift in how we operate institutionally. We’re a school of social work that has a reputation for doing anti-racist work. Are we meeting that standard? Are we doing change? Part of our work will be to see how we think we’re doing and make sure we’re accountable to our ideals.”
Wallace characterizes the commitment as an “acceleration” of the school’s long-standing work and culture rather than a change in direction.
“This is the kind of work we have done for literally decades at the School of Social Work,” he says. “Whereas other folks are wringing their hands, trying to decide what to do, this is our moment.”
This article appears in the Winter 2021 edition of Bridges Magazine.