A Conversation About the Importance of Representation in Social Work: Q&A with Bodequia Simon
According to the National Association of Social Workers, new social workers are predominantly women (90%) and are diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. Further, more than 22% of new social workers are Black/African American and 14% are Hispanic/Latino. As the profession of social work continues to evolve to include more people of color, it is imperative to understand how the experience of Black and Brown social workers differ from those of their white counterparts and discuss ways to work towards equity in the field to better represent and serve the vulnerable communities we seek to impact. ASCI had the opportunity to speak with the founder and president of Black Girls in Social Work, Bodequia Simon, to discuss the importance of representation in social work to break barriers.
Can you please share with us your story and what motivated you to start Black Girls in Social Work?
Bodequia Simon: I am a graduate of the University of South Carolina in Columbia. I earned my Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) and my Master of Social Work (MSW) from there. Directly after graduating with my MSW, I had a really difficult time finding my footing in the social work field. So, I started working at the Department of Social Services here in South Carolina. The work that I did was great, especially for the impact that I had on my clients and their families and with foster parents. It’s just amazing work. I personally was not fulfilled in my role, and I experienced burnout very quickly. So, I was looking for support within the social work community because I wanted to figure out what other avenues within the social work field I could test out and see what worked well for me, and what I was most passionate about, because where I was just didn’t align with my passion at the time.
So, I began to seek support. I noticed that a lot of social workers felt the same whether they were new graduates, or they’d been out of school for a long time. I came across a lot of social workers that were in the field for years still trying to find their footing, still not in a financially earning place that they like to be, and without support as well. One big thing that I recognized about all the people that I was coming across having these same issues is that we were all Black women. By talking with my white counterparts and classmates that I know, they figured things out for themselves.
I wondered, “what’s the disconnect here and what’s different, and what can we do to bridge that gap for us?”Bodequia Simon
Through that, I started the Black Girls in Social Work Facebook group. It’s pretty much a big group chat so we can all talk and see what’s going on, what we are missing, what can we do for each other, how can we support each other, and what type of resources this particular part of the social work community is missing. It ended up becoming way more than I anticipated. In our first year, I had the idea to do a self-care meetup to prevent burnout and to practice self-care with Black women and social workers in Columbia.
After our first meet-up, other social workers were upset. So, to accommodate them, we decided to do them in multiple areas. That’s when we launched our state rep position where different Facebook group members from all over the country became brand ambassadors of Black Girls in Social Work and they held self-care meetups monthly in their area. Before COVID, we reached over 30 locations throughout the country that were all able to get together monthly. From doing more self-care events and then taking on virtual events, we’ve done exam prep events, resume building, and more. So, Black Girls in Social Work is just truly expanding into a network of women that need support and are giving support to one another through personal and professional development opportunities.
What does representation in social work mean to you, and what words of wisdom would you give the next generation of social workers?
BS: Representation in social work is not only just shades of different people but seeing social workers and professionals that come from all walks of life. In social work, we talk about cultural competencies a lot, and that doesn’t just come with sitting in a classroom and learning about cultures. It comes from experience. It comes from openness. It comes from truly dedicating ourselves to being lifelong learners. Representation within social work goes beyond just different shades of colors within people. It’s more seeing people that come from different walks of life that have different religious beliefs and different cultural norms even within their families. That goes a long way within social work, especially when it comes to working at a micro-level when you have a different level of understanding of your own familial norms and other people’s familial norms. It gives you a better understanding when you’re working directly with families or working directly with individuals. It just enhances the cultural competency of a social work professional.
My words of wisdom are to never forget that you truly do sign up to be a lifelong learner as a social worker. As social workers, we never stop learning because the things that we do in the type of work that we do, and the environment is always changing. Perspectives and beliefs are always changing, and we work from a holistic place. We see people as whole people, and so we have an understanding of that and always keep up with changes. Even within our workplaces, policies change. The way they impact people change. You can’t come into social work with this thing where I’m going to do this particular thing, this is all I’m passionate about. This is all I want to work on. This is the track that I’m going to take, because even the track that you take may change. So, just remember that you are truly a dedicated lifelong learner when you sign up for social work.
