by Deona Hooper, MSW
What is Social Justice, and why is it needed? Social justice is a term used by advocates and practitioners who seek equality and solidarity for the purpose of creating a just society. In today’s current economical and political climate, many people will argue that more injustices permeate throughout society more than ever. With for profit prisons, cuts to education, income disparity, marriage inequality, more people are needed to bring awareness on these issues. I had the pleasure to do a Q&A interview with Relando Thompkins, MSW who is a dedicated blogger and activist on social justice issue.
SWH: Tell me a bit about your background and how you made the decision to enter in to social work?
Relando Thompkins: I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Personal life experiences with the intersections of racism and classism are what initially sparked my interest to explore the systems of oppression, and feeling marginalized for a variety of reasons as a poor young man of color gave me a sensitivity to noticing the marginalization of other people in groups different from my own.
I attended Oakland University for undergraduate school, and found an attraction to the social science courses because my experiences there gave me a deeper understanding of some of the social injustices of which I was already very familiar with through my lived experiences, as well as some that I was not as familiar with. When I sat in my indignation at many of the social ills that existed, I figured to myself that I could either use all of that energy in a negative way, or channel it into something constructive that could be helpful to myself and others.
For me, Social Work was a natural fit because its code of ethics really resonated with me, and not only did I see the profession as a means to study the systems that contribute to oppression on a variety of levels, but I also saw Social Work as a platform where I could use what I already know and have learned to take actions to actively work against oppression and marginalization in a variety of ways. By the end of undergrad I was hooked, and went on to obtain my MSW at the University of Michigan. Social Work is a way of life, and I’ve been on the journey ever since.
SWH: How did N.A.H. come about, and What types of issues do you focus your writing?
Relando Thompkins: I had experiences in college that helped me to further understand not only the parts of my identity that leave me vulnerable to oppression, but parts of myself that are privileged and can be used to be oppressive to others. I came to an understanding that I’ve learned a lot of misinformation about people who aren’t like myself, and decided to commit to an ongoing journey of unlearning the misinformation, and learning new information. As I’ve explained in another interview, I consider myself to be an Aspiring Humanitarian in the sense that I am continually searching for ways to be more humane to those around me; to unlearn information that is harmful so that I can make room for information that is helpful to, and inclusive of myself and others.
I explore a variety of issues through Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian, many of which deal with our social identities such as race, sex, class, religion & spirituality, gender identity & expression, sexual orientation, age, ability status and others, and how certain beliefs about people in these different groups can create privilege in the lives of some, and oppression and discrimination in the lives of others.
SWH: How do you define Notes from the Aspiring Humanitarian and its mission?
Relando Thompkins: For myself, Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian is a collection of quotes, personal accounts and reflections, news stories, or other artifacts that I feel have an impact on my development as I work to become more humane to others. Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian also serves as a platform for some of my writings about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice.
In addition, Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian is a valuable resource for social workers, helping professionals, community members, or anyone else interested in social justice, as readers are also able to find any tips or resources I have, as well as any lessons I’ve learned that I feel could be helpful to others who wish to take up the task of working with others toward more equitable and inclusive communities.
By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action, while encouraging others to do so in their own ways. One hope being, that if we can all see ways in which we contribute to the chaos, we can change the way we operate and work toward more equitable and inclusive solutions.
SWH: How does someone get you to report on their organization or highlight their activities?
Relando Thompkins: Anyone interested in reporting their organization can contact me via email at email@example.com or by using the contact form on my website. You can also email me with questions, suggestions for future topics you’d like to hear about, share news stories, and comments. I love responding to questions from my readers, and you can read a few examples of my responses to readers in the past here, here, and here. So please, contact me. I love hearing from you.
I also feature a special segment of Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian entitled “The People Who Inspire Series” in which I highlight individuals and organizations that seek to improve the lives of others in a positive way. Many of the individuals in this series have been nominated by others, so if you know of anyone who inspires that you’d like to see featured in the series, feel free to email me or use my contact form with details. To learn about the work of the individuals who’ve been featured so far, browse The People Who Inspire Series’ Showcase.
SWH: I know you were considering do a podcast on social justice issues….how is the planning process coming?
Relando Thompkins: My planning for this is still ongoing, but I’m enjoying the process. I’ve been playing around with different software, and even recorded a few mock segments on garage band, just to get a feel for how I might present myself. For anyone out there who might be reading this who might have any advice, or resources to offer, send them to me.
SWH: What are your aspirations as a social worker and what areas would you like your profession to direct more attention?
Relando Thompkins: I’ve noticed that I inhabit two spaces in my work: the academe and the community. So often on this path, I encounter “either or” comparisons asserting that one area of focus is inherently better than the other.
Even while I was pursuing my MSW, I noticed that there were at least two “camps” among us in terms of the directions that we each wanted to go in. I’m sure many people may have a preference that they lean towards more than another, as do I. However, I can see a “both and” reality in my practice in which elements of academics and community practice have an interdependent relationship with each other, enabling me to be an even better practitioner.
Long term, I hope to continue to be able to work in areas where I am able to work towards building more equitable and inclusive communities, and have time in the classroom that I can dedicate specifically to engaging social work students, practicing social workers, and other helping professionals in experiences that increase awareness of ourselves and our experiences in relation to others, and how those experiences can impact our lives and relationships personally and professionally.
There’s a quote I love that says “Because oppression is seen as systemic, we tend to absolve ourselves of blame, but unless someone chooses to identify themselves with institutions and systems, the act of honest confession will never take place.” It’s easy to work against the ills of others, but I think what is even more important and necessary is to look at ourselves to see how we contribute to the chaos, so we can changes for the better. Engaging myself, other helping professionals, and community members in the important “personal work” required to build relationships that can allow us to create a better society will be a lifelong challenge that I’m proud to dedicate myself to.
In terms of what areas I’d like the profession to direct more attention to, I have a few thoughts: I think that in many ways, people are still unsure of what Social Work is, and what it does, so I would like to see more concentrated efforts to increase the visibility of Social Workers on the national stage. I do what I can with N.A.H., socialworkhelper.com does a great job of highlighting the work of Social Workers, and I know that there are many others who are working toward increasing the visibility of Social Workers as well. I think this needs to continue.
One of the things that really resonated with me about socialworkhelper.com is that it seeks to connect helping professionals internationally. I think it builds unity and collaboration, and linking up with other colleagues around the world for a dedicated purpose is very necessary and I think SWH deserves a lot of attention from the profession.
Lastly, I value title protection for anyone who has gone through and completed the education and field experience to be a Social Worker. I can see the merit of ensuring that someone with say, a degree in mathematics who does not possess another degree in Social Work is not able to identify themselves as a Social Worker, but I see Title Protection as it is currently enforced as excluding a lot of our colleagues who have earned the right by getting the degree, particularly those in community practice who see themselves being able to serve best in the community and not by taking the clinical route. In fact, some states only recognize the clinical license, leaving community practice behind. My colleague Rachel L. West wrote about an example of this at her blog the Political Social Worker. This is definitely an issue that I think deserves further exploration do determine if the way it’s being implemented is in service of all Social Workers.