The National Association of Social Workers – Texas Chapter (NASW-TX) 35th Annual State Conference offered over 100 sessions on an assortment of topics as well as a beautiful reason to miss the Texas-Oklahoma game last weekend.  The vast number and wide variety of sessions demanded a strategic approach to my conference attendance.  I opted to focus my time learning from those who are working tirelessly to address issues of diversity, disparity and disproportionality in the field of mental health.  This was a winning strategy.  Mack Brown should give me a call.

Of particular interest was a session led by Joyce James and Sheila Sturgis Craig from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities.  Their presentation brought to light the reality of disproportionality in our state.  Specifically, people of color are consistently overrepresented in and among our various systems:  child welfare, school discipline, juvenile justice and criminal justice, to name a few.  Research suggests that people of color don’t abuse their children more, yet children of color are disproportionately removed from their homes.  Similarly, a recent study of discipline in the public school system revealed that, while students of color are less likely to engage in behaviors that warrant mandatory expulsion or suspension, they are the most likely to be expelled or suspended based on discretionary decisions made by school leadership.

James and Sturgis Craig posed a powerful proposition to our group:  when the data doesn’t add up, we must force ourselves to consider whether there is something fundamentally wrong with people of color or if there might be something wrong with the system.  They suggested that it is time to turn the mirror inward and examine how our systems perpetuate institutional racism to oppress people of color instead of continuing to develop programs that aim to fix the people.

I left their talk wishing every social worker had the opportunity to attend.  The Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities is working hard to turn the mirror inward on the systems of our state in an effort to eliminate—not just address—institutional racism and the disproportionality that results.

In the future, I would love to see NASW-TX use our annual conference as a place to introduce the concepts of wellness and recovery to the field.  These principles—fundamental to the work we do at the Hogg Foundation—were strikingly absent from the conversation. Additionally, a movement toward adoption of person-first language would go a long way in furthering social work’s commitment to respecting the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.

I’m looking forward to seeing my statewide colleagues again next year in Houston!