And my number one tip that I give every student I come across is to make your journey your own. There is no one way that social work looks. Social work looks very different for all of us. All of us do different things. Just think outside of the box and truly think about what you want to do and what you’re passionate about. You don’t have to do exactly what someone else did because we all know what different licensure and requirements in each state look like for social workers. You don’t have to have a traditional 9 to 5, even working at social services. I work in a library, so the opportunities are limitless.
How important is it for women of color to be involved in the social work field?
BS: It is very important, and I think it goes back to what I was saying with the previous question about cultural competencies and understanding, having that different level of understanding through personal experience. When you’re working with clients, it makes more difference. A lot of the different things that I’ve done on my resume involve working with majority African-American clients, and I know that really depends based on where you live and the area and things like that, but a lot of our clients look like us. Having that representation in the field does make a difference, especially when you’re looking at clients with mental health and other issues. It really makes the difference because you have that level of cultural competency where it’s through personal experience. Even for those that are not women of color, when they have clients, there are women of color. They have women of color in their offices that they can consult with when they’re working with clients. It’s a collective way of providing service to clients, and it’s not just a one-track thing because when you have your perspective and even putting your own beliefs and experiences to the side with the things that we learn in the classroom, it may not be accurate to a woman of colors experience. Having that representation within our field just enhances the care that we give to our clients.
What are some barriers that hinder the growth of Black women in social work, and how does BTSW support those experiences?
BS: So, two things come to my mind with that question.
- The first thing is having a safe community. I’ve heard a lot of our members and affiliates express to me that they love our Facebook group because they can be themselves. They can express themselves without feeling like it will have any type of connotations behind it, or people may not understand where they’re coming from, or they may take it as them being the “angry Black woman” of the office. A safe community is just like that number one thing that a lot of Black female professionals in all different fields have a hard time with. It is important to have that safety within the workplace and learn how to navigate a lot of different microaggressions in the office and just find support and how to navigate those types of situations. We target that concern for Black women by giving space in our Facebook group and by creating space within our membership. That’s another way to get connected with Black women from all across the states. We have that and then also in-person events. So, having those meetups and talking about what’s going on at their workplace.
- The second thing is resources. I can’t really speak for the why, but a lot of Black women that are social workers have a hard time getting equitable resources. We all know, or we may have heard by now, the disparities within the ASWB exam rates. And so, Black people that are taking the exam fail more than all of our other counterparts.
What skills should students of social work focus on developing? How would these skills help them excel as social workers?
BS: Organizational skills are a huge help, and it is also so underrated. A lot of people don’t talk about organizational skills, but when I became a case manager, I needed to get a planner, get some sticky notes, and more. I am a sticky note junkie! That was a skill that was not taught to me and I had to learn it the hard way. Organization does not have to look like how it does on TikTok with iPads and connected calendars. Organization can look however you need it to look. I am a chaotic organizer. I have a system that works for me but may not work for others. Whatever works for you when it comes to being organized, figure that out and use it. Work with what you have. You don’t have to go out and get spend a lot of money if you don’t need to. Figure out your system before you look at others. Also, I talk to my social work intern about empathy a lot and learned to not just sympathize but empathize and how to put that into practice when working in this field. Those are my top two.
What ways can/should Black women in social work advocate for themselves?
BS: Learning how to be vocal and assertive without that voice in our heads is important. For a lot of Black women, it can be the smallest thing, like someone mispronouncing your name, and a lot of us have this voice in our minds telling us to let it go. Even though it can make you very uncomfortable, you just let it go because of what may come after that. We can be seen as someone that nitpicks or someone that is angry, but I think silencing that voice in our minds that tells us what we shouldn’t do because of what someone else may feel is important. We should continue to learn how to use our words in a way that lets people how we feel and how we want to conduct things without having to prove that we have the right to do so. That’s something I’ve caught myself doing when I’m trying to find the best way to say this email without coming off as the “angry black woman.”
It is important that Black women just say the thing because no one else thinks about how they come off. I feel like a lot of time when it comes to us learning how to navigate in our authenticity, it comes down to letting go of the voices in our minds that ultimately belong to other people. That voice isn’t yours; it’s just saying what others think and feel. Our counterparts don’t navigate with that, so why should we?Bodequia Simon
Let go of the “what if’s”. Sometimes it’s very basic, just say the thing. Stand in it. Be who you are, just like everyone else.