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An Interview with Critical Race Scholars in Social Work Founding Members

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Nov 3, 2022

By Mónica Gutiérrez, MSW, PhD

 

This year, the CRSSW steering committee embarked on a journey to re-envision how the collective could enhance support for social work scholars engaged in liberatory practices, utilizing CRT as a guiding framework. This was especially important given the current climate of opposition to the use of CRT in many of our public schools and universities. The collective decided to produce a monthly blog post to share with our community. These posts are intended to acknowledge the past, present, and future work of the CRSSW collective.


Our first blog post is an interview that honors the work of those who have paved the way for CRT scholarship within the field of social work, Drs. Susan Lares-Nakaoka and Larry Ortiz. Please visit the CRSSW website for additional information on each of these founding members.


Susan Lares-Nakaoka (she, her, hers) serves as an Assistant Professor of Social Work at California State University, Long Beach.

"CRT resonated with me because of my existing interest in racial justice and my years in Honolulu, learning more about Indigenous communities. As a third-generation Japanese American, both of my parents were born in World War II concentration camps."



Larry Ortiz (he, him, his) serves as a Professor of Social Work in the Department of Social Work and Social Ecology at Loma Linda University, where he also serves as Director of the Doctoral Programs in Social Work (PhD and DSW).

"While not a CRT book per se, the structural analysis Bonilla-Silva provides in Racism without Racists is really fundamental to understanding CRT."



Thinking about your life and professional experiences, how did you obtain a knowledge base specific to critical race theory? In other words, how did you arrive at this work?

[Susan] It’s Larry’s fault! I came to learn about CRT when I accepted a job offer to move from the University of Hawai‘i to be the founding Director of Field Education at California State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). To our knowledge, it was the first MSW program to use CRT as its overarching framework. As a brand new program, it was a collaborative effort to develop the policies and curriculum with that focus. Larry, as our founding Chair, suggested the framework, and luckily our Dean (who had a background in Ethnic Studies), was in support. For me, though, it resonated with me because of my existing interest in racial justice and my years in Honolulu learning more about Indigenous communities. As a third-generation Japanese American, both of my parents were born in World War II concentration camps. This family connection, along with my social service experience in Los Angeles’ public housing developments, sparked my passion for racial justice. My exposure to critical perspectives was further developed in a dual master’s program (Asian American Studies and Social Welfare at UCLA).


[Larry] Although I was unaware of CRT while working on my doctorate in the late 80’s, I think I always had an awareness of structural issues, hence my interest in pursuing sociology for my PhD as opposed to social work or psychology. Discovering CRT in the early part of the 2000s through my son’s urging was a real aha time for me as it gave me a paradigm to frame my observations. As a paradigm, it provided me with the opportunity to adapt it to social work education in ways that other theories did not. It is radical in the Latin sense of the word – as it goes to the core – social structures – the “upstream” source. I also felt a sense of freedom with CRT – because while I am very comfortable with it as an analytical structure, I feel that as a plausibility structure, it is sufficiently open to alternative or added explanations, i.e., intersectionality. Its application to practice is accordingly not restrictive but open to the dynamic partnership of social worker and service user.


What is one thing you wish social workers knew about critical race theory? macro or micro practitioners.

[Larry] In general, I wish social work education was better at teaching critical thinking – because I think to really benefit from CRT, one has to think critically and be willing to add their voice to their analysis to move forward an application of CRT to social work practice.


[Susan] That it really is the heart of social work - focusing on strengths and resilience of communities rather than deficiencies and failings; centering systemic change; being aware of professional self (including power, privilege, and biases) and working towards social justice are all supposedly goals of social work, but our profession has never really lived up to these ideals. CRT is one way to conceptualize and hone this vision.


Is there one paper, book, essay, etc., that you recommend to other burgeoning social work scholars interested in critical race theory?

[Susan] There are a few anthologies that are good - probably “Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement” is one that was important for me.


[Larry] While not a CRT book per se, the structural analysis Bonilla-Silva provides in Racism without Racists is really fundamental to understanding CRT


What are some healthy habits you have adopted to remain centered so you can continue this important work?

[Larry] I love to walk, jog, and cycle and try very hard to exercise at least thirty minutes every day. I also practice mindfulness and gratitude.


[Susan] Wow, I need to work on finding more of these! One of the things that helped us in the early days was to intentionally build our community so that we could connect and talk with like-minded people about the work and about our struggles. Even though we talked about heavy stuff, we found time to have lunch/dinners together, laugh and really become close. Making time for family, friends, and my two pandemic rescue dogs is also important.


Is there anything else you would like to add to the conversation around critical race theory and its application in social work praxis? We might consider social work praxis to include theory, research, pedagogy, and practice and how they inform one another.

[Susan] That it is not fixed. It is evolving, and I am excited to see what younger scholars do with it.


[Larry] Social Workers integrating CRT in their practice should feel free to be innovative as they partner with the service user and communities.


Ok, Dr. Ortiz, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you could visit any place in the world, where would you choose to go and why? Most any place in South America – was in Bolivia once, and was so intrigued by the integration of Europeans with Indigenous cultures. So fascinating – I want to spend more time there.


Dr. Lares-Nakaoka, here's a different question; If you had a talk show, who would your first two guests be? It is hard to choose, but for today, I'm thinking my first guest would be Ta-Nehisi Coates. I always use his Atlantic article "The Case for Reparations" in my policy classes after I do a lesson on the Japanese American Redress Movement. In his article, he doesn't say what he thinks reparations should look like. I would like to ask him more about this and have a dialogue about the lessons learned in each movement thus far. My second guest would be Simu Liu. As the first Asian Canadian Marvel superhero, I see him trying very hard to be all things as he is thrust into the "represent-all-Asians-in-all-ways" role. I am curious about getting beyond the past "representation is important" conversation and making fun of all of the people who have committed cringey microaggressions against him behind the scenes.


Thank you, for your time!

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