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(May 30, 2020) 

To our students, staff, and community,

As we close this academic year, we are experiencing a time in our history where we awaken to near-daily reminders of the racist violence that plagues our country. Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the brutal murder of Ahmaud Arbery by a trio of White vigilantes, followed by the murders of Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, Tony McDade, and George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. Earlier this year, we witnessed the murders of Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson, also at the hands of law enforcement.

These men and women are now included in a long historical tally of Black Americans whose violent deaths are both unknown and well known. Some have sparked collective activism such as Emmett Till, whose murder birthed the Civil Rights Movement. Over 50 years later, Trayvon Martin’s murder sparked the birth of another movement desperately needed. Black Lives Matter has trained our collective eyes to witness an epidemic of violence perpetrated on Black Americans. Although we know the majority of law enforcement officers join law enforcement to keep communities safe, we also know the names of those whose lives they have taken – Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Dontre Hamilton, John Crawford, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Korryn Gaines, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, William Chapman II, Sam Dubose, Jeremy McDole, Ricky Ball, Jamar Clark, Sylville Smith, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Keith Lamont Scott, Terence Crutcher, Jordan Baker, Stephon Clark, Jordan Edwards, and many others.

These deaths have left deep, ever gaping wounds. And while those wounds have been experienced most intensely by the families of the victims, they have also been festering and untended in our collective consciousness. The deaths and the pain in its wake have left widespread collateral damage that erupted in cities across our nation this week. The sadness, grief, and rage that are being felt across the country are the feelings that result from a legacy of violence and oppression that began over 400 years ago and continue through today.

Our wounds won’t heal in the comfort of our silence or our stillness. So how do we heal? And more specifically, how do we, as social workers, help our communities to heal?

Each of the injustices we’ve seen is linked by a common thread that has plagued our country since its inception – White supremacy. Our country was founded on the idea of the supremacy of white people. Over hundreds of years, the pursuit of maintaining it has tarnished the very ideals of freedom, democracy, and justice our country purports to uphold. As social workers, we need to stand strongly and firmly against the racism and White supremacy that continue to take the lives and threaten the freedoms of every Black American in our country. And as social workers, we need to call out racism and White supremacy, loudly and unapologetically, every time they are displayed, not only in broader society but also in the spaces we inhabit.

As social workers, we also need to continue to demand justice for those whose lives have been tragically taken. The vigilantes and law enforcement officers responsible for the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, George Floyd, and Tony McDade need to be held accountable for their actions and face consequences. Yet we also need to remember that these consequences will do nothing to prevent the murder of another Black American. These consequences will do nothing to address the larger systemic issues of racism and White supremacy that continue to threaten the very fabric of our society. As social workers, we need to demand accountability. We also need to maintain our focus on dismantling the larger systems of oppression that are responsible for the violence we see.

At the Graduate College of Social Work, we are committed to standing against injustice through leadership, advocacy, and action. I invite you to join us, to share your ideas, and to help us develop effective, sustainable actions to achieve our vision of social, racial, economic, and political justice for all. This is not only our professional responsibility; it is our moral responsibility. Together we can demand change. And together, we will prevail.  

Alan Dettlaff, PhD, MSW
Dean and Maconda Brown O’Connor Endowed Dean’s Chair