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Creating a Culture of Equity: What do Professional Ethics say about Racial Justice and Advocacy?

By: Dr. Leticia Villarreal Sosa

The COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing racial injustices such as cruel and inhumane immigration enforcement and police violence have been particularly overwhelming for communities of color in the United States. When working with communities of color, it is imperative that school social workers understand that this is not the first time they have experienced such conditions. As McCoy (2020) states,

“[h]istory is the foundation for every person’s life story. However, consider the

exhaustion that you might feel if you heard those childhood stories, have those

childhood memories, and believed they would never be repeated. Except now, you are

reminded of them every day because the current state of our society is mirroring the

past” (p. 463).

It is also important to honor the ongoing struggle for liberation that people of color have engaged in historically and currently, whether it be participation in a larger movement, or day to day acts of resistance. As social workers, it is imperative that we make decisions about our own responsibility in promoting racial justice and combating anti-Black racism, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression in a thoughtful and informed manner.

This current and historical context is reflected in the schools as they are racialized organizations and microcosms of larger society. School social workers are well positioned to promote equity in these environments due to their systems orientation and the values upheld in the social work code of ethics. The NASW code of ethics specifically states that we are to put service above self-interest, pursue social change related to issues of discrimination and social injustice, promote self-determination, center the importance of human relationships, increase our own professional knowledge, and practice with integrity consistent with these values (NASW, 2017). School social work needs to be re-conceptualized to accommodate this contextual and organizational reality, both in terms of how students and families connect with services and how school social workers broker access and advocate for and with minoritized communities. As school social workers, we must place service above self-interest and act courageously, ending the complicity with discrimination, oppression, and anti-Blackness in our schools, practice, and policies.

All policy and practice are based on values and ethics. It is an ethical imperative that school social work practice advance culturally responsive, equitable, and anti-racist programs and interventions. This current political context could serve as an opportunity to revision school social work practice, learn from the past, and construct new approaches that provide a compassionate and ethical practice that advances racial equity in the schools. Indeed, this is an opportunity to reconsider the way in which social work ethics can inform and guide the profession to meet the current challenges. Furthermore, school social workers can consider the ways in which guiding principles and ethics from partner social work organizations can support this revisioning of practice and policy. For example, the National Association of Black Social Workers’ code of ethics (n.d.) states that “no Black person, except the selfish or irrational, can claim neutrality in the quest for Black liberation” (para. 2) and that a social worker should “use [their] skills, and [their] whole being as an instrument for social change…” (para 10). White social workers can also be called on to do the same by our various professional organizations such as NASW and SSWAA. The International Federation of Social Work (2018) calls for promoting human rights and social justice, specifically stating that social workers must actively “…build networks of solidarity to work toward transformational change…” (para. 15). To be effective, school social workers must do their work in a contextualized way that addresses both the current and historical trauma of the communities they serve and work in solidarity to promote personal and social transformation (Villarreal Sosa, 2019). Furthermore, school social workers can think about ways they are positioned to connect the macro to their micro practices as well as assume leadership in promoting social justice and anti-racism. Many school social workers are already doing this courageous work across the country. We need to lift up those examples, learn from each other, and challenge and support each other in this process. This work indeed begins with our own transformation and individual accountability, and can move forward through relational approaches, allyship, and accountability.


SSWAA is excited to host an upcoming webinar with Dr. Leticia Villarreal Sosa. Please join us to continue this important conversation as we all strive to put our social justice mission into practice. Dr. Villarreal Sosa is a professor at Dominican’s School of Social Work and has many years of practice experience as a school social worker. Her research focuses on Latinx and immigrant youth, school social work, international social work, and school equity. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Children & Schools, founding editor of the International Journal of School Social Work, and board member of the School Social Work Association of America. Her recent co-edited book, School Social Work: National Perspectives on Practice in Schools, promotes school social work aligned with the national practice model with a special focus on an intersectional approach to diversity. Her current research includes a project aimed at understanding the role of school social workers in promoting equity for immigrant students.



International Federation of Social Workers [IFSW] & International Association of Schools of

Social Work [IASSW]. Global Social Work Statement of Ethical Principles. Retrieved


McCoy, H. (2020). Black lives matter, and yes, you are a racist: The parallelism of the

twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 37,

National Association of Social Workers [NASW]. Code of Ethics (2017). Retrieved from:

National Association of Black Social Workers [NABSW]. (n.d.). Code of ethics. Retrieved from

Villarreal Sosa, L. (2019). Advocating for Latinx Children’s Rights and Supporting their

Healing from Trauma: School Social Workers as Nepantleras. Children and Schools,

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