Sixth annual social work summit focuses on diversity gap in workforce

Courtesy of Cindy Lorah

Faculty Lisa Richardson stands with summit panelists (left to right) Nitika Moibi, Debra Jahnke, Nelly Torori, Richard Oni and Tom Steinmetz. Photo courtesy of Cindy Lorah.

School of Social Work Field Practice Institute's 2017 summit

Every year, the St. Catherine University – University of St. Thomas School of Social Work Field Practice Institute holds a summit on emerging issues in social work practice. This year, the focus was on social justice in action, “Creating Pathways to a Diverse Workforce.” Over 100 people attended, including educators, employers and social workers.

The summit began with presentations from a panel of five speakers. They shared information on efforts to develop a responsive, representative and reflective workforce. Speakers also discussed successful initiatives to create change and respond effectively to diverse communities.

“The only way to fill the gap is to tell the truth,” said Richard Oni, Ph.D, executive director of Progressive Individual Resources, Inc. And the truth he spoke of is the lack of people of color in the field providing for minority communities.

“The information that’s out there is consistent and overwhelming,” said panelist Tom Steinmetz, CEO at Washburn Center for Children. “We know very clearly that there are racial inequities and disparities that impact not only the mental health workforce but also outcomes and access to services.”

One third of Twin Cities working-age adults will be people of color by 2020. However, nationally, only 6 percent of psychologists and 13 percent of social workers are people of color, explained Steinmetz, citing research by Stanton Adams Consulting, LLC.

“The bottom line is that the social work profession does not reflect the population. That’s unacceptable,” Steinmetz stated.

Photo by Amy Mullowney '19

17 organizations attended the summit and participated in the resource fair. Photo by Amy Mullowney '19.

From theory to practice

Speaker Nelly Torori expressed her gratitude to the St. Kate’s – St. Thomas School of Social Work for the Diversity Social Work Advancement Program (DSWAP). Torori wears two hats as a Mental Health Program Consultant at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) and as a recipient and 2011 graduate of the advancement program.

DSWAP is one initiative providing pathways for workforce change, funded by DHS Adult Mental Health Services in collaboration with The Family Partnership.

In 2010, the St. Kate’s – St. Thomas School of Social Work joined the DSWAP initiative supporting the pathway to licensure for Master of Social Work (MSW) students from minority, immigrant and refugee communities. Lisa Richardson, director of St. Kate’s – St. Thomas MSW Field Education, shared the program’s proven success: “a 95% pass rate on the Licensed Graduate Social Worker exam.”

Initiatives like DSWAP are invaluable for the real-world experience they provide students of cultural and ethnic minorities who may face barriers like location and cost. Nelly Torori explained, “There’s much we can do in class to understand the theoretical part of what it means to be a clinician … but it's when you’re out doing your field practicum and direct practice that you truly understand what it’s like to work with folks who are having mental health challenges.”

Moving forward

Posed with the question, “What actions can be taken to help diversify the face of the social work workforce?”, attendees were left to small group discussions with their tables.

It will take multiple types of approaches at multiple levels to achieve diversity in the health provider workforce, but the annual Summit provides a space for dialogue exploring best practices, collaboration and strategies — especially, remarked Tom Steinmetz during the Q&A panel, self-reflection.

“Speaking as a white man, looking at a largely white room, we have to start by acknowledging and accepting the realities of historical racism and historically racially based trauma,” said Steinmetz. “We have to develop our own self-awareness and take a deep look at unconscious bias and white privilege — do our own hard, reflective work to see how we as a field and we as individuals are contributing to some of these disparities.”

To that end, Steinmetz offered two resources for all entering the field of social work: “Healing the Hidden Wounds of Racial Trauma” by Kenneth Hardy and A Good Time for the Truth.

A series of essays on race in Minnesota, A Good Time for the Truth provides a range of perspectives from 16 writers of color in Minnesota, including St. Kate’s faculty, and has been the basis of regular community discussions since its publication in 2016.


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By Amy Mullowney '19