There has never been a greater need for professionally prepared social workers than the need that exists today. Emerging complexities involving race, socio-economic class, and gender/gender-identity bring a more urgent demand for highly skilled social workers. Intersectionality involves the examination of these overlapping variables which impact the lives of marginalized individuals who confront multifaceted inequalities and inequities.
Our Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research (GSSWSR) is intentional in preparing students to understand and apply the concepts related to intersectionality through classroom seminars, community conversations presented by scholars and practitioners, and field education. Through its Seminar in Field Education (SIFI) series, our Field Education Office recently offered training in the application of intersectionality in social work practice and in the supervision of social work students. The 3 hour workshop was facilitated by invited presenter Ann Marie Garran, PhD, who is on the faculty of the University of Connecticut School of Social Work.
One of the field instructors who participated is Katherine Harvey, MSW, who heads the Case Management Division of Forensic Intensive Recovery (FIR), a program for people with substance abuse issues who are returning to the community following release from prison. She has worked in the areas of substance abuse and incarceration for more than 15 years and notes that intersectionality complements her use of systems theory. The training provided Harvey with an expanded perspective about how the many layers of social constructs impact not only individuals and families but also organizations and communities.
Harvey employs an understanding of intersectionality in her supervision of staff and social work interns to guide them in the use of this approach in their work with program participants (clients). She also uses the lens of intersectionality to help staff and students identify and understand their own statuses and biases and how those may influence their work. Harvey notes the effectiveness of combining intersectionality with a strengths-based approach in work with participants. This union helps participants recognize the levels of oppression they have faced and identify effective ways of communicating with families and service providers.
Jade Rosenberg, one of Harvey’s student interns, is a 2012 graduate of George Washington University where she was first introduced to intersectionality through courses in her sociology major. She enrolled at GSSWSR after participating in a CITY YEAR program where she worked in an under resourced public school followed by a year of teaching English in Israel.
A deepening understanding of the impact of intersectionality in social work practice is an integral part of Jade’s field experience. Rosenberg and Harvey cited several examples of using principles of intersectionality in Jade’s work: preparing participants to address interview questions in a manner that minimizes the stigma that may be associated with being an ex-offender enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program; helping participants look at and understand their multiple roles within their families and the larger community.
Jade has been able to see how some of her perceptions of both participants and other service providers may have represented a skewed perspective. Field instructor and student also discussed how the lens of intersectionality provides an opportunity to engage other agencies to consider different ways of addressing the needs of participants, such as shelter services for men raising children, and onsite child care a t mental health centers or probation offices while parents keep short term appointments.
Together Harvey and Rosenberg express excitement about using the concept of intersectionality as a tool in teaching for more effective social work practice.